Game Based Learning in Action

Matthew Farber on episode 268 of the 10-Minute Teacher Podcast

From the Cool Cat Teacher Blog by Vicki Davis

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Game-based learning might not be what you think. On today’s show Matthew Farber, author of Game-Based Learning In Action: How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches with Games, talks about how to use games in the classroom effectively. He shares a four-part model including playing the game, debriefing, reflecting, and then creating.

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Enhanced Transcript

Game-Based Learning in Action

Link to show:
Date: March 7, 2018

Vicki: Today we’re talking with Dr. Matthew Farber @MatthewFarber author of Game-Based Learning In Action: How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches with Games.

Now, Matt, in this book you talk about “the tribe.” Who is the tribe?

Matthew: Well, the tribe is an affinity group — which is by definition a group of people that come together because they have an affinity or a like of something. And that could be game-based learning, but it could be Shakespeare, it could be raising chickens, or it could be being Catholic.

And some of those examples are from James Paul Gee, the professor who coined the term “affinity group” and “affinity spaces.” He was kind enough to write my forward.

What’s a “tribe” and what’s an “affinity group”?

We see this a lot. I mean, your listeners are likely an affinity group, right? They come together because of some shared like-mindedness. We come together in these little tribes.

Vicki: OK, so this tribe that you’re talking about, they’re teachers who like to teach with games, right?

Matthew: Yes, they’re teachers who like to teach with games. Many of them are big in other communities as well such as ISTE.

Vicki: OK, so when you say teaching with games, you know there’s lots of terminologies out there. There’s gamification. There’s game-based learning. There are all kinds.

So how would you classify the way that they teach with these games — and what kind of games?

Matthew: That is an excellent question. Thanks for asking that.

So this work stems from my dissertation research which was an ethnography.

I went into three classrooms — Steve Isaacs, Peggy Sheehy, and Paul Darvasi — to observe them teach with games.They all do it differently.

In the book, I was able to expand the umbrella to be able to bring in more teachers in the network, including myself, when I was in a K-12 classroom. Now I’m in a university setting.

Gamification versus Game-Based Learning

So gamification — those are those structures around games. Sometimes we hear groups — best by Michael Matera — about turning the classroom into a game.

Game-based learning is a little bit different than that. Although, Michael Matera does use games a lot. But it pertains to using digital games and non-digital games as spaces for an experience.

The teachers in this book really refer to games not as games, but as virtual field trips or digital field trips where their students would experience something, and then they would be able to take that context and use it in a learning environment.

So if you’re playing a game like “Mission: US” which is an educational game. There’s a series of them. One is set in the Revolutionary War. Students play it, they make these decisions, and then everybody has a shared experience with which to draw from to make the connection from content to.

That’s a little bit different from gamification. These teachers use some version of gamification, but they always use games in the classroom.

Vicki: So, what is one of the exemplars that you like to point to, where you say, “OK… THIS is excellent teaching using games”?

What does excellent teaching using games look like?

Matthew: Sure. Well, there are a whole lot, right? So it goes from a digital game, like World of Warcraft in Peggy Sheehey’s class, which she uses to teach The Hobbit and The Hero’s Journey — to making games, like in Steve Isaac’s class — to Paul Darvasi’s class. He uses a game called Gone Home, which is this interactive house exploration game.

A favorite of mine lately is one that John Fallon’s used, and he describes it in the book, called “Her Story.” There’s no fast graphics or action.

Basically, you can go through hours or — it doesn’t take that long to play — but it seems like hours of footage from a murder suspect. You have to figure out, using certain search terms and a search engine whether or not she’s a reliable narrator or not. It’s an amazing experience because he uses it alongside books.

So he’s got Edgar Allan Poe, Cask of the Amontillado, right? Whether or not that has a reliable narrator or not, and how that looks in a video game.

Vicki: Right. Hmmm.

Matthew: That’s one example. What these teachers are doing is they’re using games — not as like game shows, not as taking a TV game show like Jeopardy or not like Kahoot, using it as that type of game. Not like that there’s anything wrong with doing that.

