Games for Change Festival – Day 3 – Big G Games

Games for Change Festival – Day 3 – Big G Games


On day 3 of the Games for Change festival the opening keynote was by James Paul Gee, if you are unfamiliar with the name then I would recommend you read “What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy”. He is a professor at Arizona  State University and a well respected researcher in the field of linguistics. His involvement in studying the educational benefits of video games has given the field more credibility then it would have had otherwise. His keynote was possibly the highlight of my time at the festival, as it changed the way I thought about games.

James Paul Gee began the keynote by comically setting the record straight. “Many people seem to think I said games are good for learning, I didn’t. I said GOOD games are good for learning.” He then goes on to explain exactly how he defines what makes a good game, or as he refers to them “Big G Games”. In Prof. Gee’s definition, the game you are explicitly playing (e.g. the piece of software you install) is only one component of a “Big G Game”, the Affinity Space created around the game is also part of it. An Affinity Space is “a place or set of places where people affiliate with others based primarily on shared activities, interests, and goals, not shared race, class culture, ethnicity, or gender”. For example, World of Warcraft is just a piece of software ( the “little g game”) but combine it with the Affinity Space created when it’s players do things like: gather for conventions, write wikI entries, create pieces of software to analyze their performance during a raid, mash up videos and create machinima to share on YouTube,  participate in forums about the game, write fanfic, or any of the countless other creative endeavors surrounding the actual game — and you have a “Big G Game”.

Game designers and educators need to be aware of the power that Affinity Spaces hold and design tools to support them.  The informal learning that happens in these spaces is the result of highly motivated individuals seeking to solve problems they find. and to quote Prof. Gee “We shouldn’t invest in education that isn’t about problem solving, if we do all we’ll get is very smart people doing very dumb things”

Following James Paul Gee’s keynote was the team from Valve discussing their new educational initiative Teach with Portals. The placement of this talk couldn’t have been better as it perfectly demonstrates what a “Big G Game” can be. Anyone who has played it for even a little while can see that Valve really created something unique with the game Portal 2. Playing the game teaches its users the law of conservation of momentum better than any physics professor ever could, and it does so implicitly!  This means that rather than being able to rattle off a definition or a formula (if they learn it explicitly) players get to experiment and really learn what it means on a practical level. Now Valve has taken the next step into the educational market and is delivering teachers the tools needed to make their own Portal 2 Levels and an online community for sharing lesson plans and ideas.

While much of this is still in Beta, seeing a big company like Valve invest so dramatically in delivering teachers tools needed to create their own Affinity Spaces is quite inspiring, and their doing it all for free.

While there were a lot of lessons to be learned at the festival, the most important one (and in some ways the most obvious one) is to remember that a good educational games delivers opportunities for learning even when the software isn’t running.  Developers need to understand that their product isn’t just the game being played on the screen, but also the interactions it inspires.

To see many of the talks from the festival visit


Andrew R. Proto taught middle school science for three years before going to work at Apple as a technology instructor. After teaching there for five years, he realized how much he missed his classroom. He recently completed his Masters of Science in Early Childhood Education at Metropolitan College of New York. Follow him on Twitter @MisterProto

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