Pre-Service Teachers Learning to Analyze Games: The Case of SPENT

by Mamta Shah

Well-designed games are powerful learning environments, as they can be conducive for promoting “situated understandings, effective social practices, powerful identities, shared values, and ways of thinking of important communities of practice” (Shaffer et al. 2005, 7). Players can learn to attach meaning to actions that are embodied within a narrative. Consequently, games can serve a didactic and an imaginative function, allowing players to develop knowledge of self and others (Hopkins and Roberts 2015). Although slow in comparison to the widespread societal penetration of games (Entertainment Software Association 2018), K-12 settings have witnessed an upsurge in video game use over the last fifteen years due to advancements in research (de Frietas 2018), policy (US Department of Education 2017), and practice (Arnseth, Hanghøj, and Silseth 2018).

A key gatekeeper to the adoption of games in classrooms are teachers, who have an important role in (a) recognizing the way games can meaningfully engage students in learning processes and outcomes that are valued in schools and society (Kangas, Koskinen, and Krokfors 2017) and (b) adapting to the ongoing technological-pedagogical shifts in contemporary classrooms (Shaffer, Nash, and Ruis 2015). However, large-scale survey reports have concluded that teachers “wish it were easier to find games that aligned with their curriculum” and “[are] not sure how to integrate games into their teaching” (Takeuchi and Vaala 2014). In addition, both pre-service and in-service teachers are deprived of professional development opportunities that can empower them to systematically adopt game-based learning (GBL) in their practice (Ruggerio 2013).

A problematic outcome of leaving all teachers to figure out which games to use and how to use them is marked by the adoption of “chocolate-covered broccoli games” (Klopfer 2008). These games, often marketed as “educational games,” are easier to adopt because they reduce the complexity of players’ experiences; they embrace token approaches to immersing students in an academic domain (e.g., drill and practice of mathematics concepts); and they are easy to assimilate in the existing ecological conditions of K-12 schools (Halverson 2005; Kenny and McDaniel 2011). However, the problem with the design of these games is that the learning mechanics and game mechanics are not tied in a coherent way, rendering play only as a reward for learning (Klopfer et al. 2018). The use of games, like any other media form, without a careful consideration for what learning opportunities it affords for a target group and how those opportunities are facilitated, does more harm than good (Foster 2012; Mishra and Koehler 2006). It prevents students from making meaningful connections between their personal interests and knowledge in an academic domain (Foster and Shah 2015b; 2016). As such, in this essay, I review the theoretical rationale for developing teachers’ game literacy, illustrate a methodology for supporting teachers to examine the design characteristics of a game, and report findings from pre-service teachers’ engagement in a class activity devoted to the analysis and deconstruction of SPENT, an online, single-player game designed to sensitize individuals to the issue of homelessness and poverty ( I conclude with implications for future research and recommendations for additional resources that can allow readers to explore this facet of teaching with games in greater detail.

Scaffolding Teachers’ Game Literacy Skills

Modern technologies such as games present content and pedagogy in surprisingly novel and complex ways (Mishra and Koehler 2006). Games, a form of interdisciplinary and interactive technology, are also contextually biased. In particular, as designed curricula, games have inherent properties that encourage certain actions and enable learning in specific contexts (Foster 2012). As a result, teaching with games can be full of opportunities, but it can also a laborious undertaking (Hanghøj and Brund 2011; Silseth 2012). Although research on teacher education in game-based learning is still nascent (Molin 2017), scholars agree that we need to develop teachers’ understanding of games (Kenny and Gunter 2011), equip them with systematic pedagogical approaches to aid in integrating games within the curriculum (Gros 2010), and support them in addressing knowledge areas they need to target. In addition, scholars have recommended developing teachers’ knowledge of GBL at the pre-service level because training received at this stage of the career has a potentially strong influence on teachers’ future use of technology in their practice (Hammond et al. 2009).

In this essay, I focus solely on scaffolding pre-service teachers’ game literacy skills. It is the first logical step in helping teachers adopt games in their lesson plans. In addition, I argue that if we want teachers to be thoughtful about what games are out there, how they work, and what makes them compelling for students, we can start by cultivating teachers’ skills to identify games, to critique them, and to make informed decisions about whether and how to leverage them for their classroom goals. It is important to note that, in practice, teachers’ knowledge of game analysis, game integration, and ecological conditions co-develops in a seamless, dynamic, and recursive way (Bell and Gresalfi 2017; Shah and Foster 2014).

