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My Dog Ate My Videogame!

Posted on: February 13th, 2018 by James Vlisides No Comments

My dog ate my videogame!


tl;dr: Just as Paulo Freire revolutionized education after the industrialized revolution by including the voices, perspectives, and significance of the student in the classroom, Gear Learning’s approach to game design is revolutionizing the static nature of game design, so that the Developer-Player and Teacher-Student relationship becomes one of dynamic learning.

In 1970 Paulo Freire, Brazilian educator and philosopher, revolutionized education with a powerful new theory that transformed the Teacher-Student relationship.  In 2018 Gear Learning, a game development studio at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Education Research, continues to take liberal strides in utilizing the basis of this foundational theory and is revolutionizing the educational landscape once again by building technologically and visually stunning Educational Videogames (EVG).

“One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world by the people."

-Paulo Freire

Gear Learning believes that videogames offer the potential to terraform the landscape of videogames building a reciprocal communal process of learning while playing.  That’s what makes EVGs revolutionary. In theory, all games are educational —and in many forms all games should be used at the very least to develop a sense of critical thinking about our culture and the frame in which the virtual exists.  But there is more to this puzzle than dissecting a virtual world: there is an active pedagogical model built into the structure of Gear Learning games; one that directly posits an ideology of student-player-first experience.  It is in this educational framework that we begin to direct the EVG revolution sweeping into our classrooms, understanding that videogames offer a unique position to provide a learning experience that posits a virtual literacy through immersion, and one that creates an openness in both the world development framework for both educational game companies and the students ability to both problem solve and problem seek so that partnered together, educational institutions and videogame companies can create opportunities to tackle the real-world ‘monsters’ our Student-Players face. 


In the realm of educational theory, Paulo Freire was revolutionary.  In the light of the industrial revolution of the 1970s, Freire understood that education suffered from making students passive reviewers of education in his theory famously known as the “Banking Concept of Education.” In this theory, “…the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits.” (Freire, 1971, p. 23). In other words, students are the receptacles in which information and learning is stored, rather than an active part of the information creation or learning process. The problem with this type of educational model is that the Teacher becomes the necessary opposite of the Student, and in many ways voids creativity within education and reduces the need for critical consciousness. In doing so, as Freire points out, “…man is not a conscious being [corpo conciente]; he is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty mind passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside” (Freire, 1971, p. 29). Freire’s critique has led to an inversion of the Teacher-Student relationship so that education was an active engagement with students and their societies, intentionally so that his or her education would be directly part of the world in which they exist.  


" be in the world and self-aware simultaneously"

-Edward Said

In terms of other scholars, like Edward Said and Adrienne Rich, this process would allow a student’s education to become “worldly”. At the heart of Said’s call in creating the cultural critic he used the term “worldliness” to imply a seriousness that “is reducible neither to a doctrine or a political position on a particular question, and it is to be in the world and self-aware simultaneously” (Said, 1983). This being in the world and self-aware simultaneously is precisely the uniqueness that immersion into a videogame can provide for it is the perfect arena to both be fully embodied in a virtual reality and also required to constantly examine the details of that world in order to succeed and at times even survive. In a videogame, critique of the culture and understanding of its politics is not theoretical but pragmatic. This critical consciousness in education is now the basis of many pedagogical theories from Design Thinking, Flipped Learning, to Student-Centered LMS Design.  Even further, it pedagogically transforms the way we look at education as a community of practice, rather than a passive ingestion of knowledge or experience.  It makes learning a relevant, local, and simultaneously global experience by, in a very Socratic way, flipping the apex of knowing from a point of truth disseminated down to the students to a liberation movement where learning creates an expanse of more knowing; parallel to the way a procedurally generating universe might occur in a videogame, made popular by games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky.  James Paul Gee, a foundational figure both for educational videogames, but also for Gear Learning, puts it this way:


“Human intelligence and creativity, today more than ever, are tied to connecting—synchronizing—people, tools, texts, digital and social media, virtual spaces, and real spaces in the right ways, in ways that make us Minds and not just minds, but also better people in a better world.”

This open educational model is not only historically meaningful, personally motivated, and accessible to a wider audience of students, it can also be playful. As Steven Johnson suggests in his article detailing How Play Made the Modern World, “Where the environment is constantly changing and unpredictable and you will have to improvise on the fly, then play is primally important.” Even further, the shift I am naming here applies to most of the field of technological advancement, and certainly to the mission at Gear Learning, where games and education are not simply hard work, they are intentionally hard play.


