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Published June 8, 2021

Moments of reflection are an important part of ethical play. These times at which players stop and consider what the right thing is to do have value both for entertainment and education. There is something enjoyable about ruminating on whether we have made the right decisions and what might have otherwise happened, even when those decisions might have been unpleasant at the time. For serious games, there is also the hope that such reflection can lead to a reexamination of our real-world attitudes and behaviours, and critical reflection on wider social issues. Much has been made of this power of games in theoretical work (such as Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy) but as is often the case, there has been less empirical evidence to back up these claims.

Part of the reason for this is the difficulty in measuring reflection in the first place. As the authors of this paper point out, inviting players to talk about reflection is inviting them to reflect. Determining when unprompted reflection occurs is very difficult. Also, reflection takes time. True transformative and critical reflection does not happen very often, and is often the result of a wide variety of experiences. To measure reflection we need to understand that it occurs at a variety of different levels, which occur at different frequencies. In this paper, the authors use Fleck and Fitzpatrick’s “levels of reflection” as a guide. They are:

  1. Revisiting / non-reflective description, in which the player mentally revisits past events without further evaluation.
  2. Reflective description, in which the player explains the past events by appealing to known theory and evaluates the outcomes.
  3. Dialogic reflection, in which the player looks for relationships between experiences and considers alternative explanations, through questioning and hypothesising.
  4. Transformative reflection, in which the player reexamines their personal behaviours are attitudes with the outcome of new insights or behavioural change.
  5. Critical reflection, in which the player reevaluates their stance on broader social an ethical issues.

The authors apply these levels as a part of a coding scheme to analyse interview transcripts in which players were ask to describe “thought-provoking experiences” they had had during play. The study was not based on a particular game time, rather players were welcome to talk about any game that had caused them to reflect. As such, the responses pertain to a mixed variety of games, but this does aid the validity of the study insofar as the games described are necessarily ones that have stuck in the players’ memories, and so their reflections are likely to be real and unprompted.

As might be expected, the responses primarily consisted of the ‘lower’ levels of reflection, with instances of transformative and critical reflection being almost completely absent. This shouldn’t be surprising. Instances of life-changing reflection are rare and perhaps not easily talked about. What is interesting is the players’ enjoyment of reflecting. Some players talked about the moments on thinking about the game while away from the computer as a valuable part of the experience. However there was also some hesitancy to treat games as something “deep” and worthy of reflection, perhaps due to cultural conceptions of the value of games.

For us as designers, the paper raised an interesting question of how to design for reflection. It suggests that reflection requires the player to pause from play and to take a evaluative stance, and so is incompatible with the constant immersion that is often a design goal. Many of the moments of reflection described by players are moments of being “stuck” and having to step away from the game to think about what to do. How do we design to encourage such moments.

We should also consider the post-game experience. How are players invited to reflect on their experiences once the game is over? In classroom activities this is often done via a specific debriefing session. In a less formal way, online discussion forums can allow players some of the same experience. They invite players to think about their experiences and communicate them with others. Such storytelling invites reflective description, and comparing your experience with others’ can invoke dialogic reflection. The question of whether the higher levels of reflection can be achieved this way is still open.


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