Scholars have proposed frameworks, typologies, and checklists for teachers to support them in identifying games that align with their curricular goals (Wu 2015). For instance, Elisa Gopin (2018) proposed an analytical framework in which teachers define learning goals as a first step, then identify strategies that support student motivation through games, and finally identify strategies that support learning in games. I use Game Network Analysis (GaNA), which was developed as a methodological process for designing and facilitating game-based learning experiences (Foster 2012). GaNA includes a network of pedagogical and analytical frameworks that allows users (teachers, in this study) to focus on the pedagogy and content of games, as well as the process for employing GBL in a given ecology, in formal and informal learning settings (Shah and Foster 2015). GaNA offers an analytical lens for game analysis and selection by helping teachers approach a game as a curriculum with context-attuned constraints and affordances for technology, pedagogy, and content (Foster 2012). GaNA includes a play curricular activity reflection discussion (PCaRD) model that aids teachers in leveraging the affordances of a game and overcoming its limitations for specific learning goals by designing congruent and anchored instruction, reflection, and discussion activities that engage students beyond game play. Teachers adopt a variety of roles to maintain a synergy between emergent teachable moments during PCaRD activities, challenges inherent in a typical school structure, and students’ knowledge and motivation to learn in a specific academic domain (Foster and Shah 2015b). GaNA also helps teachers identify opportunities for inquiry, communication, construction, and expression (ICCE) during curricular, reflection, and discussion activities to foster transformative learning experiences anchored in the game and design opportunities (Foster and Shah 2015a). The decisions teachers make during game analysis and game integration are guided by ecological conditions impacting the successful use of GBL experiences. These conditions include social dynamics, organizational and technological infrastructure, and pedagogical culture of the context in which GBL is to be introduced and sustained (Shah and Foster 2014).

Supporting Teachers’ Analysis of Games

As part of my doctoral study, I designed and taught Integration of Digital Games in K-12 Classrooms as a three-credit elective at a private university in a city in the mid-Atlantic area of the United States in Spring 2013 (April-June). Through participatory classroom activities and assignments, the course objectives were for pre-service teachers (a) to individually and collaboratively become knowledgeable about identifying the affordances and constraints of digital games along three dimensions—technology, pedagogy, and content—and (b) become skilled in the process of incorporating games in the design of classroom activities to achieve curricular goals.

A two-hour and fifty-minute face-to-face class was held each week for the entire duration of the 11-week course. Typically, the first eighty minutes were dedicated to activities and topics related to game analysis. These activities included playing the game, researching it (e.g., looking for information about the game on the publisher’s website), and observing another individual play the game (e.g., watching a YouTube video) (Aarseth 2003; Foster 2012). During and after class, students documented and discussed their findings from game analysis in Blackboard, which allowed them to establish a level of comfort with the game and the process of analyzing the game. This activity also yielded preliminary insights about the game in relation to technical requirements (e.g., platform for running the game and ease of installation), pedagogy in general (e.g., objective of the game, intended target group, customization options, icons and multimodal literacy needed), embedded content, and pedagogy specific to the content.

As teachers began to delve deeper into a game, they examined the experiences the game was likely to offer to students, focusing on whether the game could adapt to different learning orientations (Foster 2011), how it scaffolded the knowledge students construct, and the opportunities it presented students to personally connect with the learning experience within the game and the academic domain (Foster 2008). This activity provided teachers with insights about the educational merits and limitations of a game and allowed them to foresee the kind of curricular activities required outside of the game to help students make connections between their play experience and the desired learning objectives, as well as to articulate their newly formed knowledge. In summary, the process of game analysis assisted teachers in game exploration, selection, and evaluation.

The Case of Spent

Over the ten weeks of instructional time, pre-service teachers played many games, some chosen by me and others chosen by the students. Spent, one game of my choice, was made by the ad agency McKinney for the Urban Ministries of Durham and is freely available at The objective of this single-player game is to sensitize individuals to the issue of homelessness and poverty. Through a unique combination of point-and-click and role-play genres, this game challenges the player to experience a thirty-day life cycle of economic structural disadvantage within the society, and the goal is to survive the month without going bankrupt. Players encounter tough situations related to unemployment, housing, food, health, and education, and they are faced with limited options to choose from. These life events require the players to make decisions with two implications: cope or spiral into a chronic cycle of poverty and homelessness.

