The Raw Facts:

Examining the effectiveness of exclusive Digital Game Based Learning by directly comparing it to conventional teaching within a unit of work in secondary level Geography

by Christopher Tyson



Computer games have increasingly become a fundamental part in most of the current cultures of the World (Oblinger, 2004). With an exponential growth and advancement of this current technology along with the accumulative access to these forms of media, it comes with no surprise that the industry has become one of the fastest growing in history. One of the main drivers for this rapid progression has been seen through the mass adoption of computer games by many of the younger parts of society; that is children and teenagers mainly in the Developed World. A study in the United Kingdom revealed that of the nearly 800 children aged 5 to 15 surveyed in the country, 79% regularly played computer games at home ‘at the very least, a few times a week’ (Ulicsak and Cranmer, 2010)

The growing and changing socialisation of today’s children is very different to a generation ago. From a time when computer technology was only accessible to such institutions as the military or NASA, the children of today tend to lead entirely different, sophisticated and technological savvy lives than that of their parents. Prensky (2001) expertly justifies this fact through the use of some striking statistics:  “The numbers are stunning: more than 10,000 hours of video game playing, more than 200,000 received and sent e-mails and instant messages on line, more than 10,000 hours of talking on mobile phones, more than 20,000 hours of watching TV (which MTV has greatly contributed to), more than 500,000 seen commercials – and that is before they graduate, and, at best, 5,000 hours of reading books.”

With technology saturating their every minute, the children of this era have unintentionally become overly dependent in their use of technology. Consequently, there is a growing belief that the conventional classroom and the traditional delivery of teaching has become increasingly unfamiliar with a teenagers’ life outside of school. This admission therefore demonstrates the potential opportunities that digital game based learning could offer within the paradigms of a modern school classroom. Trybus (2014) argues that the implications of delivering effective gaming experiences within the realms of education are colossal.  In a survey conducted in 2008, of the nearly 320 million citizens living in the United States, 170 million regularly played computer and video games; spending a record $11.7 billion in 12 months. Taking advantage and harnessing the power of well-designed games, with the intent of achieving specific learning goals could result in an education revolution of highly engaged students who through high levels of motivation, excel in real world problem solving and organisational skills; moving away from the reliance of conventional forms of learning such as rote knowledge.

With the current hype surrounding the notion of educational computer games, a majority of students in the current generation have expectations that using this technology in enhancing their learning can provide better outcomes than purely using traditional, more conventional forms of passive learning within specific units of work. There is however much debate on the effectiveness for these games in the learning environment and on whether this technology provides greater benefit when exclusively used as a teaching tool compared with conventional pedagogy.


Objective/ Situational Analysis

The objective of this study was to compare and contrast a computer game based learning method with a conventional learning method; with the goal of ultimately meeting the same learning outcomes. This situational analysis was conducted to help alleviate the inquiry on how effective/ non-effective the exclusive use of digital game based learning is in comparison to traditional teaching methods. Through lesson observations, analysis of informal assessment results (quantitative data) and the use of student surveys (qualitative data), an initial comparison was made to measure the difference that would become apparent within the two different learning methods.



School Institution and participants

The participating school was an Independent, all boys private 7-12 secondary school located in Sydney, Australia. At the time of the study there were approximately 1100 enrolled students between the ages of 12 and 18. This particular study was conducted with two Year 10 Geography classes. Each set had 25 boys and were both graded as a mixed ability class.


The unit of work was in the Stage 5, Year 10 NSW Geography Syllabus. Specifically students were taught within the Focus Area 5A3- Issues in Australian Environments. Students learnt about land and water management issues in Australia and how they could be better and sustainably managed (see Table 1)

Geography - Years 7 - 10 Syllabus

Table 1: Geography – Years 7 – 10 Syllabus


The topic was introduced in both classes through the screening of a YouTube video (see embedded Figure 1) which provided an adequate amount of introductory information in ‘setting the scene’ for land and water management in Australia. It was decided to present this at the beginning of the unit for both classes so they had the same level of preliminary knowledge before beginning the unit.


