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Games, Games, Games!

"You have to learn to play football with courage." - Pep Guardiola

I try to make games a fundamental part of my coaching and teaching. In a previous post, I wrote:

"I'm a purist, skills pay the bills. I think that players could and should only condition through the game they play or representative tasks, or that isolated fitness work only takes up a very small percentage of training time. I dream of a world without fitness tests and running blocks, however unrealistic that may be."

The context of that particular post was around conditioning or energy system development for performance sport, but I share the same viewpoint when developing other qualities, such as agility, or contextual speed development in performance sport, or developing physical literacy or technical skills in physical education. Skills pay the bills. Develop your skills through well planned games.

A question that I recently saw on Twitter sparked a lot of thought, and all of that thought led me to writing this post. The question: "What do Games mean to you? Three word responses only." A thought provoking question in itself, but having only three words really forced anyone potentially answering to be concise. I responded with " Perception and Action" as my three words, and this is one of the principles I try to adhere to when designing games to elicit any given adaptation in team sport or PE.

I have since stepped out of my sport and PE bubble, and thought about games outside of the realm of physical activity. Card games - 25, sevens, Snap! (a great reaction game); Board games - scrabble, discover Ireland, chess, sudoku (although I've never played this on a board); Video games - Xbox, Playstation, Gameboy (back in the day!). There is so much more to games than physical activity. When I thought about the link between board, card, PE and sport games, I was able to get my answer to the above question down to one word - cognition. What makes a game intriguing - the player has to think. Depending on the task, rule of the task, or the environment in which the task exists, the game may include some kind of physical exertion. But it also may not. One thing that will be consistent regardless of the game, rules or setting, is that players must be engaged in order to have some level of success.

With regard to my initial answer the the above question - perception and action - this is what makes games fun and engaging. The skill of taking in information, from a variety of sources (auditory, visual etc.) perceiving what affordances (opportunities for action) might be available, and then acting on those affordances is ever present in games. But what makes it even more intriguing, as a player acts, new information appears, new affordances are seen, which means new actions are available. This is the perception-action (or information-movement as seen in the diagram above) loop, and it is a constant cycle in gameplay. Perceive to act, act to perceive.

Components of a Game

There are a number of components that makes a game what it is - a game. Suits (1995) identified:

  • A goal: what are players trying to achieve?

  • A means to achieve the goal: there are certain ways players can achieve the goal. In football, players have to progress the ball forward, but they cannot use their hands to control or strike the ball.

  • Rules: rules act as constraints for what players can do. In football, the offside rule prevents players from goal hanging. In Gaelic Football or Australian Rules Football, players cannot throw the ball (like in Rugby), so the must strike the ball via hand or foot to pass the ball.

  • An attitude: this sounds obvious but if players don't accept or respect the rules, then there cannot be a game. If an outfield player in football uses her hands to control the ball, it is a foul and she must accept the referee's call.

  • Skill: the crucial part in my opinion. Games involve skill, and this is a major factor in determining the outcome of the game. Skill can be displayed as technical or tactical. Technical skills are learned behaviours that require movement of the body to achieve a goal (Spittle, 2013). Golf, for example, requires the body to move in a certain way to strike the ball with the club. Hurling also requires a striking action, however the constraints are different and this impacts the way the body moves to strike the ball. Both of these examples represent technical skills. Tactical skills are decisions made and actions taken within a game to outwit an opponent. An example of a tactical decision might be playing 3 players in central midfield in a 4-5-1 formation versus just 2 in a 4-2-2-2 with the aim of creating an overload in the central areas (Ralf Rangnick take note!)

Focusing on the last point - skill. The title of this post could have been "Skills, Skills, Skills!", because skills are a crucial ingredient of success in games. Skill adaptation within gameplay is an ever-evolving process based on the relationship between an individual and the environment (Araujo et al., 2004). There are 3 key aspects of skill adaptation:

  1. Attuned – A quality which describes a performer who has become perceptually sensitive to the most specifying informational variables for achieving a task goal (Michaels & Jacobs, 2007)

  2. Adaptable – A quality which describes a performer who is able to coordinate and control their movement to maintain a more functional performer-environment relationship (Davids & Araujo, 2011)

  3. Dexterous – A characteristic which explains how one is able to organize a movement solution for any emerging, external situation, in any situation and in any condition (Bernstein, 1996)

I mentioned when discussing agility (linked above) - agility is a skill, and must be developed as such:

"Training skills, like agility, in contextual environments, with players thinking and being suitably challenge, is essential to make better players, and indirectly making me a better coach. Just building capacities is, in my view, way more boring (although often times a vital piece of the puzzle)."

