In the spirit of Saldaña and Omasta’s (2018) advice that researchers open with “where they’re coming from” (p. 142), I will begin by addressing my positionality as it relates to the subject of teaching and board games: I have been teaching high school English and drama courses since 1998, and I have been avidly collecting tokens, drawing cards, and placing meeples (small, wooden representations of a player’s workers) as a board gamer since 2004. By 2010, in an effort to deepen my students’ connection to literature, I blended my vocation and my hobby into one (hopefully) synergistic deck and gave the whole thing a good shuffle.

That same year, my sophomores were a quiet lot, and I found student-driven discourse difficult to promote and sustain. In the silence, I battled the temptation to revert to a teacher-driven classroom, the sort of transactional, deadening environment that Freire (2000) diagnosed as suffering from “narration sickness” (p. 71). We’d started Bradbury’s (1953/2003) Fahrenheit 451, wherein our protagonist, Guy Montag, is surrounded by friends and co-workers who serve the same dreary social system, and all is well until he defies that near-future society’s rules. In that moment, like other characters from dystopian literature, Montag risks treachery from allies—even loved ones—any one of whom might betray him for a meager reward or to maintain the dismal status quo.

That social conflict was all well and good to lecture about. To tell students. But I wanted my sophomores to feel a sense of that tension, that paranoia. I wanted them to connect, on some empathic level, to what Montag might have felt after reading an illegal poem aloud to his wife’s guests. Whose loyalties would shift? Which guest would place a call to the firemen who would come roaring to Montag’s house to unfurl serpentine hoses and incinerate his house in streams of flaming kerosene? (As it turns out, it was his own wife, Mildred.)

Operating on the assumption that we are able to feel for other people—and even characters—when we have been in similar circumstances, I played a game with my students called The Resistance (Eskridge, 2009). In this science-fiction-themed game, players become activists who are attempting to take down an evil mega-corporation that rules their futuristic world. The mechanics are extraordinarily simple, and the game would be easily winnable except for a simple twist: Some of the players secretly work for the mega-corporation. So, as players move through a series of five missions, those traitorous players (referred to as “spies” in the rules) can choose to sabotage any mission in which they’re selected to participate. Given that the non-spy players have no idea which of their fellow players are trying to succeed at the mission and which are trying to ruin their best-laid plans, they need to be extraordinarily careful about who they vote to participate in missions. Hence, that class of quiet, unengaged students and I had an opportunity to experience what it feels like to question whether the people around us are as loyal as we would like to believe and to feel the ensuing sense of frightful, dystopian paranoia.

After this and experiences such as playing Snake Oil (Ochs, 2010) in my public speaking class, I became fascinated with game-based learning, which can be defined as “game play with defined learning outcomes” (Plass et al., 2016, p. 259). I believed that I was providing my students with interesting experiences, opportunities to engage with my lessons, and with chances to meaningfully and beneficially interact with each other (Thorgersen, 2022), but I had no idea as to how, if at all, other middle and high school teachers might use board and card games, or designs derived thereof, in their classrooms—after all, none of the other teachers in my school hustled to their classes with board games tucked among their textbooks.

Thus, the purpose of this study is to document the experiences of teachers of grades 7-12 who use analog game-based learning, by which I mean board games, card games, or design elements derived from games that do not rely on electricity or software, in their classrooms. While there’s a growing body of research available to support the value of game design in the classroom (Schrier, 2014), much of that body of evidence focuses on gamification, defined by Deterding, et al. (2011) as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” (p. 10), which is a separate discussion not investigated in this study.

            Specifically, I posed two main research questions:

  1. Why do secondary educators make use of analog board and card games in their classrooms?
  2. What, if any, are secondary educators’ perceived opportunities in making use of board and card games in their classrooms?

Literature Review

If the word “gaming” brings to mind consoles and computers, then it may be useful to attach the term “analog” when discussing board and card games. Despite the need for such a distinction, researchers see common ground between digital and analog gaming in that both are worthy of exploring as educational tools; Berland and Lee (2011) looked to Gee’s (2003) explorations on the opportunities offered by video games and argued that “the same holds true … for contemporary board games…” (p. 80). Along those lines, the American Library Association (n.d.) presented a clear stance on the usefulness of games in learning environments: “Games provide stories and information, presented in a new format. [They] encourage critical thinking and problem solving and accomplish objectives of curriculum frameworks….”

This is not to say that all analog games (or video games, for that matter) are of equal quality or use in learning environments. Nicholson (2011) noted effective and ineffective ways to use classrooms for educational purposes:

One of the great failings in educational game design is a focus on the question-and-answer model of gameplay. This type of educational game has players engage in some sort of time-wasting activity like rolling a die and moving, and then the focus of the game, the activity of answering a question, is triggered. Thousands of educational games use this roll-and-move model for gameplay inspired by the popularity of Trivial Pursuit. Many librarians and educators creating games for their patrons and students revert to this question-asking model because it is so familiar. (p. 61)

