Digital Debris

Embodiment, digital games & technology in Education

Embodiment, Technology and Locative Play

Had lots of fun interacting with people in the chatroom at today's joint LT SIG webinar and Keynote for the Virtual Round Table conference.

It was also great to have the luxury of a whole hour to talk about the things that most interest and excite me about language learning and technology (and a bit of German philosophy along the way!). 

Spywalk nominated for an ELTon!

Spywalk Logo.jpg

My Spywalk project has been nominated for an ELTon award! It looks like I'm the only individual teacher in the group too. All the others in the category of Digital Innovation appear to be companies or collectives and they're quite an impressive bunch of very worthy nominees.


ELTon Nominated.jpg

Many thanks to all the students who have participated in Spywalk as the gameplay and tech were being prototyped, and special thanks to Mark Appleby who has twice volunteered his sunglasses, fedora and espionage services. He's very sneaky.


Pervasive Games and Mobile Technologies for Embodied Language Learning


The electronic version of my IJCALLT article on pervasive games, mobile tech and embodied learning is (finally!) available online. Unfortunately I can't share the full article here as the journal is not open access, but here's the link and abstract along with the sample intro page they let you download for free. For anyone who came to my IATEFL talk in Glasgow last year, this article is essentially a write-up of some of the thought, theory and practice of my experiments with spatiality, location-based game mechanics and TESOL.


Thanks to the rapidly increasing adoption of mobile communications and wireless technologies, language educators are now empowered to sculpt interactions and design learning experiences using the real world as their canvas. City streets, shopping centres, cafés, and cemeteries can be augmented with new layers of meaning and narrative as learner-players use their language skills to navigate the chaotic and unpredictable environment of everyday life and achieve their objectives. Spatially expanded games provide a natural way to situate language production in context-rich, authentic settings, in contrast to the comparatively sterile confines of the traditional classroom. They are multimodal, multi-sensory, and highly personal immersive experiences. This paper explores the potential of technology-enhanced pervasive urban games for language learning and the pedagogic and philosophical foundations upon which these ideas are based. Examples are provided from an ongoing location-based research project.


Embodiment, Space, and Meaning

Across the Cartesian divide, movement prefigures the lines of intentionality, gesture formulates the contours of social cognition, and, in both the most general and most specific ways, embodiment shapes the mind.

(Gallagher, 2005)

In How the Body Shapes the Mind (2005, p. 206) philosopher and cognitive scientist Shaun Gallagher argues for the centrality of the body in how we perceive the world and interact with others. He rejects the idea that we understand others predominantly on a conceptual level, either by employing theoretical models, “... postulating the existence of mental states in others and using such postulations to explain and predict another person’s behavior.” or through the use of mental simulations to “emulate what must be going through the other person’s mind” as a form of “imaginary rehearsal.” Instead, Gallagher takes a more pragmatic stance based on the phenomenological viewpoint that our “... primary and usual way of being in the world is pragmatic interaction (characterized by action, involvement, and interaction based on environmental and contextual factors), rather than mentalistic or conceptual contemplation...” (Gallagher, 2005, p. 212) and suggesting that we “...think of communicative interaction as being accomplished in the very action of communication, in the expressive movement of speech, gesture, and the interaction itself...” (Gallagher, 2005, p. 212).

Typically, classroom language pedagogy and teaching materials also implicitly define the process of second language acquisition as an internal, cerebral process. This is largely the legacy of nineteenth century industrial schooling and is expressed in both the design and affordances (Gibson, 1986) of physical learning spaces and the sociocultural conventions that guide behaviour within them. Language is commonly treated as particulate and this is commonly articulated through the dissec- tion and analysis of the second language (L2) and its component parts. The course materials come pre-packaged and represent knowledge in discrete, rational and usually linear chunks. This pedagogic tradition, stemming from the application of Cartesian and Enlightenment principles, has survived through the mangle of Taylorism and Fordism to reach the classrooms of the 21st century as a stubborn anachronism.

