Educating human rights by using game elements
Author: Jeroen Knevel, HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht & HU Research Centre for Social Innovation
International Human Rights Education Conference is about teaching human rights. The
purpose of this convention is to protect and promote the right of people with disabilities to
participate equally in societal life. Implementation of the convention is a responsibility of the
national government. The Convention refers explicitly to three mechanisms: focal points,
coordination mechanisms and independent monitoring frameworks. Ministries, the parliament and
the courts should have a role in implementing and monitoring the Convention (UN 2012). In
relation to the process of implementation also educators bear responsibility to train their students
in accordance with the Conventions’ doctrine. Key is to raise awareness of the implications of the
Convention among students. One effective way of raising awareness and transferring knowledge is
achieved by engaging students actively by using games. At the Utrecht University of Applied
Sciences a social work course now includes an introductory lecture on human rights using objects
and a game that addresses the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
In educating human rights educators should not only want to transfer knowledge, but more
importantly, inspire students to change their behavior towards a more humans rights based
approach. Games are a way to change behavior. Furthermore, games are a means to ‘design
behavior’: “A game designer should be capable of seducing game players to demonstrate certain behavior.”
(Renger, 2015). The social work course on human rights will be explained in this paper. Besides,
with this paper I argue for using games and game elements in human rights education. The
argument encompasses the belief that teachers can be game designers and should be game
designers (see also Van Geffen, 2014). Using games and game elements should be part of their
Games offer a wide range of opportunities for teaching a variety of subjects. They encourage
active and self-directed learning which has proven to promote better understanding of the subject
matters that are taught (Oprins & Korteling 2013; Oprins et al 2013). Within higher education
games should be defined as serious games, which means that “we are concerned with serious games in the
sense that these games have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be
played primarily for amusement. This does not mean that serious games are not, or should not be, entertaining”
(Abt Associates 2005, in Djaouti et al 2010). In addition Karl Kapp (2012) defines serious gaming
to what is so useful in teaching human rights in a classroom: “A player gets caught up in playing a game
because the instant feedback and constant interaction is related to the challenge of the game, which is defined by the
rules, which all work within the system to provoke an emotional reaction and, finally, result in a quantifiable
outcome within an abstract version of a larger system”. This larger system comprises a set of
interconnected elements that occur in the space of the game – inside or outside the classroom.
These elements can be playing cards, dices, tasks that need be fulfilled to earn points, the narrative
of the game, the players, the rules, unpredictability, competition, collaboration etcetera. Serious
gaming is helpful to explain abstract theory provided that the content corresponds to social reality
as much as possible. Visualization and game elements support the learning process as it promotes
engagement to the game and the content.
Reflecting on social work teaching methods is necessary to monitor learning objectives, i.e.
whether student outcomes are accomplished and whether the educator has successfully taught the
material. Successful teaching requires knowledge about learning methods to which teaching
approaches and methods have to be adapted. Numerous research has demonstrated the effect of
several learning methods varying from passive learning methods to active learning methods.
Passive learning methods such as listening at lectures and reading literature are applied largely at
higher social work studies. Audio-visual aids in teaching are often added to the lectures to illustrate
theory or to present a case study, yet, it remains a passive learning method. Active learning
methods vary from group discussions, practice and teaching others – e.g. students teach each other
by organizing workshops. Edgar Dale (1969) developed a model that incorporates theories related
to instructional design and learning processes. Students generally retain information best by seeing
and hearing simultaneously (watching a demonstration), saying and writing (participating in a
hands-on workshop or classroom discussions, a role-play situation), and doing (simulation of a real
experience or going through the real experience). Edgar Dales’ model makes a case for what has
become known as ‘learning by doing’ or ‘experiential learning’. The model is a tool to help
educators make decisions about resources and activities to enhance learning.
Using games in the classroom contributes to the learning process. For example an abstract
challenge can be found in solving a case study based on real life experiences or having a debate
about human rights related topics. Discussions often elicit emotions among students especially
when there is difference of opinion. There is interactivity and feedback during discussions between
students and there is interactivity when small groups of students work together to solve a fictional
problem or a simplified problem from real life. There are rules for having a debate or a dialogue in
the classroom. Games however, embrace most, if not, all levels of active and passive learning
methods. Games contain all components presented in Edgar Dales’ model of ‘experiential
learning’: reading, hearing, seeing, saying, writing and doing.
Human rights course
The social work course at the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences includes a lecture about
human rights using object and a game entitled youRight. The content of the game has been
designed in collaboration with disability advocacy organizations, colleagues and students
themselves and consists of descriptions of everyday situations in peoples’ lives vis-à-vis human
rights and inclusive communities, statements for debate and quiz questions. Students are
encouraged to work in teams with capacity for competition between teams. The collaboration with
advocacy organizations is helpful in designing everyday situations which makes the content of
human rights less abstract and, consequently, easier to understand for students.