Like librarians and educators, researchers examine the role of games “that are vibrant, motivating, and provide opportunities for deep engagement with the material” (Nicholson, 2011, p. 61) through a variety of lenses. Berland and Lee (2011), for instance, used the board game Pandemic (Leacock, 2007), a strategic and cooperative game, to observe computational thinking in players, noting that cooperative games may help researchers to observe participants’ thoughts (as manifested in players’ discussions) because teamwork requires open communication, whereas competitive games often require that players avoid overtly communicating their plans to others. Other researchers such as Garcia (2019) looked to the kinesthetic qualities of analog games. While Garcia’s work adhered specifically to tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, the same principles of materiality and spatiality exist in board games; after all, many board games have at least as many tokens, maps, and manipulatives as RPGs, and players are typically situated around similar tables. Garcia found that continued examination of these in-person experiences “allows for a new lens for understanding literacies in other nondigital contexts for future research” (p. 24). As a third example, Belova and Zowada’s (2020) work involved the creation of a chemistry-themed game modeled after a popular German party game; they documented the experiences of science teachers-in-training as the teachers played their game and presented several conclusions, two of which are particularly relevant here: that their customized game aligned with and supported the curricular needs of their participants, and that playing the game provided their participants an exciting, efficient, and useful method for condensing and learning information.        

While the aforementioned literature on the subject of analog game-based learning suggests significant potential for productive use in teaching and learning environments, it is vital to remember that practitioners—namely, the teachers in the classrooms—are not always aware of such research, nor are they necessarily cognizant of foundational texts on the subject of games and learning. Thus, it becomes important that we shift our lens and explore ways in which teachers have come to use game-based learning as part of their lesson plans and why, if at all, they believe analog gameplay benefits their students.

Positionality and Theoretical Framework

In studying game-based learning, I stand apart from Caillois’s (1961) claim that one of the defining qualities of games is that they are “unproductive” (p. 10). Instead, I am guided primarily by, and feel indebted to, the work of two scholars: James Paul Gee and Clark C. Abt. Readers of this study who wish to learn more about games as learning tools would benefit greatly by reading their works. Gee (2003) asserted that good game design offers teachers insights into lesson planning and presents students opportunities to learn, to experiment with diminished risk, and to partake in social groups centered on a mutual interest in enjoying games. On the note of enjoying games, Abt (1987) gave a sort of license to teachers—certainly, to this teacher—to use games as instructional tools in the classroom: “If an activity having good educational results can offer, in addition, immediate emotional satisfaction to the participants, it is an ideal instructional method, motivating and rewarding learning as well as facilitating it” (p. 9-10).

On the matter of theoretical frameworks for game-based learning, Plass et al. (2016) took the position that developing such a model is difficult, in part due to the variety of learning models that can be observed in games. Caillois (1961) similarly observed that “The world of games is so varied and complex that there are numerous ways of studying it” (p. 161), noting categories including pedagogy. This study operates on the assumption that “many of the concepts that are important in the context of games, such as motivation, have aspects relating to different theoretical foundations—cognitive, affective, motivational, and sociocultural” (Plass et al., 2016, p. 258) and adheres closely to the paradigm of social constructivism in that, through the interview process described below, I intend to “rely as much as possible on the participants’ views of the situation” (Creswell & Poth, 2018, p. 24).

For this study, however, I am primarily interested in understanding teachers’ perceived opportunities in using analog games in the classroom, with a focus on engagement and motivation. To accomplish this, I looked primarily at the work of Ryan and Deci (2000) in Self-Determination Theory and then to Csikszentmihalyi (1991) in the theory of Flow.

Self-Determination Theory

A central idea of Ryan and Deci’s (2000) Self-Determination Theory is that all humans are by nature inclined to learn new things and to develop new skills. However, they are helped or hindered in this inborn pursuit by three factors: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. Autonomy refers to an individual’s sense of freedom and agency while learning. Competence speaks to the balance between an activity being too easy (and therefore boring) and too difficult (and therefore frustrating). In other words, when competence serves as a positive motivating force in learning, according to Ryan and Deci, the task at hand is experienced by the learner as challenging but solvable. Finally, relatedness refers to the learner’s sense of support and belonging in the learning space, which arises from interactions with the teacher and with other learners.

Additionally, Ryan and Deci (2020) recognized both extrinsic and intrinsic forms of motivation. The less desirable of the two, extrinsic, can be found outside of the learner’s personhood. Rather than having an innate desire to accomplish or to understand, for example, a learner who is extrinsically motivated might be working toward a good grade for the course, or might need a strong transcript for future college applications and therefore might take on the responsibilities of mastering subject matter in order to enjoy future rewards. On the other hand, the authors esteemed intrinsic motivation, calling it the quality that “reflects the positive potential of human nature” (p. 70) and promotes our drives toward discovery and self-advancement. They regarded intrinsic motivation as inherent to humans from birth and as a quality that promotes healthiness and happiness in people. Furthermore, intrinsic motivation is reinforced by students’ senses of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom. Unfortunately, this kind of motivation is fragile, in need of support, and may be damaged by “threats, deadlines, directives, pressured evaluations, and imposed goals” (p. 70), which may be easily regarded as common to school experiences such as due-dates and unit tests.

Motivating students to learn is a constant challenge (Hardré, 2008), yet studies show that students who feel in control of their learning, for instance, tend to be more motivated (Portnoy, 2000). Still, words like “motivation” are best clarified for the purposes of research, and Self-Determination Theory helped me ground discussions of motivation in the classroom by offering three clear categories—autonomy, competence, and relatedness—for coding participants’ responses in interviews and by helping me perceive participants’ responses as either speaking to the goal of motivating students with intrinsic or extrinsic rewards.

Flow Theory

Whereas Ryan and Deci (2000) addressed the common pull between motivation and amotivation, Csikszentmihalyi (1991) examined a phenomenon experienced in truly exhilarating moments of productivity. Flow is a positive sense of intense focus that occurs when we are so deeply involved with our work that we lose, for instance, our sense of time. We become powerfully attentive as we work in this state, whether we are writing, or painting, or practicing music, and we are often astounded to discover that hours have passed since we started and that, at least in my personal experiences, I should have eaten lunch a long time ago. Csikszentmihalyi described these experiences as “the best moments” that often happen “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (p. 3) and identified several factors that can engender the flow state, such as clear goals, immediate feedback, a sense of freedom from failure, and a balance between challenge and skills. Flow Theory has been applied to work environments (cf. Kloep et al., 2023; Mainemelis & Dionysiou, 2015) and, more relevant to this study, to educational settings (cf. Schweinle et al., 2009; Shernoff et al., 2003). Several studies have explored the relationship between flow theory and the use of games (cf. Admiraal et al., 2011; Hamari et al., 2016; Kiili, 2005). One study found a favorable relationship between the use of games as learning tools and Flow Theory and claimed that the experience was especially helpful for lower-achieving students (Wen et al., 2019). I regard my own inclusion of Flow Theory as aspirational since flow is described by Csikszentmihalyi as an “optimal experience” (p. 3); while one might observe varying levels of motivation or amotivation, flow is found only in peak moments, and I accepted at the outset of this research that I may not hear any accounts of such an extraordinary event.

In preparing for this study, I observed commonalities between these two theories. As an example of the close relationship between the theories, Shernoff et al. (2003) suggested that educators could improve their students’ chances of enjoying flow experiences by increasing students’ feelings of autonomy and by monitoring levels of challenge in their students’ tasks—terms directly used by Deci and Ryan (2000). On that note, I also looked to Gee’s (2003) work in studying video games to develop my theoretical model and there, too, found common ground. For instance, what Ryan and Deci regard as competence, Csikszentmihalyi (1991) similarly describes as the point at which a challenge is neither too overwhelming nor underwhelming, while Gee wrote that “success without effort is not rewarding; and effort with little skill is equally unrewarding” (p. 58). In short, I acknowledged three voices singing the same song, often in striking harmony.

I began this study with a framework that incorporated the relationship between motivation and flow. As seen in Figure 1, the three qualities of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness influence whether students are motivated or amotivated, while the pinnacle experience known as flow is achievable when learners are free to explore, comfortable in their surroundings, and engaged in tasks they find challenging but surmountable.

Figure 1

A merging of Self-Determination Theory and Flow Theory.

Guided by this framework, my goal was to arrive at the game table, so to speak, with teachers who have stories to share about their experiences using analog games in the classroom, with no further assumptions beyond the idea that there may be much to gain from game-based learning, and that together, researcher and educator are staring at an empty board and wondering how best to place the pieces.

Design and Method

Creswell and Poth (2018) wrote that qualitative research is best employed when variables cannot be assessed straightforwardly and when information “can only be established by talking directly with people, going to their homes or places of work, and allowing them to tell the stories unencumbered by what we expect to find or what we have read in the literature” (p. 45). Neither Creswell nor Poth could have accounted for the global pandemic known as COVID-19, which, at the time of this writing, has been adding challenges to visitations of home and work for several years. In order to maintain a safe study environment for participants and myself, and because many of the participants live and work in various locations across the United States, I made use of Zoom to videoconference with and record participants. I also used the transcription app Otter, which operated through my iPhone.

I began my search for participants using purposive sampling as such a yield would be “most likely to provide insight into the phenomenon being investigated due to their position, experience, and/or identity markers…” (Saldaña & Omasta, 2018, p. 96). I created a forum post on the website inviting teachers of grades 7-12 who use card or board games in their classrooms to share their experiences with me. Secondary-level teachers of any subject were welcome to join; I did not focus this study on one particular subject, as my intention was to explore the use of games in secondary classrooms and not to focus specifically on, say, math classes. I copied the invitation post and shared it to two Facebook-based groups: “Game-based Learning, Gamification, and Games in Education (BGE Games)” and “The Dice Tower,” the latter of which is the Facebook site for a popular board gaming website, podcast, and YouTube channel, The Dice Tower (Vasel, 2005-present).

Of those who responded, six became participants in this study (all names are pseudonyms) based on their alignment with the sampling criteria. Four educators were excluded because they taught primary classes; one was excluded because he was a librarian and did not teach in a classroom setting; and a final educator was excluded because she taught only on the college level. Although the participant known as Grace, who appears in the table below, primarily teaches college, I included her because she also works in high school classrooms and has used games in that setting.

To provide helpful information about these participants in a logical and organized manner (Cloutier & Ravasi, 2021), responses to basic questions that served as opening interview questions (Saldaña & Omasta, 2018) are shown in Table 1:

Table 1

NameAgeYears in TeachingDescription of SchoolLocationSubject(s) TaughtGrades Taught
Charles5230Rural, PublicNevadaSocial Studies7-12
Bethany4516Suburban, PublicMissouriGifted/Game Design7-8
Zane5433Suburban, PublicTexasSocial Studies (AP Courses)10-12
Grace5424University/ Push-in to local schoolsIllinoisWorld HistoryVarious/ College Students
Pierce5525Suburban, PublicNevadaSciences9-12
Edward3310International and Push-in to local schoolsChina, South Korea, Taiwan, U.S. (California)Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL)7-8
Jason         3510Suburban, PublicNew YorkEnglish, Theater10-12
Neil4615Suburban, PublicNew YorkMath7-8
Characteristics of Teachers Responding to Invitation to Join This Study; Jason and Neil Indicate Teachers Selected Through Convenience Sampling

After exhausting the list of participants who had responded to my forum postings, I employed convenience sampling, described as “the easiest but most risky” (Saldaña & Omasta, 2018, p. 96) sampling method, by inviting two high school teachers with whom I’ve played board games in my personal time to participate in the study. Despite the risk of interviewing individuals already known to me, I determined that their information, which was provided in Zoom interviews conducted as detailed above, was valuable in that my list of participants lacked both an English and drama teacher as well as a math teacher. These participants (labeled with pseudonyms) helped round out the breadth of the research and are included as Jason and Neil.

Together, these eight interviews took place over three weeks with videoconferencing meeting times agreed upon based on the participants’ needs. Interviews were semi-structured, which afforded me the ability to prepare a series of predetermined questions as well as the opportunity to follow up whenever participants’ responses “spark[ed] a new line of inquiry in the researcher’s mind” (Saldaña & Omasta, 2018, p. 92). Each interview lasted approximately 40 to 70 minutes. Opening questions included basic information such as participants’ ages, years in the field of education, and subjects taught, as recorded in Table 1, as well as questions regarding their own favorite board or card games and the names of games the participants had played in class. From there, I asked about the kinds of experiences the participants had using games in class and why they had decided to incorporate analog games in their lessons. I was careful not to ask leading questions that might harm my data (Cairns-Lee et al., 2022), so I did not make reference to motivation or flow; one can imagine an interviewer asking whether a teacher’s students ever got into a flow, for instance, and how readily a teacher might respond in the affirmative. Rather, I asked about intentions and observed outcomes and, overall, worked to listen more and speak less (Creswell & Poth, 2018).

Data Analysis

Belotto (2018) noted the challenges of data analysis with a close eye on the coding process and ultimately determined that structural coding, by which researchers conduct their analyses based on terms found in their research questions, provided a firm foundation and helped assure that his efforts to analyze the data adhered closely to his original inquiry. With that sound reasoning, I began with structural coding and specifically sought data related to perceived benefits of using analog games in the classroom, with a particular focus on participants’ mentions of motivations, rewards, or manifestations of flow, which would include the feeling that time move very quickly and that students were deeply and exclusively focused on their work. Given the broader, exploratory nature of this study, however, I sought alternatives. Creswell and Poth (2018) recommended that researchers begin with a brief list of codes and that they ultimately consider whether the codes employed might merge as the researcher begins to identify themes. In that light, and in addition to structural coding, I coded for strategies. Additionally, I employed process coding, which Saldaña and Omasta (2018) define as “the method to identify forms of participant action, reaction, and interaction as suggested by the data” (p. 126), which addressed the first research question about the ways in which teachers use analog games. From here, given Creswell and Poth’s (2018) concern for an over-reliance on predetermined coding strategies insofar as they “serve to limit the analysis to the prefigured codes” (p.193), I permitted myself to accept any emergent codes as they might appear in the interviews.


Through the aforementioned codes and the arranging of data “into large clusters of ideas” (Creswell & Poth, 2018, p. 321), two dominant themes emerged; the first, divided into sub-themes, responded to the research questions, while the second surfaced as teachers shared the modes in which they use analog games in the classrooms.

Theme One: Games as Tools for Motivating and Engaging Students

The first theme was drawn from areas in the semi-structured interviews where participants focused on enticing students to work and connect with the material to be covered in the teachers’ respective lessons. In some cases (such as fostering a sense of safety in the learning environment), engaging students was part of a long-term strategy. In other instances, participants saw the game itself as the motivational tool to heighten students’ interest in the topics and activities.

Games and the Learner’s Sense of Security

One challenge that emerged was the presence of students who were hesitant to play.  In some situations, teachers observed students’ apprehension due to the possibility of providing wrong answers in class. “So, students get afraid,” Grace the history teacher said, “because they don’t know what the right answer is. And they’re used to being told the right answer. And they’re scared of being wrong because they’ve been punished for being wrong … since second or third grade through graduation.” Grace saw hesitancy in game-based learning as an extension of prior experiences; she also saw a possible benefit for urging the learners forward in her game-based curriculum:

Right, so I got to teach them to be comfortable with being wrong and teach them to be comfortable with mistakes. And then the question is what do you do with the mistake? Like, oh, you know, we tried to have a negotiation with the Mongols and they freaking killed everybody but me. Alright? Why, then, that’s the place to begin to learn something new.

