Games and Learning Portfolio: A Reflective Analysis

In the spring semester of 2018, I took a Games and Learning course as part of my masters degree in Information and Learning Technologies through CU Denver. Games and Learning challenged and expanded my thinking about games, playfulness, and fun related to education. Read on for highlights and reflections from my work in this course.

Play Journals

The Games and Learning course offered many opportunities for informal and personal play, but for me the real power of the course was in how it relates to my classroom and my students. I would like to highlight two very different play experiences that I shared with my students this semester. The first is discussed in my first Play Journal of the semester, You Must be Joking, about a hilarious card game called Joking Hazard. In this play experience, students tapped into humor and sarcasm to open up and break down barriers between classmates, and contribute to a stronger feeling of community in the class that carried throughout the semester.

See slideshow at the top for photographs from Joking Hazard and Vocabulary Charades game play.

The idea of community-building through play ties into Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture (2009), where Jenkins et al wrote about affinity spaces, which are “informal learning cultures” (p. 27). Affinity spaces lure those of shared interests to choose to come together to learn, share, and grow around their common interests. While students do not necessarily choose to be in school, there are elements of choice in my digital art elective classes that reflect some of affinity space culture. The concept of choice means that participants are immediately more willing and engaged than those who are coerced, or forced to be there, as many are in core classes.

“Affinity spaces are organized to help people make better choices” (Gee & Hayes, 2012, p.28). Affinity spaces, like good learning experiences, are “organized to share information so that new and better choices can be discovered” (Gee & Hayes, 2012, p.28). By playing Joking Hazard, my students and I got to experience together the power of making choices collectively: what to share (or not), what to choose, what to laugh at (or not). And as I stated in the Play Journal: “I saw my students engage in a long-term activity, open up and show their vulnerabilities to one another, and be inspired to think of additional ways that they can use games in their own learning. I call that a success.”

In a later play experience designed by me for my final Play Journal, Vocabulary Charades, students came together in small groups to act out art element and principle terms to review for a vocabulary assessment. The playfulness of this experience amplified learner’s ownership in it as students took charge of “game mechanics (the actions players take to solve problems)” mid-game in order to achieve their goals of reviewing content vocabulary (Gee & Hayes, 2012, p. 2). Not only does this activity appease the powers-that-be in my school and district (including my evaluator – highly effective, score!), it offers my students practice in 21st century literacy, defined by the New Media Consortium as “the set of abilities and skills where aural, visual, and digital literacy overlap” (Jenkins et al, 2009, p.45). As a digital art teacher, I recognize the need for students to learn and practice these new literacy skills, including:

“. . . the ability to understand the power of images and sounds, to recognize and use that power, to manipulate and transform digital media, to distribute them pervasively, and to easily adapt them to new forms” (Jenkins et al, 2009, p.45).

Watch video for a quick peek into the Vocabulary Charades game:

In Why Fun Matters: In Search of Emergent Playful Experiences, Fizek (2014) wrote of “defining gamification as ‘re-imagining experiences with fun in mind and ‘an amazing opportunity to experiment with creating a more fun world’” (p. 3). The common thread between these two different experiences in my classroom is that through play, students practiced essential skills in fun ways while simultaneously becoming active creators and co-creators of their learning. We could have used a rote memorization approach to vocabulary preparation and assessment but as Fizek (2014) emphasized, “. . . the most powerful driver for player’s engagement is not based on quantification methods artificially imposed onto every possible context, but indeed on fun” (p. 3). The “fun” model of learning recognizes that we all learn better and more when we are relaxed and authentically engaged.

Feedback to Peers – Play Journals

Games and Learning offered regular opportunities to interact with peers, including providing feedback on their Play Journals, and receiving feedback on mine. One of the first peer Play Journals I reviewed was about the game Overwatch. My feedback focused mostly on the mechanics of the paper, and the lack of visuals. I had more questions than comments, which can be an effective feedback strategy, but did not garner any responses. I learned from this to balance my commentary more, loosen up my expectations on the Play Journals, and look for more positives in my classmate’s work, which all could connect to playful learning in the classroom. Implementing new methods of learning, and playing, require some risk-taking on our part, which often requires a shift in perspective and expectations.

Reviewing another classmate’s’ Play Journal on the game, Stop!, got me thinking about intergenerational play, and how games bring together people of different ages, backgrounds, and cultures. The journal offered a fun, descriptive account of a playful, family learning experience. My feedback focused on the connections I made to the journal, like the fact that the game sounded a lot like when I played before, Scattegories. The writing was so personable and charming that it reminded me that telling real stories through writing, and using authentic narratives, is an excellent way to capture an audience’s attention. Applying that same thinking to playful learning, meaningful narratives help enrich learning experiences.

For a Play Journal on the World of Warcraft, I offered resources and connections, as well as asked thoughtful questions. One theme I connected with on the journal, and multiple readings throughout the semester, was choice. Choice is an essential element in effective learning that gaming already gets right. As I said in my feedback: “It is so important for players to have options that make the game more multi-faceted. If I am on my own and want to escape into a game, independent play is best, but if I’m feeling social I may choose a more interactive option.” Education can learn a lot from the choices allowed for in games, and apply that idea of choice to learning.

I was thrilled and intrigued by all of the visuals and details in a classmate’s Play Journal about Final Fantasy XIV. The social aspects of the game, and surrounding communities, struck me as connecting to affinity spaces, where learning is informal, social, and collective. Jenkins et al (2009) assert that “meaning emerges collectively and collaboratively in the new media environment,” (p. 49) and in affinity spaces, “creativity operates differently in an open-source culture based on sampling, appropriation, transformation, and repurposing” (p. 49). Affinity spaces are about sharing and collective growth, where traditional school may be more about competition and “getting ahead.” Collaborative learning cultures “share information about choices that work and ways to learn how to make better and better choices. These choices are not just about designing things. They are also about how to socially interact in the affinity space, and outside it, as well, including in “real life,” so that goals are accomplished and people grow, no matter what their age” (Gee & Hayes, 2012, p.28). Applying this to education would mean that we focus more on student growth than achievement, more on creativity than memorization, more on teamwork than individual success. What a world that would be!

Affinity Space Project

In the Games and Learning course, each student got to participate in an affinity space of our choice, and share our learning about it in the form of a presentation video that I posted about on my portfolio website. I had the privilege of participating in, and contributing to, a wonderful, creative community called DS106. Digital Storytelling 106 is an OER (open educational resource) out of the University of Mary Washington, meant to provide online spaces for people to find project inspiration, encouragement, and feedback, where the “only requirements are a real computer, a hardy internet connection, preferably a domain of your own and some commodity web hosting, and all the creativity you can muster” (DS106, n.d.). DS106 participants share Daily Create and Assignment Bank creations through many web platforms, offering each other commentary and feedback that tends toward the positive. I focused my interactions on the website and Twitter communities.

See slideshow below for some of my contributions:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As a student myself, I find the DS106 model’s informal and responsive pedagogy to be very much to my liking. When I was first introduced to DS106 through a Digital Storytelling course at CU Denver, I immediately appreciated the flexible nature of the Assignment Bank and Daily Creates, and began to think about how I could translate the element of choice to the more formal setting of my classroom in order to engage students in the content on deeper levels. The question of engaging students through choice, very much in the manner of DS106, has structured my ongoing work for the internship portion of my degree, and changed how we approach projects in the advanced Graphic Design & Interactive class I teach.

What I have learned most from DS106 is incorporate more choice, more options. Moving forward in my classroom, I will facilitate more opportunities for discovery instead of handing knowledge to my students, and I will encourage more collaboration and critical feedback for my learners. As we already know, the tools today’s learners will use may change, but the ability to make informed choices, the curiosity to seek and discover, and the ability to work with others are valuable life skills in any century. Digital art education is not only about tools, it is about choices:

“The tools available to a culture matter, but what that culture chooses to do with those tools matters more.” (Jenkins et al, 2009, p. 25)

Watch DS106 Affinity Space video presentation:

Feedback to Peers – Affinity Space Projects

In the spirit of DS106, I kept feedback to my classmates positive and constructive. Reviewing Isa’s presentation on CafeMom, I was struck but how she was able to redirect her questions to a different audience within the space to garner better responses. The practice of grouping users by specific interests on an informal website led me to think about applying that to the more formal setting of school. A grouping model like CafeMom’s, and many affinity spaces’, would allow for students to come together based on interests and passions, instead of just ages or ability levels.

While reviewing Oliver’s presentation on the Undertale affinity space and Nicolette’s presentation on the R/Overwatch affinity space, both on Reddit, I was inspired by the fan art elements of the site. In an effective affinity space, “everyone can, if they wish, produce and not just consume” (Gee & Hayes, 2012, p.12). The idea of fan art brought to mind that the strength of so many affinity spaces is the creativity they inspire, and made me question what formal school settings do to inspire creativity. What can we learn from fan art? Again, I think it comes down to choice, interest, and passion. If students are choosing where they direct their creativity, then they are more likely to be invested in their learning and creating processes.