The course consists of an introductory lecture (approximately 45 minutes) on human rights and
the UNCRPD. Audio-visual aids such as objects and demonstrations of human rights cases using
elements of drama are part of this lecture. Theatrical presentations help to make abstract ideas,
which is characteristic of human rights, more concrete and lively. After the introduction the game
is played with all students (approximately 45 minutes). This game requires students to join in
group discussions, to experience practice (playing the game is a kind of surrogate of practice) and
to teach others by pitching their best approach to a real life case study.
Human rights game: youRight
The game that is used offers space for entertainment, experiment, learning
and transfer of knowledge. It helps students to get acquainted with the
content of the UNCRPD, to understand the philosophy of the UNCRPD
and to learn to think and act from a moral framework that is articulated in
the Convention. The focus of the game is put on interaction between
students, to let them get a sense of human rights and make them feel
inspired. Using games mostly enhances insights and accomplish attitudinal
change (Oprins, Bakhuys-Roozeboom, Visschedijk 2013; Wouters et al
2009). In case of the human rights game it enhances insight in human
rights and accomplishes an attitudinal change towards normative
professionalism (Ewijk, van & Kunneman 2013). If educators want
students and (future) social workers to act according to a human rights
perspective it requires more than merely a transfer of knowledge, it
requires awareness of the moral framework of social work and an
attitudinal change. Therefore the game first and foremost focuses on
raising awareness and inspiring students to further immerse themselves in
human rights issues outside the classroom.
Many studies show that games and game simulations intensify the learning
experience (see Kapp 2012; Oprins, Bakhuys Roozeboom, Visschedijk,
2013). Research shows that students’ learning growth is especially found in
increased understanding and an improved attitude towards the subject
matter that is being taught and not so much in measuring knowledge.
Similar results were found in playing the human rights game at the Utrecht
University of Applied Sciences. Knowledge was not measured because this
was not the main concern of the course. However, engagement to the
human rights topic, inspiration and basic understanding of human rights
was mirrored by an increase in the number of essays students voluntarily
chose to write about human rights. Besides that, student evaluations of the
introductory lecture and the game showed high scores of appreciation (on
a zero to ten scale the average circles around 8,4). In addition to the
evaluation scores students added quotes such as: “I did not know human rights
could be this fun” and “it is both informative and entertaining”.
An introductory lecture and a game may not be enough to accomplish
attitudinal change of students. For that purpose the course itself is too
concise. Nonetheless, with the introductory lecture and subsequently
playing the game engagement was achieved and students got inspired by
human rights issues. Using game elements contributed to this result.
Further exploration of how games and game elements can be applied in
human rights education is needed because there is much to win in favor of
awareness-raising among students with regards to human rights.
The sequence of the game
After the introductory lecture
students form teams of three or
four. Each team is joining the
competition which is simply won
by crossing the finishing line the
first. To get there teams are
competing with each other in a
variety of assignments they need
to fulfill. When an assignment
has been completed correctly or
when a team has carried out the
task to the best, they will earn the
points. Number of points to be
earned is decided by throwing a
dice. The assignment is also
decided by rolling a separate dice.
The game comprises four
different assignments: true or not
true quiz questions for one team,
true or not true quiz questions
for all teams, case studies and
debates. Except the quiz question
for one team only, all the other
assignments are carried out by all
the participating teams
more teams, if not all, can earn
points playing in one round
(assignment). This way all players
stay involved actively during the
game. Interaction and
collaboration within the teams is
stimulated as team members need
to discuss the case study and
decide on what solution they
believe is the best or is most
persuasive to win the
competition. For the debates
team members can help each
other in having the debate - who
is taking the leaders role.
Interaction between the teams is
clearly stimulated by having
debates, giving pitches, and the
task to judge who wins the debate
or the pitch round. By doing this
all teams stay involved in the
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This paper is presented at the 6th International Human Rights Education Conference on 17-19 December 2015 in Middelburg, The Netherlands. The
paper is a concise elaboration of the abstract entitled: Teaching about UNCRPD: youRight - a human rights game for higher education. The paper is
related to conference themes: (1) Current themes in human rights education, in particular subthemes:(a) The use of new media in human rights education;
(b) Education around specific themes, like childrens’ rights, women’s rights, rights of minorities and racial discrimination. (2) The practice of human rights
education, in particular subthemes: (a) The pedagogics of human rights education; (b) Human rights in higher education.