In other instances, the social, performative nature of some games caused inhibitions in learners. Jason the English and drama teacher said that he rarely plays games with his sophomore Honors English class even when teaching them a play, “because they don’t want to be in the scene; they don’t want to participate…. They don’t want to step up and do something like that. They are more content to just kind of sit.” The teachers had a variety of responses to these kinds of experiences. Charles the history teacher simply required that students participate, adding that it’s “not an option” to sit out of his activities. Zane, another history teacher, reported that he never had an entire class refuse to participate in game-based learning but that he also offers extra credit for playing his prepared games. As far as hesitant students go, Zane said he gives students particular, individualized tasks and tries to fit those tasks to the students. “There are things you have to do,” Zane said of the students’ tasks. “There is a participation grade … you have a certain job, so that job needs to get done….” In this last example, while Zane attempted to create a safe environment for his students by offering them customized tasks, I would ask the reader to note Zane’s use of an extrinsic motivator—the participation grade—as a means of engaging hesitant students.

It may be relevant to add here that some teachers noted improvements in student performance among those hesitant students who became engaged in the lesson. Edward the TEFL teacher recalled a normally non-talkative student who grew from the challenge. The student, who participated in the class’s social game, became “the leader in that room,” Edward said, and began to use strong conversation skills in front of the class. “That right there kind of shows me that there’s the motivation to speak that wasn’t there in a normal class setting.” Jason expressed a similar experience, though he was sure to tailor shy students’ roles so that they would be more comfortable. These roles included managing the game’s progress or scoring systems. Thus, in creating individualized tasks for students, Jason felt he had succeeded in building intrinsic motivation to participate in his lesson.

Finding Value in Gameplay

Neil lamented that his students don’t always want to learn his mathematics curriculum and said that through games, students can be manipulated into participating in the lesson. Similarly, in his history courses, Charles also observed lower levels of enthusiasm for the subject matter and even for some games choices in his subject area. “You’re teaching 16-17 year-olds who don’t give a shit about government, government games,” Charles said. “You got to make sure there’s something that they’re going to dig….” Pierce the science teacher made a comparable comment: “I derive a lot of enjoyment watching the kids having fun. And when they were doing that, they were learning. They weren’t even realizing.” In these situations, teachers encountered situations in which students were amotivated to learn and found that, barring some of Charles’s students, games were effective tools in selling lessons. Of course, these reports, while noteworthy as evidence of the usefulness of games as motivating tools, are far cries from what Csikszentmihalyi (1991) would regard as flow experiences, since the students were characterized as neither fully, voluntarily engaged nor intrinsically motivated.

Despite the usefulness of games as motivators, some teachers expressed the need to defend their use of games as learning tools. In one instance, Charles shared that he has, on some occasions, felt that he had to rationalize his choice to use games to his students. “Sometimes I find that I sort of have to sell it more than a traditional lesson,” he said. “And sometimes, if you don’t have a group that can buy into [learning through gameplay] and feel like, ‘Oh, we’re having fun, but it’s legitimate learning,’ it’s actually a harder sell.” In such times, Charles hoped to persuade his classes that his lesson plan was worthy of their time: “In my mind, I’m like, ‘Guys, why don’t you just have a blast? This is totally relevant, and it’s going to be fun.’” Indeed, one teacher defended his choices to me during our interview, even though I, as a researcher and practitioner with admitted interest in using games in classrooms, had not challenged his decisions; Jason the English and drama teacher described analog gameplay as a useful option that helped accomplish his goals, though he added, “It just happens to also be fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Several teachers looked to a non-curricular reason to incorporate game-based learning: the social benefit to their learners. Pierce the science teacher said that it “was always good” to get kids speaking with one another, adding that games “can translate to all kinds of skills that we use, like how to interact with people, how to communicate,” as well as learning how to win and lose. Bethany claimed that her gifted and talented students benefit from having an occasional social outlet and that providing them “an intellectual challenge that’s also recreational activity is huge.” In his drama courses, Jason admitted that not all of his games are especially tied to the curriculum. However, he added, there’s “something to be said for the social aspect, for building relationships with other students, and for establishing a classroom environment that you hope is warm and friendly.” In these discussions, one might hear notes of Ryan and Deci’s (2000) concept of relatedness—that people are more likely to be motivated in places where they feel safe and connected to the people around them, namely teachers and fellow students. Thus, the use of games for some of these teachers was less about exploring curricular content and more about creating a favorable environment.

The Freedom to Play and Learn

Participants regarded gameplay as an opportunity to offer students a free space in which to experiment while learning. Bethany the Gifted and Talented teacher said, “Basically, what we look for is how we can give them creative problems to solve where they have a lot of autonomy and ownership over the end product, where they have a lot of choices….” Some teachers, such as Pierce the science teacher, were deeply critical of the restrictive nature of teacher-centered instruction and spoke in favor of offering as much freedom as possible to learners. Pierce found that exploration during game-based learning helped students learn complex subjects such as evolution. He recalled asking students to share what they were thinking after he led his class in a play of Evolution (Crapuchettes et al., 2014), a game in which players play cards to evolve their predators and prey animals in hopes of creating the most successful species. According to Pierce, the students’ responses were “amazing,” and they could “explain concepts to you” based on interactions with the game that were not directed by their teacher.

