Using Digital Gaming For Learning Outcomes

Digital Gaming

Sometimes you get to meet someone who, through what they are doing, sheds new light on the very things you are thinking about in your own practice. The kinds of things that change the way technology is used to achieve learning outcomes. That is exactly what happened when I met Adam Scanlon. Adam is a gamer, designer and father amongst many other things. What piqued my interest in his practice was the way he was using gaming to assist his own son’s learning.

Adam’s son has autism. As Adam explained to me, autism brings its own set of challenges when it comes to learning. Children with autism often do not learn in the same ways in which we would typically associate with traditional learners and, therefore, in his case, new ways of teaching and learning needed to be investigated. As a commitment to finding these new innovative ways, Adam has been using the game Disney Infinity.


While this article talks specifically about children with autism, the same principles apply to all classroom teaching and education in general. How can we turn the paradigm around from reductionist notions such as ‘teacher as expert’ to ‘teacher as facilitator’? And if we are looking at the teacher as facilitator model, what do we want them to facilitate? All children exist as learners nested within their own constructs and identities. They bring their own experiences and mindsets into the classroom.

Let’s take a closer look at Disney Infinity. It is essentially a ‘sandbox game’. Sandbox games are extremely open in nature, and their lack of narrative is what sets them apart from most other digital games. Most digital games operate in a linear fashion with a predetermined narrative, which the player must follow, and a set of ever more complicated tasks that the player must successfully complete in order to progress in the game. To me, sandbox games are of great interest to education because sandbox games have no sense of progression, linear narrative, or completion. Game play is entirely up to the creativity and imagination of the player/players. These kinds of games are providing a framework for the player to enter and then leaving it up to the individual’s creativity to do whatever they want.

The genre includes games like Minecraft, Gary’s Mod and, to a certain extent, Disney Infinity.

Narrative within the narrative
When recently watching a collection of students playing Gary’s Mod, I noticed that they were collectively interacting and communicating with each other. They were building their own characters. They were inventing their own games within the game and, even beyond this, they were inventing their own narrative within the games they were playing. They were constructing a narrative within the narrative. This is a prime example of the modern game makers understanding; that this generation of learners can be provided with a high level of autonomy, the ability to be self-directed and, beyond that, collaborating with others through the ability to be web connected. These three concepts are important to our current western education system, especially as it grapples with relevancy and what role technology plays.

Going back to Adam Scanlon, why is he attracted to Disney Infinity, and how does it help him teach his son?

Firstly, as Adam explained, to work with children with autism, you need to find the space in which they are interested. It is highly unlikely they will come to the space you think they should be in. Adam’s son loves this game and he will literally play it for hours. So rather than pull his son away from this environment, Adam went the other way and embraced it. How could he use the environment his son loves to help his son learn? This opens up a great lesson for all educators – not just those working with special needs, where you can position yourself within the child’s life to give that child the best opportunity to hear you in the first place. As Disney Infinity is a sandbox game, Adam and his son can build their own universe within it … a universe of their collective imaginations that might replicate their current one, or even develop new ways of seeing the world.

As you may be aware, children with autism need a lot of repetition to grasp certain concepts. Adam explained that to teach a certain task he would have to say it over and over. Children with autism generally require and demand routines – so to teach them a new one could potentially mean the changing of an old one and change can be particularly difficult because it requires a lot of repetition. Again, as Disney Infinity is a sandbox game, Adam can now build games inside the game allowing his son to play them, enjoy them, and potentially learn from them from within his chosen environment.

A couple of examples of the huge range with which Adam provided me might help give context for those unfamiliar with this type of game. To help ‘potty train’ his son, Adam built a puzzle game. The task of the game was to get the ‘brown object’ to the toilet at the end of each game. By playing the game over and over, his son also was able to make the real-life connections. This demonstrates a great way to instructionally teach something that is going to require a lot of repetition.

Adam provided me with another example of how he uses the game to teach new routines. The current process for going to a shopping center or supermarket requires Adam and his son to go up and down every aisle each time they visit a supermarket, even if they only need to quickly go in and buy one product. This is a routine Adam’s son knows and is comfortable with, and to change this routine causes particular anxiety for Adam’s son, leading to a seemingly uncontrollable outburst of emotion. Adam’s solution, using the game, was to build a supermarket within his Disney Infinity universe and, once again, build a task into the game that allowed for his son to enter the supermarket, find the object, and leave immediately. He is helping form a pattern or predisposition into his son, teaching him new ways of doing things.

For a long time there was the common misunderstanding that because children with autism were not communicating with you in the traditional sense, they were also not listening. This is not necessarily so, and technology has provided ways for this group to have a voice. Early discoveries came with typing; children who would not necessarily speak out their thoughts, when taught to type, found this medium an easier way in which to communicate.

Adam is interested in taking this concept further. If Disney Infinity is a space where his son feels comfortable and enjoys inhabiting, potentially it can be a means for the two of them in which to also communicate. One of Adam’s concerns for his son is a simple problem that most of us without this experience would not even consider. If his son has a toothache, potentially he will never express this to Adam – so how as a father will he handle this situation if he does not even know it exists? While he is still only at the early stages, Adam is exploring ways through the game that his son might express these everyday issues with him and others around him.

This might be something that Adam agendas within the Disney Infinity game space or, potentially, his son might find the means of using it to communicate in the way he wants to.

Adapting our methodologies

Learning occurs within a complex interplay of biological, cultural and experiential histories. Learning always occurs within the complex systems of the individual, the social surrounds, and the culture within which the individual exists. Knowledge is never isolated within that or separated from it. Rather, it is deeply part of the web of interactions. It arises out of it as an emergent, evolving phenomenon.

We can never teach the same content to each child in the same manner and expect it to have the same impact. Rather, we should be getting to know our students and what are they interested in. We should discover what they love and how they themselves best communicate. We then need to adapt our methodologies to come to their worlds, not the other way around. Adam demonstrates wonderfully the powerful learning and connections that can take place when the paradigm is reversed using a technology that his child loves: a digital game.

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Kynan Robinson

Kynan Robinson

National Manager - Software at New Era Education
Kynan Robinson is the Manager for Professional Development with New Era, and is a leading expert in ICT and education, working with schools around Australia and assisting them as they seek to better understand and implement contemporary pedagogies. Prior to this role, he was the leading teacher for eLearning, Creativity and Innovation at North Fitzroy Primary School, Melbourne, a beacon school in ICT focussing on digital gaming, blogging, and mobile devices. Kynan has also been awarded the ICTEV 2013 Outstanding Leader of the Year award, and has a PhD in Education. He is considered to be one of Australia’s preeminent thinkers in the area of ICT and education and has presented at numerous national and international conferences.

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