What We Play and Study: “Good” Games & Education

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Today I’m going to talk about the use of the word good, specifically when referring to video games. One trend I have noticed during my time studying video games and reading various texts regarding Game Studies and games in education is the use of good as a qualifier. Sometimes the term is a bit too exclusive, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

What is a good game?

In order to examine and potentially answer this question, I’m going to turn to an outside source. An exciting find from my constant search for sources was the Handbook of Research on Effective Electronic Gaming in Education. This three volume set was edited by Richard E. Ferdig and published in 2009 by IGI Global. While the work included is now eight years old, which could be a major caveat, the set contains many articles/chapters of interest, including chapters on the visual analysis of avatars and games in foreign language study.

One such piece, by Katrin Becker and James R. Parker, is titled “On Choosing Games and What Counts as a ‘Good’ Game” (Chapter 37). Becker and Parker set about to change the research landscape for Game Studies by pushing for a system by which to assess video games. Essentially, they want researchers and educators to provide critical rationale for the games they choose to work with:

…it is time to begin looking more closely at how we are choosing the games we study, the criteria we use for those studies, and how we support our claims about the suitability of the game for our purposes. (638)

I completely agree with this idea. In fact, I would extend it. While Becker and Parker are focused on the implications of game choice for studies and other research, I would argue that the same sentiment should hold true for educator’s using games in the classroom/as a part of class (I say that as an educator who used Minecraft in a composition course).

So let’s first talk about this idea of good in the context of Becker’s and Parker’s chapter. They propose using game reviews and lists, like ‘Top Games of 2016’, because these sources often reflect both “critical and commercial success” (636-37). These lists are our best bets because:

When it comes to resources that are primarily creative or artistic in nature, subjective measures are often the only ones we have. (637)

They mostly talk about good in terms of success, which they seem to measure by popularity, commercial success, and critical acclaim. Essentially, Becker and Parker want researchers to be accountable for their choices, and if researchers make claims about a game, such as X game is good for teaching students about the American Revolution, they should be able to back up those claims with actual proof and not just opinion. All of that is sound, at least to me.

Becker and Parker then go on to describe, in detail, a data fusion technique that will consistently assist researchers in selecting video games for their studies.


This all seems valuable to a certain point. Again, I feel inclined to state that the authors are primarily addressing video games being used for educational research/studies. My disappointment with some of the chapter stems from my wish that Becker and Parker had included video games being used in the classroom directly and from the fact that I view their perception of success as limited.

It is apparent that money talks. If a game makes millions of dollars overnight, and continues to do so for some time, it is a commercial success. However, there are plenty of video games, movies, and songs that reach commercial success that I wouldn’t consider good. But that brings us back to being subjective. The same can be said for a video game that is popular. For example, many people like Sleeping Dogs, but I’m not a fan. Does that mean it isn’t a good game? No. That’s part of the problem I see with relying on game reviews and “top 10/best of” lists. Sure, that is one way to gauge the popularity of video games, but it isn’t the only way.

Perhaps the major issue I take with Becker’s and Parker’s proposal is that they say next to nothing about the importance of how the video games would be used for the studies. I would argue that, in the classroom at least, the use of the game is even more important than the game’s popularity. For example, The Witcher 3, a game that I love dearly, made it to the top of many “best of” lists at the end of 2015. Let’s say I wanted to use the game with a composition course for the purpose of analyzing visual rhetoric and digital literacy. While the game is popular, made a ton of money, and was generally loved by the critics, it would not be the best choice because the game is an open-world RPG that could take players 80+ hours to complete.

I am all for being held accountable for my choices when it comes to subjects and materials in the classroom. Unfortunately, I don’t think the selection of video games can be neatly figured into the compilation of lists and game reviews. After all, some reviewers and critics have vastly different opinions. Assessing video games for educational use is complicated, and I can understand the attempt to create a universal system. I’m just not sure there can be one.

As a final point, I’d like to mention that Becker and Parker looked at papers from 2003-2006 to assess their “explanations of game subject choices” (638). Frankly, what they found was shocking:

Virtually all papers examined offer a description of the game(s) used. Fewer (37%) explained why this game meets the need of the study, and fewer still (15%) supported that explanation with citations. (639)

Clearly, at the time, there was a need for critical explanations for the selection of video games. I suspect that this has improved at least slightly but that there is still a lot of room for improvement.

What do you think? What criteria should be used? How would you go about selecting a video game for use in the classroom and then rationalize that choice?

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Becker, Katrin, and James R. Parker. “On Choosing Games and What Counts as a ‘Good’ Game.” Handbook of Research on Effective Electronic Gaming in Education, edited by Richard E. Ferdig, vol. 2, IGI Global, 2009, pp. 636-651.

2 thoughts on “What We Play and Study: “Good” Games & Education

  1. I totally agree with the fact that a game’s critical and/or commercial success is far less important than its intended use or function in a lesson or assignment sequence. I always find parallels when looking at how games are currently being considered for use in the college classroom and how films once went through the same process, and I see it here, too. When film programs were first starting up, many departments felt they needed to define what a ‘good’ film was and how artistically valuable it was so that their use of it seemed somehow more legitimate to skeptics that felt film had no place in most university courses. Not surprisingly, many (but not all) instructors who use film have gotten away from that way of thinking, because sometimes the lesson you want to teach can best be found in a B movie or box office flop (like The Wizard of Oz).

    So I think the questions that need to be answered are less “what is a good game and how can I use it in the classroom?” and more “what am I trying to highlight or demonstrate and what games best exemplify that, regardless of ‘quality’?” That’s especially important now, given how many low quality browser and mobile games there are. They might be considered ‘bad,’ but they are easy to access and they probably do lots of interesting/problematic things with social constructs, game design, race, sexuality, etc., making them better choices for classroom use than big budget, AAA games.

    1. I wondered if there were any parallels between the beginnings of film and game studies. A certain amount of hesitation on the part of educators and even administrators seems appropriate, which is partly why I think we should be having conversations regarding assessment more often. And with video games in the classroom, access is huge!

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