Game based learning benefits ISE

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Jennifer Borland and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.


Over the past few decades, digital games on computers and mobile devices have grown in popularity as a teaching and learning tool (Mayo, 2007). The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report (2010) predicted that game-based learning will be widely adopted within two to three years, and in 2011 the Gates Foundation invested several million dollars in game-based learning projects. Researchers have approached game-based learning for informal science education from several angles, including attention, motivation, play, knowledge transmission, skill development, and access. Education and game scholars find that computer games succeed as educational devices because they provide long exposures to concepts through re-playability, contextualize educational information, teach problem solving skills, develop multi-player socialization, and allow players to be producers and not just consumers (Gee, 2003)(Rieber, 2005)(Gros, 2007). Research into digital games is still in its relative infancy, and researchers’ findings often conflict with those of others in their field.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 


Some researchers have lauded games’ ability to engage players’ full attention for hours on end. (Prensky 2003) explains that game designers have cultivated an attitude in players that we would like to see in all learners: “interested, competitive, cooperative, results-oriented, actively seeking information and solutions.”


De Freitas (2006) found that both players and experts believe games increase motivation to learn because learning was associated with play. That said, tutors working with the learners in her study noted students sometimes had difficulty switching from digital gameplay and simulations to traditional, textual learning materials.

Whitton (2007) , on the other hand, found false the common assumption of researchers that computer games are educationally useful in large part because they are highly motivating to players. She writes that the results of her study “indicate that a large proportion of the students who took part in the study do not find games motivational at all, and that there is no evidence of a relationship between an individual’s motivation to play games recreationally and his or her motivation to use games for learning.” She adds that while players may not find games intrinsically motivational, learners may feel motivated to play the games if they are persuaded the games provide the most effective route to acquiring knowledge or skills.


Williamson and Facer (2004) emphasize the importance of contextualizing gameplay. Players move about in the real world, and their interactions there enrich their understanding of the concepts in the game, much as game-based learning can enrich their understanding of the world outside of the game. Williamson and Facer write,

Rather than accepting that young people develop knowledge by themselves, we argue instead that their abilities are contingent upon the input of others’ expertise, and vice versa, as they play out informal roles of educators and learners within environments—from bedrooms and playgrounds to chat rooms and online games—where knowledge is always circulating, being shared, critically evaluated and put to good practical use. (268)

Play and enjoyment is often enhanced by designing games to be similar to existing popular games. For example, the designers of “DinoQuest Online” repurposed contemporary game mechanics and practices so that those familiar with contemporary games did not have to waste time learning how to play an unfamiliar game template (Scacchi, Nideffer and Adams 2008).

Knowledge transmission

It is clear that well-designed games can transmit complicated concepts to players. Game developers need to be careful, however, to evaluate players’ learning extensively during the pilot stages to ensure the full, correct concepts are being conveyed. For example, Neulight et. al. (2007)found that sixth-grade students studying the transmission of the fictional disease Whypox could explain the external factors (such as touch) that spread the disease, the way the game depicted infection—sneezing and dots on the face—led players to view disease “as an observable event” rather than a process of germ reproduction that takes place inside the body.  Neulight et. al. also note that the necessity of adhering to age-appropriate content with younger children means that some of the most common methods of infectious disease transmission, including sexual intercourse, could not be reproduced in their game.

Moreno-Ger, Burgos and Torrente] (2009) recommend instructors use detailed logs, or “play traces,” of players’ actions during gameplay to track the pace of knowledge or skills acquisition, including how many attempts it took a player to achieve a learning goal or complete a related task, as well as the various approaches players take to specific challenges.

Lower-and higher-order skills development

Charsky (2010) points out that game characteristics, including competition, goals, rules, challenges, choices, and fantasy elements, provide a structure for learning that still allows for a good deal of fun. Characteristics can be mixed and matched to establish the game’s mood and pacing, as well as its ratio of “carrot” to “stick,” but more importantly, they also establish what knowledge or skills the game can help players to develop. The continuum of skills and knowledge conveyed by games ranges from learning facts through rote memorization to expressing a more complex and flexible comprehension.  Charsky notes that multiplayer games allow for instructor interaction with players, which can provide greater “scaffolding, resources, coaching, guidance, and assistance.”

Harteveld and Bekebrede (2010) found that a player’s acquisition of “a specific or standard set of knowledge and skills” is best supported by data-intensive, single-player games with formal rules. They also discovered that multiplayer games that are process-intensive, have both formal and social rules, and use “open-ended and social learning” produce better learning outcomes when instructors wish players to reach “broad or abstract insights.”

Warschauer and Matuchniak (2010) suggest that well-designed games can help players develop the skills necessary to succeed in “an informationalist economy” where workers trained for routine production and service jobs face diminishing opportunities while “symbolic analysts” (such as scientists, engineers, executives, and lawyers) are “command[ing] a disproportionate and rising share of the wealth in the United States and other countries.” Because these skills require facility with digital media, Warschauer and Matuchniak recommend that special attention be paid to providing access to learning opportunities, including games, that promote the development of skills such as “abstraction, system thinking, experimentation, and collaboration.”


Access to the technology required to play games remains uneven. Warschauer and Matuchniak (2010) highlight that in the U.S., race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and income levels influence learners’ access to computers and high-speed Internet connections. They report only 41.5 percent of Native Americans, for example, have home Internet access.  As of 2010, 17.7 percent of U.S. Internet users accessed the network via dial-up modems.

Cai et. al. (2006) suggest that “bio edutainment” simulations “featuring stereographic visualization, 3D modeling, and game interaction” can be an affordable alternative for schools that can’t afford to invest in expensive wet lab equipment and consumables beyond those that are absolutely essential to biology education. They also suggest that simulations can allow students to virtually experiment with dangerous materials, including infectious viruses.


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Charsky, D. (2010). From edutainment to serious games: a change in the use of game characteristics. Games and Culture 5(2), 177-98. DOI: 10.1177/1555412009354727.

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