Game-Based Learning in Action

How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches With Games

by Matthew Farber (Author)
©2018 Textbook XVI, 238 Pages


How are expert educators using games in their classrooms to give students agency, while also teaching twenty-first century skills, like empathy, systems thinking, and design thinking? This question has motivated Matthew Farber’s Game-Based Learning in Action: How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches With Games showcasing how one affinity group of K12 educators—known as "The Tribe"—teaches with games. They are transformational leaders outside the classroom, in communities of practice. They mentor and lead newcomers to game-based learning, as well as advise game developers, academics, and policymakers.
Teachers in "The Tribe" do not teach in isolation—they share, support, and mentor each other in a community of practice. Farber shares his findings about the social practices of these educators. Game-Based Learning in Action details how the classrooms of expert game-based learning teachers function, from how they rollout games to how they assess learning outcomes.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the best practices of expert educators. These teachers use games to provide a shared meaningful experience for students. Games are often the focal point of instruction. Featuring a foreword from James Paul Gee (Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, and Regents’ Professor), this book comments on promises and challenges of game-based learning in twenty-first century classrooms. If you are looking to innovate your classroom with playful and gameful learning practices, then Game-Based Learning in Action is for you!

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Game-Based Learning in Action
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Figures
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Structure of This Book
  • References
  • Part 1: An Affinity Group of Game-Based Learning Educators
  • Chapter 1: The Tribe
  • Red Bandanas and Educational Anarchists
  • The Tribe as Community of Practice
  • The Games in Education Symposium as Affinity Space
  • Selecting the Keynote Speakers
  • The Speakers’ Dinner
  • Birds of a Feather Play Together
  • Birds of a Feather Tweet Together
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 2: Learning From the Experts
  • The Inner Circle
  • The Tribe as Affinity Group
  • Taking Risks and Changing Paradigms
  • Game-Based Learning Evangelism
  • Pioneering Practitioners
  • Trusting the Experts
  • The Trouble With Experts
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 3: Games in School
  • The “Horizontal Learning Space” in Quest Atlantis
  • Minecraft Mentors
  • Balanced Learning Games
  • Epistemic Games
  • Gamification
  • Game-Like Learning
  • Games as Designed Spaces
  • The Intersection of Games and Learning
  • The Business of Games4Ed
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Part II: A Close Look at The Tribe in Action
  • Chapter 4: “The Godmother of Educational Gaming”
  • Room 339: Home to Epic Learners
  • Teaching Her Heroes
  • Thursday
  • Friday
  • References
  • Chapter 5: “For the Next 3 Hours, You Have a License to Snoop Around the House”
  • Gone Home
  • The School
  • Observing Gone Home in the Classroom
  • References
  • Chapter 6: “Life Just Got Epic!”
  • Room 322: Iterative Design and Student Choice
  • Day 1
  • Day 2
  • References
  • Part III: “Go Where the Game Takes You!”
  • Chapter 7: Playful Learning
  • Play Theory
  • Play Theory in Practice
  • Balancing Play and Game
  • Montessorian, by Design
  • Playful Learning Environments
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 8: Gameful Learning
  • Gameful Learning Practices
  • Making School Replayable
  • Learner Agency
  • Meaningful Role Play
  • Scaffolding Student Choice
  • Designing Branched Quests
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 9: Games as High Quality Curricular Materials
  • Video Games as Text
  • Video Games and Literary Devices
  • Humanities Games as “Standalone Pieces”
  • The Versatility of Humanities Games
  • Turning Literature Into Role-Playing Games
  • Reskinning Games
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 10: “How Can I Twist This Game to My Purposes?”
  • How World of Warcraft Became Sheehy’s Curriculum
  • Contextual Transposition
  • The Malleability of Minecraft
  • Cell Games
  • Applying the EPIC Framework
  • Using The Walking Dead to Teach Ethics
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 11: The Case for Experiential Learning
  • Shared Experiences
  • Games as Digital Field Trips
  • Lesson Planning for Experiences
  • Games and Mentorship Learning
  • Virtual Internships
  • Virtual Internship Authorware
  • How The Tribe Engaged Students in Affinity Groups
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 12: Open-Ended Assessments for Open-Ended Games
  • Games, the Curriculum, and Assessments
  • The Tribe’s (Non)Use of Dashboard Analytics
  • “The Ultimate Assessment”
  • The Case for Schönian Reflective Practices
  • Narrativizing Game Events
  • Unobtrusive Assessments
  • Games and Dispositional Behaviors
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 13: The Role of the Game-Based Teacher
  • The Teacher as Game-Master
  • Flash Lessons and Teaching on the Fly
  • The Game Explosion
  • The Husøy/Staaby Pendulum
  • Teachers as Learning Designers
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Conclusion
  • Lessons Learned
  • Follow—and Join—The Tribe!
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


Figure 1.1. One of the red bandanas, this one signed, “Thank you!” up by the knot.

