Critical game creation

as intergenerational social participation


Margarida Romero is a professor of educational technology at Université Laval (Québec, Canada) engaged towards the inclusive, humanistic and creative uses of technologies for the development of the so-called 21st century skills: cooperation and communication, problem solving, creativity and computational thinking. She promotes intergenerational digital creation (coding games, educational robotics) for social participation and for empowering age, gender and cultural diversity.

I entered academia looking to develop more inclusive, creative and participative educational approaches. Integrating digital games appeared to be an exciting educational strategy to improve education from a learner-centered perspective. In our early years, play is one of the more important learning activities. When children are engaged in free play activities, they regulate their game engagement by interacting with other persons or objects. In free play activities, children self-regulate their flow, a state of engaging experience that is engrossing and intrinsically rewarding according to Csikszentmihalyi (1990). But sooner or later, children are invited to sit, be quiet and be obedient to the teaching authority in  closed, limited spaces called classrooms. Traditional classrooms do not lend to social participation with other social groups from different ages and backgrounds outside of its walls. Intergenerational and social participation as an inclusive learning activity is not promoted in traditional schools; even inside  learning establishments, multiage or mixed-grade activities are still very rare (Cornish, 2013). Instead, children are challenged to maintain their passive-listening attention and wait for the pavlovian-bell to ring to enjoy some minutes of free time,which are generally used playing with their peers.

Overcoming the work or play dichotomy

The dichotomy between work and play that has been developed in the industry should be re-evaluated, at least, in the early stages of education (Bruce, 1991; Singer, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006; Wood, & Attfield, 2005). Identifying and transferring some of the components of the playful experience of games in the classroom could help fix part of the teaching and learning process. However, that requires educating the teaching authorities (teachers, school heads, and educational counsellors’ boards at different levels) in a playful approach of education, undoing the didactic-topic-based formatting developed during their pre-service years. Educational professionals who have the opportunity to develop a more playful or gamified education are generally not gamers; even worse, they often have a negative perception of digital games. Digital games are commonly perceived as a pastime activity that steals the learners’ attention (Romero & Barma, 2015). Taking into consideration the educational actors’ perceptions of digital games, there is a big challenge to integrate digital games as a learning strategy and trying to increase the fun factor of the (lifelong) learning experience.

Joining a “research guild” as a networking strategy

Trying to change education towards a more innovative, creative and game-based learning approach is not a single-player game. There is a need for a huge amount of research and educational innovation projects before making educational actors promote digital games as a learning strategy. Just after my Ph.D, I was lucky to join a research network, a sort of a “research guild” for promoting mutual help, creating joint events and develop academic exchanges. Our “research guild” was funded by the 7th framework of research of the European Commission as a network of excellence, the “Games and Learning Alliance” (GaLA 2009-2013). The GaLA network included nearly 50 researchers in the field of digital games with educational, health, cultural purpose, also called “serious games”. Being part of an international research guild allowed me to access a higher level through collaborations with other scholars worldwide. Being in a guild required me to join efforts in topics and tasks that were out of my reach in an individual or small team perspective. Being part of a research guild is fruitful in terms of networking and outcomes.

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Becoming an immigrant

Being part of an international network of research such GaLA is not enough when the situation of your university is precarious. Looking for a more stable environment than the economic crisis-hit Spanish universities (Garcia, 2013; Santamaría, Diaz, & Valladares, 2013), I moved from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (Spain) to Université Laval, in Québec (Canada). I left my friends, my parents, my European funded projects and part of my network behind. I assumed I would be able to reconstruct my research program using the same strategies I did in Europe, but I did not consider a new factor in my personal and professional life: I was now an immigrant in a small city not used to migration. I swiftly came to realize that my accent was primarily linked to nanny jobs. From time to time, I’m still asked who is my supervisor or what is the program I am enrolled in by persons I meet for the first time who assume that I’m a student. Being an immigrant of a “perceived-as-less-developed” country hinders the expectations and authority deposited by part of your interlocutors. For the first time, I was experiencing the feeling of being part of a minority and the disadvantages associated to it. Most of my network was composed by immigrants and I started to realize that integration would be really hard. I was sad about it, but even more for my daughter. I decided to move my research interests towards the social inclusion and make it merge with my primary interest in game-based learning. Looking at games from a social inclusion perspective made me move from the interest of studying the use of existing (serious) games to a prior stage: the game design process and the need for a more participative design process which could allow social participation and representation. Participative design aims to engage individuals from different disciplines and backgrounds in the design decision-making process. In the field of information systems (IS), participative design “promises to IS quality while empowering the participants and fostering relationships among developers and users” (Lukyanenko & Parsons, 2015, p. 1). The participative game co-design blurs the boundary between game players and the professional game designers (Stewart et al, 2013). Co-design strategies could include making games from scratch, modifying or ‘modding’ existing games (Sotamaa, 2010) through a shared-decision making process. Opening the participative design to individuals from different social groups, ages and background aims to improve social representation through a critical perspective.