The idea of using games for educational purposes is far from new and was already extensively explored by Seymour Papert through Mindstorms (1985), and theoretically by Chris Crawford in 1982 and Alain and Frédéric Le Diberder in 1993 who boldly claimed that after the six classical arts and the three newer ones (cinema, the comic strip, and television), videogames were the tenth art.  This trend continued into the 1990s with  Yasmin Kafai (Kafai 1995), whose students learned mathematics through videogame design all the way into the 2000s generation of Minecraft and its educational predecessor MinecraftEDU, an overlay that allowed instructors to create meaningful linear experiences of creation and classroom reading within the videogame world.  And these were not small ventures. For example, Minecraft was purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2015 and quickly added to their arsenal of Microsoft Apps for Education. And this makes sense, to learn to program, code, and problem-solve in a virtually limitless immersive world that promotes creativity and collaboration works seamlessly. 



Yet, I contend that the main problem with this trend of videogames for education is that it is not designed for dealing with social and humanities education; the history of educational apps was not developed to tackle the monsters of race and class inequality, or to enrich the dynamic experiences of our ancestors, our literature, or our communities.

As Gonzalo Frasca wittily poses in her article Videogames of the Oppressed, “The design of consciousness-raising videogames is not as simple as replacing Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi with Sacco and Vanzetti” (Frasca, 2001).  In other words, we can’t simply develop games that take game experiences and put the faces of real-world heroes or villains in order to gain the skills and perspectives needed to understand and change educational landscapes. For example, what face would we pick for the monster of racism? Which embodiment would we choose for global warming or public school busing or educational inequality? Rather, we need, as Frasca states, “…an environment that engages children in questioning the ideological assumptions of videogames. We need a political microworld where it would matter if the turtle turns left or right” (Frasca, 2001). To tackle this political entanglement with videogames, we need to develop in our Students a new virtual literacy. 
Virtual literacy, I suggest, is the concept that defines how to engage new and emerging technology, virtual spaces, photographs and video, social media etc., while still being literate in the capacities to engage in them culturally, understanding the global impact these tools can have, the power to create an disperse information, the ability to consume images, videogames and photographs from multi-sensory methods, and particularly how to engage this media as meaningful to our lifelong-learning process. Right now, we look at photographs that we post on Instagram and Twitter and we merely perceive and then react to them; similarly with movies and other forms of media. While we do much more with videogames, and new forms of virtual reality videogames offer opportunities for a different kind of perception and interaction, in many popularly-consumed forms videogames are simply tests of reaction, which is not the active engagement process where learning best takes place. We ingest our media as a passive receiver, with the slight variation in controllers and the pressing of buttons – where expertise and mastery are too simply understood as twitch reflexes and a diluted argument between the console controller and the PC mouse and keyboard.  This argument masks the reality of the real elements of learning and mastery that take place within the exploration, immersion and design of games themselves. Because of that we as instructors, developers and players also have the responsibility to engage those different mediums in a way that is more compelling for transformation in the way they are created and consumed — or perhaps even more importantly, how the consumption process can become itself an act of creation. 

This is the enlightenment of videogames, in that they offer the unique media engagement where viewers become the actors, the listeners, and most importantly the creators. And no other genre of games lends itself as powerfully to this possibility as educational videogames.

I pose this idea of virtual literacy to entertain the question around when players will understand the uniquely advanced position they play in, one that has roots in the wild fascination of Louis Daguerre who so proudly and boldly exclaimed, “I have seized the light – I have arrested its flight!” when capturing one of the world’s first still images. Imagine if Daguerre could see the artists of today that utilize ambient occlusion to simulate actual light propagation, shooting billions of rays into the scene, bouncing them around, and physically simulating that light’s interaction with a surface. If at one time Daguerre and his colleagues captured the light, today developers and artists literally create light, bend it, and move it in the most spectacular displays of photorealism.  But the question continues, if we are able to create such profound likeness of light to reality, there is an impending need to instill a new literacy to understand and critically engage media that is mere pixels away from their actual physical and ideological realities.  
Gear Learning is beginning down this journey, pioneering ways to make gaming educational for a wide range of players, from challenging Faculty on issues of Diversity and Inclusion, to engaging K-12 students in the Boys and Girls Clubs of America in complex content around the biology of survival on Mars. With their commitment to making what they call “Complex Content” accessible and fun, Gear Learning intentionally addresses these issues and others around astronomy, ecology, microbiology, and implicit bias in dynamic new pedagogical experiences all through videogames and play. Gear Learning’s work with EVGs offers us, as Players and Students, this profoundly powerful way of engaging, and at times even defeating, these socio-cultural “monsters” that otherwise simply remain in the dark corners of our theoretical minds. 
I imagine Freire likely couldn’t have envision the likeness of videogames in this way. Not only was his revolutionary thought prior to the creation of the first publicly available videogame, he also had different goals centered on adult literacy and the development of critical attitudes towards an impoverished and oppressed reality in order to inspire social change.[1]But perhaps while he may not have imagined videogames in this way, these primary goals align with futurist oriented game theorist and developer Jane McGonigal, who is convinced that videogames can change the world, even these issues of oppression and difference. She boldly, and accurately claims that through a process of synchronization, if we game with just one person different than us, we have the potential to reduce our prejudice and create a space to reduce social tension. (Mcgonigal, 2015). Taken in practice, we can look at the Middle East Gaming Challenge[2]  whose primary goal is to promote dialogue and confront prejudices that currently exist between Arab and Jewish schoolchildren in Israel. And they do this by playing videogames together. Taken from their website:

Middle East Gaming Challenge

“This approach to reconciliation is particularly revolutionary because it uses the mass appeal of online videogames as a way of reaching out to tens of thousands of young people who, otherwise, would never have the chance to meet, get to know each other and bridge cultural and religious divides.”

And these aren’t even educational specific videogames! Imagine the possibility if we were to combine Freire’s hope of educational revolution with thinkers, organizations, and companies whose goal is to create educational, reconciliational, and communal experiences through videogames specifically intended for this purpose!


Many will see this educational transformation and attribute it to “gamification,” a term originating in profit seeking industries like grocery stores and airlines in the 1980s with reward cards and mileage perk programs, and popularized by Microsoft, the U.S. Military and further with the New York City Department of Education funding a game-based learning school with the intent to, “make education more engaging and relevant to modern kids (Corbett, 2010). This trend around the wittily named “serious games” is seen in the mastery of companies like Khan Academy, and deeply rooted in new student-centered pedagogy across most American Universities.  In fact, our own University of Wisconsin-Madison is world famous for the Games+Learning+Society, which brought together scholars and research from around the globe on this very synthesis of education and play.  Gear Learning was birthed out of this very organization with the mission to take the academic and pedagogical mission and transform it into the actual production of educational videogames. This brief history of games and learning, serious games, and gamification is significant because it highlights a shift in thinking that puts the student-player in the center of the educational and the game market. But I caution that as we as educators and creators push the student-player into this central role, there is the risk that the student-player becomes, yet again, a receptacle; only this time instead of depositing information we are depositing forced perspective through linear videogame immersion. 



-Paulo Freire


When Freire made this statement, he hit on the nerve of the post-industrialized America that was intentionally moving toward an individualized culture, especially one that embraced the civil rights movements of the larger culture, and in-part bled into the educational paradigms that began to value individual narratives within the classroom. For too long the Teacher had presented himself or herself to the students as a necessary, and ultimate authoritative opposite.  But in this transformative time in American culture, it was important that they become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow. Videogames have taken a similar tactical turn in styling, with a unique ability to use the environment itself as a teacher, and build a sense of immersion that is in design and practice unique to each student’s narrative exploration. 


In a videogame, the teacher is the world itself. The direct opposition is within the limitations of space and possibility that are built into the walls, the imaginary ceilings, and the physics engine itself. This is important because videogames offer the unique media position for the authoritative Teacher to be a step removed from the immediate experience e.g. the authority of many videogames is the entirety of the game logic itself. Not only the walls that contain it, but the ludology of how it ought to be played and further the often unspoken repressive apparatuses built into the community itself. When the entire world of a videogame is the authority by which a Player-Student must adhere, there is an allowance for users to become immersed into the learning experience uniquely from a traditional classroom setting. In fact, M.D. Kickmeier-Rust & D. Albert, Austrian Psychologists who wrote a brilliant piece on the important of immersion in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, say that it is the responsibility of games and game developers to make sure that, “tasks are motivating, maintaining immersion and personalizing the game according to the preferences and needs of the learner” (Kickmeier-Rust & Albert, 2010).