Figure 1.2. Panel at the 2012 Games in Education Symposium: Expanding the Conversation: How Does Playing Online Games Foster Safety?

Figure P 2.1. Steve Isaacs, Paul Darvasi, myself, and Peggy Sheehy

Figure 4.1. Circle area in Sheehy’s classroom

Figure 5.1. Screenshot from Darvasi’s Haiku page

Figure 5.2. Screenshot of blank game evidence chart

Figure 5.3. Foyer of the Greenbriar house

Figure 6.1. Isaacs’ classroom

Figure 6.2. Students designing with Project Spark and Disney Infinity

Figure 6.3. Student-designed Makey Makey controller

Figure 8.1. Elements of gameful learning

Figure 13.1. The Husøy/Staaby Pendulum

| xi →


Lots of teachers tell me they want to get into game-based teaching and learning. Then they me ask how they can start. I always tell them, don’t do it alone; find a group of other teachers who are making things happen on their own and join them.

Lots of teachers ask me how we could ever reform our schools for real; how we can finally get past our fetish for facts and tests and sorting. I tell them, it will never be done by professors, policy makers, politicians, or Schools of Education. It will only happen when teachers take back their own profession and act together in the name of real innovation and not in the name of fame and fortune for people who do not spend their day teaching kids.

Today, there is a teaching and learning revolution going on outside of school. Everyday people, young and old, often together, join interest-driven websites to teach and learn from each other and to resource each other for making, doing, participating, and innovating. These people are joined together by a shared affinity for something, not first and foremost by age, race, class, gender, or politics. Their shared affinities are limitless: making media; citizen science; public journalism; women’s health; raising chickens; modding video games; anime; fan-fiction; robotics; activism of all sorts, and on and on and on.

If people have a passion—say, for modding (modifying, re-programming) video games—they often have a home-base website—organized by their ← xi | xii → favored social norms for interaction—but this site links to many other sites and to resources all across the internet and the real world. They meet in and link to real world spaces, as well, and thereby meld the “real” and the virtual.

I call home bases, and all the spaces and clusters of spaces they are linked to, “affinity spaces”—they are spaces within spaces, like neighborhoods within towns within cities within states and countries. In affinity spaces, people distribute teaching and learning across multiple people and tools. Sometimes you teach; sometimes you learn. Sometimes you lead; sometimes you follow. You get expert at some things—sometimes well past the expertise of credentialed experts—but you often return to being a novice in a new area. People never stop teaching, learning, and growing.

All people in an affinity space share an interest. Some go beyond interest and share a passion and it is this passion that is the attractor to the space. It is this passion that ultimately organizes real change in the world. People today can be parts of many different affinity spaces to feed various interests—and they often make vital contributions in this way—but we hope, too, they each find a passion, as well.

Teaching and learning is now often organized more powerfully outside of school than it is in it. But there is no reason that interest, passion, and affinity cannot move to school and expand the school’s relationship to the real and virtual worlds of diverse people, interests, and passions. But teachers will have to be the attractors. Don’t wait for the professors, politicians, or publishers.

Now when teachers ask me how and where they can start, I can, thankfully, say: Well, there’s finally a manual. This book is it.

James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Regents’ Professor, and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003; 2007).

| xiii →


This book would not have been possible without the support of many people. I would like to thank my dissertation chair, Christopher Shamburg, and the entire committee: Leonid Rabinovitz, Muriel Rand, and Rebecca Rufo-Tepper. I am also grateful to my series editors, Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, for their continued faith in my vision.

This journey would not have been possible without the support of The Tribe, my community of practice. I would like to express my gratitude to my new colleagues in the School of Teacher Education at my new home: The Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy Department at the University of Northern Colorado.

On a more personal note, I would like to thank my wife, Laura, for her patience throughout the duration of this research; my curious son, Spencer; and our playful dog, Lizzie. A special thank-you is extended to my parents, Gary and Judith Farber. And thanks to my wife’s parents, Virginia Fisher and Frank Fisher.