Charts and tables containing prescriptive grammar rules and lists of non-transitive phrasal verbs are a staple of L2 course books, together with drilling exercises, vocabulary lists, sanitised role-play and linguistically sterile listening comprehension tests. The experience of classroom language learning is all too often cognitively rather than contextually weighted, and might be compared to attempting to learn to drive by studying car mechanics. The goal is complex, nuanced, socially embedded and physically embodied and yet the process is streamlined, sequential and dissociated from everyday settings. Context and communicative authenticity become peripheral considerations as learning is mediated through the reductive filter of metalinguistic grammatical rules and learners struggle to reconstruct meaning from component parts. This is also a consequence of both the inherent and perceived affordances of the learning spaces in which language is commonly taught, i.e., classrooms. According to James Gee,

Learning does not work well when learners are forced to check their bodies at the schoolroom door like guns in the old West. School learning is often about disembodied minds learning outside any context of decisions and actions. When people learn something as a cultural process their bodies are involved because cultural learning always involves having specific experiences that facilitate learning, not just memorizing words. (Gee, 2004, p. 39)

In recent years, however, there has been increased interest in more phenomenological approaches to learning which traverse the Cartesian boundary by shifting focus to the lived experience of language learning as it is embedded in the life-world (Husserl, 1936) of the learner. This has led to a shift towards theoretical frameworks which emphasise the importance of the sociocultural aspects of learning (situated cognition, social constructivism, cognitive linguistics, connectivism and embodied cognition to name but a few). This has resulted in what is now a broad multi-disciplinary awareness of the importance of context, intentionality, emergence and embodiment in understanding how we learn and the nature of human experience. There is also a growing body of evidence to support the “situatedness” of human behaviour from the overlapping fields of ecological and environmental psychology (Gibson, 1977; Barker, 1969) and human-computer interaction (HCI) (Dourish, 2001) in the context of learning environments.

Although these shifts have been somewhat slow to transfer to the practice of everyday class- room language teaching there is now, generally, an increased focus on less prescribed instruction and more interactive heuristic approaches such as Content-based Instruction (CBI), (Brinton, Snow, & Wesche, 2003) Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) (Mehisto, Marsh, & Frigols, 2008), Task-based Language Learning (TBLL) (Prahbu, 1987), and the Dogme English Language Teaching (Dogme ELT) movement and methodology (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009). However, while these approaches de-emphasise the structural accuracy of L2 in favour…


Social Mobile Web 2.0 Conference, Dublin 2012

I had an absolutely fantastic time giving my "playshop" this morning "M-learning in and out of the classroom: Locative Play and Mobile Media Creation". The attendees were a bright, eclectic and creative bunch of motivated teachers who approached the hands-on section with such vigour that I often felt guilty interrupting them to check on their progress and supply feedback.

Some lively and critical discussion followed each of the group presentations and i've already heard that several of the participants from different schools in Dublin are going to get together and try to take what they learned today further and adapt and build upon it to apply to their own teaching context. I'll be excited to see how that turns out and very happy to help out wherever I can.

For those who were unable to attend I've embedded a clip of the slides I prepared to introduce the first section. I had to remove some of the embedded videos clips and also the invader clip (which can be found by clicking on the yellow Invader link at the top of this page) to keep the file size down to a manageable level.

Ways of seeing ways of being

One of the things that has recently been keeping me occupied is my entanglement with 3 theoretical stances that each inform my exploration of gameplay as embodied interaction and my research on pervasive games and language learning as a whole. These are Phenomenology, and two "anthrodecentric" ways of thinking, ANT ( Actor-Network theory) and OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology).

While attempting to trace the places in which the lines between these philosophies blur and solidify I came across this beautiful, thought-provoking clip by Ian Bogost, game designer, media philosopher and one of the key proponents of OOO.

Issue V of In English Digital

Better late than never! This edition shifts focus from Brazil to Portugal, with articles on everything from multimodal learning and video projects to critical thinking in teacher development. No article from me this time but I hope I've made up for it through my efforts with the design and illustration.

Enjoy and please share the link with anyone you think might be interested!

Appropriating Location

While pervasive games, the urban dérive, parkour, urbex and flash mobs may all be strategies for subverting and experiencing public spaces in different ways, the establishment is never slow to appropriate these very same tools. 

Here's an example of site-specific guerilla advertising that is very much in tune with these ideas. It uses street theatre, triggered by a button in the same way you might change channels on your TV with the remote, and prompting the same blaze of gunfire, action, sex and drama that we are used to viewing on our screens. For a brief moment it generates a hybrid world in which onlookers, in a clear state of cognitive and emotional dissonance, become participant observers in a fictional spectacle beyond their control.


