How game-based learning constructs, and their characteristics benefit, adult learners

Vocational Education and Training (VET)

How game-based learning constructs, and their characteristics benefit, adult learners



Educators have a theory on teaching and learning whether implicit or explicit. How we engage with adult learners gets expressed and enacted through the tools we use (or don’t use), including where we stand in our educational environments be it face-to-face or virtually. Currently traditional theoretical frameworks can be grouped into classifications such as: pedagogy (child learning) and andragogy (adult learning) (Education 3.0, 2016).

In recent years Hase and Kenyon (2001) highlighted a notable shift to heutogogy (the study of self-determined learning) due to a change in the way adults learn (p. 1).

This chapter explores how game-based learning constructs and their characteristics benefit adult learners.


Game-based learning

Game-based learning (GBL) can be an effective way in which to motivate adult learners and engaging them in active learning experiences. This involves using both digital and traditional games, to support and enhance learning and assessment. However, much of the research and practice in this field is based on the assumption that learners are children or teenagers, whilst in reality, there is a growing number adults (including mature) who are engaging in informal lifelong learning within the Vocational, Education and Training (VET) Sector.

In the world of educational games, understanding the complex nature of adult motivation is important if this genre of educational design is to move beyond the simple assumption that adult learners play games because they are motivating (Charlier, Ott, Remmele, & Whitton, 2012, p. 105).



Whilst an androgogical approach to adult learning has been accepted almost universally and provided many useful approaches for improving educational methodology, it still has connotations of a teacher-learner relationship. The distinction made between how adults and children learn was an important landmark in teaching and learning practices in both vocational education and training, and in higher education (Knowles, 1970 cited in Hase & Kenyon, 2001, p. 2). Andragogy, and the principles of adult learning that were derived from it transformed face-to-face teaching and provided a rationale for distance education based on the notion of self-directedness (Hase & Kenyon, 2001, p.1).

But with the evolution of the web from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and now to Web 3.0, it is evident how education should be evolving (Jackie Gerstein, 2013).


The classroom 1.0

The classroom 1.0


Teaching 2.0

Teaching 2.0


Education 3.0

Education 3.0

Image source: Images depicting Education 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 were adapted from a blog post by Jackie Gerstein: Experiences in Self-Determined Learning: Moving from Education 1.0 Through Education 2.0 Towards Education 3.0


In a heutagogical approach to educating and learning, adult learners are highly independent and self-determined thus, emphasis is placed on the development of the adult learner’s capacity and capability. The connectivist orientation of heutagogy closely aligns with Education 3.0 and its eight characteristics (Table 1).  The renewed interest in heutagogy is partially due to the ever-present Web 2.0, and the affordances provided by technology. Web 2.0 offers an environment that supports the heutagogical approach with its learner-centered design by supporting the development of learner-generated content, learner self-directedness in information discovery and defining a clear learning path (Blaschke, 2012).


8 Characteristics of education 3.0

(Table 1)

8 Characteristics of education 3.0

Image source, Perspective on Invisible Learning by John Moravec


Applicable methodologies, processes and technologies that have benefits

Due to a demographic shift and changing requirements of knowledge, Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) may differ significantly when it comes to educational delivery methods for lifelong learners and the integration of adults into an educational environment. One assumption that cannot be taken for granted is the effect game-based learning has on motivation in higher education (Charlier, Ott, Remmele, & Whitton, 2012, p. 104).

That said, it is appropriate to focus on the contribution games are making to digital identity and information fluency as a way of constructing knowledge through using digital media more broadly (School of Information Studies, 2016).

In most cases, adults, unlike children and teenagers, have a lot of things on their minds. In addition, adult learners don’t often see the rewards of their efforts as soon as they would like, and the rewards we give children are not going to work for adults. Another consideration of adult learners is that academic habits once possessed maybe long forgotten. Adult learners are often feel obligated to undertake courses to enhance their skills, keep their job, get a job, or expand on their career plans. This makes it difficult to motivate learners and make them active participants.

