December 21, 2017

Matthew Farber

Games, Hacking, and the 21st Century Skill of Systems Thinking

Topics: Kids And Creativity, Creativity, STEM Education / Play, Learning Through Play

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All games are systems: the rules (or constraints), components (game pieces), space (from a soccer field to a game board to a tablet screen), and goal (to win!) interconnect. A game’s interconnected system is driven by player actions; as players learn a game, they also learn its system. Scholar James Paul Gee wrote, “Games encourage players to think about relationships, not isolated events, facts, and skills. In a game like Rise of Nations, for instance, players need to think of how each action taken might impact their future actions and the actions of the other players playing against them as they each move their civilizations through the Ages.” Similar to the aforementioned civilization building game Rise of Nations, the city management series SimCity tasks players with balancing a complex urban system. Another systems thinking game is Plague, Inc., in which players release a pathogen into a map of the world. Playing it illustrates how actual infections spread around the globe.

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Systems thinking is a lens to view the world as a series of interconnections. What’s more, it is a “habit of mind,” and a 21st century workforce skill. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, systems thinkers can “analyze how parts of a whole interact with each other to produce overall outcomes in complex systems.” And, as noted in an MIT report, when children play games, they “pay explicit attention to the status of games as dynamic learning systems, as rule-based models supporting specific ways of knowing and doing” (p. 85).


Exploring Systems

One way to learn about systems is to play Nicky Case’s many “explorable explanations,” or playable blog posts. In Simulating the World (in Emoji), after placing emoji images of trees fires on a grid, players can run a simulation, or series of casual feedback loops, to see the results. According to Case, the point of explorable explanations is to give a canvas to experiment, or tinker and hack, systems. By experimenting with systems, you can think with systems. As Case writes, “all complex systems have things in common. So in a way... Financial crises are like forest fires.”

Of note from Case (and Vi Hart) is Parable of the Polygons, an award-winner, where squares and triangles illustrate serious themes of segregation and discrimination through cause-and-effect loops. Try having students use Case’s Loopy tool, a drag-and-drop sandbox to make causal feedback loops, the most granular part of systems. There are sample loops of simple and complex systems too, such as: What happens when more foxes are added to a population of rabbits? How might automation affect employment in the United States?



Hacking Systems

Hacking games—that is, modifying existing games by changing small parts, like adding or subtracting rules or changing win conditions to be collaborative rather than competitive—offers a readymade solution to embedding 21st century skills of systems thinking, design thinking, empathy (for the player’s experience), and team collaboration into student projects. Hacking means that even if one element of a game system changes, the entire dynamic changes.

In classrooms, first model it by having students hack and mod (modify) musical chairs. Try balancing a book on your head while scrambling to sit when the music stops! Similarly, hack rock-paper-scissors. What happens if a fourth option or a third player is added? Or challenge students to hack tic-tac-toe by changing the size of the grid (4x4 instead of 3x3). All of this can be done with a simple prompt: “How can you change this to make it more fun?”

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Scratch, the free coding tool from MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Lab, is a terrific platform to hack and modify digital games. Simply search for a playable game, like the classic Pong, and then click “See Inside” to see the visual programming blocks. Finally remix the code and see how your change affects the game’s system.

Finally, consider your classroom to be a system, much like a game. After all, there are rules, a space, and goals. Consider the geography of your classroom, and the constraints of bell schedules. What happens to your class system if you remove your desk altogether from the classroom, and only use mobile devices to facilitate instruction? What happens when you codesign lesson plans with students?

For more on the suggested activities, check out our free Game Jam Guide. And to learn more on how games model systems, check out this short video, or download the Q Design Pack on Systems Thinking from the Institute of Play. Or check out my work at


Matthew Farber, Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Technology, Innovation, and Pedagogy program at the University of Northern Colorado. His research is at the intersection of teacher education, learning technologies, and game-based learning. Dr. Farber has been invited to the White House, and he has been interviewed about games and learning by NPR, Fox News Radio, USA TODAY and The Wall Street Journal. His book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning — Revised Edition (Peter Lang, 2017) features a foreword from USA TODAY’s Greg Toppo. He is the also co-editor of the Game Jam Guide (Carnegie Mellon University: ETC Press, 2017). His latest book, Game-Based Learning in Action: How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches with Games (Peter Lang, 2018), has a foreword from James Paul Gee.

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