Digital Education informed games making

14 Dec 2020
Decorative image of board game pieces


My name is Hugh O’Donnell and I am a Secondary English Teacher of English at Port Glasgow High School, Inverclyde.

Tell us about your connection to the Centre for Research in Digital Education?   

My connection with the Centre for Digital Education began when I embarked on the E-Learning Masters Programme under the tutelage of Dr Hamish MacLeod and Professor Sian Bayne, whereupon I graduated in 2014 with a Masters Degree in E-learning.

My research ‘Games-Based Learning as an Interdisciplinary Approach to Literacy across Curriculum for Excellence’ used the multi-user simulation game, Mars Colony Challenger (MCC), which portrays a scientifically accurate Mars colonisation mission, as a way to facilitate both scientific and literary development, whereupon the secondary pupils then produced written narratives that captured the experiential learning undertaken.  The resulting research continued to be utilised by the Digital Education programme during subsequent international academic events (Erasmus+, MITAMalta), and was later accepted as an academic paper at Glasgow University’s Press Start

I have recently signed a formal agreement with Compass Games in the US to publish The Troubles: Shadow War in Northern Ireland 1964-1998, which, set against the context of the conflict of Northern Ireland, is a card-driven table-top simulation that allows participants to immersively explore this critical period in European history from the perspectives of six key Factions. They are: the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the British Army (and Ulster Defence Regiment), the IRA, the Loyalist paramilitaries, the Nationalist and the Unionist Parties (both of which are conflated representations of the different parties that were in existence).

Dr Hamish MacLeod

Professor Sian Bayne

The Troubles: Shadow War in Northern Ireland 1964-1998

Decorative image of game
Decorative image of mural


Why has games-based learning been so influential?

At the simplest level, games-based learning offers students a platform where they can engage in Talking and Listening activities: to collaborate, explain, debate, critique – to empower.  However, as a language specialist, by applying pedagogical design principles and instructional design theory one can harness the Four Capacities of Literacy – Reading, Writing, Talking and Literacy – adapting or customising existing games - or creating bespoke materials - to allow learners to engage in cross-curricular and interdisciplinary learning contexts, all of which are underpinned by Literacy.

It is these narratives – co-constructed through social-interaction, and grounded by the context and theme of the game itself – that allow students to have an agency within historical or ahistorical experiences.


How has the physical game/simulation been informed by your MSc Digital Education?

The MSc in Digital Education not only equipped me with the skills and knowledge that allowed me to consider the pedagogical aims and outcomes of this game-based project, but also the moral and ethical implications involved in using such approaches to learning.  Therefore, the MSc Digital Education is inextricably-linked to the development of what will hopefully be internationally recognised as a serious, academically-informed approach to the study of a key political event of the 20th century – one which presents it through a very different medium, but which facilitates a more mimetic approach.



What advice would you give to an educational researcher looking to commercialise their research in some way? 

Commercialisation should not be – and hasn’t been for me – the primary intention. The ability to realise the potential of one’s skills and knowledge are of primary importance to any educator, as they are transferrable to the classroom in ways that can enhance learners’ experiences. The opportunity to work with highly respected international specialists from across a variety of disciplines is richly-rewarding, too.


Do you have a favourite digital / physical game?

My Digital Life began with the Spectrum 48K, but there are far too many titles to single out as a ‘favourite’. Silent Hunter III was the first PC game that really captured my attention as a ‘tool’ and was utilised to support a World War II-themed Literacy and English activity in 2012.  Physical game? Traditional: Scrabble; modern: Advanced Squad Leader.


What organisations have been most supportive?

The boardgame world has a wonderfully helpful – and critical – community, populated by many professionals and academics who are leaders in their fields.

GMT Games in the USA was the bedrock and launch-pad: the initial design was based on an existing game mechanic (COIN – counterinsurgency) developed by Volko Ruhnke (ex-CIA!). GMT – courtesy of Jason Carr – also introduced me to Domnhall Hegarty, graphic designer on a number of world-renowned titles and responsible for producing such evocative and important imagery associated with The Troubles; and Padraic Burke, who has a pedigree as a play-tester for GMT games, and been instrumental in the role of Critical Friend.

Integral to the design of The Troubles is the historical accuracy, which could not have been facilitated without the input from: Dr John O’Neill,  former researcher and lecturer in Archaeology in Queens University Belfast and University College Dublin, Martin Cleemann Rasmussen, lecturer in Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism at DIS: Copenhagen; and Dr Anthony Stanonis, Queens University, Belfast.

Howard Avis' contributions are too numerous to mention here, but of particular note is the well-researched mechanic for the Peace Sequence of Play: this models the intricacies of the public and the hidden machinations of peaceful negotiations between sovereign states and paramilitary organisations. Both the tension and an understanding of the fragility of such undertakings are hoped to be conveyed to participants.

And Enrico Viglino (Calandale on YouTube) who provides play-throughs and very serious and considered musings and reviews of many games, which span decades.  


What advice would you give to someone looking to develop a game?

Have an educational aim: considerations of the learning objectives is important – and this process of enquiry may reveal links to other curricular areas, identify aspects that – for non-English specialists – could support a whole-school approach to improvements in attainment in Literacy. Have a narrative: empirical evidence supports the benefits of using stories to deliver subject content, leading to greater engagement, improved grades, and longer knowledge retention. Be resilient: the drafting process is as rewarding as seeing the finished product.



What’s next?

VPJ Arponen (designer of COIN Series Volume X All Bridges Burning) has just produced the VASSAL module, the game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games and card games online. The Troubles will undergo thorough playtesting.  To get involved with playtesting you can download and install the VASSAL engine.

Download and install the VASSAL engine

Open and install Troubles_0.2.vmod. Then load ‘1964 - 1-5.vsav’.  You will see the scenario setup. Scenarios are punctuated by General Elections – 1964-1970, 1970-1974, etc.

Compass Games are already interested in a prequel to The Troubles, therefore I am undertaking the necessary academic reading and preliminary game mechanic design. It will cover the period 1885 until 1922: the three Home Rule Bills, the Easter Rising and World War One, and final partitioning. 1912: Hope or History is the working title.

Should I find the funding – and time – I would like to undertake Doctorate-level studies in connection with games-based learning and literacy.