Reviewing Bob’s presentation on the Mountain Project affinity space reminded me that whether formal or informal, learning spaces are just starting points. The power of learning is not necessarily only what happens within the learning space, but what comes after. I ask myself: what am I inspiring my students to do beyond the classroom with the tools and skills they acquire in it?

Playing It Forward

I have seen examples this semester where games are used as gimmicks, slapped onto learning under the guise of making it more fun, which is called “gamification: using game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding, 2014, p. 1). At times inauthentic and ineffective, gamification of learning can be unnecessary and distracting from the content. I offer my recent SAT Proctor training as an example of unnecessary gamification. The training attempted to use animation, interactivity, and play to guide me through the things I needed to know to properly proctor the SAT test, which I take as a more serious venture than the training recognized. The time it took to navigate the interactive portions of the training, and follow the narrative, was drawn out and felt like a waste, where a more direct approach to the training would have been appreciated. Sometimes learning is direct in nature, and instructional designers and educators need to learn to recognize when and where gamification is appropriate and necessary.

On the other hand, I have seen examples that go too far with trying to incorporate so much “gameful learning” (Holden et al, 2014) that the focus becomes more on the game components while the content gets lost. The element of student choice is important: “whether in a game, or any other type of pedagogical system, granting choice is an important strategy to help cultivate engagement and solicit the best an individual has to offer” (Darvasi, 2016, p. 15). But as Darvasi (2012) saw from his “Frankenstein-like installation piece” (p.2) of an instructional game that encompassed all aspects of his course: “There is, of course, such a thing as too much choice” (p. 15). Too much choice, and too much game, can leave students feeling overwhelmed and without focus, or may allow students to stay too much in their own comfort zones. “Ideally, a well-designed system provides choice but also exposes learners to unfamiliar areas and encourages them to explore new knowledge and skills that they may not pursue of their own volition. Ultimately, a balance must be struck between guided learning and choice” (Darvasi, 2016, p. 15).

What I will take away most from this semester in Games and Learning is a reinforcement of my belief that games, playfulness, and fun are a vital part of authentic learning and engagement, but as with so many other things, balance is the key. As I continue to expand opportunities for playful experiences in my classroom, I will keep in mind the necessity of balancing the game with the content. Like the Vocabulary Charades game, I will continue to seek ways to work games into the content in ways that enhance the content and student’s experience with it, and remember that “good learning features are, in fact, a key aspect of good game design, because games are fundamentally problem solving spaces that are meant to engage players” (Gee & Hayes, 2012, p. 2).

Coming from the competency-based education perspective that is utilized in my district, I can start from the standards to identify places where gameful learning can be implemented to enhance student interaction with content. In a digital art classroom, games and playfulness work particularly well in introductory and front-loading activities like icebreakers and team building games, content-related scavenger hunts, and content review and assessment preparation. While I will seek to scatter in games to keep the classroom fun and engaging, I do not see myself creating an all-encompassing game that embeds the content within a labyrinth of tasks and trials. We admittedly have more fun in my classroom than the average professional work environment probably does, but being a Career and Technical Education course, I also need to impart opportunities for students to learn and practice professional and workplace skills. So, as I tell my students: “We work hard, and we play hard too.” Balance.


Darvasi, P. (2016). The ward game: How McMurphy, Mcluhan, and Macgyver might free us from Mceducation.

Deterding, S. (2014). Eudaimonic design, or: Six invitations to rethink gamification.

DS106. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Holden, J., Kupperman, J., Dorfman, A., Saunders, T., Pratt, A., MacKay, P., (2014). Gameful learning as a way of being. International Journal of Learning Technology [special issue on game-based learning]. Retrieved 4/15/18 from:

Fizek, S. (2014). Why fun matters: In search of emergent playful experiences.

Gee, J.P. & Hayes, E. (2012). Nurturing affinity spaces and game-based learning.  In Constance Steinkuehler, Kurt Squire, & Sasha Barab, Eds., Games, Learning, and Society: Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 129-155

Jenkins, J., Purushotma, R., Weigel, M., Clinton, K., & Robison, A.J. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Salen, K. (2008). Toward an ecology of gaming.In Salen, K. (Ed). (2008). The ecology of games: connecting youth, games, and learning. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 1–20. Doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.001

Squire, K. (2013). “Mobile media learning: Ubiquitous computing environments for the mobile generation.”

Young, M., Slota,S., Cutter, A.B., Jalette, G., Mullin, G., Lai, B., Simeoni, Z., Tran, M., Yukhymenko, M. (2012). “Our princess is in another castle: A review of trends in serious gaming for education.” Review of Educational Research, Vol. 82, No. 1, pp. 61-89. Published by: American Educational Research Association Stable URL: Accessed: 10-01-2017 20:56 UTC


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s