Edtech first, games(/making/tablets) second

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source: Spencer Greenhalgh

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking about how to best introduce myself and what I study, and I’ve started settling on a phrase that I’m becoming fond of: I research games as educational technologies. What does it mean to study games as educational technologies? I don’t want to get too deep into that rabbit hole right now, but I’d like to explain this framing by providing a definition, demonstrating the opposite, and pointing to an article on the Web.


I’m very picky about how I define technology (and therefore educational technology). It has nothing to do with how new it is, how much it costs, or how cool it is. Rather, I stick to a definition provided by Nickerson (2005, p. 3):

the building of artifacts or procedures—tools—to help people accomplish their goals

That is, just about anything can be a technology if it’s helping us accomplish a particular goal; conversely, something is only an educational technology if it is helping us accomplish a particular educational goal.


A few months ago, I attended the Meaningful Play conference here on MSU’s campus. While I generally had a good time, I also had some pretty disappointing experiences. This was largely because some of the sessions featured presenters who didn’t see games as (educational) technologies: Rather they saw games as games. That is, games were a sort of auto-justifying phenomenon who derived their value from simply being games.

I should point out that 1) this is probably an unfair over-generalization and that 2) it’s perfectly understandable for games studies researchers to be interested in games for games’ sake. However, I think there’s a great deal of danger for educational technologists to be interested in games for games’ sake. For that matter, I think there’s a great deal of danger for us to be interested in making for making’s sake or in tablets for tablets’ sake. Game-based learning, gamification, and all of the other permutations of this phenomenon (or other phenomena) are only of value as long as they are helping us reach our educational goals.


Hana Schank recently wrote a thought-provoking article entitled The Myth of the Minecraft Curriculum. Now, I think Minecraft is a fascinating game, and I’m very excited when I see it used in effective ways in learning, but several points in the article hit home for me.

Schank quotes a Reddit comment that argues that

Minecraft has about as much inherent educational value as an overhead projector, in that it depends entirely on the skill and vision of the instructor using it. Its [sic] a great blank canvas system, and the tools for leveraging that canvas are only getting better with time. That said, its [sic] not gonna work for everyone, but I wouldn’t expect that of any educational intervention.

Schank goes on to argue that it is children’s passion (and not any particular game, software, or experience) that really drives learning and education, and that we should be open to using any resource (from iMovie to, gasp, our backyard) to helping our children and students learn. In other words, even if games (or making or tablets) help us accomplish a particular goal, let’s not get too attached to one particular technology if others will help us just as well with that goal.


Nickerson, R. S. (2005). Technology and cognition amplification. In R. J. Sternberg & D. D. Preiss, Intelligence and technology: The impact of tools on the nature and development of human abilities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schank, H. (2015, February 20). The myth of the Minecraft curriculum. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-case-against-minecraft/385678/

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.