We can be Heroes – just for one day David Bowie

Computer games and learning has become an important topic in research during the last few years, and the use of computer games for learning in schools is increasing. Having said that, there is also a tendency in public and academic discourse to treat games as beneficial for learning in their own right. In our view, there is also a need to study how g-ames are introduced into institutional settings, including how they can be integrated with, or used for changing, schools’ assessment practices and teachers’ orchestration and support of students’ learning.

Recently the European Schoolnet presented a study of teacher’s use of computer games. The study showed that teachers reported great interest and enthusiasm for using games in their teaching. According to the study, the use of games often implies a multi-disciplinary approach to knowledge that requires students to be active and to show a wide range of skills. Language lessons (both 1st and 2nd languages) are the subjects where games are used most often. History, geography and maths are also often mentioned. In addition, games are more often used to develop teamwork and intellectual skills. Teachers use educational games, but also, and perhaps more often than might be suspected, they use commercial and leisure games. The study was divided into several parts: a review of research, a survey of teachers, case studies, interviews with educational decision-makers, and a community of practice on the Internet (European Schoolnet, 2009).

ITU has during the last few years tried several games for learning, and is currently conducting a pilot study at Sandvika Upper Secondary School with the urban planning game Urban Science – one of David Shaffer’s epistemic games.

In epistemic games, players learn to think about real problems by doing in game form what professionals in the real world do to learn innovative and creative thinking – the kind of thinking that young people need in the digital age of global competition (Shaffer, 2007, s. 68)

According to Shaffer, epistemic games provide ways of helping students learn to think like professionals. The concept is based on the idea of "epistemic frames"— a way of thinking and working of a profession or other community of practice. It entails a situated and action-based form of learning based on the ways in which professionals develop these epistemic frames. Epistemic games are also about a particular way of working and engaging with knowledge.

Epistemic games seem to offer realistic environments for creating things, solving problems closely related to real-life work challenges and for curriculum issues. They aim to develop competence among students that more easily transfers to workplace settings and that facilitates the development of students’ deeper understanding of important disciplinary domains.

In the Nordic countries, collaborative project work has been an important part of children’s education for many decades. The National Curriculum also encourages teachers to engage students in project work where students usually examine some loosely defined problem often from multi-disciplinary perspectives. Serious games and epistemic games represent some interesting approaches on the further development of such learning environments. In these games students often work in groups and engage in solving complex and ill-defined problems through actual activities – such as building a house or designing a city. This might be a way of establishing learning environments that students find motivating, that develop students’ competence, that more easily transfer to workplace settings and that facilitate the development of students’ deeper understanding of important disciplinary domains.

The crucial significance of contextualising and creating joint goals for learning also became obvious when we explored how the computer game ‘Global Conflicts: Palestine’ served as a learning resource for understanding complexity in the Palestine-Israel conflict at Stovner Upper Secondary School in Oslo. Students played freelance journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It became obvious that one of the challenges when introducing the game’s working method in schools, was that learning outcomes did not always correlate with students opinion of what knowledge is. For example, in one of the group discussions after playing the game, some students said they did not learn anything from playing the game, that in some way the opposite happened: it actually became harder to maintain their strong opinions from the earlier discussions. At first, the students did not consider this learning, but this sense of confusion in many ways correlates with the game’s learning objective: to show the complexity of the conflict.

In a good computer game – typically for leisure use – the player is always confronted with issues and challenges in “real” situations, and the skills and knowledge that the player needs are developed through solving them. Help and support for this are found in the game environment, in various tools available to the player and from other players. Computer gamers are very good at sharing knowledge and experience with each other on -various websites. In school it is the opposite. Problems and exercises are rarely related to real-life. Rather, students solve routine maths problems or memorise English vocabulary for no other purpose than mastering the skill. We are not saying that rote learning or automation of skills has no place in school. Even computer games are full of tedious and repetitive exercises. However, this must relate to some higher purpose that provides students with meaning and motivation.

Prejudice against commercial computer games and young people’s use of computers in their spare time is often the cause of scepticism to computer gaming in schools. Naturally, there’s reason for concern when young people are up all night playing computer games, but in the shadow of the media’s one-sided focus on gaming addiction and negative aspects of computer games, there are important aspects not adequately discussed: What is so appealing about these games? Obviously, computer games have a strong potential for providing insight, presenting simulated realities and encouraging cooperation. Could it be that young people’s fascination with computer games is derived from the games’ structures being good learning environments? Could such games have a potential for learning and teaching? Consequently, the need for empirical research of computer games in schools, as well as defining what counts as learning outcomes, is crucial.


European Schoolnet (2009). How are digital games used in schools? Downloaded 26.06.2009 from: http://games.eun.org/upload/gis-synthesis_report_en.pdf

David W. Shaffer (2007) How Computer Games Help Children Learn. New York, N.Y. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan