Deep Learning Games through the Lens of the Toy

Malcolm Ryan, Brigid Costello and Andrew Stapleton


Much has been written in recent times about game-based learning with the aim to bring together elements of game design and instructional design to make education more engaging. Sadly the results have been rather hit-and-miss and most educational games fail to either entertain or educate. Yet there are many entertaining computer games which exhibit all the characteristics of well-designed educational tools. Can these tools only be used to teach combat or dangerous driving? Or is there another reason why educational games fail where entertainment games succeed?

Schell's 'Lens of the Toy' provides valuable insight into this problem. An engaging game is based around an interesting toy, something that is already fun to play with before goals, challenges and narratives are added. A good toy is a complex system with many affordances that engage cognitive abilities of pattern recognition, strategic reasoning and problem solving. In an educational game, we argue this toy should be a concrete model of the learning domain. Such a toy can support all the requirements Gee has set out for teaching 'deep conceptual understanding'. Without such a toy at its core, educational games are likely to be little more that shallow, didactic, 'skill-and-drill' exercises with a coating of irrelevant gameplay to make them palatable.