Figure 1 retrieved from


After the introductory YouTube video, each class was then taught the same Unit of Work through two different pedagogical methods. The teaching method ran for a week (4 x 50 minute lessons). Class A was held in a traditional classroom that consisted of an interactive whiteboard and rows of student desks. Class B was held in one of the Schools dedicated computer labs which consisted of 30 Dell Personal Computers for the students to use individually. The outline for each class is listed in Table 2.

Table 2: Class Outlines

Table 2: Class Outlines


Class A- Conventional approach with no game use within the topic

Class A were taught the content through the varied use of conventional and traditional teaching methods. This approach was mainly dominated by teacher centered pedagogy. Proceeding the introductory screening of the short YouTube clip, students were shown the principal PowerPoint presentation (Figure 2) that would be the main focus for this particular teaching approach; which was ran over a period of a week.  The PowerPoint was specifically designed to give the students a cross section of the many pedagogical tools deemed conventional that have traditionally been used in the classroom for decades.

Figure 2: Powerpoint Slides Used

Figure 2: Powerpoint Slides Used


These conventional activities included:

– Writing notes from the PowerPoint presentation; Mapping tasks; Comprehension tasks (using the core Text); Word bank tasks; Completion of overview worksheets; Video analysis.

The assigned homework given in this class was to complete the overview worksheets in order to substantiate the knowledge that the students had obtained during the lessons.  At the end of the method the students were given a measured open-ended short answer that could test them on the knowledge they had obtained during the course of the unit on land and water management issues in Australia.


Class B- Game focused approach

Class B was taught this unit of work through a more student- centered approach, with the central focus around the use of the ABC Science interactive catchment management game titled Catchment Detox. (Figure 3)


The students were given the opportunity in familiarising themselves with the game in order to get a holistic understanding of catchment management through play rather than traditional instruction. The game consists of a blank, undisturbed river catchment where the player has the opportunity to develop the catchment (in a SimCity™ styled fashion) to improve the economy of the catchment whilst at the same time placing the smallest most sustainable impact on the environment. (See figure 4).


Figure 4: Screenshots from 'Catchment Detox'

Figure 4: Screenshots from ‘Catchment Detox’


The goal of the game is to encourage economic growth together with a successful and continued investment into the health of the catchment. The more sustainable the catchment is managed the more points a player earns. The website also includes a wide array of resources on catchment management through available fact sheets, videos, audio files and interactive maps. In order to provide some structure to their self directed learning a small PowerPoint task (see Figure 5) was set where the students had the opportunity to use the knowledge they had obtained in the experience of playing the game and to also use the information that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had included on the games website.


Figure 5: Powerpoint Fact File Presentation Task

Figure 5: Powerpoint Fact File Presentation Task


During the last lesson in the unit of work, the students were able to play the game and have their points-total officially recorded. The student with the highest tallied points at the end of the exercise was awarded with a bag of confectionary. At the end of this teaching method the students were also given the same open-ended short answer that Class A attempted; that tested them on the knowledge they had obtained whilst playing the game during the course of the unit.


Measuring learning retention

In the second half of the final lesson, both classes were given an informal assessment test in the form of an open-ended short answer question on Land and Water management issues in Australia (See figure 6). This test was used as a tool to measure the quantitative differences between knowledge retention for both the different approaches that were held during this study. The assessment marking criteria was also handed out so that students could use the information found in the rubric as a checklist to assist them in structuring their response. The question also included a stimulus diagram that was familiar for both classes in covering some holistic issues in land and water management which occur within Australian catchments.

