What can playing (and designing) games teach us about learning?

by Jon Roberts


The promises and challenges of Game Based Learning (GBL) for secondary education seem to be as elusive today as they were when educators first experimented within the field. The challenge laid out is to provide seeds of opportunity to bring games into a contemporary classroom within a school that has a total ban on computer games.  This was done by examining evidence to support their use and identifying a methodology to that does not specifically employ playing games.  The context for this discussion will primarily focus on a secondary school setting, but is applicable to the wider educational sphere.

The term GBL and Digital Games Based Learning (DGBL) are used to encompass broadly using Games in Education.  The use of Commercial On the Shelf (COTS) or serious games and simulations are one approach taken by many educators who wish to engage in GBL, however while COTS, serious games and simulations will be discussed, an examination of game rules, game mechanics and game design in a classroom are being applied here, promoting Van Eck’s (2006) first approach to DGBL, games are created by students.  The following is presented as a challenge to the status quo in educational environments that have a blanket policy banning computer games to allow students to engage in games, learn about games, building digital games literacies and designing games.

Due to the nature of the schooling environment, and to successfully raise awareness of GBL as a teaching tool, it is put forward that picking up Van Eck’s idea that students and teachers build games, can meet the needs of teachers wanting to use GBL in a multitude of areas.  By spending time analysing games, and building literacies and giving students the opportunity to examine the content to be delivered in game, while weaving game elements into the classroom, it is hoped that both teaching practice and student learning can be improved.   Provided in Appendix A is an overview of a unit and a sample task for the end of that unit aimed to teach Digital Literacy and build General Capabilities within the Australian Curriculum (Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority [ACARA], 2014), which will be used as a case study to promote GBL.

Games can engage and motivate students through comprehensive and well structured delivery.

Games will be broadly defined as inclusive of something that has the presence of rules, clear and predefined goals to be achieved, constructive and timely feedback, and matching challenges to experience.  This definition is a combination of and encompasses a wide variety of definitions from different authors (Javaid, 2013; Shaffer, Halverson, Squire & Gee, 2005; Squire, 2005), and each of these points are very much aligned with the goals of good teaching.   Being aware that using GBL in an environment that is hostile to playing games, it is essential to spend time working from an educational theory that the school setting was familiar with and that is easily applicable to GBL.  While there are many theories that support using games for learning; Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Kaptelinin & Cole, 1997), Piaget’s concepts of Assimilation, Accommodation and Cognitive Disequilibrium (Van Eck, 2006; Mozelius, Shabalina, etal., 2013), an instructional design methodology was chosen that was familiar to school leadership.

A well known model of instruction is Gange’s Nine Events of Instruction (Johnson, 2015).  The events, 1. Gain Attention, 2. Describe a Goal, 3. Stimulate recall of prior knowledge, 4. Present the material to be learned, 5. Provide guidance for learning, 6. Elicit performance and practice, 7. Provide informative  feedback, 8. Assess Performance and 9. Enhance Retention, can all be described in terms of game play, and it will be shown that most of them can be considered by-products of gameplay.  A breakdown of gameplay can follow these and be used as a model for designing games with students.

While beyond the scope of this discussion to elaborate fully,  it is worth having looking through the some of the digital literacies, concepts and game design principles presented to the students in Appendix A. The culmination of this unit was a task for students to design and build their games.

Early on in the task, the students were instructed to follow an abridged version of Gange’s events as an overall structure in the presentation of their design, which were  are mapped out in Table 1.

Table 1

Table 1

Getting Attention and setting clear and predefined goals to be achieved. (What does the player have to do?)

