Digital Media and Education: Desegregating Gameplay from Learning

Videogames, Card Games, Board Games, and NAU

For the past two years at Northern Arizona University (NAU), the English department’s Rhetoric, Writing, and Digital Media program has hosted the Undergraduate Videogame Symposium (UVS), which essentially is a symposium that showcases ways digital media and gameplay can work in conjunction with education in order to maximize learning outcomes. This year on April 30th, 2016 NAU hosted the third UVS, but this time as a part of the university’s regular symposium.

You might think, “Videogames in the classroom?? That seems a bit crazy.” I get it; gameplay in the classroom is a newer concept—especially videogames—but I assure you, the concepts of gaming applied to learning can be one of the most effective tools in education. For example, games have the ability to motivate their players; they teach users how to overcome challenge. If teachers applied the same concepts of overcoming challenge to their lessons, students would potentially be more engaged in learning. Therefore, the purpose of the videogame symposium is to teach others ways that gameplay, digital media, and videogames can be used in education as a tool.


Gamification as a tool to Motivate

When I was an undergraduate at NAU and enrolled in a digital rhetoric course, I quickly learned that games are relevant to education because they have the power to motivate—one of the hardest parts about educating! Essentially, what I learned is that when people play games, they get excited about the hard work that they put into them and therefore become passionate: “[g]ames make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work” (McGonigal 28). As an educator, one of the most challenging aspects about teaching my students is motivating them. As McGonigal points out, games inspire their users, which is why I incorporate game-like aspects to my classroom. Beyond my own teaching philosophy, McGonigal’s concept of motivation is one of the key elements of the videogame symposium: the goal of the UVS is to teach people that games have the power to encourage.

In relation to this idea of motivation though game concepts linked to education, the UVS also advocates for teachers to gamify their classrooms. So you may be thinking, “What on earth is gamification?” Not to worry, gamification is essentially just taking gaming concepts and applying them to the real world settings. For example, rather than asking someone to complete a task or finish an assignment, instructors could reward a student for grasping a learning objective.


​Another one of my favorite theorists, James Gee, brings up the idea of using games to motivate players by gamifying education. For instance, Gee explains that he first realized in the power of gameplay linked to motivation when he watched his 4-year-old son play a game called Pajama Sam, which is not only a game to entertain children but teaches life lessons: the game enlightens kids not to be afraid of the dark. The argument Gee brings up in his article is that games are motivational because they are rewarding and they engage their users. Rather than giving players information on how to survive, games expect the users to become a part of the process and learn though experience. While viewing the game as his son played, Gee realizes that having spent “second half of his career in education ‘Wouldn’t it be great if kids were willing to put in this much time on such challenging material in school and enjoy it so much?’” (4). By facing this realization, Gee recognizes that one of the major flaws in education is being able to excites the students about learning. Yet, on the other hand, games have the ability to inspire. By connecting the two together, Gee understands that games and education can work to inspire students Essentially, games have the power to motivate players and if tied to education students will be challenged and motivated to not only learn, but to also be passionate about learning.

As discussed earlier, the power of motivation within games has been a key element of each Undergraduate Videogame Symposium over the last several years: our students and faculty within rhetoric aim to break down the myth that games are solely for entertainment. Therefore, at this past year’s symposium, several students presented on ways that composition instructors can utilize gamification. The idea is to encourage composition students to not only learn how to write, but to become passionate about writing. Instead of giving students all of the information about writing, gamification in the classroom allows learners to become engaged in the actual process of writing, just as games inspire players to participate.


The Challenge of this Year’s Symposium

The frustrating element of this year’s symposium as compared to others is that it shifted from being an English department wide symposium to a university wide symposium. For example, instead of hosting the symposium in the Liberal Arts building, we joined forces with NAU’s campus-wide symposium and presented as a college within the overall conference. While yes, on the surface, it sounds like a great opportunity, in reality, it ended up segregating us (the videogame/digital media group) from the rest of the university. We ended up being separated because we need access to electricity, while other programs did not (Pfannenstiel, Nicole). Unfortunately, the only two places that had access to electricity were in a corner inside of the building on the stadium floor or outside of the stadium in front of the entrance. Rather than being shoved in a corner on the floor of the stadium, we decided to be in the entrance area. The problem with being in the entrance area is that no one noticed us. For example, symposium viewers would walk in and assume that we were a part of the help desk, rather than an actual exhibit.

When I realized that our symposium was basically segregated from the rest of the university I quickly began to recognize the irony of the situation. Here we were attempting to educate people on why games should be used within education and why digital media needs to be a part of the education system as a whole. Yet, while we advocated for gameplay and media to become a part of education, we were segregated from the rest of the university. The irony made me recognize two main points: first, it taught me that education still hasn’t caught up with the digital times. Even though it appears that humans are in a digital era, the education system still relies mostly on old technology. It only goes to show that educators like myself and others involved in digital media need to work harder to advocate our message that education and the digital world can work together. Second, the situation also taught me that next year, the UVS will need to work out an alternative plan and somehow find a way to actually become a part of the symposium on the floor of the stadium. If we are given a space, and become a part of the university’s symposium, I fervently believe that people would be interested in listening to our overall goal of using games to inspire learners.


Over the past several years at Northern Arizona University, the undergraduate videogame symposium has aimed to educate others on the power that gameplay and gamification can bring to the educational atmosphere. While gamification is still a newer idea, it’s main focus is to apply game concepts to the real world setting in order to get people excited about learning. By using gamification in the classroom, students would have the potential to become motivated about the necessary lessons. Theorists believe in the power of gamification because rather than teachers imputing all of their knowledge into the minds of their students, using gaming concepts allows students to join the process of obtaining knowledge; games teach people how to gain ownership. Even though this year’s symposium did not appear to function as well as the last two, it seems that colliding forces with the university’s symposium is still an important step needed in order to spread the word of digitalized learning.

Works Cited

Gee, James. “Introduction.” What Video Games have to Teach Us. 2-10. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2003. Print.

McGonigal, Jane. “What Exactly is a Game?” Reality is Broken. 20-28. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.

Pfannenstiel, Nicole. “Personal Interview” 4 May 2016.