But what they’re doing is using a game the way you would use a book or a film. This actually is a lot different than that mantra of educational technology just being a tool for learning. You really wouldn’t say that. Like if you’re putting on a Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War, you know, it’s a documentary, right?

Vicki: (agrees)

Matthew: They’re using digital games and sometimes non-digital games the same way.

Another easy way to wrap your mind around is this is this game called Werewolf which you can play with even a deck of cards. It’s a summer camp game called Mafia. And you close your eyes, and you have to guess who’s like tapping on your shoulder.

And I’ve even used this in the classroom teaching about the Salem Witch Trials.

Vicki: Hmmm.

Matthew: Where you know, who’s telling the truth. How does it feel to be in a witch hunt?

So you do this as this shared experience field trip for the class. It goes through this cycle, basically — of Play Game, Debrief, and Reflect.

These teachers don’t use dashboards, per se, that come with video games or educational games.

They use Google Classroom, or Schoology. You make your own reflection.

And then students get a chance to MAKE. So maybe they’re making a game in Scratch, or maybe in Minecraft, or maybe they’re making a podcast or an iMovie.

Vicki: Hmmm. So what is the result of this, in engagement in learning?

Matthew: Well, these are what we call gameful classrooms. They do two things.

Gameful Classrooms do two things

1)They apply directly self-determination theory – which means that students in the classroom have a feeling of competence, so they feel like they’re able to do what they’re supposed to do and get their zone of proximal development.

They have a feeling of agency or autonomy. They’re in control of the learning experience, and they have a feeling of belongingness with other students, relatedness.

2) And the other piece is called gameful learning which is different than gamification. It’s very much like, if your listeners have read, Lifelong Kindergarten, the new book by Mitch Resnick, where students are invited to play. So we’ve got three things here. One is called Identity Play, where students take on new identities, and the teacher takes on a new identity. Like Steve Isaacs isn’t a teacher. He becomes head of a game design studio, and the students are making games.

And illusory attitudes. This means that you buy into the constraints of the game. It’s almost like a suspension of disbelief when you watch a play. You believe that you’re watching action.You’re not watching a bunch of people standing on a stage.

And this idea of not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s “ignorance” is what the literature is called. This is from Holden et al. and this is their research, and it’s in my book, too. You don’t know what’s going to happen. These are didactic games. You’re playing a game; you can look at Minecraft. Who knows what’s going to happen right?

Vicki: Yeah.

Matthew: Teachers are gameful too. Teachers take on new roles. Teachers aren’t afraid to fail. Teachers don’t know what the outcomes are. They design these assessments based on reflections. So they’re always constantly assessing

Genius hours are a terrific example of gameful learning.

Gameful teachers don’t use dashboards; they assess student reflections constantly

Vicki: Hmmm.

Matthew: Where students get 20% time to design a project based on what they want to do, and you know, they’re taking on these real-world identities. They are able to understand how things work, and they’re not afraid to fail.

Vicki: Well, gameful learning is a challenge for us to learn how to do. I know that the more I integrate games, simulations, activities — the more excited kids get about learning.

The book is Game-Based Learning In Action: How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches with Games. Dr. Matthew Farber is the author. He has lots of fantastic stuff. I’ve been using your books for years, Matt, to understand how to be a teacher using games.

So we just hit the very tip of the iceberg.

But I love the point he made about Playing the Game, Debriefing, Reflecting, and then Creating.

So some people pretend like the game is all there is. But the game is sometimes just the beginning of the full experience, and it can be so engaging for kids.

Thank you, Matt!

Matthew: Thank you! Perfect!

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Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Matthew Farber, Ed.D. teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School, in Denville, New Jersey. Dr. Farber is an Edutopia blogger and cohost of Ed Got Game, on the BAM! Radio Network, and is a BrainPOP Certified Educator. He was a

recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Teacher Fellowship and a Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowship. Look for the new, expanded, revised edition of his book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning — Revised Edition (Peter Lang Publishing, 2017), on Amazon: and at Barnes & Noble (use teacher discount!): To learn more, please visit


Twitter: @MatthewFarber

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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