A Journey to Discovery:

Using DGBL to teach for empathy and understanding in Australian History

by Emma Hinchliffe
One of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of education is the opportunity to evaluate and redesign curriculum units to make them more effective and relevant to students. Research has suggested that History, when compared with other school subjects, is more likely to be lacklustre and challenging for learners, with lessons less likely to be taught in a creative and engaging manner (Zin, Jaafar & Yue, 2009). When faced with redeveloping and teaching a Year 4 Australian History unit exploring the discovery and settlement of Australia, I endeavoured to redesign the unit in a way that would make the content both engaging and accessible to young girls. All, Cater & Van Looy (2015), Arnab et al, (2012) and Zin, Jaafar & Yue (2009) theorise that an effective way of engaging students is through digital games-based learning [DGBL] and Serious Games [SG]; games that combine educational objectives and fun, to engage students in their learning (All, Cater & Van Looy, 2015; Arnab et al, 2012; Zin, Jaafar & Yue, 2009). As many of the Year 4 students had already shown a strong interest in games and gaming in their free time at home, it was decided to put their theories to the test. Would DGBL be an effective way to help engage 20 Year 4 learners with history in a way that could help them to develop empathy and reach their learning objectives? Could DGBL help students to develop empathy for the trials and tribulations of convict transportation to Australia in the 1700 and 1800s? To test the theories the challenge was undertaken to use The Voyage to Van Diemen’s Land [The Voyage Game] within a History unit to support the development of students’ understandings of the perspective of people involved in convict transportation.
Figure 1: Link to The Voyage to Van Diemen’s Land Game (ANMM, 2016)

Figure 1: Link to The Voyage to Van Diemen’s Land Game (ANMM, 2016)

Preparing for DGBL using The Voyage Game

Not all video games are made equally or specifically for educational purposes, some are designed purely for fun but can be adapted to suit classroom use, whereas others are specifically designed for social and educational purposes (All, Cater & Van Looy, 2015; Arnab et al, 2012; Zin, Jaafar & Yue, 2009). Therefore, it is important to evaluate both the educational and entertainment value of a game before using it in the classroom, in this instance, The Voyage Game (Australian National Maritime Museum [ANMM], 2016). The Voyage Game was chosen as it was explicitly linked to Victorian Curriculum historical understanding outcomes and was developed by a reputable educational source, the Australian National Maritime Museum. The game was specifically designed to teach players about convict voyages in a way that was informative but also fun. Although it was produced by a museum and marked as an educational game, to ensure that including The Voyage Game was an educationally valuable decision, Zin, Jaafar & Yue’s (2009) suggested process of analysing, planning, implementing and evaluating the effectiveness of games was followed to ensure The Voyage Game would help students to meet the intended learning outcome of developing an understanding of the impacts of the conditions on the journey aboard convict ships bound for Australia on both free settlers, crew and convicts in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds.

The analysis phase was conducted through teachers playing and concurrently analysing the game’s features and suitability for use in the classroom. As the game was played particular attention was focussed on making notes about Zin and Yue’s (2013) 11 key features of effective games and reflecting on how well the game included elements of each category (See Table 2). The Voyage Game’s suitability for classroom use was also evaluated through use of Zin and Yue’s (2013) checklist of requirements of effective history DGBL software (See Table 2). Using a specific evaluation guide was an effective way of analysing the game’s suitability.