The setting of goals is intrinsic to the nature of games. ‘Sandbox’ games like Minecraft (Mojang 2015), Grand Theft Auto V (Electronic Arts 2014) (GTA)  and  Gary’s Mod (Facepunch Studios , 2013), do not have explicit predefined goals, but the player sets the goals and directs play. More complex games attention is sought  and objectives are often delivered via some form of narrative., which sets the scene, and gives the player motivation and reasons to complete the objectives of the game, which often are to continue playing and finish the game.  Even simpler games generate a world where narrative is used to motivate, but falls back on to (often) explicitly stated rules to fill in the blanks.  According to Juul (2005) “it is not possible to deal with fiction in games without discussing rules. . . . Though rules can operate independent of fiction, fiction depends on rules”, and the example is given of Donkey Kong where Mario has 3 lives, and gains extra lives when reaching 10000 points.  The lives and extra lives do not fit within the narrowly defined narrative structure presented in Donkey Kong world.  The concepts of getting attention, goals and using narrative can be used as part of the game design process to start to order and manage student ideas.

With this in mind, the task given to the students has narrative and story as the primary goal setting mechanisms within the game, with the construction of game rules to support the narrative to gain player attention and set the goals of play.  Working towards the defined goal within the scope of the rules becomes the challenge of the game, and parallels that of teaching content in a class.

In essence the game presents obstacles for the player to overcome to succeed, which mirrors the assessment in a class.  However, the obstacles to success in a class are often created as summative assessment tasks that measure learning to that point in time, and are rarely revisited after completion.  Games continually assess skill or knowledge, yet still manage to challenge players, often with bosses, or boss levels, for which players are rewarded.   This is the concept of Flow, as described by Csikszentmihalyi (2007) in situations where there are clear goals every step of the way, there is immediate feedback to one’s action and there is a balance between challenges and skills.

See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6gZzS0XYhQ for a more detailed description of flow.

What does the player have to learn to do to meet the challenge? and How do you know if the player has accomplished anything?

One of the biggest motivators for students in a classroom is timely and constructive feedback. (Hattie & Timperley2007)  Games provide ongoing, timely and accurate feedback.  Feedback guides players to perform actions, and according to Briggs (1998) feedback from content driven tasks is about lack of performance, and tells you that you lack ability, whereas feedback concerning the gap between what you can do and what you should be able to do is regarded as formative but only if it can lead to action.  Games use formative feedback through the use of scores, rewards and on screen displays, visual and audio cues.  Players are able to evaluate their current standing in the game and work out ways to improve their in game situation.  Heads Up Displays in the form of health bars, resource meters, timers or other aggregate data enable players to make informed choices.  Scores and accumulation of points, in the form of experience, gold, extra time, lives or other game resources add depth and complexity to player choice.  While there is much interesting research about the construction and usability of data and how players make meaning of that to make decisions, with games being massive information systems (Harviainen, 2012), it remains beyond the scope here to discuss in much more depth.

Success in game is enhanced with more modern games where a player can share achievements and status amongst friends, guilds or on global leaderboards.  Bringing this data to a social aspect brings crowd knowledge and prompted metagaming  to assist in improving performance.   Social learning theories are well established, with Bandur theories underpinning how many teachers understand social learning.  In games, this social feedback loop is something that educators try to capture when bringing games into the classroom in the form of  collaboration and communication, which link strongly into the ACARA (2014) General Capabilities.

Students used their exposure to game mechanics of rewards and feedback to identify progression through their game.  Simplistically this was in the form of scores, points, collection of resources, with attention placed on how this information was communicated to the player in terms of visual, audio or narrative prompts.   These rewards and feedback loops are perhaps the strongest contenders for bringing game elements into the classroom, and there is an entire subset of GBL, Gamification –  “the process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems”  (Nah et al., 2013, p 99).  Gamification is often simplified to the addition of badges, points and ranks for achieving certain conditions.   Many online tools use sharable badges as a mechanism to motivate users to complete tasks.  See Image 1 as a sample of CodeCademy’s badge system

Fig 1. Sample of Gamification Badges

Fig 1. Sample of Gamification Badges

How does the game end?