When asked what made Spent a good learning game, pre-service teachers reported that it embodies principles such as role-identity, risk taking, interaction, customization, and is “pleasantly frustrating” (Gee 2003). ¬†For instance, Beatrice found role-playing and the authentic scenarios of Spent to be useful and suggested the possibility of repurposing the game for multiple content areas.1 She also suggested that Spent is a "good game" for high-school-aged students. Since some of the choices were very moral/value driven, Beatrice argued that Spent puts into perspective the harsh reality of living in poverty in America. As such, she believed that the content of the game could apply to mathematics, civics, or even theatre (“It would make a great way to character study without having to actually try and survive a month in poverty!!”). However, for use in a classroom Beatrice would prefer to eliminate the Facebook and PayPal aspects of the game and would like more control in how students use it.

Jennifer emphasized that educational games can go beyond “drill and practice” and can cater to different player styles. She believed Spent could teach life skills to students ranging from middle-school to college and elaborated,

some students are lectured on how to save money and life choices, but playing an interactive game allows students to learn from experience. Players take on the role of a character and get to make choices on how they spend their money. The objective of the game is to have enough money to not only make it through the month, but to also have money left over after paying the rent. After players make a choice, a blurb pops up with statistics and a statement that connects the choice to reality. The game can help students understand why people in poverty make certain choices and the consequences of those choices. This game teaches students how to manage their money and how to make decisions. I think it is a very interesting game because the scenarios are so realistic. The first time I played, I chose the answers that I would normally choose, but I lost after the 11th day. Then I picked other options that did not line up with my morals and I won. The pedagogical role is to teach through experience and to incorporate statistics. The game is relatable, which makes it effective.

Lastly, Catherine, who described herself as a gamer and who had personal interest in game design, referred to the intersections of technological, pedagogical, and content dimensions:

Spent is a point-and-click, choice-oriented game that puts you in the perspective of a person that is struggling with money. The game is (most likely) targeting young adults and adults with the purposes of informing them about homelessness and poverty. It pairs potentially life-altering choices with poignant statistics about poverty. In the game, the player gets the ability manage their money while learning the statistics and issues surrounding poverty. The player learns by making life decisions and then observing the outcome. This game is extremely interesting and offers the option to play multiple times for different outcomes.

Parting Thoughts and Recommendations for Future Inquiry

Students’ lives and the ways they learn in and out of school are being transformed in a Dewey-esque sense by technology-mediated experiences such as games. Specifically, learners have novel opportunities to engage in inquiry (through role-playing), construction (through designing, creating, making), communication (through mentoring, collaborating with peers), and expression (of interest, affect) (Foster and Shah 2015a). Yet, little attention is given to teachers’ preparation to leverage the potential opportunities afforded by games and to reconstruct their professional identities as they learn to enhance their practice through complex technologies (Shah and Foster 2018). In this essay, I argue and illustrate how teachers can be supported in analyzing the educational merits of a game as a necessary precursor to engage students in critical actions and narratives (as reflected in Spent). Such digital literacy skills and simultaneous reflection on professional areas of interest not only apply to video games but are relevant in the context of other technologies that mediate learning through play (Shah et al. 2019).

1 All participant names are pseudonyms.

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Mamta Shah, PhD, ( studies play mediated by digital and non-digital environments as a gateway for learners to experiment with complex ideas and possible selves, and to explore new interests and deepen existing ones. Her work uses this potential of play as a starting point to support educators in (a) identifying, examining, repurposing, and leveraging well-designed complex environments (e.g., games), (b) designing and implementing associated curricula or pedagogical approaches (e.g., game-based learning) in formal and informal settings, (c) facilitating nuanced forms of student learning, and (d) reconstructing professional identity and practices in learning ecologies as educators engage in a pedagogical partnership with novel play-based environments. Her research has contributed to advancements on teaching and learning with interactive and interdisciplinary technologies by way of model development and testing, analysis of cognitive and pedagogic affordances of digital environments, design and integration of immersive and interdisciplinary environments, and teacher professional development.