The Voyage Game Features Analysis (Table 1)
Features of Effective Games Analysis of this features in The Voyage Game
Feedback Feedback is given to players regularly using pop ups stating when they need to complete tasks or deal with problems. They can also seek out their own feedback through exploring areas of the ship, supplies and sick list.
Fantasy The cartoon graphics add a fantasy element to the game while still emphasising the key learning objectives.
Rules The rules, while not explicitly stated, become quite easy for players to work out. There are no set rules to follow, however, players begin to create their own rules to help them achieve success and meet the objective of getting to Australia.
Fun The serious matter of the conditions on board the convict ship and convicts becoming unclean and unwell are balanced with fun interactive activities that require players to actively fish, wash clothes, catch rats (See Figure 3), entertain convicts and search for weevils.
Entertainment Players are entertained by the never-ending opportunities to engage with tasks on-board the ship including navigation, supply management, weather management and convict health and happiness.
Immersive From the beginning of the game players become immersed in the experience as it is played through first person where they are in control of everything that happens in the game.
Active participation Players need to continue to actively complete tasks to achieve success in the game. If players are not active, they cannot be successful in the game.
Interaction There is ability to interact with other players of this game within or around the game context. If educators wish to create interaction it needs to be encouraged outside of the game itself through the set up of the context around the game in the classroom. The interaction with the mini games within the game were difficult to complete effectively using a key board and mouse. They were much more successful on the iPad.
Task The task is very clear and appears to be simple, you are the captain of your ship and you have to get your convicts to Australia in a good condition. If you achieve your goal, you are rewarded with land. It is not until players begin to play that they realise the complexity of preparing for and completing the voyage successfully.
Narrative There are three small narratives that appear to give context to the instructions and tasks students need to complete. These are sufficient to be informative and give players clues about what to do and their goals without becoming boring.
Control From the commencement of the game, players have almost total control of their own success in the game. They choose their ship, captain (See Figure 2), convicts and supervisors, buy and sort their supplies and navigate their course to Australia. The lack of control came when sporadically bugs appeared in games which wouldn’t allow players to continue with the game without restarting, which could be frustrating and lead to decreased motivation to keep playing.
Imagination This game helps players to imagine what the conditions on board the ships might have been like, without it being too gory, depressing or graphic. However, students who are unable to infer may have difficulty imagining the true harsh realities compared to the fantasy world presented in the game.
Figure 2. Students selecting their captain

Figure 2. Students selecting their captain

Figure 3. Students playing rat catching game.

Figure 3. Students playing rat catching game.

Effective features of History DGBL Software

Inclusion of feature in The Voyage Game

(i) Learning objectives must be stated clearly and should be based on the national curriculum.


(ii) Skills and knowledge should be conceptualized into meaningful environment.


(iii) Design must be immersive, motivating, engaging and playability high.


(iv) Fulfil individual requirement.


(v) Respect to history, do not change the historical facts.

Mostly, except where games have been added to lighten the mood and inject a sense of fun.

(vi) Provide reward and maintain competition and challenge to increase students’ engagement.

Yes, but could be too challenging for some.

(vii) Provide help system and feedback function.


(viii) The quality of music and text delivery must be interesting.


(ix) Game play must be easy and does not require advanced knowledge to play games.

Yes, it is very simple to navigate as there are regular of pop up instructions.

After completing the analysis (see Tables 1 and 2), it was concluded that The Voyage Game was likely to engage learners in a fun and informative exploration of the perspectives of those aboard convict vessels. The entertainment and fun elements (see Figures 1 and 2) were balanced evenly with the historical educational content of the game, which was important as the ability for players to enjoy a game could impact on their level of involvement and the learning they gain from playing it (Schrier, 2014; Wood, Chappell & Davies, 2004).
Phase Summary of what is required
Engagement The teacher assesses students’ prior knowledge and helps them to become engaged in a new concept. Activities make connections between prior knowledge and learning experiences and direct them towards current learning outcomes.
Exploration Exploration activities provide experience with the current concepts and begin to challenge and draw out misconceptions and skills needed. Learners generated ideas and explore questions and possibilities and begin to investigate.
Explanation Students attention is focussed on key aspects of the task and give opportunities to show understandings, skills and behaviours. Teachers can also explain key concepts during this phase.
Elaboration Students are challenged to extend their conceptual understandings and skills through new experiences to apply their knowledge.
Evaluation Students assess their understandings and abilities and teachers evaluate student progress towards objectives.

Implementation process

When preparing to implement The Voyage Game within the classroom, the game was played by teachers multiple times so notes could be taken about which parts gave information and instructions, as well as how to navigate the page, save and change the speed of the game. After completing the gaming experience and reflecting on the notes to identify the “teachable moments in the game” (Charsky & Mims, 2008, p. 41), it was decided that the game would be most effective at enhancing student learning if it was situated by teachers in a constructivist manner so students would benefit from through learning and examining content within the creative scenario (Charsky & Mims, 2008; Connolly, Stansfield & Boyle, 2009). Reading and evaluating their reflections also encouraged teachers to consider their role in the inquiry and provide them insight into when they might be needed to encourage, support, analyse and reflect (Wu, 2015).

DGBL with serious games like The Voyage Game lends itself best to inquiry and problem based learning (McFarlance, Sparrowharwk & Heald, 2002). To support the inquiry approach, The 5E instructional design model (Bybee, 2009) was chosen for its simplicity and ability to provide a scaffold structure for teachers to follow to ensure that game based inquiry allows fun and autonomy while at the same time promoting thinking skills and the learning objectives. Consideration was also given to the positioning of the game within the instructional design and to The 5 Principles of DGBL in History (McCall, 2011, p. 24-25). Therefore, students were purposefully given time to explore further research and historical sources during the elaboration and evaluation phases of the DGBL inquiry (Breuer & Bente, 2010).  Details of the tasks completed to develop student learning in each aspect of the 5E instructional design (Bybee, 2009) of The Voyage Game inquiry are outlined in Table 4 below.

The engagement phase of the inquiry centred around engaging students in contemplating convict life and identifying misconceptions that could be corrected through The Voyage Game inquiry process. Another key component of the inquiry was how the game was introduced to students. All, Castellar & Van Looy (2015) recommend that when introducing a game in the classroom, teachers should not give away central information on the learning content covered in the game and should only cover such elements as getting acquainted with the storyline and controls. Therefore, students were given a short demonstration during which they all watched the introductory storyline video together and were shown the key navigational aspects of the game. Finally, they were set the seemingly simple challenge: “Who can be the first person to sail their ship to Australia?” This challenge set into motion the next four phases of the inquiry in which students explored the game, explained their learning to their peers, applied new learning to complete the challenge with a partner and then reflected on their learning independently (See Appendix 2 and 3) and with others, and reference to a range of primary and secondary sources. The reflection time was a critical component for student learning in the inquiry as it assisted students to connect the understandings of what happened in the game, to what happened in real life (Barzilai & Blau, 2014).

Convict Voyages DGBL implementation
Engage Complete class brainstorm of what they imagined life to be like on the first fleet

Read the storybooks about the First Fleet. Discussed ideas and opinions of what conditions might have been like on the First Fleet and subsequent convict voyages using 5 senses (Figure 4).

Introduce the Voyage Game to students being careful to follow advice from All, Castellar & Van Looy (2015). Explain what the question marks mean and the game interface. Discuss the importance of scrolling, reading and clicking to enhance accuracy and understanding.

Explore Students played the game twice independently and made notes of their choices and decisions in their journal page (Appendix 1).
Explain Students shared their ideas and understandings gathered with their classmates and gave each other tips for improvement using a class Padlet wall (Figure 5).
Elaborate The final challenge: Students were challenged to combine their knowledge and skills with a partner to complete the challenge of The Voyage Game in 90 minutes. They could use notes and research to help them with the task.
Evaluate Students reflected on their learning by sharing with the class and completing an individual evaluation (Appendix 2). They also were given time to explore primary and secondary sources from books and the TROVE and ANMM websites to add context to their learning.
Figure 4. Collaborative student reflection of how people might have felt on the convict ships

Figure 4. Collaborative student reflection of how people might have felt on the convict ships

Figure 5. Padlet of student reflections on their learning in the explain phase of the inquiry.

Figure 5. Padlet of student reflections on their learning in the explain phase of the inquiry.

Research vs Practice: Evaluating the DGBL The Voyage Game Inquiry

Learner Behaviours

Intrinsic motivation can be a key indicator of student learning but promoting it in classrooms is one of educators’ greatest challenges. It has long been accepted by researchers that games can offer significant intrinsic motivational value for learners and is the most cited reason for DGBL in classrooms (Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes & Vicari, 2015). Throughout The Voyage Game inquiry, intrinsic motivation was judged on the number of students who talked about or continued with playing the game outside of scheduled classroom learning time. Intrinsic motivation and flow are inherently linked to the level of challenge the game sets for learners (Barzilai & Blau, 2014). The appropriate level of challenge is difficult to find because if a game is too challenging or too simple, students can disengage (Barzilai & Blau, 2014). In the student evaluations of the inquiry, summarised in Appendix 2, most students reported that they enjoyed the challenge of the game, while some found it too challenging and were happy when they were not required to play the game again. The observations from this small-scale case study were that 18 of the 20 students indicated that they continued to complete the task at home and three students played the game regularly at home until they made it to Australia. This suggests that 90% of students demonstrated intrinsic motivation with this learning task and supports the suggestion that DGBL can promote intrinsic motivation, but only if you choose the game carefully.

Another commonly cited reason for using DGBL in classrooms is the perceived ability of games to engage students in their learning (Hamari et al., 2016). Engagement is characterised by “elevated concentration, interest and enjoyment” (Hamari et al., 2016, p.172). From the perspective of a non-player/observer, engagement with the game was obvious to anyone who entered the classroom during the inquiry. Students demonstrated their engagement through excited and frustrated exclamations, animated discussion, focus on iPads, note-taking, smiling, laughing, self-exploration and sharing advice with others. Students showed particular engagement when participating in the fishing game, catching rats (see figure 2) game, weevils game and attending to the sick.

Gee (2005) also suggests that DGBL can be successful as children enjoy gaming and one of the main explanations of this is it allows them to bond through shared experiences in the game especially during games that are long and complex enough to encourage collaboration to achieve goals. During The Voyage Game inquiry, student behaviour supported this theory as even those students who usually withdraw from the group were engaged in productive discussions about aspects of the game and learning. The game offered multiple entry points for learners of different levels and allowed them to interact on the same level.

Development of Student Learning

While there is strong evidence of DGBL engaging learners and many suggestions that it may positively impact learning, there is little reliable evidence of DBGL enhancing student learning outcomes. It is difficult without a large-scale study or comparable class to evaluate student learning against to confirm that using The Convict Voyage Game leads to enhanced student outcomes. However, what was clear from summarising student’s reflections (See Appendix 3) and reviewing student’s convict narratives, was that majority of students met the intended outcome of The Voyage Game Inquiry, and developed their understandings of the perspective of people involved in convict transportation. They recalled key facts relating to the elements of the convict journey and clearly explained their learning.

What was proven to be true in this instance was that DGBL while aiming to promote primary learning outcomes can also promote secondary learning outcomes with just as much value (All, Castellar & Van Looy, 2015). Table 6 indicated that although the key learning outcomes of the game were to ensure students could understand the context of convicts coming to Australia, the journey and different perspectives, while playing the game students also developed skills required for critical, creative and ethical thinking, and personal and social learning.  Through the ability to change strategies and decisions each time and replay the game if they were unsuccessful, students also learnt to persist and to understand that failure is okay and sometimes necessary for learning (Andersen, 2012). The collaborative nature of the inquiry, acted as an enabler for students to develop the secondary learning outcomes.

Table 6 – Intended and Subsequent Learning Outcomes of The Voyage Game Inquiry

Victorian Curriculum Learning Area or Capability Achievement Standards (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2017)
Intended Learning Outcomes of The Voyage Inquiry History (Year ¾) Students describe perspectives of people from the past and recognise different points of view.