Research has shown that adult learners are typically open to a range of ways of learning – games included – as long as they perceive them to be an effective way in which to learn. If they are convinced of the learning benefits of games then they will engage with them, but for many the use of games simply to motivate will be ineffective (Charlier, Ott, Remmele, & Whitton, 2012, p. 104).

Adult learners who undertake online studies are involved in an ongoing social relationship within their game-based learning environment and constantly drawing on language and communication. The set designs in informational boundaries are generally supplemented with additional knowledge inside and outside of this environment, thus creating a holistic approach (School of Information Studies, 2016).

This evidence is clear in Edgar Dale’s (1969) research into the Cone of Learning (Figure 1.0).


The Cone of Learning


Adult learners with measurable outcomes based on previous research and proven technologies

In a course or program, learning outcomes are defined by training packages and this needs to be taken into consideration when designing a game-based learning environment. The first part of the process is to understand how to design around the heutagogy process (Fig. 2.0), the second part is defining the learning outcome (Fig. 2.1). The third part of the process is focused around the development and agreement of a training plan.

Figure 2.0

Image source: Heutagogy: A Holistic Framework for Creating Twenty-First Century Self Determined Learners

Image source: Heutagogy: A Holistic Framework for Creating Twenty-First Century Self Determined Learners


Figure 2.1

Image source: Heutagogy: A Holistic Frameworkfor Creating Twenty-First Century Self Determined Learners

Image source: Heutagogy: A Holistic Frameworkfor Creating Twenty-First Century Self Determined Learners


Adult learners undertaking studies are asked to participate within an online environment which has been instructionally designed for them. Prior to undertaking online course work, learners are required to undertake a Language, Literacy and Numeracy Test. The conditions are often constructed by the information provided and the questions are in the form of a quiz which a computer can immediately score, rather than require a more complex dialogue between educator and learner. From this, a level of Information Literacy  can be determined.

Information literacy is a critical 21st century skill which empowers learners to think critically when locating, evaluating and using online information resources (Markey, 2011, p. 46). Aquiring these skills is a process that takes time: during the entire study time, adult learners need different types of information that require specific ways of seeking and processing information  (Meegen, 2010, p. 270).


The taxonomy of educational games for adults

Recognising and understanding the needs of the adult learner and the skills of the educator, or program leader are different from those needed in a more structured environment, therefore a shift in perspective is required.

Although commercial games are readily available to purchase, these games are not always useful in education. Therefore, for the purposes of instructional design and educational research, this is most valuable when identifying games according to their educational affordances. Of the possible learning objectives for which educators might use games, they lend themselves most readily to the teaching of cognitive skills, thus describing these games according to the varieties of cognitive skills employed (O’Brien, 2011, p. 3).

Jonassen’s typlology highlights the intent that all educators, researchers, instructional designers and the like, will be capable of designing instruction by first determining the learning outcome adult learners should achieve, based on the learning standards leading to the selection of one or more levels of educational objectives (Wiggins, 1992 cited in O’Brien, 2011). By this one or more problem-solving types can be selected in achieving these learning objectives. At this point, the taxonomy aids the educator in choosing an appropriate game genre and thus an appropriate game (p.3).



Research conducted by Whitton (2009) on adults within a game-based learning environment, determined six factors that influence the motivation of participants to engage with games. These are: a) Completion – collecting objects, completing levels; b) Narrative – following a storyline, journeying with characters, discovering what happens next; c) Creation – building things, developing ideas, creating artifacts; d) Competition – achieving things better or faster than other players; e) Community – talking with others, collaboration; and f) Puzzle-solving – problem solving, lateral thinking (Whitton cited in Charlier et. al., 2012 p.104).

Charlier et. al. 2012 claims some adult learners maybe more interested in the online community rather than actually completing the game, thus making each element motivational for different reasons. It is understood from this research adults play games for many reasons and, in order to create a game like environment that appeals to as many people as possible, it is important to balance these six elements so that different players can engage in the environment in ways that suit the individual (p. 105).