An early version of some paragraphs and sections, including Chapters 4, 5, and 6, appears on ProQuest Dissertation and Theses. All rights reserved.

| 1 →


Middle school teacher Steve Isaacs was the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2016. That year he was also New Jersey’s PBS Digital Innovator, and he became a Microsoft Innovation Expert. Isaacs has been twice invited to the White House, met with Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, and he helped to organize Minefaire, a Minecraft-themed convention. Peggy Sheehy is another transformational teacher-leader. In the past several years she has led keynote addresses in Sydney, Australia and Mumbai, India, and USA TODAY’s Greg Toppo devoted an entire chapter of his (2015) bestselling book The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter to her teaching. In her 6th grade humanities class, students learn by playing by the massive multiplayer online (MMO) video game World of Warcraft. Toronto-based English teacher Paul Darvasi is the more cerebral educator of the three, having authored several articles about his use of pervasive and serious games. In late 2016 he wrote Empathy, Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games Can Support Peace Education and Conflict Resolution for UNESCO’s Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education for Peace and Sustainable Development (MGIEP). The CBC Radio’s The Current, in Canada, highlighted Darvasi’s findings in a feature titled, Can Video Games Promote Empathy?, in March 2017. ← 1 | 2 →

Isaacs, Sheehy, and Darvasi are three teacher-leaders making international inroads to evangelize how and why games drive learning. In late 2015, I embedded myself into each of their classrooms. I discovered that each did quite a bit more than teach with games: they were also expert practitioners in an inner circle of a game-based learning community of practice, where members “have multiple levels of participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 98). Part of a group nicknamed “The Tribe,” they mentor and apprentice new members by openly sharing their best practice in game-based learning education.

So how did I select these teachers to study? I began by conducting theoretical sampling to guide me to their network. Theoretical sampling pertains “to conceptual and theoretical development of analysis; it is not about representing a population or increasing the statistical generalizability of your results” (Charmaz, 2014, pp. 198–199).

Initially, my research pertained to Isaacs, Sheehy, and Darvasi—participants in my doctoral dissertation. These three teachers were selected because they led keynote addresses at the Games in Education Symposium, a conference in upstate New York. The theoretical sampling was, therefore, completed vis-à-vis the conference committee’s vetting process. This book builds upon that research, expanding outwards into their community of practice.

In this book, The Tribe describes the teachers who read—and then apply in practice—scholarly research on game-based learning. They share best practice at academic conferences, as well as at teacher training workshops, and they lead online communities of practice. Each are also friends who support one another in an ever-changing educational system. This book is their story.

Created by Darvasi in July 2017, The Tribe has a Facebook Group. Being part of it helped broaden my scope of study. The following people’s insights helped make this book possible. Each was generous, freely sharing anecdotes and reflecting on experiences about game-based learning. Some are classroom teachers, while others are academics, researchers, and designers. All are thought-leaders in game-based learning communities of practice. Alphabetically, they are:

Adam Bellow—Cofounder of BreakoutEDU

Sande Chen—Writer and game designer; co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform (2005)

Mark Chen, part-time game developer, part-time lecturer, games scholar, and author of Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft (2011) ← 2 | 3 →

Dan Curcio—Special education science coordinator in New Jersey

Paul Darvasi—English and media studies teacher in Toronto, Canada

Seann Dikkers—Associate professor of education at Bethel University, Minnesota; author of Teachercraft: How Teachers Learn to Use Minecraft in their Classrooms (2015)

John Fallon—English teacher in Connecticut

Barry J. Fishman—Professor at the University of Michigan

C. Ross Flatt—Manager of programs at the Institute of Play

Zack Gilbert—Social studies teacher in Illinois; host of the EdGamer podcast

Lucas Gillispie—Director of academic and digital learning for Surry County Schools in North Carolina; co-author of the World of Warcraft in Schools curriculum

Kip Glazer—Learning technologist, and school administrator in California

Mark Grundel—5th grade teacher in New Jersey

Chris Haskell—Clinical assistant professor at Boise State University in Idaho

Carrie Ray-Hill—Director of content at iCivics

Aleksander Husøy—English teacher in Bergen, Norway

Glen Irvin—High school Spanish teacher in Minnesota

Steve Isaacs—Video game design and development teacher in New Jersey

Jeremiah (Remi) Kalir—Assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Denver


XVI, 238
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XVI, 238 pp., 12 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Matthew Farber (Author)

Matthew Farber, Ed.D. is Assistant Professor in the Technology, Innovation, and Pedagogy Program at the University of Northern Colorado. His research is at the intersection of teacher education, learning technologies, and game-based learning. Dr. Farber has been invited to the White House, and he has been interviewed about games and learning by NPR, Fox News Radio, USA TODAY, and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an Edutopia blogger, a Certified BrainPOP Educator, and he is in the iCivics Educator Network. His first book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning, Revised Edition features a foreword from USA TODAY's Greg Toppo. To learn more, visit: MatthewFarber.com.


Title: Game-Based Learning in Action