Critical perspectives to play and game design

Critical play, characterized by Flanagan as “a careful examination of social, cultural, political, or even personal themes that function as alternates to popular play spaces” (2009, p.6) is a first step to develop an awareness of games as socio-cultural objects. However, being a critical consumer of games is not enough to improve the social inclusiveness of games. Digital games modification, or “modding”, is a cultural practice allowing a higher potential for social inclusiveness. We propose to go a step further and engage end-users in a participative critical game design aiming to create games where social inclusion is embedded from the design process. Participative approaches of game design can reunite intergenerational or cross-generational participants. It also allows social minorities to access to game design and influence its process. In our first experience of intergenerational game design, we have teamed an entrepreneur having experienced a migration process from a communist country and a group of secondary-level students studying the migration process within their social universe course. Secondary-level students led the game design process from a storyboard and multimedia perspective; the experienced person acted as a narrative director. The intergenerational participatory game design process allowed intergenerational learning and social participation; younger generations were developing an awareness of migration from a first-person experience through the game design process. The critical game design process also valued the migration process of an experienced person. During the intergenerational participatory game design process the communication was very fluid and the level of engagement of both the secondary level students and the experienced person was very high according to the self-description made by the participants at the end of the workshop. The secondary level students expressed their interest to have the opportunity to have more participative creation activities instead of their traditional lecture-based courses. They reported the interest both on the content related to the migration (a compulsory topic on their 5th year social sciences course) and the intergenerational co-creation activity.

The result of the game design process is a low-level interactive digital resource. Despite its simplicity, the immigration process described within the mini-game can be reused as an open educational resource (OER). The result of the game design is not the goal; instead, we focus on the critical and intergenerational game design process that unites participants that are not used to gather together. The critical game design process is an invaluable participative learning experience that is able to unite and recognize the value of two communities that barely know each other. The experience of this first pilot helped me to orient my research agenda towards towards critical game design as an activity for intergenerational learning and social participation. While I maintain my research mission statement oriented to contribute to changing education towards a more inclusive, creative and participative approach; having experienced difficulties as an immigrant oriented me to focus on the participative approach of game design, including both intercultural and intergenerational perspectives to understand the migration process and policies. Working on this research topic allowed me to develop rich interactions with younger generations and with persons who have fulfilling experiences of life as immigrants. This relationship can support critical approaches in the uses of technologies while experiencing a creative activity with individuals of other ages, origins and backgrounds than those of their families and peers. My personal struggles as immigrant enriched my research agenda, making my work maybe not more impactful, but definitely more socially inclusive and meaningful from a humanistic and cultural diversity perspective.


Bruce, T. (1991). Time to play in early childhood education. Edward Arnold, Hodder & Stoughton.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Literacy and intrinsic motivation. Daedalus, 115-140.

García, E. C. (2013). Challenges in the higher education funding. Revista de Educacion y Derecho, 8.

Cornish, L. (2013). Mixed-Grade Elementary-School Classes and Student Achievement. Hattie, John/Anderman, Eric M.(Hg.): International Guide to Student Achievement. New York and London: Routledge, 122-124.

Lukyanenko, R., & Parsons, J. (2015). Extending Participatory Design Principles to Structured User-generated Content. Presented at the Scandinavian Conference on Information Systems, Oulu, Finland.

Romero, M., & Barma, S. (2015). Teaching Pre-Service Teachers to Integrate Serious Games in the Primary Education Curriculum. International Journal of Serious Games, 2(1).

Santamaría, L., Diaz, M., & Valladares, F. (2013). Dark clouds over Spanish science. Science, 340(6138), 1292.

Singer, D. G., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2006). Play= Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press.

Sotamaa, O. (2010). When the Game Is Not Enough: Motivations and Practices Among Computer Game Modding Culture. Games and Culture, 5(3), 239-255.

Stewart, J., Bleumers, L., Van Looy, J., Mariën, I., All, A., Schurmans, D., … Misuraca, G. (2013). The Potential of Digital Games for Empowerment and Social Inclusion of Groups at Risk of Social and Economic Exclusion: Evidence and Opportunity for Policy.

Wood, E., & Attfield, J. (2005). Play, learning and the early childhood curriculum. Sage.