Dewey 1916

I've just been re-reading Democracy and Education, one of the books that first inspired me to start thinking about pervasive games as a possible approach to second language development. This section, which is essentially a criticism of mind/body dualism, stood out to me. It's from chapter 11 entitled "Experience and Thinking".


"…In schools, those under instruction are too customarily looked upon as acquiring knowledge as theoretical spectators, minds which appropriate knowledge by direct energy of intellect. The very word pupil has almost come to mean one who is engaged not in having fruitful experiences but in absorbing knowledge directly. Something which is called mind or consciousness is severed from the physical organs of activity. The former is then thought to be purely intellectual and cognitive; the latter to be an irrelevant and intruding physical factor. The intimate union of activity and undergoing its consequences which leads to recognition of meaning is broken; instead we have two fragments: mere bodily action on one side, and meaning directly grasped by "spiritual" activity on the other."

Spywalk Classic

I happily just found out that my old site for the first version of Spywalk is still operational. It was built using iWeb, which Apple has now killed, so it's not likely to stay online for much longer. The site contains some images, texts and audio recordings produced during an early version of the game. You'll need to have Quicktime installed to view the embedded media reports. Enjoy!

IATEFL Conference Slides Glasgow 2012

Slides from my presentation on pervasive games and mobile technologies.



Every space is a learning space. Thanks to the rapidly increasing adoption of mobile communications and wireless technologies, language educators are now empowered to sculpt interactions and design learning experiences using the real world as their canvas. City streets, shopping centres, cafés and cemeteries can be augmented with new layers of meaning and narrative as learner/players use their language skills to navigate the chaotic and unpredictable environment of everyday life and achieve their objectives.

Spatially expanded games provide a natural way to situate language production in context-rich, authentic settings, in contrast to the comparatively sterile confines of the traditional classroom. They are multimodal, multi-sensory and highly immersive experiences. In this session I intend to explore the learning potential of technology-enhanced urban games and the pedagogic and philosophical foundations upon which I base these ideas. I will also critique current trends in gamification and propose a more ethical way forward. To illustrate this, I will provide an example of an ongoing research project that spans two cities in the north of Portugal, sharing my experience of several cycles of organising the game and my role as a participant observer.  At this juncture I will play and display some of the audio, video, text and photographs  that were generated through gameplay. To conclude, I will suggest ways in which easily available, off-the-shelf technologies can be combined to provide the scaffolding for their development and the potential pitfalls that a teacher-as-game-designer might encounter.




The Irony of Gamification

This appeared in issue 3 of the British Council's IED magazine

Perhaps I’m living in an echo chamber. On examination, my PLN does appear to be worryingly comprised of mostly like-minded peers and my RSS aggregators do a pretty decent job of trimming the fat by carefully curating the news and articles I encounter. Even taking that into consideration, over time I found myself secretly hoping that gamifiction was just a faddish neologism, but if it is, it’s proving to be an extremely stubborn one.

Don’t get me wrong, I love games. Board games, word games, card games, pervasive games, digital games — I study them, play them and have even designed a few. I also frequently use games in my classes. But we’re not talking about games here, we’re talking about “ifying” something that is not a game. To “ify” something (apologies to any hardline grammarians out there for contorting a suffix into a verb), is, according to the Cambridge online dictionary, “to cause an increase in the stated quality”. So, to gamify is to make a non-game more game-like by suffusing it with game-like qualities.

It’s not hard to understand why one would want to do this, especially in the field of education. Games are fun, intensely engaging and highly motivational systems. They can also be extremely complex, challenging and rewarding experiences. Modern video games can often take tens or even hundreds of hours to complete. They involve actively acquiring new skills, making difficult choices, digesting huge amounts of contextually situated information and repeatedly applying critical problem solving skills to overcome what may at first appear to be overwhelming obstacles. Gamers do all of these things routinely, voluntarily and enthusiastically. Many games are also extremely collaborative and social, with communities of practice spanning thousands of blogs, wikis and forums produced by and dedicated to players who want to share what they know and learn from others. What teacher wouldn’t want to imbue their lessons with more of these qualities? This is the siren-song appeal of gamification.

