Blog Post

How to Use OER Games in the Classroom

Amy Chen's Honors First Year Seminar at the University of Iowa, Fall 2016

How to use OER Games in the College Classroom

Amy Hildreth Chen


Play is fundamental to learning; so fundamental, in fact, that play is how animals, not just humans learn. While a wide range of pedagogical approaches, institutes, and other opportunities exist to facilitate play experiences in the classroom, most resources are devoted to early childhood or K-12 education. Presumably, by the time a student reaches college or graduate school, they have left their play days behind. But this does not need to be the case. Even though we associate play with children, play can be just as educational for adults. Bringing play to undergraduate and graduate students facilitates greater knowledge acquisition and retention by helping adults to open themselves up to new content while following best practices in pedagogy.

While commercial games can be incredibly useful, open educational resource (OER) games are even better, for they allow teachers to incorporate play in class not only for free, but also with content they can custom design for their subject and students due to the benefit of open licenses. OER Commons, a repository for OER content, includes 561 OER games for instructors to use. As of June 2018, 94 of these pertain to “community college/lower division,” “college/upper division,” or “graduate/professional”-level students. Although 94 games may seem to be a high number, OER Commons could benefit from further additions to its holdings, especially games that exist in paper-based forms rather than solely digitally.

Human(ities) Games proposes to help fill this curricular gap by providing peer reviewed OER games and corresponding curricula. Codex Conquest teaches the contemporary value of historical printed books and how these books changed history by contributing to technological advancements, scientific breakthroughs, artistic triumphs, and political shifts from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century. Mark teaches students to identify aspects of early modern visual culture, such as symbols and mottos, by playing a variety of games with a deck of cards made up of printers’ marks, also known as printers’ devices. Laysan Island teaches the conservation challenges associated individual bird species on a remote Pacific Island at the turn of the twentieth century; to win, students must save more species than happened historically. Egghead asks students to match male and female birds of the same species with their corresponding nest and egg to illustrate sexual dimorphism and the impact of habitat. Players who want more of a challenge can add each species’ English and Latin names to the puzzle. Each game can be played on its own or accompanied by a variety of enrichment activities, such as specially-designed visits to local holdings to see content related to the game, prompts to critique the game’s design to foster information literacy, assignments to expand or recreate the game according to new topic areas, and questions that allow students to use the game as a starting point for further research.

Lovangel Faulk, a Scattergood Friends School & Farm student, played Codex Conquest and then perused holdings from the University of Iowa’s Special Collections & Archives, April 2017.

Interview with a Rare Book Curator

If a visit to a local special collections repository, museum, or gallery is planned, ask students to compare the game’s components to the resources they see and/or prompt students to identify strengths and weaknesses in the local collection. It helps to ask a librarian, curator, or docent to discuss the collection’s history, any current exhibits, and qualities of individual pieces.

Attendees of the Rare Book and Manuscript Section (RBMS) of the American Library Association (ALA) annual conference play Codex Conquest in June 2017.

Enrich class conversations with questions that force students to think critically about a game’s construction. For example, ask whose viewpoints are represented or omitted from the game. If the game was created from the opposite perspective, what content would change? How would the game work differently? Or focus on the game’s mechanics, which is how the game works. Ask students to identify each component of the game (cards, timers, dice, tokens, and so forth) and how it operates to communicate content while generating play. How could different components or the same components used differently reengineer the game’s learning objectives? If students find those prompts difficult to answer, then ask them to write a review of the game. What does it do well and what could be improved?

Selected Codex Conquest redesigns from Serina Sulentic’s Spring 2017 undergraduate course in graphic design at the University of Iowa.

Graphic design tells consumers what to expect from a product. Games are no different; before players even begin, they have an expectation of what the experience will be like based on what they see on the box. Ask students to evaluate the game’s graphic design by having them identify the target audience, including age and educational level. Then prompt them to redesign how the game looks to suit a different audience using whatever media they prefer. Make sure to ask students to consider what the cost of their product and if it meets accessibility requirements for, say, color-blind or low-vision players.

Margaret Sheppard, a PhD student from the Department of English at the University of Iowa, plays a prototype of her incunabula deck for Mark.

Additionally, use the game to prompt your students to do additional research. After all, cards limit the amount of information on any one given item or topic. Through additional inquiry, students can flesh out what they saw during play to gain a broader perspective on the topic at hand. 


1 comment

Hello Amy,


I see that Human(ities) Games does a great job for us,  the people who want to incorporate games into their teaching. As you mentioned people (both children and adults) can learn by playing. I was not aware that there are premade games that can be used or customized for free. I especially took a look at the two games, Laysan Island and Egghead and I would like to reflect on them not only as a game studies scholar but also as a UX/UI designer.


I think there are too many little details that make Laysan Island a very good educational game. First and foremost, I loved that you made the game cooperative so the students can focus on the educational part instead of the competition between the players. As a side note, I think the narrator is not a player but the gamemaster/moderator/referee in Laysan Island since that person controls the time and reads the content based on the random dice roll. The scenarios are determined randomly and that gives replayability to the game and makes it more fun. The round events also target the bird traits instead of a specific type of bird that gives agency to the players. I believe such a gameplay experience that is based on role-playing will make the game both educational and fun.


On the other hand, I think Egghead lacks the Laysan Island's successful game elements. According to the game's rulebook, the player's goal is to match 4 types of cards of the same species: male, female, nest, and egg. I think this gameplay resembles the traditional written exam format where you match the items in the first group with the second group. I know that play can manifest itself in any activity, and a student can possibly play with written exam questions as well as Egghead. Your team also added another game mechanic, and you added patterns and shapes on the cards' edges to make it more like a puzzle game. I think it may help to a certain extent, but it also makes the game playable without paying attention to the actual content: birds, eggs, and nests. In order to make the game more educational without sacrificing the fun, I think it is possible to add some narrative as in Laysan Island.


In an alternative Egghead game version (see I love using open educational resources!):

  1. In this version, players will compete with each other, and it will be a turn-based board game.
  2. Players pick a bird card (this info is hidden to other players)
  3. Players will try to figure out the player that has the other bird card for the same species by asking questions where they can ask a question each turn.
  4. These two players go to a certain location on the map (yes, it board game) to build their nests.
  5. The players earn the egg to place into the nest and finish the game.

I was fortunate enough to be a part of a couple of educational games projects before. I believe that the educational game designers should not limit themselves to cover more educational materials or to add a traditional assessment system to evaluate player performances and use as a grade. I think Laysan Island is a great example of a successful educational game, but Egghead lacks some playful elements to cover more content.


These are my personal opinions and I really appreciate the idea of making open-access games. Thank you again for introducing OER games to us with a very informative blog post.