Play and Games

Looking back, I realise that my first encounter with gaming culture as it featured in young people’s lives was as a young teacher in the early 1980’s, when most of the boys I taught had copies of Jackson and Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy books sticking out of their schoolbags. The branching story structure was ripe for exploitation with the arrival of the first microcomputer in UK schools, the BBC B, and I and my classes would make such stories on the early Acorn wordprocessor, Wordwise.

My first encounter with children’s ‘traditional’ play was on a coach journey with a group of 11 year-olds, in 1987, hearing three girls in the seat behind singing clapping songs. After recording these the next day, and reading the Opies’ The Singing Game, I became interested, like many before and since, in the inventive engagement with language, music, rhythm, and culture that these forms of play represent. These themes, along with the links between traditional play and children’s media cultures, were central to the playground games project described below.

My research has wandered over a range of game-related themes: role-playing games (in a project with Diane Carr, David Buckingham and Gareth Schott); MMORPGs and virtual worlds (with Diane Carr and Martin Oliver); game-authoring with young people in the context of media education (with David Buckingham and Caroline Pelletier); machinima-making with young people; games and Shakespeare (with James Durran and Shakespeare’s Globe); children’s playground games, and the relationship between traditional games and videogames and other new media, with Jackie Marsh, Rebekah Willett, Chris Richards, Julia Bishop and Grethe Mitchell. This last project produced, among other outcomes, the British Library website Playtimes; and the Opie Collection of children’s games and songs.

This project is succeeded by a new one running from 2017-19 – Playing the Archive. In it, we digitise and catalogue the Opie manuscript archive at the Bodleian, containing accounts of play from the 1950’s-70’s by some 20,000 children, and build a VR play environment around selections from it, to be installed at the Museum of Childhood in London. I’m very happy to be working again with Jackie Marsh, Julia Bishop, John Potter and Steve Roud; and with new colleagues at the Bartlett School of Architecture’s CASA centre, at the Bodleian, and at the Museum of Childhood.
The selection of publications below explore some of these themes; and also try to articulate a very particular argument that can be made from the context of UK media education, amid the welter of debate and research about gamification, serious games and game-based learning: that it may be more important to include games in education as a cultural form in their own right, like film, literature, theatre, art and music, than to think of them as a way to remediate learning, interesting though that may be.



These videos are part of the British Library Playtimes site. They’re presented by members of the research team – myself, Rebekah Willett, Chris Richards and Steve Roud. they address a range of themes, from continuity and change to violence and play-fighting.




Burn, A, Bryer, T & Coles, J (2016) ‘Playing Beowulf: Bringing Literature, Drama, Media and Computing together in English for the new curriculum’. In Teaching English, National Association for the Teaching of English. Issue 12: no 69.

An article co-authored with UCL colleagues Jane Coles and Theo Bryer, describing the project on Beowulf in which we worked together with students, schools, UCL Anglo-Saxon and the British Library, exploring how Beowulf could be experienced through a range of creative activities in literature, drama and game-making.



Burn, A (2016) ‘Games, films and media literacy: frameworks for multimodal analysis’. In Knobel, M and Lankshear, C (eds) Researching New Literacies: Design, Theory, and Data in Sociocultural Investigation. New York: Peter Lang.

Games, Films and Media Literacy



Burn, A (2016) ‘Liber Ludens: Games, Play and Learning’. In Andrews, A, Haythornthwaite, C, Fransman, J, and Kazmer, M (2015) The Sage Handbook of e-learning Research, 2nd edition. London: Sage.

This chapter proposes a series of rationales for the inclusion of videogames in education, while challenging the current notion of gamification.




Burn, A (2014) ‘Children’s Playground Games in the New Media Age’. In Burn, A and Richards, C (eds) Children’s Games in the New Media Age, Farnham, Ashgate.

The draft introductory chapter of one of the books to emerge from our project on the Opies and children’s playground games. Like the Opies, we found that ‘traditional’ folkloric games successfully absorbed and transformed a wide range of material from children’s media cultures, including videogames.