As with most things though, the proof of the pudding is to be found in the eating. And, to risk stretching the metaphor to breaking point, with the pudding of gamification, the problem lies in the ingredients used, the cooking technique applied and the chef on duty. Examples of gamified systems can be found all around us. Department stores and supermarkets have long co-opted the psychological power of the points and rewards game mechanic to promote customer loyalty and increased sales. Fast food restaurants routinely offer tokens and scratch cards which can be traded for fries and burgers and more recently location-based social networks like Gowalla and Fouresquare, which allow you to “check in” to specific real-world locations and earn virtual badges, have been used as promotional tools by shops and restaurants who offer discounts to frequent visitors. Arookoo, and many similar mobile apps, even turn the act of walking into a game by rewarding users with points and badges for the distance they cover while being tracked by the GPS in their phones.

Schools and universities all over the world are jumping on the gamification wagon to seemingly great effect. Back in 2010 I heard a radio interview with the headmaster of a school here in northern Portugal. They were in the second term of a trial which involved dishing out points, badges and rewards to their students for everything from good behaviour to test results and attendance. Classes were pitted against each other to accumulate the highest number of points and win rewards such as trips and prizes. This encouraged students to put pressure on anyone who appeared to be slacking, so as to boost the class average. The headmaster was enthused by the project and cited bucket loads of statistics revealing attendance improvements and test scores.

Another apparent “win” for gamification was the focus of an article in Forbes magazine earlier this year. The article, entitled “Education Meets World Of Warcraft” describes a polytechnic teacher who begins the academic year by informing his students that they all have an F, quickly calming the ensuing panic by adding that they can “level up”. According to the article he then, “...divides the class into small groups called “guilds,” which complete quests such as taking tests and making presentations to earn points and then advance to a new level. At the end of the course, he determines the grade by points and skill level.” Like the Portuguese experiment, gamifying the course led to significant performance improvements: “Ever since I turned education into a game”, he says, “the average letter grade in the class went from a C to a B, and attendance is almost perfect.”

The thing is, although many games use such points and rewards systems to track player progress, they are only the most superficial components and not fundamental to the experience of what a game is. They are but one of many ways of providing feedback to players about how close they are to achieving their goals. Of course, feedback is essential to learning as it helps you to keep on track and enables you to try out new strategies and see how well they work. Games of all kinds are great at providing immediate, frequent and intense feedback in multiple ways which are not always possible or practical in traditional learning environments. This rich feedback may be in the form of audio, video, haptics, social interaction or narrative progression among others. Furthermore, because the feedback is usually immediate, it is strongly situated in the context in which the action took place. Games are complex systems, a point which seems to currently be ignored by the majority of gamification proponents.

With most gamified systems and processes the feedback is provided in the form of a simple, superficial layer of points, badges and other rewards that are not contextually integral to the activity itself. In the field of education, this is compounded by the fact that we have already introduced such a feedback layer in the form of test scores, grade averages and certificates, so in essence we are rewarding the rewards, much in the same way as parents who give material gifts in return for As. I’ll leave that argument for another time.

Over the short term this approach may lead to measurable outcomes as students make an effort to perform better in order to achieve better results, or more attendance points. The unintended consequence of this is that it frames learning as being an action of accumulation, about gaining or having either material or virtual capital. The rhetoric is that of the age-old carrot and stick metaphor in which learners are conditioned to act and behave in certain ways in order to gain certain rewards. This is the classical operant conditioning model which externalizes motivation through the promise of extrinsic reward.

Students want to “have a degree” and “get a good grade” rather than be learners and it then becomes logical for them to ask questions such as “will this be in the test?”, in order to avoid wasting effort on unrewarded content (for more on the whole having vs being debate I highly recommend Fromm’s “To Have or to Be”). This attitude is precisely the opposite of what we should be encouraging if we want to produce a society of self-motivated and reflective lifelong learners. To make matters worse, although renaming classes as “guilds”, grades as “levels” and better marks as “leveling up” may manipulate learners into modifying their behaviour, it does so by reinforcing and perpetuating an anachronistic industrial model of education through concealment and thwarting intrinsic motivation. Prepackaged web 2.0 services like Class Dojo promise to enable teachers to:

"Create an engaging classroom in minutes” by providing “instant visual notifications for your students (‘Well done Josh! +1 for teamwork!’) with a whole host of game mechanics: think level-ups, badges and achievements to unlock, in-classroom games, avatars and leaderboards.

