Play is a fundamental way in which we learn. Long before children encounter formal educational methods, they play, learning new skills and behaviours along the way.

As a formalised style of play, games are well suited to education. They are inherently engaging and have built-in reward structures and variable levels of difficulty. Furthermore, many games encourage cooperation, group work and the development of communication and problem-solving skills. For these reasons, games are used extensively in early years education.

However, their use in further and higher education is much rarer. While we see examples of gamification (using game elements in a non-game setting), actual games are scarce. Significantly, games are often perceived as juvenile pursuits, inappropriate for adult learners. There is also a lack of an established pedagogy and a much smaller library of specifically designed learning games aimed at older learners.

However, there are many opportunities to use games in higher education, a growing pedagogy around their use, and loads of great ways to integrate games. This is true even if an “off the shelf” game is not available for your subject.

Transitional games

Transitional games are a type of serious game designed to support a group through a period of transition. Games are great for assisting people through transition because they help to lower social barriers and promote interaction. Companies, for example, run icebreaker games for new starters as part of their induction.

In higher education, transitional games are an excellent option for welcoming new students to your department. Escape-room-style puzzles can be used to show students how to use institutional tools such as the virtual learning environment (VLE). Escape rooms also work well online. I can recommend Rachelle O’Brien’s work as helpful reading in this area.

Treasure hunts and similar games are also a great way to facilitate exploration around campus. This can be a fun way to encourage students to learn how to find the buildings and rooms they will make the most use of. Campus scavenger hunts and escape rooms have also been used to introduce a university’s civic mission or to highlight local environmental initiatives.

At an extreme end of the spectrum, we have built digital games to aid with the transition. Working with a team of students last summer, we built a re-creation of the Lincoln campus in the unity games engine. This enabled us to do tours while the nation was in lockdown.

Games as assessments

Game design can be great for an active assessment. Consider asking students to build a card or tabletop game based on teaching someone about the module topic. This can be tied into outreach activities such as taking the students’ games to school or community groups as part of the assessment process.

The process of game design requires students to think carefully about how to communicate concepts to others. The design process encourages students to identify and articulate the critical topics from the module. Games are also great artefacts for peer-critique exercises because, even without theoretical knowledge of games, students will have a good understanding of what they enjoy.

The created games can be added to a library and included in teaching materials for future years.

Flipped gaming

Flipped gaming is an approach where students are encouraged to play the game ahead of a lecture or seminar. In this method, the educator picks a game relating to their subject for the students to play. The students should critique the game in the following session in the same way they would reading material.

The students engage in a fact-checking activity, picking out parts of the game that are realistic and those that aren’t. Doing the same thing with movies has long been a reasonably popular pedagogy. This is now possible and accessible thanks to the huge library of free games available on the internet. Check out the Microsoft store or the Steam catalogue for examples.

For most academic disciplines, you will be able to find a game that explores the topic in some manner. I have seen this undertaken with great effect in history sessions, and I have heard of people doing the same in physics.

Pastoral game play

Games can be used in a pastoral setting in many ways. One of my early mentors used to have a chess set in their office ready for a meeting. Every discussion was held over a game of chess, which helped create an informal atmosphere.

During the lockdown, I hosted some of my tutee meetings in online video games, such as Sea of Thieves by Rare. This allowed a change in setting, from another video call to a ship in the middle of the ocean. It was helpful to break away from the typical environment and reduced webcam fatigue.

Engaging, rewarding, inclusive

A large percentage of the population plays games regularly. In fact, 2 billion people internationally actively play video games, in addition to those who play card or tabletop games. We can take advantage of this interest by embedding games into higher education. Games can be a brilliant addition to a teaching and learning environment. They are inherently engaging and rewarding and a great way to encourage active participation. Games can add an arrow to your pedagogic quiver.