Digital Culture and Communication

The Digital Culture and Communication section of ECREA

Raquel de Castro Dantas Cavalcante: “Datacratic” faults in digital learning games

Raquel de Castro Dantas Cavalcante
University of São Paulo


Among the main reasons used for the purchase of digital learning games by schools are the ‘so called’ proposed high levels of engagement among the students. Vendors say that they are capable of transforming educational processes by facilitating content understanding and skills development; that they help enhance student interests on each subjects dealt; and that they provide a personalized means of learning, supported by a comprehensive monitoring of all user activities throughout sophisticated algorithms. Although it is very common to see such discourses impress, especially the optimistic side of educators and parents with the use of new technology trends in educational programmes, we consider the following questioning: is the requirement of learning analytics in the use of digital games for educational purposes consistent with the idea of ​​attracting student interest and promoting an educational process that develops attitudinal aspects? In that reflection, our goal is to understand the possible flaws in the use of learning analytics in that field, by identifying in what ways it can break with some fundamental elements of ludic experiences and in the perception of the educational potential of digital games in general, without the educational label.


We situate learning analytics in the use of digital games for educational purposes as a factor that occurs within the datification phenomenon, a process in which analogical and digital environments are becoming increasingly wiser with the data application. In that sense, we use the term “Datacratic” (RADFAHER, 2015) in an ironical perspective, in reference to the notion of numerical imagination presented by Morosov (2013).The author defines numeric imagination as a predisposition to seek out quantitative and linear casual explanations to everything, which is often inappropriate to describe complex systems, such as digital games.


Considering the field of Virtual Learning Environments  (VLE), the use of learning analytics in game experiences is considered important to make feasible and active communication between the game and the VLE, allowing more sophisticated uses of in-game information (assessment, adaptation, etc.). This kind of feature inserts the game to the  “White box” integration model, contrary to the “Black box” model, which considers games as independent pieces of content that can be launched from the VLE but with no active communication (DEL BLANCO ET AL, 2013). The in-generated data is so used to provide actionable insights that can be used to personalize each student’s learning environment, to provide formative or summative assessment, and also so predict the best course on the future,  allowing educators to track what works and what doesn’t – and adjust them accordingly.


Although such possibilities are very useful, our intention is to identify its possible flaws. The first one involves the enjoyment aspect. According to Benjamin (1984), enjoyment is related to autonomy and freedom. In his studies about games, playing and education, he emphasises how difficult it is for those who develop games and toys to predict what will be fun for those who will play them. In any analysis focused on children’s behavior, the author comments that adults are not able to predict exactly what will be fun for kids, since children create themselves enjoying possibilities on playing games. Considering that monitoring interactions in the use of games with the intention of identifying behaviors that indicate learning levels depends on a certain predictability of use, behaviors that may be more interesting and fun for gamers, such as random exploration of environments or intentional mistakes to figure out different effects, can generate usage report errors, and therefore skew interpretations. If one of the main arguments in favor of using digital games for learning lies in engaging users/students in playful experiences, we can infer that promoting predictable interactions to obtain reliable analytics can limit the fun aspect itself.


The second flaw we like to point out is that the use of data analytcs in game experiences is easier to implement and be analyzed as the educational goals are related to the reinforcement of contents and skills, and not so much to the behavioral aspects. In this case, we introduce the potential of using digital games to promote reflections associated with group discussions, a proposal that is much more aligned with the socio-interactionist approach proposed by Vigotsky (MIRANDA, 2013). In this kind of active pedagogical method, games are useful to encourage imagination and planning capacities that can be developed in other fields of interaction (socializing with friends, family, teachers, etc.), a kind of practice that opens an educational potential not only in digital educational games, but also in entertainment games.


By the fact that traditional model of education privileges the “scientific” thinking of using controlled experiments, in which the exposure of students (and in our case, players) to a certain treatment (PAPERT, 1994) necessarily involves the concern for reaching measurable results, we see much more openness to the use of games that generate some kind of learning performance report than the ones that promote a freely experience, and therefore involve more complex evaluation processes. Considering that implementing learning analytics in the use of digital games for educational purposes is an important selling point in the field of educational technology products, we propose another way of viewing the “White box” model for digital learning games. Using the “black box” concept adopted by Flusser (1985), understanding a digital learning game experience involves understanding the intention behind a chain of “devices”, such as publishers and educational systems.


We conclude this reflection by proposing some recommendations. Firstly, we believe that learning analytics, when designed along the game development, should be considered as important as the fun aspects of the game. Secondly, we defent the idea that the belief on the necessity of learning analytics in all gaming experiences for educational purposes inhibits teachers and students to benefit from the potential of entertainment games, specially when the learning goal is to stimulate the debate in order to develop attitudes. Both aspects are within a broader vision for the use of digital games for educational purposes, proposing a perspective that shows benefits not only for the facilitation of instruction, but also to enrich learning paths for integral education experiences.


Author bio: I’m a project manager in an EdTech consultancy firm and researcher on the use of digital learning games. Currently, I’m a Masters student in the Postgraduate Program in Communication Sciences of the Communication and Arts School of the University of São Paulo and collaborator in the “Datacracia” research group, which analyzes “big data” technologies that use computational theories to predict dynamics and interactions. I’m graduated in Interaction Design with emphasis on Design Thinking at the Impacta Technology College and undergraduated in Social Communication with Major in Advertising at the Communication and Arts School of the University of São Paulo.



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