ETEC 544: Digital Games and Learning


Famously, Friedrich Schiller (1794) claimed that persons were ‘most human’ when they were at play. More recently, digital media and learning theorists have suggested that learners may learn best when they are ‘at play,’ where serious play and educative/learning action coincide. This course examines play as it is currently developed and popularly imagined in digital games in order to more closely examine what is “learned” and at play in those immersive environments.

Although computer gaming represents, for some people, something unfamiliar, potentially subversive, and antithetical to education’s intellectual and social goals, play has always been a powerful vehicle for learning. There is little doubt that young people today, who represent computer gaming’s largest and fastest-growing audience, are learning a great deal in and through digital play, but what is it they are learning and how? The purpose of this course is to give serious attention to and careful analysis of the contemporary digital forms of gameplay.

This course is intended to give an overview of theories of play, including their application in/to digital environments, review the cultural and social aspects of digital game play and the use of digital games for learning and in schooling more generally, and, finally, to consider game design strategies and approaches that best suit educational aims and purposes. The primary goal of the course is to consider the scholarship on games, game culture, play, and digital game-based learning within the context of 21st century educational discourses and policies, including the requirement in many educational jurisdictions to provide a code-based curriculum for K-12 learners. This course will cover, in broad strokes, theories of play, game culture, representation in games, digital game-based learning, and thinking through game design. The course is intended to give a balanced overview of the key/pivotal ideas and theories and research in the area. Further, the course is intended to challenge you to think like a game designer who is designing game-based learning environments while being attentive to the representational issues present in gameplay culture more broadly.

Learning Objectives

This course and its related assignments, discussion, and activities are directed toward the following goals:

  • Understand the key theoretical approaches to play.
  • Describe the approaches to, problematics of, and the key outcomes from game-based learning research.
  • Critically examine gameplay culture/s and their social and representational implications.
  • Understand some basic tenants of game design and its application to learning settings.
  • Gain experience both playing and making digital games.


This course is meant to provide an opportunity to examine the current and past literature on play, games and representation, game design approaches, and digital game-based learning. It is organized into a discrete set of activities, each of which has its own associated readings and assignments. Your challenge is to create your own way through the activities, with some crucial individual and whole group check-in points along the way. Note: you can begin this course from any of the activities; they are meant to be complementary, and assignments are designed for discrete consideration of readings/issues/problematics.

You will choose to complete six Individual Intellectual Productions (collectively worth 30% of your final grade), each related to one of the following selection of eight topics:

  • Activity 1: Theories of Play
  • Activity 2: Learning Through Game Design
  • Activity 3: Foundations of Digital Games & Learning
  • Activity 4: Learning & Digital Games, Meta Empirical Reviews
  • Activity 5: Learning Through Games: Classroom-based Studies
  • Activity 6: Intersectional Perspectives on the Culture of Digital Gameplay
  • Activity 7: De-Colonizing Videogames
  • Activity 8: Game Design Redux: Approaches & Challenges to Designing Differently

Readings & Resources

All course materials will be available online via the Library Online Course Reserve (LOCR) linked to the course navigation menu and/or from hyperlinks to freely available videos and articles online.

Examples of required readings and resources

  • Abraham, B. (2018). Video game visions of climate futures: ARMA 3 and implications for games and persuasion. Games and Culture, 13(1), 71-91.
  • Apperly T., & Beavis, C. (2013). A model for critical games literacy. E–Learning and Digital Media, 10, 1.
  • Bogost, I. (2011). How to do things with video games. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Charsky, D., & Barbour, M. K. (2010). From Oregon Trail to Peacemaker: Providing a framework for effective integration of video games into the social studies classroom. In Proceedings of the Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, edited by D. Gibson and B. Dodge, 1853–60. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.
  • de Castell, S., Jenson, J., & Thumlert, K. (2014). From simulation to imitation: Corporeality, controllers and mimetic play. Simulation and Gaming, 45(3), 332-355.
  • Dezuanni, M. (2018). Minecraft and children’s digital making: Implications for media literacy education. Learning, media and technology, 43(3), 236-249.
  • Engenfeldt-Nielsen, S., Smith, J. H., & Tosca, P. S. (2015). Understanding video games: The essential introduction (3rd ed.). Routledge.
  • Fullerton, T. (2014). Game design workshop: A playcentric approach to creating innovation games. Taylor & Francis (CRS Press).
  • Gee, J. P. (2007). Are video games good for learning? In Worlds in play: International perspectives on digital game research. Routledge.
  • hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Routledge.
  • Kafai, Y. T., & Richards, G. (Eds.). (2016). Diversifying Barbie & Mortal Kombat: Intersectional perspectives and inclusive designs in gaming. ETC Press.
  • Nolan, J., & McBride, M. (2013). Beyond gamification: Reconceptualizing game-based learning in early childhood environments. Information, Communication & Society, 4462, 1–15.
  • Spires, H. A. (2015). Digital game-based learning. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 59(2), 125–30.
  • Tran, K. (2017). ‘Her story was complex’: A Twine workshop for 10 to 12 year-old girls. E-Learning and Digital Media, 13(5–6), 212–226.

Assignments & Assessment

Assignments for this course are divided into the following 4 categories:

  1. Individual Intellectual Productions (30%)
  2. Videogame Review (15%)
  3. Synchronous Events – Required Attendance (15%)
  4. Collaborative Final Project (35%) and Project Proposal (5%).

1. Individual Intellectual Productions *includes required readings

Unless clearly indicated, your job is to choose 6 out of the 8 activities to complete for your intellectual productions. Those are required to be posted to your own website that you create and share with the course instructor/whole class.

2. Videogame Review

With direct reference to the principals of games outlined in Ian Bogost’s text, your job is to review a videogame of YOUR choice. The review should make sure it draws on and analyses the game with a view to also figuring out what, if anything, could be recognized as “learning” while playing.

3. Synchronous Events: Required group synchronous attendance (15%):

  • Whole Group: Syllabus Tour (First week of official class start date) – 2.5%
  • Whole Group: Discussion of Text – Bogost, I. (2011). How to do things with video games. University of Minnesota Press – 5%
  • Smaller (assigned groups): Check-In Re: Videogame Design Choice – 2.5%
  • Whole Group: Presentation and Demonstration of Final Project – 5%

4. Collaborative Final Project

In a small (no more than 4) group or, if you choose, individually, the final project is to design an analog or digital game that has a learning mechanic at its very core. Part 1 of the assignment is to come up with a videogame/analog game design document (5%) based on one of the design templates explored in this course. Part 2 is to collaboratively design a game using any of the free tools available: Twine, RPG Maker, GameMaker, Unity, or Construct 3 or similar, but NO scratch projects will be considered. If you choose the analog game route, you have to design all playable elements, and there must be an accompanying rule sheet + video that demonstrates gameplay.

Minor course topic, activity, reading/resource, and assignment details may change from year to year.