Training skills, whether it is agility in any sport, passing in football, dribbling in basketball, putting in golf, in contextual environments with players thinking, with a suitable level challenge is my favourite puzzle to solve as a coach and teacher.

Why are Games so captivating?

One of my favourite pieces of research ever is JP Gee's 2005 paper - Learning by design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines. Video games are a lot of fun, so much so that they are fast becoming some of the most popular forms of sport on the planet (have a look at esports on youtube). This paper outlines why the design of video games are so engaging, how video game creators get people to spend hours learning their complex game and enjoy learning it, and outlines a number of principles that can be used in other forms of game design to enhance learning and create a love of learning.

Broadly speaking, the 3 core principles of good game design are 1) empowered learners, 2) problem solving and 3) understanding. Within each of these core principles, there are a number of sub-principles that combine to provide a captivating and educational experience for the user.

Empowered Learners

- Co-design: students have an input into the games they play - they are active agents (producers) rather than just passive recipients (consumers),

- Customise: students can change their racket size to make their badminton game more accesible.

- Identity: students can feel like a captain with some responsibility.

- Manipulation and distributed knowledge: having a rotating team manager or head coach during a game of rugby to promote the sharing of knowledge.

Together these principles combine to make learners feel as though they are responsible for their learning, and they will take more pride in their performance. Regarding empowered learners, I have touch on co-design previously when discussing agility:

I don't need to have a know-it-all approach to training. Tapping into the experiential knowledge of those around me (coaches and players) is how to maximise the training environment. Perhaps this is also a framework for working in other sports?

Problem Solving

- Well ordered problems: early problems presented to students are first in simplified environments (more space/time to execute) before progressing to more challenging environments.

- Pleasantly frustrating: Opitmal challenge point, the goldilocks effect. If problems are too difficult, students will lose interest. "Keep goals out of reach, but not out of sight."

- Cycles of expertise: Rather than constantly challenging students with added complexity, it is suitable to not increase task difficulty, to allow the student to execute well and gain confidence to realise their own personal growth. Always feeling like a novice will demotivate students.

- Information just in time: Optimal timing of cues allows students to use the information approatiately.

- Fish tanks: Is the learning environment representative of the competitive environment?

- Sandboxes: Do students have a safe space to fail, both physically (having gymnastics mats down during a new routine) and emotionally (can students make a mistake without fear of ridicule?)

- Skills as strategies: Skill practice is more effective when the learner understands the context of the skill. In badminton, does the student understand when they would use the overhead clear in a game, or are they just practicing the skill because they were told to? Explicitly connexting the dots can aid buy-in.

So much of this is down to the physical environment, but also the emotional side of solving problems. How can learners be creative and risk being wrong if they are going to be punished for making mistakes? If a consumer was playing a video game and they only had one life, how engaged would they be? Learners need to be able to try new things and fail with fear of ridicule or fear of judgement.

Creating environments that allow for empowered learners and problems to be solved with creativity is not just a matter of designing an appropriate game, but the leader (teacher or coach) must not allow their ego to get in the way of maximising the learning opportunity for their learners - this could mean asking for help, or it could mean not winning every game. The coach at the top of the page, Pep Guardiola, epitomises this everywhere he goes.


- System thinking: learners need to understand how their actions impact others in a game. In football, if a centre-half sits very deep but the midfield are implementing a high press, the midfield will have a lot of ground to cover if the opposition can break through the midfield press. Playing various positions in a game can help with this understanding.

- Meaning as action image: learning become deeper when learners can relate an abstract concept to a concrete example. The concept of an overlap can be made concrete with the use of a +1 winger on either side of a modified game.

Combining all of these principles into every single game is a very difficult challenge. There are video game designers who are paid a lot of money to design video games that are captivating and engaging. Rather, this is a list that can be used to evaluate how captivating a game is by assessing it against the principles. If a teacher designs a game that asks students to solve problems, but the students were not involed in the game and there is no transfer to the learning objective (no understanding), then the game is not likely to be a useful learning strategy.

I want to finish with part of the final paragraph from that paper from JP Gee in 2005:

"The traditionalist are right that learners cannot be left to their own devices, they need smart tools and, most importantly, they need good designers who guide and scaffold their learning (Kelley, 2003). For games, these designers are brilliant game designers like Warren Spector and Will Wright. For schools, these designers are teachers."

As teachers/coaches, we are architects. We are designing the environment in which learning takes place.


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