SIMAGES 2016.1 – Using Activity Theory to Design Game-Based Learning Environments

Using Activity Theory to Design Game-Based Learning Environments with Intentionality

by David Phelps

As a designer of game-based learning environments for students I have found it invaluable to integrate reflection questions into my design process. I created the following series of questions based upon a particular educational theory that emphasizes the socio-cultural and affective dimensions of learning: Activity Theory.

You can see if this question set is helpful for you by calling to mind a specific activity you have recently designed or are currently designing. Take a moment to think about your activity, about why you created it, and about the different design decisions you made along the way. Now, ask yourself:

Activity Title: ______________________

What is your desired learning outcome for participants? ________________________________

What are the different features of the interactive activity you are designing?

How have you defined success to your participants?

e.g. get certain number of points, achieve set of objectives, etc.

What will participants need to do well in order to achieve success?

e.g. communicate information, solve puzzles, use systems thinking, use logical reasoning, be secretive, be deceptive, etc.

What roles are participants positioned to play in order to achieve success?

e.g. competitors, achievers, explorers, socializers, collaborators, creators, etc.

What explicit rules constrain these roles?

e.g. information is hidden, communication is restrained, only one player can win, players cannot achieve the goal alone, etc.

What given tools support these roles?

e.g. hints, guides, story, hand held manipulables, cards with information, game boards, puzzles with information, etc.

What labor structure organizes these roles?

e.g. randomized teams, beginner-expert pairs, free-for-all, etc.

What norms are established to guide participation?

e.g. being kind to others, sharing, learning from mistakes, inviting others to play, turn taking, , cheering on, jesting, congratulating, questioning, trading, etc.

How do you think these different features will work together to achieve your desired learning outcome?

That’s the exercise. There are many questions worth asking and thinking about to become an intentional designer. I have found this particular set productive for the following reasons:

  • It focuses me on my desired learning outcome—which is important to keep in mind as I make decisions about how to design each feature of the interactive activity.

  • It makes me detail oriented—many features of the activity receive thought and deliberation.

  • It reassures me that I bring my own style and voice to how the activity gets implemented—from how I define success to how I establish certain norms (e.g. “it’s okay to make mistakes,” “be lighthearted”)

  • Forces me to be clear about my theory of learning, which is what allows me to make conjectures about how I think my designed activity will achieve my desired learning goals.

  • Opens me up to be a continuous learner—by tracking which of my conjectures played out and which were pulled up short, which, in turn, invites me to refine my understanding of learning principles.

mancalaLet’s follow an example now. My colleagues and I recently created and implemented a cooperative variant of the classic board game Mancala, in an otherwise competitive afterschool Mancala Club.

Activity Title: Cooperative Mancala

What is your desired learning outcome for participants? 2nd to 4th graders will practice systems thinking by manipulating a closed-mathematical system (Mancala) to achieve a state of equilibrium (a tie score).

How have you defined success to your participants?

In order to win both players must have scored the same number of stones.

What will participants need to do well in order to achieve success?

Participants will need to work together to develop a strategy that exploits the mathematics of Mancala to ensure they score an equal number of stones.

What roles are participants positioned to play in order to achieve success?

Players are positioned to be achievers (to solve a brainteaser-like puzzle of generating a tie score), to be collaborators (to share ideas and to work together towards this achievement).

What explicit rules constrain these roles?

Players cannot simply agree to tie, nor can they give each other stones. Rather, they have to follow the round-and-round Mancala rule set carefully calculating how many stones they will score.

What given tools support these roles?

Players are given a scaffolded version of the challenge—the first game they play with 1 stone in each hole. Then 2. Then 3. Players can also use each other as resources to share ideas and strategies.

What labor structure organizes these roles?

Self-Selected Pairs, but open for other players to drop in to watch and share strategies.

What norms are established to guide participation?

Facilitators asked players to generate a list of how they want to feel while playing Mancala (students decided: safe, respected, fun) and of how they will act to ensure that everyone feels safe, respected, and has fun. Additionally facilitators, established norms to position players as willing to learn from mistakes, to pursue their own game-related interests, and to share their expertise with one another.

How do you think these different features will work together to achieve your desired learning outcome?

For the purposes of this brief example I will focus only on the move to position players as collaborators. There was a nice congruence between the learning outcome of the mathematical practice of achieving system equilibrium and the player positioning as collaborators working together to achieve a tied score.

Indeed, when players were positioned as competitors in normal Mancala play they often focused on maximizing the system to score the most number of points possible rather than on stabilizing the system to evenly distribute points. Players often enjoyed maximizing the system by exploiting the mathematical features of Mancala to go around the board multiple times and to gain bonus turns (allowing a high score in a single turn).

As cooperative collaborators, however, players learned different tricks that exploited different mathematical features of Mancala, such as symmetry, in which players mirrored each other’s moves. Yet, these tricks of stabilizing the score were not as fun for students as the tricks of creating powerful combinations to maximize one’s score. As such, my colleagues and I saw low player engagement with the cooperative positioning!

This opens up a number of questions for us moving forward:

  • Can we vary the rule set to allow for players to exploit exciting tricks to stabilize the score?

  • Can we add a competitive twist where teams compete against one another to achieve the closest score possible?

  • Can we establish norms that encourage students to enjoy exploring Mancala variants—not just competitive play?

These new questions bring us back into contact with the features of the activity system from our original question set. Indeed, we can revisit our reflective questions at any point to continue to modify and transform the features of our interactive activity to better meet our desired learning outcomes. I want to end, however, by saying we can also go further than this: we can bring our participants into the design process itself.

By opening up the design process itself—reflecting on these questions with the participants of our facilitated activities—we can learn what desired learning goals participants value for themselves, and how participants would modify the activity to better meet these goals. This was a powerful move in our Mancala Club and it led to the emergence of student-generated interactive activities that we could chart using our question set above.

Following this logic, we can also open up the reflection questions themselves, and encourage designers to craft their own set of reflection questions that helps them develop their unique style and voice in designing interactive activities.


David Phelps is a Ph.D. student in the Learning Sciences at the University of Washington. As an educational researcher and board game designer he creates game-based learning environments that invite young students to invent and play with mathematical models and computational practices to enhance their gameplay. He has found that young children are capable and competent learners who enjoy playing with mathematics in game-based contexts. David has been fortunate enough to present his research findings and game designs with colleagues in such venues as Interaction Design and Children, Philosophy for Children, Simulation and Gaming, National Art Education Association and NASAGA.

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