Wood et. al., (2004) investigated what made games attractive using a pyscho-structural analysis. Through this study it was discovered that 96% of respondents played games for at least an hour a week and that some structural characteristics of games were more appealing than others. Highlighted in this study were key elements such as: a) Sound; b) Graphics; c) Background and Settings; d) Rewards; e) Punishments; f) Presentations (pp. 1-3).


How key elements can be advantageous

Rewards can be a powerful tool in a learner’s engagement. The classic triad of game elements used in gamification is called PBL (Points, Badges, and Leaderboards). These components can also be applied to game-based learning as they are known to be effective and can engage the adult learner in their coursework (da Silva, 2015).

It has been suggested that rewards have motivational characteristics by providing goals and guidance to what is possible within the system; providing virtual status symbols and affirmations of the personal journey and creating a sense of connection (da Silva, 2015).

However, if not designed correctly, rewards maybe considered boring or weak. An example of a well-designed reward system is one used by the Scouts, which continue to remain robust because they follow a simple set of rules. Research indicates that by balancing delight with predictable achievement and design for visual appeal it can produce a stellar product. Therefore, understanding the potential of rewards may help to build engagement in an educational environment (Zichermann, 2011).



A fundamental part of the educational experience, particularly within a game-based learning environment, is feedback. For adult learners, meaningful feedback provides a wide range of advantages allowing learners to get the most out of their educational environment. In many respects effective feedback process’ can transform any game-based learning environment into a resounding success for everyone involved (Pappas, 2014).

It is absolutely paramount to provide constructive feedback within a reasonable timeframe so that the adult learner can clearly identify which behaviours or skill sets need to be improved. By doing this, learners can see first hand how improvements have a direct impact on the learning process and/or results. Showing the learners how their actions or behaviors relate directly to the real world is one of the most effective forms of feedback. This can be done for example, through scenarios that display the real world implications. It can change behaviours based upon the result of their actions in order to fully benefit from this educational environment (Pappas, 2014).

It’s imperative to focus on behaviors, actions, or skills when providing feedback that can be changed or improved upon when making suggestions and offering alternatives. From this learners not only know where they went wrong, but in turn learn how to fix it moving forward. It is fundamental to tie the feedback back to objectives and goals (Pappas, 2014).


Case Study

It was important to this strand of research, via a case study, to capture not only the age of the adult learner but also measure the learning effects on students within a game based-learning environment and to compare the results against current figures released by gamification statistics and facts for 2015. Methodologically the case study data was based on a rating system of how each student viewed their experience with a game-based learning environment.



The research was carried out in a survey format over a period of five months (January 2016 – May 2016). 449 adult learners responded to the online survey about their experience. Out of the 449 adult learners 175 (39%) could be categorised as a digital immigrant and 274 (61%) as a digital native. The most important part of the research was to capture the age groups within the educational environment in order to analyse, calculate and interpret the data correctly. Gender was not a factor in this review.

Any issue flagged by the respondents was not related to the design of their gaming or technological environment but more of a personal nature. Overall the feedback was positive, indicating that adult learners appear to benefit from this educational environment. In a similar study (student interviews) conducted by Ceaser C. Navarrette (2013) personal satisfaction was also identified despite the difficulties found in the game design environment. It was also highlighted that students partaking in this study experienced personal fulfilment (pp. 323-324).

In a survey conducted by TalentLMS, figures released by eLearning Industry show figures similar to those conducted by an RTO shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Learners’ preferences and effectiveness
89% A point system would boost engagement
82% Are in favour of multiple difficulty levels and explorable content
62% Are motivated to learn if leaderboards were involved and they had the opportunity to compete
The most  preferred gamification techniques include:
30% Progressing to different levels
27% Point scores
26% Real time feedback on performance
25% Progress bars
24% Activity feeds
The least preferred gamification techniques include:
13% Competition with friends
12% Virtual gifts
11% Being part of a story narrative
3% Avatars
2% Virtual currencies
Effectiveness on adults
14% Higher in skill-based-knowledge assessments
11% Higher  in terms of factual-knowledge
9% Increase in retention rate

Source: Gamification Statistics and Facts You Need to Know  (Gamification Survey results, 2015)



Whilst game-based learning is most likely to be developed in conjunction with instructional design theories and applied in an educational context, commercial games designed for entertainment and are quite different in their construct. In short, games have to be purposed towards a training package and educational goals which require adaptation, compromise and a good deal of educator innovation.

