Battling the barriers of games-based learning

John McLearJohn McLear writes…In early 2007 I was working in Wilsden Primary School with a group of 9 year old pupils and found it frustrating that it took 3 or 4 clicks once in the web browser to get to a simple multiplication game. I tried to Google search for "7 times table game" but I was presented with a mass of adverts or games that weren’t engaging for the pupils. Why are there so many barriers to game based learning? Why is it so scattered? Surely there is a better way? I wanted to make a “Google search engine of educational games”. Many providers can provide a solution that includes 50 or 100 games, but that isn’t comprehensive enough and often requires signing up or logging in. I didn’t want any barriers or hurdles to prevent playing a simple game that compliments the lessons objectives. My mission had begun…

The vision and mission plan

  • Make it as few clicks as possible to begin learning
  • Make it accessible, wherever, whenever without any username and/or password.
  • Make it about the pupil, not the teacher, and make the pupil want to continue learning away from the classroom.
  • Be as open as possible with any information we collect.
  • Reward gamers & content creators.

The hard slog

It took me several months of procrastination before we got to writing the initial engine that scans the internet looking for educational games, we then began the very lengthy task of categorizing, describing and playing over 1000 games; not as much fun as we first expected. One year later and with help from educators such as Chris Barford (ICT Technician at Frizinghall and now Engineer at Primary Technology -- he was at Frizinghall when working on the project then came to join our team), James Ashton, Sharon Dominik (ICT facilitator at Wilsden Primary School) and the Primary School Safe Search website we were able to begin asking pupils for their feedback on the site. (Note that both Sharon and Chris did all of the hard work outside of school.) What became obvious very quickly is that teachers and pupils disagree about what is a good gaming website. Currently there are over 1,200 games on Primary Games Arena which makes it by far the largest categorized, indexed and searchable catalogue of educational games in the world, and with the many thousand hits a day we really wanted to ensure we delivered suitable content.

Making it for pupils, not teachers

Pupils tend to want games that look fun and will not consider the educational aspect; teachers tend to want a very structured approach that compliments the vision of the subject they are delivering. Trying to deliver content we think suits both the learner and the teacher has been a difficult challenge. We worked around this by implementing an extended rating system that asks the player if they are a pupil or teacher. Any content that is poorly rated by a teacher or a pupil is placed into a review process.

Console fever

It is not a secret that many learners have gaming consoles and we were quick to capitalize on this by making all Primary Games Arena games available on the Nintendo Wii, Sony PS3 and Microsoft XBox 360. To promote this we put an interactive scrolling object on the Primary Games Arena home page designed to ensure the visitor’s attention was drawn towards it.

Using the analytics

One of the best things about running web services that cater for thousands of people is that you can begin looking for trends on what is popular. I now know that Maths-Action games are by far the most popular games. (Maths-Action games are math games that are also the game type of "action" ie like how the game Halo is a first person shooter action, math-action games are action based games that require skills in maths to progress/win/proceed/score/be rewarded. An example of a math action game: Also, analytics are a great indicator of how popular the site is from a pupil’s perspective. While most teachers on snow days get the day off or sit at home and do marking, we enjoy a large number of new visitors on Primary Games Arena. Most of these children are choosing to learn by gaming. Analytics are a great way to measure success.

Covering the costs

The usual method for covering costs on a website such as Primary Games Arena is by plastering ads all over the site. This method is fine if your target audience is of adult age and and not as easily distracted as pupils. Due to this, adverts were quickly ruled out so we could focus on the pedagogy of the site. Primary Games Arena is kindly sponsored by Primary Technology.

What’s next?

We have begun working with a number of providers to develop a scoring/reward system that follows and records a pupil’s progress. The idea is that if a pupil gets a great score on one game, the points accumulate, and when they play the next game there is a further reward. This ensures pupils are learning on different games, by different providers. You may wish to call this a "learning experience points" system where pupils can level up as they progress through school in both the virtual and real world.

We have begun planning a nationwide competition that will encourage school pupils to develop games for other pupils to play. There have been a number of examples of primary school pupils’ game creations being of a high enough quality to reach Primary Games Arena. Matt Lovegrove is leading the way in this area and we are supporting him and others in developing open, free online games that engage learners.

If you would like to be involved in any of the Primary Games Arena projects then please get in touch with on twitter @johnmclear, email or phone: 084568 01274

Be part of our epic win.

About the author

More information on John McLear can be found at

More information on Primary Games Arena can be found at

More information on Primary Technology can be found at

This article was first published in Computers in Classrooms, the free newsletter.