Burn, A (2013) ‘Computer games on the playground: ludic systems, dramatized narrative and virtual embodiment’. In Willett, R, Bishop, J, Marsh, J, Richards, R & Burn, A (2013) Children, Media And Playground Cultures: Ethnographic studies of school playtimes. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Another outcome of the playground games project, this chapter looks at the ways in which videogames, particularly the Call of Duty series, are drawn on by boys in dramatic play on the playground.

Computer games on the playground



Jopson, L, Burn, A and Robinson, J (2014) ‘The Opie Recordings: what’s left to be heard?’ In Burn, A and Richards, C (eds) (2014) Children’s games in the new media age: Childlore, Media and the Playground. Farnham: Ashgate.

Yet another outcome of the playground games project. This chapter, written with British Library colleagues Laura Jopson and Jonnie Robinson, analyses selections from the Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs which we digitised and catalogued as part of the project. It identifies three themes, and considers Iona Opie’s approach to researching play.

The Opie recordings – WHAT’S LEFT TO BE HEARD



Bishop, J and Burn, A (2013) ‘Reasons for Rhythm: Multimodal Perspectives on Musical Play’. In Willett, R, Bishop, J, Jackie Marsh, M, Richards, R & Burn, A (2013) Children, Media And Playground Cultures: Ethnographic studies of school playtimes. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Another outcome of the playground games project, co-authored with Julia Bishop. We looked form a multimodal perspective at examples of handclapping games and dance routines.

Reasons for Rhythm



One more outcome of the playground games project – a chapter for a book memrging from a sister project in Australia. It analyses a cheerleading routine captured on video in the London playground, finding traces of a wide variety of cultural influences, remixed in the improvised choreography of three girls on the playground.

Burn, A (2012) ‘The Case of the Wildcat Sailors: The Hybrid Lore and Multimodal Languages of the Playground’. In Darian-Smith, K and Pascoe, C (eds) (2012) Children, Childhood and Cultural Heritage. London: Routledge.




Burn, A (2013) ‘Role-Playing’. In Wolf, M and Perron, B (eds) The Routledge Companion to Videogame Studies.  London: Routledge

A draft chapter on theoretical approaches to role-play in games, including Caillois’s mimesis, social semiotic analysis, and drama theory.

33 – Role-playing



Burn, A and Durran, J (2013) ‘Playing Shakespeare: Macbeth – Narrative, Drama, Game’. In Teaching English, National Association for the Teaching of English. Issue 1, February 2013.

This is an article for a UK English teachers’ professional journal, describing the outcomes of a collaborative project with Shakespeare’s Globe and Immersive Education Ltd. The project produced a game-authoring tool for young people to make their own games of Macbeth. Games made by 13-year-olds in the project, at Coleridge Community College in Cambridge, were played at The Globe in the concluding event. The image below is a screengrab from the design interface of one of the game levels, in which the player, as a first-person Lady Macbeth, confronts her husband before the murder of Duncan. The image links to an account of the project on the DARE site.

Playing Shakespeare




Burn, A (2011) ‘The Skeleton in the Seminar: Teaching and Learning in Virtual Worlds’. iVERG proceedings 2010, 1-12.

This was a keynote address to the iVERG conference at the University of Teeside, UK, 2011. It draws on research work with Diane Carr and Martin Oliver in an Eduserv-funded project on teaching and learning in virtual worlds (World of Warcraft and Second Life), as well as on my own experience of supervising a PhD student in Second Life.

Skeleton in the Seminar Andrew Burn



Burn, A (2010) ‘Rules of Grammar, Rules of Play: Games, Literacy, Literature’, in Locke, T (ed) Beyond the grammar wars: A resource for teachers and students on developing language knowledge in the English/literacy classroom., London: Routledge

A set of proposals for ways in which the ‘grammar’ of videogames could be used in English teaching alongside the grammar of language (and film) to explore general semiotic principles which apply, though differently across these different media.

Burn 2009 Rules of Grammar, Rules of Play



Burn, A (2009) ‘Machinima, Second Life and the Pedagogy of Animation’, in Burn, A (2009) Making New Media: creative production and digital literacies,  New York: Peter Lang

This chapter analyses the work of Britta Pollmuller, who ran a machinima club for teenagers within Second Life. It looks both at machinima as an art-form and at Second Life as a teaching and learning space.