A good ending can make or break a game.  For example Bioware’s (2008) Mass effect 3, was a game that focused on player choices, as a player, those choices seemed to matter.  As the game ended, the player learned that they didn’t matter after all, this resulted in additional cut scenes being released by Bioware to remedy this and fill plot holes (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_Effect_3#Extended_Cut).  Students were directed to the above link to reflect on making sure the the ending of their games was consistent with the look and feel of what had gone on previously.

In Gange’s final stages, 8. Assess Performance and 9. Enhance retention, teachers use classroom to gauge success or failure of the learning.  Enhancing retention usually involves recapping and links the material to the real world (Johnson, 2015).  This process of designing a game within a class has continually linked on previous knowledge and connected to real world events, and was parallel with the design process of bringing the game design to a point where it could be shared.

What does playing (and designing) games tell us about learning.

The entire process of game designing took longer than planned, but time was given for students to develop and in one case prototype their games.

Despite all the students labelling themselves as Gamers in the class, their initial game literacies and digital literacies were of a low standard prior to this task.  After this task was completed, the students were more confident in talking about social topics and issues around games where prior to this the conversations were about topics in game and game related.  Students produced a mind map as part of the process, and conducted a post task  mind map to compare their and reflect on their learning.

Success was measured by both engagement and successful completion of the tasks in the unit that addressed core curriculum outcomes, as well as observable differences between pre and post task mind maps.  Time to actually build the game was not practical, and was clearly identified as a shortcoming by both myself and the students.

Reception of GBL.

Any discussion about the adoption of GBL into a school comes back to the issues of ICT integration summarised by Kenny & McDaniel (2011) as: lack of institutional infrastructure, poor training and complexity.  School leadership are often “reactive to media reports and assertions about the effects of game on childhood which further undermines the likelihood of teacher adoption” (Kenny & McDaniel, 2011. p. 200).  A school wide ban on games supports these arguments.

However, the questions of why a teacher wants to use games in their classroom is something that needs to be unpacked.  As an educational tool, they offer many benefits, and they do have many of the issues that teachers experience in using ICT in classrooms, including Lack of professional development in ICT Pedagogy,  reliability of ICT resources, access to ICT resources and behavioural issues for students using ICT resources reliability, technology knowledge, suitability, access and student behaviour (Lawless & Pellegrino, 2007; Armfield & Shadow, 2011)  to name a few.  At a school policy level it was useful to frame the adoption of GBL using  the Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition (SAMR) model (Puentedura, 2010)  of integrating technology into the classroom.  Games can fall into Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition categories, but as one moves from Substitution to Redefinition, the teachers Technical Knowledge of the game needs to be higher.  Being able to provide examples of augmentation games that include simple skill and drill exercises like Mathletics and modification games which include games like Assassin’s Creed, who reportedly aimed to be as historically accurate as possible (Osberg 2014) s, as well  Redefinition Games including complex simulations like Deep Brain Stimulation Surgery (The Ohio State University Medical Center) which provide teacher resources as well as activities for classrooms allows discussion about appropriateness of games to continue.

Demonstrating the process of design and building games gained more interest in terms of educational outcomes, as alignment to standards, measurable outcomes and visible success were more readily able to be demonstrated.

+1 for at least being able to have these conversations about GBL



Unit Overview:

Game Design Unit Overview

Game Design Unit Overview

The Task:



(Link to PDF version of GameDesignTask)

(Link to Lesson 1 (PDF))



Armfield, S. W. J., & Shadow, W. J. A. (2011). Technology leadership for school improvement : Planning, designing, implementing and evaluating technology, pp. 109-128, 2011.