Goals varied depending on discipline and course of study, but history teachers Grace and Zane both remarked on the freedom afforded by the use of simulation in gameplay—that is, the ability to place students in particular situations so that the students need to make decisions that might help them understand the choices made at particular points in history. In a discussion of war gaming and civilization-building games, Zane said such a game “brings in a lot of the interplay of history that you just can’t get reading a book” and that “it’s the idea that people historically have made choices and because of things that don’t always make sense,” such as soured interpersonal relationships with other leaders.

Grace shared a similar idea that she explores after students have been through a game simulation. As a class, they “talk about some historical phenomenon or theory about it; there is a drive by human behavior, right, then they start to see connections to the contemporary world….” Grace noted that her students absorb information in new ways as compared to her own generation, a concept presented in Gee’s (2003) observations on digital gaming, and described the ideal classroom as one where “the instructor is more like a cheering squad.”

Jason the drama teacher used games to introduce the concept of subtext to fledgling actors. With a genre called social deduction games, of which the aforementioned The Resistance (2009) is one, Jason placed his students in situations where they needed to find out which players were on their sides and which were secretly not. Through this activity, they listened to one another’s words as if the words were dialogue and even interpreted players’ facial expressions and body language. Jason stepped aside, allowing students to lead the conversations and interactions generated through his chosen game. As a result, he perceived benefits: “they’ve now noticed something integral to humanity, right? Oh, what is different about this person? Oh, well, you know, she got really quiet,” Jason said. In short, through the game of The Resistance, Jason believed that his students had the autonomy to explore the differences between what people say and what they mean, which accomplished his curricular objective of understanding subtext.

Tailoring the Challenge Level of Gameplay

So far, we have seen teachers’ references to experiences that spoke of relatedness and autonomy; here, two teachers shared memories related to competence, the idea that tasks should be compelling and challenging but not overly so. Neil began by saying that math is often perceived by students as boring and difficult. “And when things are difficult for kids, they lose interest.” As such, playing games like Zombie Dice (Jackson, 2010), according to Neil, “create[d] that additional level of interest” as they played the roles of marauding zombies assessing the probabilities of successful hunts against humans of different athletic ability. Moreover, playing this game gave Neil’s students chances to feel competent in math, a discipline that Neil described as often generating trepidation in learners. “[Students] want to be able to win,” Neil said, “and when you’re doing [math games] the right way, you’re giving children opportunity after opportunity to win again.”

Bethany, who taught Gifted and Talented programs at the time of this study, saw the importance of challenge from the opposite perspective. In her class, when tasks were too easy, students perceived them as dull. To engage her students, Bethany added game design to her curriculum, which meant that her students needed to conceive of and execute the construction of a board game. “One of the things [that engages gifted learners], especially with game design, is it makes my students frustrated. It makes them struggle, and they are very, very unused to not having a right answer.”

The Well-Structured Play Experience

Interviews from the eight teachers participating in this study shared a common idea: Their use of game-based learning was purpose-driven and attached to planned learning outcomes. Bethany the Gifted and Talented teacher said that “you have to make sure that your objectives are aligned with what the game itself is doing.” History teacher Charles similarly asserted: “I don’t play without a purpose…. If you can’t figure out what you’re trying to shoot for, then you’re probably just trying to play.”

Grace the history teacher, who designed a course in which her students are required to build their own early civilizations over a semester-long game, appreciated the notion of fun but added a caveat. “I’m interested in assessment, right…? I don’t care if you had fun…. We go someplace else for that.” Thus, Grace built an assessment structure that includes opportunities for student reflection throughout the course. This sort of reflection framework, said Grace, needed to be included, “or else people play the game and have fun and then they’re like, ‘I don’t know what I was supposed to learn.’” Grace’s belief in the importance of reflection on the games is complemented, perhaps, by the idea offered by another participant in this study. First, Edward the TEFL teacher drew a distinction between the recreational use of games and the productive, educative use of games. “The fun part is not absent of the learning,” Edward said. “We’re not using fun as a carrot for learning; it’s part of the learning process.” These ideas connect to one of Csikszentmihalyi’s (1991) traits of the flow experience: a clarity of goals. In requiring students to reflect on their developing civilizations, Grace intended to assure that students understood what they were learning. Bethany spoke specifically to the need for teachers to make sure students were clear about what was expected of them.

Emerging Theme: Three Modes of Analog Gameplay in Classrooms

Use of analog games varied in terms of position within time of year, within a particular lesson plan, and in the duration of the activity. In some cases, teachers relied on games as ice-breakers and first day opening activities. Charles, for instance, began his U.S. History course with a roll-and-write game called Rolling America (Hayashi, 2015). (A roll-and-write game can include many players who make decisions on their individualized boards based on rolls of dice.) Edward’s opening activity for his English course to non-English speaking students has included a variety of board games, but also popular social games such as Two Truths and a Lie, “which is not based on a board game,” Edward said, “but it is a game-like activity, and that is what I use to kind of introduce myself.” Jason began his musical theater course with the game Encore (1989), which has teams singing as many songs as they can based on particular topics as revealed on cards. Jason found this game, which he inherited from the prior musical theater teacher, to be particularly helpful as “a nice way to relieve anxiety through the year or to break the ice in the beginning of the year and just get us all singing and having fun with music in a low-stakes environment.” Jason added that he could probably play game like this all year, and his musical theater students would be happy and singing.