Machinima chapter



Burn, A (2007) ‘The Case of Rebellion: researching multimodal texts’, in Lankshear, C, Knobel, M, Leu, D & Coiro, J, The Handbook of Research in New Literacies, New York: Laurence Erlbaum, pp 149-177

An analysis of a game made by a 13-year-old boy using the Missionmaker software from our Making Games project. The chapter uses multimodal analysis, and argues for a convergence of this method with the research traditions of Cultural Studies.

Burn 2007 Rebellion


Buckingham, D and Burn, A (2007) ‘Game-Literacy in Theory and Practice’, Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 16.3, October 2007

A proposed theoretical model of how game-literacy might be conceived in relation to broader notions of media literacy. We relate the theory to analysis of 12 year-olds’ game designs.

Buckingham Burn Game-Literacy



Burn, A and Schott, G (2004) ‘Heavy Hero or Digital Dummy: multimodal player-avatar relations in Final Fantasy 7’, Visual Communication, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer 2004

An early outcome of our project on RPGs. This article later became two chapters in our book, Computer Games: Text, Narrative, Play (Polity, 2006).

Burn 2004 Heavy Hero or Digital Dummy



Burn, A (2004) ‘Potter-Literacy – from book to game and back again; literature, film, game and cross-media literacy’, in Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature. Vol 14, No 2, pp 5-17, re-printed in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol 217, April 2006

Burn, A (2006) ‘Multi-text Magic: Harry Potter in book, film and videogame’, in Collins, F and Ridgman, J (eds) Turning the Page: Children’s Literature in Performance and the Media, Bern: Peter Lang

Two publications from a study of eight 13-year-olds’ engagement with the Harry Potter mythos across book, film and game, employing a multimodal analysis of all three texts along with interview data from the children.

Burn 2004 Potterliteracy

Burn 2006 Multi-text magic



Burn, A (2004) ‘From The Tempest To Tomb-Raider: Computer Games In English, Media And Drama’, English, Drama, Media Sheffield: NATE, Vol. 1, Issue 2, pp 19-25; reprinted in Telemedium, the Journal of Media Literacy, March 2005, National Telemedium Council: Madison, Wisconsin

An opinion piece on the value of games in English classrooms, first for an English audience, then in a themed edition on games for Telemedium in the US, which contained essays by, amongst others, Henry Jenkins, James Gee, Kurt Squires and Julian Sefton-Green.

From the Tempest to Tombraider



Burn, A (2005) ‘Sublime Spaces, sublime monsters: The Thing in film and game’, Intersection: journal of contemporary screen studies, Vol 1, No 2, Summer 2005

Another outcome from our RPG project. As part of the project, Diane Carr and I observed teenagers in Cambridge playing The Thing (a game homage to John Carpenter’s film of the same name), and interviewed its lead programmer, Diarmid Campbell, in London. This article analyses my own playing of the game employing theories of the sublime often used in the analysis of horror texts; and also uses material from the interviews.

Burn 2005 THE THING article



Burn, A and Carr, D (2003) ‘Signs from a Strange Planet: roleplay and social performance in anarchy Online’, conference proceedings, COSIGN 2003, 3rd conference on Computational Semiotics for Games and New Media, 10th-12th September 2003, University of Teesside, UK, pp 14-21

My conference paper, with Diane Carr, for the excellent COSIGN conference.

Burn Carr 2003 Signs from a strange planet



Burn, A (2003) ‘Returning to Hogwarts: the modality of computer games’. In Burn, A and Parker, D (2003) Analysing Media Texts. London: Continuum.

An analysis of modality systems in the videogame of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Knowwonder/EA). Modality, in social semiotic theory, is the semiotic system through which the validity, credibility, authenticity of a text is negotiated with the reader, viewer, player, and enables a new approach to old questions of realism.

Burn 2003 Analysing Media Texts CHAPTER 4



A talk in Second Life, via one of my SL avatars, Smallpiper, to postgrads of the London Screen Studies Group, mostly Film Studies students. It’s about machinima, multimodality, and young people’s film-making.