How can playing games help with developing social skills? Find out with Nigel Scarfe.

1. Could you please introduce yourself?

I was one of those individuals who struggled a bit at school. I didn’t have much confidence. I really struggled to sit in class and listen to a teacher for any length of time. I didn’t misbehave, but I was a late developer. I went through the first part of my life a bit lost, as a lot of kids are. Then, at age 12, I got my first glimpse into the world of games and it completely changed how I looked at things. It gave me more confidence.

Many years later (16 years ago now), I set up my game business. The initial aim was to show schools and other organisations about the social side of gaming: problem solving together in a social environment, tabletop games where you could grab the pieces, have hands on the cards, and read people’s facial expressions and body language.

It has progressed so much since then. We’re now linking into the curriculum and going into schools and colleges doing talks about setting up a business. We also go into special schools and prisons. The whole thing has moved on to something much broader. It genuinely feels like it makes an enormous difference – so many kids absolutely love it and never realise how much they are learning. It has really changed compared to where we started, and I am delighted about that.

2. Could you share some of the kinds of games you use?

There are an extraordinary number of games, and we are lucky to see lots in our awards – even that is only the tip of the iceberg! Obviously, not everything is appropriate or something you would want to use in an educational setting, but we work with a lot of companies – e.g. for the early years, with LOGIS, DJECO, HABA, ThinkFun and asmodee, and for the older kids – looking at how we can engage kids and how we can change games to suit them.

The games we use tend to have three rules:

  1. I must be able to teach them in about 30 seconds (because who wants to listen to me for more than that?!).
  2. The games must be playable in 5-10 minutes. Ideally, we would like to have schools set up their own games club (e.g., at dinner time to engage particular individuals or after school for kids to just come and play), so the games need to be playable quickly within the limited time they have.
  3. The games need to have a good replay value. You want to find games where every time the child plays them, they see something different – something in the artwork that engages, or maybe it’s part of the rules when they’ve said, ‘I didn’t realise I could do that’ or ‘I’ve watched my partner do this. I’m going to apply that to our next game.’

We use several hundred games, depending on the age of the players. Regardless of subject, age or ability, they all similarly apply those rules because we know if it ticks all those boxes, the game has a good chance of making a difference and people will want to play it.

3. How do you work with schools and organisations?

It varies greatly depending on where funding comes from or how we come to be in that school. Often, it will be a case of a teacher seeing what we’ve done at a large event such as a Comicon or the UK Game Expo and wanting to use it.

It may be that we just go in to work one day a year. For example, before SATs, we could get kids into that exam test mindset and doing lots of problem-solving. Some schools might bring us in every week when it’s about changing the learning culture – or they might bring us in once every term or half-term. It all depends on what the school wants to do, what their outcomes are and what they are looking for.

4. You have had a passion for tabletop games from an early age. Could you tell us why and how that started?

When you’re a kid, you don’t necessarily know what you’re good at or where your passions will lie. It will depend on what you’re exposed to. We often say to the kids, ‘You might be the best artist, you might be the best sculptor or the best musician but you’ve got to try things and see what’s going to work for you.’

When I was a kid, I didn’t seem to have anything that I was passionate about. I was just lost and, when my cousin introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons when I was about 12, it was incredible! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and reading. As he took me through the basic rules, my mind was just a blur of questions and thoughts. When I finally got hold of a copy and was reading and playing the basics with my friends, I realised I was at the library all the time because I wanted to know more and more about folklore and Greek gods. I was looking for ideas for adventures. I was always rolling dice, creating characters, working things out. I realised that my maths was a bit better and when somebody asked me a question, I would know the answer and I hadn’t been able to do that before.

That’s what really stuck with me: how much it was affecting how I was viewing learning. Suddenly, the learning had a purpose and I thought, ‘Wow, I just want to do this!’.

5. What benefits do tabletop games have for children and young people?

There are lots! Whether it’s just working with core skills such as basic mental maths and literacy or something with a bit more focus like understanding fractions or problem-solving. Games allow students to apply imagination to maths reasoning because if you’re good at Maths but your imagination is not great, it’s hard to be able to say, ‘How can I apply this in a way to help me solve that problem?’. We find attention spans in class are often quite low, but if you bring the right games in with the right reasoning around them, the kids will stick with them again and again.

We conduct the games in such a way that the children understand why losing can be important. We never let kids win games; we don’t think that’s helpful at all. It might be what they want but it’s not what they need. We are looking for them to have learned something from their defeat and then aim to improve. We want them to get over that feeling of losing being a negative thing and instead realise how they’ve progressed and what they’ve learned.

I tell teachers that my job isn’t to teach maths or teach literacy, it’s to give everyone in that class, including the staff, a hundred different ways of how to apply what they have been teaching.

I won’t teach kids how fractions work but I will bring in a game that will help with their understanding. Part of what we do is get the staff to see how we use games to keep that high level of engagement. We can inspire them to think they could teach certain things differently to get the class more on board.

There are also social skills: when not to talk, when to listen, taking turns, patience. These are things that most kids are not too strong in. We go to a particular special school for behaviour every week, and the kids don’t really like the venue and don’t enjoy being at school for obvious reasons. They have probably already been expelled from several different schools and yet now, after school, we’ve invited them to stay back and do some gaming. It’s a poor attendance school and we might have 12-14 kids. I’ll often say, ‘Can I leave you alone for five minutes? I just need to sort something.’ I’ll come back  into that room, and they will have organised the tables and the games and they’ll all be sitting around playing and laughing. When we first worked there, we never would have expected that. The staff love it, the kids love it, and it’s good to say to the kids, ‘You know, you have still got something to give. You can really be someone. For example, look at how you have changed as an individual, from not being social to sitting with children in other classes just enjoying being in each other’s company.’ It’s heart-warming to see.


Listen to Nigel’s interview to find out about:

  • How games can be related to curriculum topics
  • Examples of impact
  • Misconceptions about using games for educational
  • Nigel’s personal favourite tabletop games
  • Imagination Gaming’s Family and Educational Gaming Awards


  • Nigel Scarfe

    Nigel is the founder and owner of Imagination Gaming. Nigel was a shy individual who had a tough upbringing and says that games provided the gateway to a different way of thinking – helping generate new friendship circles and renewed confidence in his own abilities. Realising the positive effect games had on him, he decided to establish Imagination Gaming.
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