Figure 6: Class Test

Figure 6: Class Test


Class Survey

After the tests were marked and handed back to the students in the following lesson, an anonymous student ‘closed survey’ was distributed (see Figure 7) and completed to assist in measuring the qualitative differences in a student’s attitude towards both the conventional teaching and game based learning methods used. Questions were designed to obtain a measure in the students’ belief in the effectiveness of the teaching method towards the preparation of future formal assessment and in the level of engagement each method offered. The five questions in the survey were:

Table 4: Closed Survey

Table 4: Closed Survey


Figure 7: Completed Class Surveys

Figure 7: Completed Class Surveys



Quantitative data (Informal Testing)

From the onset it becomes apparent that conventional teaching methods tended to score better and received the higher number of top banded responses (see Figure 8). Class A (no game used) received a total of 12 out of the 25 students who gained full marks for the test. In comparison, Class B (Game use) received only 4 students with full marks. Class B (game use) still however had 10 students who scored quite well with 6 out of 8 for the test. Both classes were more evenly matched in the lower bands for the response.

Figure 8: Marks

Figure 8: Marks


Qualitative data (Class Surveys)

Interesting trends began to emerge after the results from the closed survey were tallied between both Class A and Class B (See Figure 9). In measuring the level of interest towards the unit of work, Class B (game use) demonstrated a substantial level of interest in comparison to Class A (no game use). Motivation levels were also found to be much higher in Class B than Class A. Interestingly however, Class A felt much more confident than Class B with the work they had produced in relation to both future study notes and preparation for the upcoming Semester Examination.

 Figure 9: Tallied Closed survey responses

Figure 9: Tallied Closed survey responses



What became immediately apparent after marking both classes was in how the two different methods influenced the type of answer provided in the test. The main difference between the answers in the informal assessment from Class A and Class B were in the level of detailed statistics and examples provided to substantiate their responses. Class A’s structured experience with traditional teaching techniques assisted the students in an easier retention of not only general knowledge but statistical and case study inclusion within their answers in comparison to Class B; who depended completely on the more self-directed, student-centred learning method within the game play itself. With an education system in Australia that is still heavily influenced by traditional forms of assessment, where instructional techniques such as rote learning provide the most benefit, teaching methods in Geography that promote self-directed learning like that found in exclusively game based learning exercises, can be at times at a disadvantage. This is especially the case in situations where the culminating assessment requires a structured response built from memorising content from textbooks, rather than experiencing it through play and creativity. Another issue is that due to the current over-reliance of traditional forms of assessment in the Geography Curriculum, most teachers generally lean more towards the teacher-centred approach so to better prepare their students for the more traditional inevitable types of testing. ParmaksÕz and Yanpar (2006) found in a study they conducted that an overwhelming majority of the Social Science teachers they surveyed preferred traditional forms of assessment such as multiple choice and open-ended styled short answer questions rather than alternative methods when assessing their students.

The majority of students in the class that were taught the unit of work through the more traditional approach (Class A) seemed to be quite confident with the level of detail collected when covering the topic and felt adequately prepared for any future formal assessment. Resulting from the survey, a large proportion of students in Class B who were given more freedom with their learning through game play, felt that they did not have the adequate detail necessary to prepare comprehensive study notes to confidently ready them for any future, unavoidably traditional styled assessment. In his paper highlighting both the benefits and implications of using game based learning as an educational tool Corti (2006) states that games can generate a huge amount of metrics, however many of the entertainment­ orientated games on the market today are unlikely to be adequate in their current design when used for assessment. In this way, games used in education must be specifically designed or chosen so that they can be used as useful tools in measuring learning progress through assessment. It can be concluded that the Catchment Detox game used in this study was relevant and useful in teaching students the fundamental facts on catchment management in Australia, however to increase the relevance of their learning within a traditional based education system, more scaffolded tasks mixed within the game play; that encourages rote learning would align the students in a position where they felt more confident in attempting potential conventional styles of assessment in the future.

