Are We Overlooking Paper Games?

As an educator, I’ve sometimes had the feeling that technology in school was an end in itself rather than a means to better learning experiences. Perhaps you’ve been there, too.

Technology absolutely has its place in learning. A big place, even, especially when it comes to digital games. But I’ve had two occasions this week to think about the place of games that don’t require modern technology, and to consider that they might be undervalued in the exploding field of educational gaming.

Data Theory Play llamas holding board game pieces

One was this article from the Hechinger Report about the Quest to Learn school in New York, which mentions a variety of games used for learning, including a role-playing game where students physically pretend to be bees or flowering plants. But some of the plants have been treated with pesticides that cause the bees to die: it’s a set-up for exploring probability and other math concepts. The student at the heart of the article, Etai, mentions playing Settlers of Catan for fun, and talks about applying his newly-learned understanding of probability to his play strategy. Katrina Schwartz reports at Mind/Shift that 90% of games at Quest to Learn and other game-based schools are not digital.

The other occasion came in conversation with a friend beginning her career teaching French to high school and middle school students.

“They don’t get excited about technology,” she told me. But when she breaks out a board game, they’re all ears.

An important difference between digital games and board games is the nature of players’ understanding of the rules, and this gives digital and board games very different strengths. Digital games can hide the rules that govern them, allowing for more complicated game mechanics. This is great for giving players rich, complex experiences and layers of options.


Board games, on the other hand, must be transparent. Players must know all the rules in order to play. This means there’s a limit to how complicated their mechanics can be, but it also means that players can come to understand exactly how those mechanics work, and this can be a strength for learning games. Etai’s application of probability to his Catan strategy is an example of this very strength.

Paper and physical games offer something else, too: a haptic experience. “Haptic” may have been co-opted by tech devices (my first experience with the word was in my smartphone settings), but when it comes to having a fully sensory experience of the world, touching real objects and physically moving things around is still something digital games don’t replicate. We’ve seen evidence that writing by hand is more effective for memory than typing; like handwriting, paper games offer a kind of bodily engagement that digital games don’t.

A large body of research in neuroscience, biopsychology and evolutionary biology demonstrates that our use of hands for purposive manipulation of tools plays a constitutive role in learning and cognitive development. Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing, By Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay

Have we been undervaluing board games and other non-digital games, in our excitement over the possibilities offered by digital tech? I think we might. What have your experiences been, as an educator or a designer, with student responses to paper games?


Full research citation: Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay (2010). Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing, Advances in Haptics, Mehrdad Hosseini Zadeh (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-307-093-3, InTech, DOI: 10.5772/8710. Available from:

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