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  • Writer's pictureDon Draxler

The 21st Century Playground

Game Based Learning

Video games have long captivated people of all ages, offering immersive experiences akin to animated films. They provide a unique space where players can start, fail, restart, pause, and resume gameplay at their leisure, all while facing increasing challenges that demand skill improvement. This allure can be attributed to Game Based Learning, a concept pioneered by retired Professor James Paul Gee. He recognized that games present problems with multiple solutions, fostering skill development and engagement.

When observing children playing video games, one notices their deep engagement, especially in cooperative play with peers. Unlike traditional organized sports, there's no adult directing their actions or controlling their experiences. Video games offer autonomy, where success or failure is solely determined by the player's actions.


"Gamers co-author the games they play by the choices they make and how they choose to solve problems, since what they do can affect the course and sometimes the outcome of the game."

— James Paul Gee


Game designers craft games meticulously, designing compelling narratives, dialogues, and difficulty curves. Each game level presents new challenges, requiring players to adapt and develop quicker decision-making skills. The visual and auditory aspects are also carefully crafted to be appealing, with soundtracks rivaling those of world renown movies.

Participation is Suffocating

The decline of traditional playgrounds is a complex societal issue. Factors like increased awareness of child abductions, more working parents, and less cohesive communities play a role. In the 80s, new TV shows like America's Most Wanted and widespread reports of missing children led to heightened fear and caution among parents. This era also saw the emergence of the term "play date," reflecting a shift towards more structured and supervised play.

David Finkelhor, Director of Crimes against Children Research Center, notes that abductions by strangers are no more likely to happen today than back in the 1970s. However, families today are more likely to have both parents working, and communities are less cohesive. This, combined with the fear instilled by the media, has contributed to fewer children playing freely outside.

"In the 90s, there was an influx of more organized sports and activities after school that needed more volunteers and more safety and structure for the kids to be supervised more than freely playing as the previous generations."

Time to Rethink

However, this shift also presents an opportunity to rethink how we approach sports and structured play. Just as video games allow players to co-author their experiences, sports can be designed to be more engaging and customizable. However, this shift also presents an opportunity to rethink how we approach sports and structured play. Just as video games allow players to co-author their experiences, sports can be designed to be more engaging and customizable.

Amy Price's work at the University of Edinburgh UK, highlights key elements for her PhD thesis on digital game designing principles and suggests incorporating:

  • creating missions

  • setting end goals (intentions)

  • allowing players to 'pause'

  • cheat (hints or power to change rules)

  • challenge (game within a game)

  • superpowers (limited activation time)

  • levels


By incorporating these elements into sports, coaches can create a more engaging and enjoyable experience for young players. Rather than forcing kids into a rigid framework, coaches can involve them in game design and decision-making, fostering a sense of ownership and enjoyment. This approach can revitalize interest in organized sports and create a more fulfilling experience for young athletes.

"We all make choices in life, but in the end our choices make us."

— Andrew Ryan, Bioshock

What’s in Our Control

Computer games keep them indoors, but we have the power to create games that are so engaging they draw kids out to express themselves through sports. By co-adapting game concepts to traditional sports, we can offer a compelling alternative that keeps them active and socially engaged, bridging the gap between virtual and physical play in the 21st century playground.

James Paul Gee expressed it best in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us,

"They situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experiences to solve problems and reflect on the intricacies of the design...That's not at all bad—and people get wildly entertained to boot. No wonder it is hard for today's schools to compete."

Give it a go! It's in our court to keep young players engaged.



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