Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul Attewell

Committee Members

Stephen Brier

Judith Kafka

Wendy Luttrell

Subject Categories

Educational Sociology | Educational Technology | Sociology


ed-tech, labor, learning games, pedagogy, creative class, technology workers


Game-based learning, the learning games industry, and the work of learning game designers is enmeshed in a neoliberalized education system and shifting educational, economic, and technological contexts in the United States. There’s a lot of discussion and debate about various educational technologies and learning games in schools, but how much do we look at the work that goes into making those products? Technology has been a key part of school reform in the United States for the last 50 years at least. This dissertation offers an account of tech-based school reform that centers the role of pedagogy vis-à-vis learning games and the work of learning game designers. I contextualize this study within scholarship on the role of technology in education, the emergence of gamification, and debates in game-based learning as a field of academic research. I start with the following research questions: What assumptions and motivations underlie the choices that go into creating a gamified curriculum, game-based pedagogical techniques, and/or goals for the gamified classroom?; What are the different ways in which learning game designers create meanings around game-based learning, the learning process, and the purpose of education? Are these different meanings in tension with each other? How do they compete with or complement one another?; How does the work of creating learning games resist, negotiate, and conform to the various manifestations of tech-based school reform?; And, how do learning game designers negotiate the promise of a purportedly disruptive tech-based pedagogy with the structural constraints of classroom teaching and administrative oversight, and pressures to design products that technologically enhance, but basically reproduce current learning paradigms? This study employed a mixed methods approach to explore and answer the above questions. I collected data from interviews with learning game designers, field observations, and other artifacts and documented sources. The subjects for this study included both learning game designers, and the companies or studios where learning games are created. This dissertation extends Bernstein’s theoretical construct of the pedagogical recontextualization field to the discourse, practice, and work done in game-based learning (as a discursive field) and its concomitant learning games industry (as a site of labor). I argue that learning game designers, as part of the Creative Class, are inheritors of the shifts in culture and ideology brought about during the countercultural movements of the 1960s, the subsequent neoliberal economics of the 1970s, and the impact of the Great Recession and its resultant austerity measures more recently. I found that learning game designers are engaged in creative reproduction—a form of work that is made possible by the pressures of the dual structural constraints of bureaucratized institutions and neoliberal economic forces calling for the creative destruction of those institutions. Additionally, I draw connections between the decades-long history of the tech-based school reform movement and the current work of learning game designers as they navigate and design their products around existing technological ecosystems in schools. I argue that game-based learning itself becomes a sort of hope for the tech-based school reform coalition to further justify and utilize the past decades’ heavy investment in information technologies that ultimately failed to produce deep structural or pedagogical changes promised by the reformers. Pedagogy plays a central role in this analysis, and I found it in the hopes, claims, arguments, and mechanisms by which technology is (re)imagined as the solution to our educational problems. Accounts of neoliberal school reform and studies on the consequences of educational technology often miss this type of work that happens outside schools and classrooms that is typically congealed and hidden in curricula, learning products, and educational software. Finally, I offer the concept of pedagogical labor to explain the work that learning game designers are doing, and as a social process that incorporates pedagogical ideologies, educational movements, marketized relations, and technological change into the productive capacities of learning game designers and other recontextualization agents situated in similar contexts. By contextualizing and making visible the work, values, and motivations of learning game designers, this study fills in a gap in the literature on the sociology of educational technology, sociology of pedagogy, and sociology of education more broadly.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, September 30, 2024

Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.

Non-GC Users:
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.