In order to understand the significance of educational games and immersion, let me first explain how I define immersion, and how specific characteristics of videogames offer an unprecedented way of creating such an immersion in a student-player. Immersion at its base is a deep mental involvement in a process or experience. Even further, immersion can be connected to the concept of “flow” popularized by Jane Mcgonigal in her recent book Superbetter, which offers a methodology for using videogames to actually impact our human psychology in profound ways. She says that, “Flow is the feeling of intense concentration and efficiency…the very nature of videogames allows players to achieve the feeling of flow much faster. When a gamer is experiencing this emotional high, quitting or winning would be equally dissatisfying outcomes. They want to keep playing and stay ‘in the zone’ for as long as possible” (Mcgonigal, 2015). The goal then, of a videogame that hopes to keep the Student engaged, in the same way as a Player, as deeply and for as long as possible requires three specific immersive tactics: Unrestricted Access, Full-‘Body’ Representation, and Agility. 

In videogame logic, it is important that the player understands the access they have. Open world games are famous, and intentionally named as such, for their open access mentality. The recent Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game for the Nintendo Switch made this a remarkable feat in that regardless of player level or skill, they could explore any part of the games massive, virtually boundless, world. This had to do with a unique adaptiveness of the enemies, and a topography that required particular creativity and skill to access. Certainly, higher skill and better gear made this easier, but the ludology of this game was that all players have unrestricted access to the world in which they play. What a beautiful metaphor for transformative education – that all students would have unrestricted access to the world in which they learn! I believe that this type of game creates a powerful method of immersion for the player that ought to be transferred to the pedagogy of the classroom.

Meaning, just as immersion occurs when there is unrestricted access to the dungeons of a videogame world, students will also feel a sense of immersion into the classroom when they feel that have an open world and creative methodology to explore the content and space together.

At Gear Learning, this idea of transforming educational landscapes through videogames –particularly those were the Student becomes the Player, and the Player creates the experiences, is foundational.  Videogames offer us the potential to make learning more than a passive experience, but an intentionally active one where a player becomes themselves the creator of the educational landscape. Freire believed that, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (Freire, 1971, p. 26). Many of our educational models focus on active vs. passive learning with this very thought in mind.  Design Thinking is a popular new pedagogy that is student-centered and collaborative focused not only on problem solving, but also problem finding. Jean Piaget puts this powerfully: “The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers”(Piaget, 1953). The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. Freire pushes this pedagogy even before his time claiming, “In problem-posing education,[3] men develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (Freire, 1971, p. 35).


What a transformative opportunity videogames offer us to create worlds where the entire purpose is to invent, create and discover and then repeat this process infinitely!

Videogames are tools that can educate our children, our communities and our nations in radically positive and transformational ways.  Videogames are absolutely more than child’s play or leisure activity —they are powerful tools of education, ideological replication, and social construction. And when partnered with developers focused on education and a University culture committed to emerging technology, there is a unique opportunity for both videogames and education to partner in a reality that gives students the keys to seek the problems and feel the power to transform them. 


Not only do these player-students need access to these worlds, they also need a way to feel represented within them. There is a profound sector of videogame theory that looks at avatars and the immersion involved with embodying a virtual character in a videogame.  The authors of the seminal text on videogame methodology, Ethnography and Virtual Worlds, put it this way, “Virtual worlds allow participants to embody themselves, usually as avatars such that they can explore and participate in the virtual world” (Boelstroff, Nardi, Pearce, & Taylor, 2012) How we identify with our avatars through skins and body type, and even in our longings to declare a type of being that is not based in reality but in hope, desire, or escapism, helps us play the game more intimately and in turn feel more capable in the real world when we watch our avatar succeed. Having an Avatar that builds this type of intimacy with the success of our actions causes what Ernest W. Adams calls “Narrative Emotional Immersion” (Adams, 2009).


Just as players want to feel that their input causes reaction, so too does a student need to feel that they have a voice and are capable of action that causes reaction in the classroom and the learning process as a whole.

Students need to feel that they have both audible, written, and actionable voice and that their personhood is real to this world -the world we create in the classroom experience, precisely so that what they create, what they think, and what they do become part of the classroom.  One way of reading Adrienne Rich’s compelling educational statement: “What you put into it, is what you will get out of it! Do not receive an education, but claim one!” powerfully sums this need to create meaningful interactions between the player who inputs and the game-classroom that reacts.


