Thursday and Friday last week, I was at the ECGBL20 conference (The European Conference on Game-Based Learning 2020). Travel time: 1 minute from the living room to my office where I sat on a good chair and connected to Zoom. Virtual conferences remove some of the nicer aspects of traveling to a conference: discovering a new city, spending time with colleagues, and networking with academics from the same field. On the other hand, being able to attend a conference and still delivering your child to the pre-school is luxury. Enough about the circumstances, let’s talk shop.

Thursday Keynote

The conference opened with a keynote by Nicola Whitton (Durham University, UK). I recently discovered her work on playfulness by reading the article ‘Playful learning: tools, techniques, and tactics’ (Whitton, 2018). Her ideas about play and playful learning are quite similar from those I developed in my PhD thesis. However, my thesis was on gamification, which is one of Whitton’s pet peeves. Long story short: I think it would be interesting to discuss what we both put behind the umbrella gamification, as I’m quite certain we would agree about what I think of as ‘bad gamification’ or market gamification in opposition to playful learning.

Her other pet peeve is serious game. I quite liked how she phrased why she did not like this concept: Serious games imply that games have to be serious to have value. This is so on point; I can only agree. Whitton started her talk by telling the audience not to use games for learning. Instead, she wanted us to focus on play. The tension between game and play has always been central in my own understanding of the field, so I was pleased to hear such an opening. However, games were still a major part of her talk. This diagram sums up the different aspects of games according to Whitton:

From Whitton, N. (2018). Playful learning: Tools, techniques, and tactics. Research in Learning Technology, 26. Reproduced from my notes during the talk, as I forgot to take a screenshot.

Games are safe places where one can try out things and be people we usually cannot be in real life. Whitton develops this idea of safe place by using the concept of magic circle, first created by Huizinga (1938) and then taken up by game designers, e.g. Salen & Zimmerman (2004). The magic circle is the space in which play happens. Also, according to Whitton where learning happens. Its main characteristics are freedom to fail, intrinsic motivation, and lusory attitude. This last concept was developed by Suits (1978) and comprise the willingness to accept the constraints of the game, and within Whitton’s analogy, the constraints of learning.

The importance of failure was central in many presentations in the conference. Nicola Whitton also expressed that we learn from failure. When failure is feared, we do not take risks, so we do not try things. Finally, I enjoyed her point about playfulness being political. Games and play are not about doing something, but the attitude and values we bring to it: it is a political act! This very important point can also be joined by the idea of democracy as being part of games through the mediation of the game space: players need to agree.

I will not review every session here, as that would just take too much space and time. Instead, I am going to present some ideas from two sessions: Virtual reality and Escape games.

Session ‘Virtual reality’ (Chair: Moritz Philip Recke)

This session about virtual reality, had very little VR in it. Only two presentations talked about VR/AR games for learning. However, there were many interesting points:

  • Naoise Collins (Technological University Dublin) presented a project where language learners were immersed in a VR game to learn vocabulary, but most importantly increase motivation and confidence, and decrease social anxiety. If the study did not find any conclusive effect of the VR game on social anxiety, it did find an increase in the ideal L2-self, using Dörnyei’s L2 motivational self-system, and an increase in vocabulary retention.
  • Another study used Co-Spaces to develop students’ digital literacy. Students would design VR/AR games using the editor. During the design process, the study found that all the points from the Danish national curriculum for digital literacy had been addressed. (Charlotte Weitze, Digital & Creative Learning Lab, Helsingør)
  • Tobias Staaby (University of Bergen) presented his PhD study about the use of the video game The Walking Dead in ethics classes in Norwegian high schools. His main lens to look at the teaching and learning situation is dialogic teaching, using the tool of dialogic game-oriented learning space. Staaby reminded the audience in his presentation that the game is not effective in and by itself; it needs to be used in a meaningful manner. According to Staaby, when using games in dialogic teaching, the game is pulled as a resource in the dialogic space.
The GTDT model (Games as Tools for Dialogic Learning) from Arnseth et al. (2018) as presented by Tobias Staaby.
  • Two master students from SDU in Denmark presented their typology for designers on movement-based design methods. Their point about movement and embodiment being a crucial part of play was a nice reminder. (Rasmus Andersen & Søren Lekbo)