In other instances, games can take up an entire period as an exercise. “If I’m using a game, that’s the lesson,” Neil said when discussing games like 24 Game (Sun, 1988), which is about using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division to get four assigned numbers to equal 24. “It teaches children precision with numbers … and also speed, and also they like it because they’re competing, and they get an opportunity to talk, to win, and show how awesome they are.” At the same time, Neil noted that he looks for simple games with easy-to-understand rules that take no more than a few minutes to explain. In his own interview, Charles the history teacher made a point that “You’re gonna live it, learn it, and know it by today, or I’ve chosen the wrong game.”

The third category, simulation, has already been mentioned in this study. Simulations, as described by history teachers such as Grace and Zane, tend to serve as long-form activities because they require a beginning, middle, and end in order to allow players to experience a historical or story-based event. Zane, who credited simulation games for helping him learn history as a student, added, “With a good simulation, you can figure out why things happen in a certain way and that there’s only so many outcomes.” As an example, he mentioned a Model Congress-like simulation he ran and suggested that the limited financial resources allotted to students helped them see that real-world crises cannot be solved by votes alone because those resources only go so far, and there are many needs to consider—a point raised by Abt (1987), who acknowledged that learning the facts of a topic such as the U.S. Constitution might be best done by reading, but that understanding the tale of its construction could be conducted through gameplay.

Emerging Theme: The Value of Tangibles

While a few participants enjoyed digital games and used digital games in class, some teachers noted the values of non-digital, analog game-based learning. Pierce the science teacher spoke of the benefit of working in the physical space, often with physical objects like game pieces. “I think a lot of us are tactile people. We like to touch things,” Pierce said. Referencing the science-oriented game Cytosis (Coveyou, 2017), in which players score points by manipulating the energy-creating processes of animal cells, Edward the TEFL teacher observed that “seeing how the pieces move through the cell … kind of helps me remember how that cell works.” Neil the math teacher said that digital games sacrifice “the ability to look at everything in using your same spatial recognition that you have in real life—the ability to hold something and look at it and not have to use a third party like a keyboard or mouse.”

These participant contributions speak to the differing benefits of analog games to their digital counterparts. As a side note, this area of research into the benefits of playing physical games has been explored by Kankainen (2016), whose study explored contrasting user experiences while playing the digital and analog versions of the tabletop game Blood Bowl (Johnson, 1986); participants in that study echoed the ideas presented here, with a focus on players’ enjoyment in manipulating miniatures on a board as well as rolling real, physical dice to determine outcomes.


Grace shared an observation on the topic of analog game-based learning: “What became clear to me very quickly is that it’s a little bit of a wild west out there, where people are making all kinds of claims about how wonderful it is, but I don’t see no data.” Indeed, there seems to be a focus on digital gaming over analog gaming (Garcia, 2019), and—to continue Grace’s metaphor—there is a frontier of inquiry awaiting the next wagon train of pioneers.

In this light, I now return to the theoretical framework found earlier in Figure 1 that incorporated the work of Ryan and Deci (2000), Csikszentmihalyi (1991), and Gee (2003) as a means of perceiving the findings as a whole. In an effort to make meaning of the teachers’ stories, and in hopes of constructing a model that educators may find practical, I have revised my theoretical model, as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2

A post-study refinement of the initial theoretical construct, composed in practical language, and based on participants’ responses.

In this concept, five qualities amalgamated from the aforementioned theories and from teacher interviews contribute positively or negatively to a learner’s experience with some degree of enthusiasm or boredom. These qualities are Security (sense of safety), Value (belief in the importance of what is being learned), Freedom (agency while learning), Challenge (balance of the difficulty levels of tasks), and Structure (clarity of goals and paths to achievement). Moreover, if students are motivated and are willingly engaged in a challenging task, they may have an Optimal Experience.

In the teachers’ experiences, these qualities are important components in motivating students. While some students, such as Bethany’s Gifted and Talented students, are intrinsically motivated to learn, meaning that they possess what Ryan and Deci (2000) define as “the prototypic manifestation of the human tendency toward learning and creativity” (p. 69), the participants made multiple references to students who required extrinsic motivation, meaning that rewards such as participation credit or the promise of fun helped to induce reluctant students. As the five qualities are drawn from Self-Determination and Flow and are, in their original forms, described by their respective theorists as necessary ingredients in engaging the human mind (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Ryan and Deci, 2000), we may see them as possessing a kind of collective power; that is to say, the more each quality is present in an analog game-based classroom, the more likely students are to be motivated to learn. In some cases, teachers described scenarios in which some students may have experienced the flow state (here I recall Grace’s descriptions of her students as fully involved in simulation, or Pierce’s descriptions of his students running with the game-based lesson as he took a back seat), but a limitation of this study—that I was unable to visit these teachers’ classrooms—would make confirming claims of such optimal experiences impossible.