This being said however, there was still a majority of the students in the Class B who gained 6 out of 8 which demonstrates that when game based learning is used, knowledge can be retained, but could be lacking in slight detail and statistics data compared to rote learning due to the less structured learning environment that surrounds this type of self-directed learning. Serrano (2004) states that the use of video games in a learning context can strengthen students’ knowledge, skills and attitudes towards a topic being taught because it can become more engaging and motivating for a student in comparison to traditional learning techniques. This stance is strengthened just by analysing the students’ responses included in this study when asked on their motivation and enjoyment levels experienced during the unit of work. It is clearly evident that based on the survey results, the class which was immersed in game play (Class B) were far more motivated and engaged with the content than the class who experienced just conventional pedagogy (Class A). Of particular relevance to this was in the analysis of the results that the students of Class B (game use) received in the informal assessment. The two weakest students in the class, based on previous academic class rankings actually received two of the highest total marks in the class for the catchment short answer task. Abrams (2009) found that in a study conducted of three underperforming History students, the introduction of game based learning enriched these students’ understandings of World War II by providing them with more vivid details of the battles through the experience of game play. In the same way, the two students in this study were able to identify more with the holistic approach of catchment management through trial and error that the game has to offer rather than becoming disengaged with the more traditional forms of teacher-centred learning on the topic.

The final finding to arise from this study was in the post unit of work phase; in the weeks after the study took place. An interesting observation was made in Class B where students, long after the unit of work was completed, were still playing the Catchment Detox game and competing with peers in their spare time. By comparison, the students of Class A had filed away the notes made during the Land and Water management unit of work; with a majority of students not revisiting their notes until closer to the formal examination later in the year. Video games are so successful in capturing the player that, within an educational context, they help to develop a student’s perseverance to strive at a task that may seem challenging but equally enjoyable at the same time. They also help to build and consolidate a sense of collaboration and competition between students and peers playing the same game (Lee et al., 2004; Miller & Robertson, 2010). This finding helps to reinforce just how powerful an educational tool, (relevant) educational games can become in the constructs of an educational program.



The main objective for this study was to obtain the raw facts on whether Game based learning is more effective in comparison with the more traditional and conventional forms of teaching and assessment. Through the study of both quantitative and qualitative data collected in this situational analysis, it can be concluded that no one form of pedagogical practice is better than the other and that a blending of the two is the way forward. Exclusive game based learning can potentially provide students with inadequate levels of detail and structure in their knowledge of a topic and fail to prepare them for inevitable forms of traditional assessment in current educational settings; however, an absence of it can diminish motivation levels and increase disinterest towards units of work being covered in the classroom; failing to assist in making the learning experience an enjoyable one for students.




Oblinger, D. (2004). The next generation of educational engagement. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2004(8), 1–18.

Ulicsak, M. & Cranmer, S. (2010) Gaming in Families. Final Report. A Futurelab

Prensky, M., Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Do They Really Think Differently?, MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 6, December 2001.

Trybus, J (2014) Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it Works, and Where it’s Going. NMI White Papers–what-it-is-why-it-works-and-where-its-going.html

Board of Studies NSW (2003). Geography 7-10: Syllabus and support documents. Sydney: Board of Studies.

ParmaksÕz R.ù. ve Yanpar, T. (2006). The usableness of alternative assesment approaches in social studies. FÕrat University Journal of Social Science,16(2), 159-172.

Serrano, E.S., 2004. The evaluation of food pyramid games, a bilingual computer nutrition education program for latino youth. Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences Education, 22(1).

Corti, K (Feb 2006) ‘Game-Based Learning; a serious business application’ PIXELearning Limted

Abrams, S.S., 2009. A gaming frame of mind: digital contexts and academic implications. Educational Media International, 46(4), 335-347.

Lee, J. et al., 2004. More than just fun and games: assessing the value of educational video games in the classroom. In CHI ’04 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. Vienna, Austria: ACM, pp. 1375-1378.



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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