Mini track on Escape games (Chair: Panagiotis Fotaris)

I was looking forward to attending this mini track on Escape Games for learning as I am currently working on a research project on digital escape rooms. The presentations were interesting and included a variety of examples on the use of escape games for learners of different ages and subjects: from STEM to disaster preparedness. However, I feel that these presentations were only that: examples of use. I missed a more theoretically anchored discussion about escape games for learning. It might be that the field is still a bit too young and needs first to gather examples before starting a deeper reflection. As for this session, the most theoretical element offered was a definition of escape rooms cited from Nicholson (2015) in Zoi Karageorgiou’s presentation (Hellenic Open University):

“Escape rooms are live-action games that: engage, stimulate critical thinking and problem-solving skills, activate team spirit, and give each participant the “flow” feeling and satisfaction.”

Friday Keynote

On Friday, Alex Moseley (University of Leicester, UK) had a keynote entitled ‘Playful learning: teaching & researching’. It is interesting to see that a conference on game-based learning has chosen to have two keynotes on play and playfulness. That is a direction I am glad the field is taking.

In Moseley’s keynote, the idea of play as creating an open space to explore and experiment came back. This is a very important characteristic of play as Nicola Whitton explained using the concept of the magic circle. In his talk Moseley mentioned that play can be as simple as adding a narrative to a situation. Indeed, simple narratives can draw people in much more than giving them a worksheet.

Slide from Moseley’s keynote on Play as a safety space, quotes from Flanagan (2009).

Moseley described playful learning as moving the teacher from a role of teacher-in-front-of-the-room to the role of facilitator. This change also means that students will work in a different way. Playful learning means creating a space for students to come to the answer on their own (and here not meaning alone, but not entirely directed by the teacher).

An idea I really liked from his talk was the fact that playfulness is an approach that makes us stop, think wider, explore. In doing so, playfulness stops us from going down the same approaches. Moseley used as an example his university’s board meetings and how a straighter way of doing things is having a committee meet up and make a decision. This is the easiest and most often used approach to decision-making in universities. However, Moseley continued, this approach will always bring the same answers. If the board had chosen a more playful way, a way full of constraint and obstacles, the answer would have been different and, according to Moseley, more adapted to the context, in other words a better decision.

Playfulness at the conference?

If the virtual environment stopped presenters and attendees to play with balloons, dice or other playful objects during the talks, there were some attempts at playful approaches. Both Nicola Whitton and Alex Moseley used icebreakers in the form of innocuous questions: e.g., where would you take me for a coffee, or tell me how you are feeling right now. Moseley also asked participants to partake in a small game by looking around them and selecting a playful object. At the end of his talk, participants showed the objects and some got to explain why they chose them. In addition, many participants had playful backgrounds: the award of the best background has to go to Daisy Abbot (The Glasgow School of Art, UK) for placing herself inside the Tardis.


  • Arnseth, H. C., Hanghøj, T., & Silseth, K. (2018). Games as Tools for Dialogic Teaching and Learning. In Games and Education: Designs in and for Learning (pp. 123–139). Brill | Sense.
  • Huizinga, J. (1949). Homo ludens (Vol. 3). Taylor & Francis.
  • Nicholson, S. (2015). Peeking behind the locked door: A survey of escape room facilities. White paper available at
  • Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press.
  • Suits, B. (2014). The Grasshopper-: Games, Life and Utopia. Broadview Press.
  • Whitton, N. (2014). Digital games and learning: Research and theory. Routledge.
  • Whitton, N. (2018). Playful learning: Tools, techniques, and tactics. Research in Learning Technology, 26.

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