Lastly, to induce immersion, both a game and an education require a sense of agility.  Put simply, agility in education means that a student understands how to navigate not only the readings and the assignments, but also the Learning Management System, the array of research tools available to them, and the overall learning outcomes of the course. In many ways, an LMS already functions as a videogame, offering a unique user-interface to navigate and master, a reward system for inputting action, and a community to learn and play with. There are a few common features that come with gamification mechanics including points, badging systems, and leaderboards. Newer LMS companies design their UI to intentionally mimic this gamified experience.  Canvas LMS, owned by Instructure, for example, held a conference in 2015 dedicated to student-centered learning, with major lectures on gamification, using Mastery Tools to create a gamic experience, and re-skinning the gradebook to function as an incentivized leaderboard. Carrie Saarinen, Sr. Manager of Instructional Design and Development at Instructure says this: “When we talk about gamification, or game-based learning design, we’re not talking about replacing math worksheets with math apps, or tossing out a digital badge or two. The learning experience must be authentic and meaningful for the learner. The lesson objectives must be clear and achievable, but also challenging and suitably complex. Scores, points, badges, prizes, rewards, or tokens can be used to recognize achievement and serve as motivation to encourage further learning—but the learning and the learning experience should be the focus” (Saarinen, 2015). It is powerful to see technology itself moving in this direction, taking the logic and the navigational structure of videogame interfaces to create a more engaging learning experience. Videogames are continually praised or criticized because of their ability to make the controls intuitive, realistic, and simple, just as a web-interface or educational app would be. Agility is not just a character trait to level up so one moves faster or higher, but also a way to overcome obstacles, to make the right turns, and to explore in greater detail.  The parallels to educational goals here are obvious and numerous. The goal here is to create a learning experience where the Student-Player not only has access to the world, and not only an embodiment that helps them feel immersed and motivated in the experience, but also the skills and abilities to navigate the complex questions of their educational experience.


With over 155 million Americans playing videogames and growing every year, and nearly 50% playing over three hours a week, there is a powerful opportunity to use these tools in meaningful educational experiences.  This requires a new virtual literacy, one that spans the educational realm of children to adults, especially with the average age of gamers being between 35 and 43 years old! Whether in a virtual game world or a real-world classroom it is pivotal at Gear Learning that we engage EVGs so that the learning that takes place is immersive and that it creates a space for the Student to be the center of the exploration. When the learning is transformative, relevant to the world in which the learner exists, and uses videogames as the engaging medium, the opportunity for both games and education to tackle the bigger monsters of our culture together have an unprecedented arsenal.  


Like an endlessly scrolling adventure game map, so much territory remains to be explored. Mark Wolf, videogame historian, understands this need for virtual literacy well in stating that, “The international popularity of videogames will require that they be viewed in a larger cultural and geographical landscape. And the cultural landscape is broad; with the integration of videogames into operating systems, cell phones, PDAs, and practically every type of electronic screen technology available, videogames have a ubiquity and availability unlike any other medium in history” (Wolf, 2009). I am certain we are on the apex of a massive new understanding of what student-centered learning experiences look like. The classroom, removed of its walls and desks still carries the very real class, race, socio-economic and other factors that have inhibited classrooms for centuries. But what makes classrooms built with the support of videogames unique is that these things can be rendered differently, and hopefully rendered by studios like Gear Learning, to make the learning of complex content  transformational rather than digestional. We have ingested, regurgitated, and vomited enough hatred, fear, and limitation into our educational system already. It is time these very tropes become the subject of games, created by and played by Students who blur the line between Student-User, Player-Consumer, Developer-Teacher and perhaps, even further create a new standard of relationship between game developers and player so that users no longer assume a finished product but instead join the team as creators of the game.

Indeed, we are what we play and how we play it.


Boellstorff, T. (2012). Ethnography and virtual worlds: a handbook of method. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Corbett, S. (2010, September 18). Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Frasca, G. (2001). Videogames of the Oppressed. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Gee, J. P. (2013). Good video games good learning: collected essays on video games, learning, and literacy. New York: P. Lang.

Kickmeier-Rust, M., & Albert, D. (2010). Micro-adaptivity: protecting immersion in didactically adaptive digital educational games. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning,26(2), 95-105. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00332.x

McGonigal, J. (2016). Superbetter: How a Gameful Life Can Make You Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient. London, UK: Element Books (UK).

Perron, B., & Wolf, M. J. (2009). The video game theory reader. New York, NY: Routledge.

Piaget, J. (1974). The origins of intelligence in children. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Said, E. W. (2010). The world, the text, and the critic. Milton Keynes, UK ;Cambridge, Mass.: Lightning Source UK Ltd. ; Harvard University Press.




[1] Freire wrote and taught in a time when his home country of Brazil was among the most economically and educationally impoverished and oppressed in the world. Hence the title of his seminal book: “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

[2] See for a wonderful explanation of this project.

[3] Design Thinking is often synonymously referred to as Problem-Posing education.