The design challenge is to create games that are motivating in different ways in order to address the needs of adult learners.

When thinking about learning and educating inside games, it is important to be clear about what is happening heutogogically.

It was evident through the case study that adult learners are happy to study within an online game-based learning environment. The ages of the learners were analysed and the data showed a significant number in digital immigrants. From the evidence of the case study and the statistics provided it was established that adults embrace game-based learning environments therefore, it can no longer be assumed that there is a fear of technology.

The potential for game-based learning for adult learners is one that has been underexplored and one that will become of increasing interest over the next couple of years.



Having a clear understanding of how the reward system can work for a games-based learning environment in an educational context is imperative for its implementation. Creating a coherent system of engagement-focused interactions is more important than ever as this drives and motivates the adult learner. Rewards must be attractive and meaningful to ensure engagement. While this is a vision it might become a reality in tertiary level programs in the near future, in game cultures this idea of rewards is already commonplace.



In conclusion, adult learners have the tools to be able to learn quickly and effectively: whenever and wherever they are. What needs to happen is a simultaneous shift in thinking about educational and training systems that keeps pace with both the need to learn effectively and the technology that enables it with a heutagogical design providing the framework for future resource development.

Through the evidence presented and research conducted it was clear that adult learners have accepted game-based learning within an educational context. It was also established that rewards can be a great motivator in engaging the learner driving them to complete their course.

The research also highlighted the benefits to a game-based learning environment for adult learners and the necessity for the VET sector to address Education 3.0 from heutagogical approach.



Blaschke, L. M. (2012). Heutagogy and lifelong learning: A review of heutagogical practice and self-determined learning, Vol 13, No1. Retrieved from The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning:

Blaschke, L. M., & Hase, S. (2016). Chapter 2. Heutagogy: A Holistic Frameworkfor Creating Twenty- First Century Self Determined Learners, 1-40.

Charlier, N., Ott, M., Remmele, B., & Whitton, N. (2012). Not just for children: Game-based learning for older adults. Paper presented at the 102-XX. Retrieved from

da Silva, D. G. (2015). Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Retrieved from Agile Gamification:

Education 3.0. (2016, January 14). Retrieved from Educateria:

Gamification Survey results, A. s. (2015, July 9). Game-based Learning Market expected to Continue Strong Growth – Market Analysis. Retrieved from Gamification Statistics and Facts You Need to Know:

Hase, S., & Kenyon, C. (2001). Moving form Androgogy to Heutogogy. (pp. 1-10). Adelaide, SA: ePublications@SCU.

Jackie Gerstein, E. (2013, May 13). Education 3.0 and the Pedagogy (Andragogy, Heutagogy) of Mobile Learning. Retrieved from User Generated Education:

Markey, K. &. (2011). Students’ behaviour playing an online information literacy game.Journal of Information Literacy, 5(2), 46-65.

Meegen, A. v. (2010). How serious do we need to be? Improving information literacy skills through gaming and interactive elements. LIBER Quarterly, 20(2), 270-288.

Navarrete, C. C. (2013). Creative thinking in digital game design and development: A case study. Computers & Education, 69, 320–331.

O’Brien, D. (2011). A Taxonomy of Educational Games. 1-23.

Pappas, C. (2014). 9 Tips To Give and Receive eLearning Feedback. Retrieved from eLearning Industry:

School of Information Studies, C. S. (2016, May 07). 4.2 Games as information systems.

School of Information Studies, C. S. (2016, May 07). 4.3 Constructing knowledge.

Wood, R. T. (2004). The Structural characteristics of video Games: A psycho-structural analysis. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7(1), 1-10.

Zichermann, G. (2011). HOW TO: Properly Use Badges To Engage Customers. Retrieved from Mashable Australia:



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, 2016.
Charles Sturt University
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