game design & learning, instructional design

Article Review: “Good Game: On the Limitations of Puzzles and Possibilities for Gameful Learning”

Welcome to “Article Review”, where I put on my scholarly cap and robes to give an academic article its due in critical analysis.

This week’s article: 

“Good Game: On the Limitations of Puzzles and Possibilities for Gameful Learning” by Jeremiah Kalir

I selected this reading for analysis because – as the conclusion to a thematic collection of essays on gaming and education – it touched on several concepts that were new to me and it took a forward-facing perspective that I found useful for orienting myself to the field and its potential impacts. Kalir re-emphasizes the key themes of Teacher Pioneers in a two-part examination of 1) our current understanding of how – and why – educators can function as game designers, and 2) the possibilities these educators-as-game-designers could unlock, possibilities that have the potential to reimagine and even rewrite traditional schooling.

I found Kalir’s description of “gameful learning” eye-opening, particularly when placed in contrast to the predominant formal educational style that Kalir refers to as “puzzle learning.” Puzzles – scripted entities with no replay value, a single set of answers, and a distant creator who judges in a polarized vacuum of right-or-wrong – perfectly capture the claustrophobic and impersonal bureaucracy that traditional schooling can slide into. Games, by contrast, carry with them an immense sense of potential: by granting playfulness, agency, and the ability to design to both teachers and their students, what educational opportunities could be realized? It’s an invigorating question, particularly in light of the way teachers have been increasing relegated to the role of maintenance workers, automatons in service to the Great Puzzle otherwise known as standardized testing.

A second concept I found equally intriguing was the relationship of technology and social context as inseparable co-creators. I am familiar with the problematic biases and blind spots technology creators can subconsciously introduce into their creations, as well as the impact of a person’s social context on the manner in which they engage with a piece of technology, but it hadn’t occurred to me to extrapolate both these issues to the classroom. Nor had I considered the flip side: how technology and social context could mix in a classroom for the better. I find the prospect of algorithms in the classroom deeply upsetting (Kalir touches on several reasons why, particularly the reduction of performance to limited and specific measurables, the perceived authority and infallibility of the algorithm, and the infiltration of Big Data and its many potential fiscal/political biases.) It felt empowering to read that educators must “critically question how games relate to, possibly exacerbate, or usefully subvert enduring school inequities and social practices” (365). With practiced awareness, intentional experimentation, and critical discourse, educators just may be able to angle the technological-social connection to playfully benefit rather than soullessly categorize their students.

Kalir closes by summarizing our challenge as educators going forward: we must put aside the puzzles, put aside the faddish, and investigate how we can use games and corresponding alternative methods of schooling to reimagine education in a co-productive, playful model more suited to the 21st century. I feel like this could be a rallying cry-to-arms for forward-looking educators.

After reading the issues, discoveries, and possibilities raised in this Conclusion, it is impossible not to thrill at the prospect of experimenting with gameful learning. There is so much we educators can learn from it!



Kalir, J. (2016.) Conclusion: Good Game: On the Limitations of Puzzles and Possibilities for Gameful Learning. In C. C. Williams (ed.), Teacher Pioneers: Visions From the Edge of the Map. (pp. 359-371). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon.

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