They describe the experiences and perspectives of an individual or group over time.








Subsequent Learning Outcomes of The Voyage Game  Inquiry

Ethical Capability Explore how apparently wrong actions can sometimes lead to good outcomes and the reverse (VCECD007)

Discuss the role of personal values and dispositions in ethical decision-making and actions (VCECD008)

Critical and Creative Thinking Explore reactions to a given situation or problem and consider the effect of pre-established preferences(VCCCTQ011). Identify and use ‘If, then…’ and ‘what if…’ reasoning(VCCCTR016)

Examine an increased range of learning strategies, including visualisation, note-taking, peer instruction and incubation, and reflect on how these can be applied to different tasks to reach a goal(VCCCTM019)

Investigate a range of problem-solving strategies, including brainstorming, identifying, comparing and selecting options, and developing and testing hypotheses (VCCCTM020)

Personal and Social Capability

Identify how persistence and adaptability can be used when faced with challenging situations and change(VCPSCSE018)

Demonstrate skills for effective participation in group tasks and use criteria provided to reflect on the effectiveness of the teams in which they participate(VCPSCSO023)

Is using DGBL an effective way to teach History?

Recommendations for when using DGBL in classrooms

The implementation of The Voyage Game DGBL inquiry was an overwhelmingly positive learning experience for both students and teachers, however, its success was due to the careful and purposeful planning of the teacher. While the hours spent planning and evaluating were worthwhile in this case, it is important to acknowledge that general classroom teachers without an understanding of game evaluation tools and protocols may find it challenging to do this. (Schell, 2001).

As there is no set DGBL pedagogy that supports all games used for learning, teachers must use their professional judgement and consider themselves designers of learning when deciding the best way to approach the inclusion of each game in the learning environment (de Fritas & Maharg, 2011). If aiming to promote collaboration and deeper learning with DGBL, the 5E’s instructional framework (Bybee, 2009) is simple and effective to use as the learning activities required within each component of the framework allow teachers to use different instructional approaches specifically suited to each task. By following the 5E instructional design framework (Bybee, 2009), students were engaged and actively learning through the entire inquiry process

The most important insight discovered through the implementation of this DGBL inquiry is that teachers need to be prepared for what might happen if digital games develop bugs and/or the technology you have available to you isn’t working. There were times when students were almost successful in completing the task and then the game froze or pop ups would continually appear halting progression. This highlights the need for educators’ instructional plans to be adaptable to ensure all learners can engage with the learning outcomes of the game equally. Teachers must take the time to step into the role of learners and dedicate time to playing the game on multiple devices. Playing the game enables educators to be proactive and plan to ensure all elements of the DGBL experience meld together smoothly.

Just as importantly if educators want to implement a successful DGBL experience it is vital that they allow sufficient time for students to explore and complete the game within class time. Long journey style games are challenging and often can only be completed over a sustained period with support from others (Gee, 2015). For students to be successful, teachers need to plan for sufficient time for action, collaboration and metacognition (Cruz, Cruz, Ruiz, David & Hernandez, 2015).

Implementation of The Voyage Game was a resounding success for engaging students in history and supporting them to meet learning outcomes because the educators believed it was possible and completed the necessary research.  To ensure successful implementation of Serious Games in classrooms, it is vital for educators to believe that game based learning can be successful in engaging and supporting learners as this can impact student outcomes (Beavis et al., 2015).

The Verdict

The use of Serious Games and DGBL can be an effective means for promoting student engagement with and understandings of historical concepts. All educators can achieve success implementing DGBL if they are open to the possibilities of gaming, choose the right game, think flexibly about curriculum requirements and programming and, most importantly, take the time to plan for implementation.


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Part 2: Provocation

Part 2: Provocation

Case studies, environmental scans, situational analysis, or other activities that illustrate games-based learning in action.

In this section:

Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation) developed by the
School of Information StudiesCharles Sturt University, 2017.
Charles Sturt University
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