Similar gamification platforms are popping up every day, their brightly coloured, cutesy vector graphics thinly concealing the underlying rhetoric of increasing reward dependency and undermining intrinsic motivation.

Dewey expresses this nicely in chapter seven of The School and Society:

If there is not an inherent attracting power in the material, then (according to his temperament and training, and the precedents and expectations of the school) the teacher will either attempt to surround the material with foreign attractiveness, making a bid or offering a bribe for attention by "making the lesson interesting"; or else will resort to counterirritants (low marks, threats of non-promotion, staying after school, personal disapprobation, expressed in a great variety of ways, naggings, continuous calling upon the child to "pay attention," etc.); or, probably, will use some of both means.

...But the attention thus gained is never more than partial, or divided; and it always remains dependent upon something external —hence, when the attraction ceases or the pressure lets up, there is little or no gain in inner or intellectual control.

Such instrumental learning may be easy to implement and convenient for administrators to tidily quantify into grades and statistics, but we need real change in education, not merely a shift in perceptions. Games can help us achieve this if we respect and embrace their complexity and refrain from stripping them of their intrinsic power to motivate and engage learners on multiple levels. Educators can and should use games and game mechanics in different contexts, but they should do so reflectively and unravel their underlying rhetoric. Games can serve as excellent examples of how active and stimulating learning environments can be created for the purpose of learning, as good games already embody many of the characteristics of good learning principles (see James Gee for more on this and John Hunter’s World Peace Game for a real-world example of a gamified learning program that embraces the rich complexity of game dynamics).

So the problem of gamification is, somewhat ironically, that in the majority of its current implementations, it is not game-like enough. By overlooking the depth and breadth of the potential games have to empower and motivate learners and create meaningful experiences, and instead employing only a myopic and superficial game mechanic, popular gamification is doing a disservice to both learners and educators. Completing tasks in order to achieve an extrinsic reward is more akin to how we describe work in its most alienating form. One of the many things commonly missing from gamification is playful freedom. Playful freedom allows learners to take risks and test new strategies in an environment protected within the “magic circle” of gameplay, that is safe from real world consequences. An environment in which failing at challenging tasks is as integral a part of learning as succeeding, and the reward is the learning that takes place between the two, and what that skill or knowledge might empower you to do or be in the future. 


INVADER (playtest)

A small selection of the images and videos generated while playing Invader, a pervasive game for language learners I designed for my English language students in Portugal.


Spywalk Porto: Team Signup


Conspiracy, espionage, fake moustaches and secret agents

Yes, Spywalk is coming to the streets of downtown Porto!

After winning the last two games, the slippery spy with the conspicuous briefcase is feeling very proud of himself. But who knows? Perhaps this time he will meet his match.

The Mission:

Using stealth, deception, speed and technology, your team will have the chance to catch the enemy agent red-handed as he delivers highly sensitive documents to his mysterious contact. Track him as he moves through the city streets and identify enemy agents from other teams. Coordinate your movements using mobile phones as you track the spy by GPS and collect evidence.

Essential Equipment:

  • Mobile phone

  • Camera/camcorder

  • Voice recorder (if your phone or camera does not already have this function) I have several of these I can lend out.

Desirable Equipment:

  • Smartphone with internet access (a small netbook computer with mobile internet access will also be fine)

  • Mysterious sunglasses

  • Binoculars

  • Newspaper with eye-holes cut out (for covert surveillance)

When and Where?

The game will take place on July 2nd start at 11am. The game will take approximately 90 minutes but could extend to 2 hours. Each team will meet in a different location in the city centre (to be arranged).


If you do not have anyone on your team with a net-enabled smartphone or netbook then you should arrange to be in phone contact with someone who can monitor the spy's GPS signal on the Internet. I can help with this.

All hungry spies and secret agents will meet up for lunch, storytelling and media swapping immediately after the game has ended.


To register fill out the form here:


Real Name:
Email Address:
Spy Name
Mobile Number (to receive an SMS at the start of the game)
What game equipment do you already have? Mobile phone
Voice recorder
Smartphone with Internet access
Netbook with Internet access
What is your approximate English level? Beginner


This contact form was created by Freedback.