Australian Curriculum and Assessment Reporting Authority. (2014). Foundation to Year 10 Curriculum: Digital Technologies . Retrieved from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/technologies/digital-technologies/curriculum/f-10?layout=1

Biggs, J. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning: A role for summative assessment? Assessment in Education, 5(1), 103-110. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/204050789?accountid=10344

Bioware,(2013) Mass Effect 3 [PC Game], Electronic Arts

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2007). Flow and Education [Presentation]. Quality of Life Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/csikszentmihalyipowerpoint.pdf

Electronic Arts (2014). Grand Theft Auto V [PC Game]

Facepunch Studios (2013). Gary’s Mod [PC Game] Retrieved from http://store.steampowered.com/app/4000

Harviainen, J. T., Gough, R. D., & Sköld, O. (2012.). Chapter 7 Information Phenomena in Game-Related Social Media, , Social Information Research , Vol 5, pp 149–171. Emerald Group Publishing Limited http://doi.org/10.1108/S1876-0562(2012)0000005009

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. http://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487

Javaid, M. A. (2013), Games Based Learning : The Benefits of Game Based Learning (Microsoft Educator Network). Retrieved May 14, 2015, from http://www.educatornetwork.com/HotTopics/gamesbasedlearning/benefitsofgamesbasedlearning

Johnson, T. E. (2015). Conditions of Learning: Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, California 91320 : SAGE Publications, Inc. http://doi.org/10.4135/9781483346397.n64

Juul, Jasper. (2005). Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Mit Press

Kaptelinin, V., & Cole, M. (1997). Individual and collective activities in educational computer game playing, 142–147.

Kenny, R. F., & McDaniel, R. (2011). The role teachers’ expectations and value assessments of video games play in their adopting and integrating them into their classrooms. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(2), 197–213. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01007.x

Lawless, K. A., & Pellegrino, J. W. (2007). Professional Development in Integrating Technology Into Teaching and Learning: Knowns, Unknowns, and Ways to Pursue Better Questions and Answers. Review of Educational Research, 77(4), 575-614. doi: 10.3102/0034654307309921

Mozelius, P., Shabalina, O., Malliarakis, C., Tomos, F., Miller, C. J., & Turner, D. A. (2013). Let the students construct their own fun and knowledge – learning to program by building computer games. Presented at the ECGBL , The 7th European Conference on Games Based Learning. Retrieved from http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Mozelius/publication/261608036__Let_the_students_contruct_their_own_fun_and_knowledge_-_learning_to_program_by_building_computer_games_Authors/links/0c960534ced3e56617000000.pdf

Mojang (2014). Minecraft (1.8.4) [PC Game]. (2014). Retrieved from https://minecraft.net/store/minecraft

Nah, F. F.-H., Telaprolu, V. R., Rallapalli, S., & Venkata, P. R. (2013). Gamification of education using computer games (Vol. Part III , Volume Part III, pp. 99–107). Presented at the HCI’13: Proceedings of the 15th international conference on Human Interface and the Management of Information: information and interaction for learning, culture, collaboration and business, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-39226-9_12

Ohio State University Medical Center, Deep Brain Simulation Surgery [Flash Game], Retrieved from http://www.edheads.org/activities/brain_stimulation/

Osberg, Molly. ‘The Assassin’s Creed Curriculum: Can Video Games Teach Us History?’. The Verge. N.p., 2014. Retrieved 22 May 2015. From http://www.theverge.com/2014/9/18/6132933/the-assassins-creed-curriculum-can-video-games-teach-us-history

Puentedura, R. R. (2010). SAMR and TPCK: Intro to Advanced Practice. from http://hippasus.com/resources/sweden2010/SAMR_TPCK_IntroToAdvancedPractice.pdf

Shaffer, D. W., Halverson, R., Squire, K. R., & Gee, J. P. (2005). Video Games and the Future of Learning. WCER Working Paper No. 2005-4. Wisconsin Center for Education Research (NJ1).

Squire, K. (2005). Changing the Game: What Happens when Video Games Enter the Classroom? Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 1(6).

Van Eck, R. (2006). Digital Game-Based Learning: It’s Not Just the Digital Natives Who Are Restless. EDUCAUSE Review, 41(2), 16–30.

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).
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