On the note of limitations, I cannot speak to all experiences by all teachers who have made use of game-based learning. Keeping this in mind, it is important to consider recurring ideas that emerged from these teachers’ testimonies and to make sense of them. Key ideas of purpose and the value of fun in learning, as well as challenges and benefits, may lend to further study on analog game-based learning and may be assembled and visualized as in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Processes and products involved in planning and executing lessons that include analog game-based learning, according to participants.

From Figure 3, we observe that game-based learning begins, according to the participants, with a focus on learning outcomes: What is the purpose of the lesson, and how might gameplay serve that purpose? If the game is to be played purely for fun, then the participants felt it was typically a better move to rethink the lesson. Another consideration presented is when and for what duration a teacher might use a game, as the ranges included the opening minutes of a course or lesson, to the majority of a single lesson, to the span of a semester-length course. I also observed categories of usage, divided in this figure as “ice-breaker,” “exercise,” and “simulation.” Neil, for instance, used Zombie Dice (Jackson, 2010) as a probability exercise and expressed no particular interest in providing his students insight into the mindsets of the undead, whereas Zane and Grace wanted their history students to feel what it was like to build a civilization from huts to harbors. Their goals, by the way, echoed Gee’s (2013) observations of digital simulation games when he wrote that players “can today have second, third, fourth, and multiple lives” through which to experience and reflect (p. 54).

No matter the decision, one common challenge noted was student hesitation in the form of shyness or an unwillingness to look foolish. Pushing through, however, offered rewards of social interaction (a positive side effect of the experience) and, through reflection on the gameplay, the potential for achieving the purpose of the lesson.


The themes developed from this study support the value of using games as learning tools. Games may be used to break the ice for initially shy students; to set up a lesson with an entertaining opening activity; to practice skills necessary for content mastery; or to create simulations through which students can experience moments in history, for example, that can develop valuable connections to curricular content. Games can create immersive, entertaining learning experiences and can play a role in motivating students. As opposed to digital games, analog games offer physical components to students; participants believed such components are helpful because they offer heightened sensory experiences. However, games should be used thoughtfully, with clear goals that extend beyond merely having fun with games.

As I write these words, I am grateful and excited. As a practitioner, I am grateful for the sense that I am not alone in using games in classrooms and in the strengthened belief, as Abt (1987) wrote, that “There is hardly any subject, however, that does not have some interactive, competitive elements that are natural material for gaming…” (p. 29). And I am excited for future research inspired by the fruits of this initial study. I noticed, for instance, that two of the included history teachers used simulation games in their classes. While this is a qualitative study with too few participants to draw conclusions, I wonder whether a future study might seek relationships between school subjects and the types of games used to teach them.

While I was intrigued during these eight interviews, I was most impacted by a synthesis of statements from four of the teachers. Bethany shared a time from her youth when she served as a swim instructor to young children. She played Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with them, pretending to swim and hide in her imagined shell to master survival floating skills, and described the process as “probably the most fundamental experience I’ve had as a teacher … what’s the outcome, how do I get them there, what are all the steps, then how can I make all those boring, basic skills fun…?” She concluded by connecting that experience to her current work with gifted middle-schoolers: “We’d play games and then we’d leave, knowing how to swim, and that’s my approach to [teaching], you know, so hopefully, I’ll be swimming by the end of this, too.”

Bethany’s story became more poignant when coupled with Pierce’s views on play and his own belief on the value of playing games: “I enjoyed it, but I always felt that we’re kind of wired to [play] anyway….”  We see the impressions of game and play in animals (Caillois, 1961), and a casual reflection on one’s youth might conjure countless images of imaginative adventures. Yet I wonder if there comes a point in our formalized educational experiences (there certainly did in mine) when we shift away from play. Grace the history teacher touched on this concern:

… as mammals, we are evolved to learn by play. That’s what we do. And so if you go through pre- through first grade, through second grade, they get it. Let them play, and they’ll learn stuff. And then someplace along the way, we get all stuffy and, you know, Socratic about it. Socratic method has its purposes, but the idea of reintroducing play as a tool? You know, that’s logical to me.

Jason the drama teacher criticized some high school classrooms as resembling a kind of sweat shop that resembles a factory, with students lined up at laptops the way workers might line up at sewing machines—quietly, endlessly, and joylessly manufacturing assignments. Such imagery, reminiscent of Dewey’s (1938) strictest traditional learning environments and of Freire’s (2000) account of the “oppressor consciousness” in education (p. 58), is hyperbolic and metaphorical, of course. Nonetheless, I am motivated to continue studying the role of analog game-based learning in schools, and the opportunities, motivational or otherwise, we may be sacrificing by allowing our pedagogy to grow up and abandon play.

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Shawn Thorgersen

Doctoral student, PhD in Curriculum and Instruction
St. John’s University

Shawn is the guy at the table who just wants everyone to have fun. That said, he is a merciless ruler of galaxies and strongholds across the realm of analog board gaming, and he may or may not feed his meeples at the end of the round. In games of Werewolf, he is totally not a werewolf, trust him. Shawn is currently working toward his PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at St. John’s University in Queens, NY, with a focus on the affordances of analog game-based learning with secondary-level students. His writing has appeared as fiction (novel, 2008), produced plays (numerous children’s theater festivals and productions), and as scholarly practitioner work (in Middle Grades Review). Currently, Shawn serves as a dean and English teacher at a private high school on Long Island, NY.