Digital game-based learning levels up digital literacies

Digital literacies and digital game-based learning (DGBL) are both concepts that have emerged in the educational arena since digital technologies have become all pervasive in every aspect of society.  With mobile technologies continuing to develop, games are being used more and more by people of all generations and schools are realising that there is some potential for adopting digital games into the formal setting for learning (Beavis, 2012; Arnab et al., 2012).  Digital literacies have been recognised as necessary for successful participation in all aspects of life and are embedded throughout the Australian Curriculum  / NSW Syllabuses for the Australian Curriculum within the General Capabilities and Cross-curriculum priorities. There are many similarities between digital literacies and digital game-based learning, yet, it would seem that very little research has been undertaken to make the link obvious between these two concepts.  

Throughout this chapter, connections will be made between  digital game-based learning and digital literacies to show that digital game-based learning is a powerful pedagogy that incorporates the elements of digital literacies.  In showing the similarities, it will be seen that through the adoption of game-based learning, digital literacies can be taught in context.  Digital literacies are the skills that connect the learning content (curriculum) and digital games are the platform that these digital literacies can be practised within a meaningful context.  

Defining Digital Literacies

Digital literacies is an umbrella term that includes a combination of literacies – visual literacy, media literacy, collaborative literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy – that are needed to take an active, participatory role in life, now and in the future (Hague & Payton, 2010, p. 2).  Bawden (2008), cites Gilster (1997), who defines digital literacy as “an ability to understand and use information from a variety of digital sources and regard it as literacy in the digital age” (p.18).  Jisc, identify in their Digital Literacy Guide that it is a concept that is contextual and it is not static.  Change is imminent as new technologies develop “at breakneck speeds” (Becker, 2011, p. 76), therefore, it can be inferred the digital literacies required to use these new technologies need to be adaptable and flexible to these changes (Haste, 2009).  

Cooper, Lockyer & Brown (2013), highlight this plurality by using the term “multiliteracies” which can be understood as synonymous with digital literacies.  Cooper et al. (2013), explain multiliteracies is required as a “broader view of literacy” (p. 94), is needed as a result of the diverse range of communications tools, therefore, context is implied.  Ng (2012) also highlights this idea that digital literacy is “the multiplicity of literacies associated with the use of digital technologies” (p. 1066).  The combination of multiliteracies and technologies would also suggest that multimodality is an important element of digital literacy (McLoughlin, 2011) .  This element of multimodality is highlighted at the New Literacies and Classroom Practice website which identifies new literacies as digital literacies.

Doug Belshaw (2012), also highlights these ideals of plurality of literacies, context dependency and socially negotiated in his explanation of The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies.  It can also be seen that he refers to his model of digital literacy as comprising 8 elements – cognitive, constructive, communication, civic, critical, creative, confident and cultural and at the heart of all this is the idea of remix.  This idea will be referred back to further in the chapter.  Jisc, also offer  their model of 7 elements of digital literacy in their Developing Digital Literacies Guide (2014), which can be seen below.

Seven element of digital literacies ©Jisc CC BY-NC-ND

Seven element of digital literacies

Another important point made in the Developing Digital Literacies Guide (Jisc, 2014), is that digital literacy “looks beyond functional ICT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices and identities.” Information behaviours are an important part of digital literacy because as shown in Gilster’s broad definition (Bawden, 2008), it involves finding information, understanding that information and evaluating that information so it can be used in some way.  While there are many models and processes that have been devised to help teachers in understanding how to incorporate digital learning practices into their classrooms it is important that education remembers the role of academic discourse and research as this can avoid an anything goes approach to education.

Defining Game-based learning

The New Media Consortium (NMC) Horizon Report: 2014 K-12 Edition outlines that digital games and gamification of learning have been part of educational discourse for several years and the culture of learning they bring to educational settings continues to grow (p. 38).  For the purposes of this chapter though, the focus will be narrowed to digital games (Pivec & Pivec, 2011), which can also be called computer games (Whitton, 2011), video games (Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes & Vicari, 2014) or serious games (Arnab et al., 2012) rather than gamification.  Digital games have been recognised by the education sector as being engaging, motivating and interactive media that promote learning rather than merely a leisure pursuit that happens outside the formal education setting ( Pivec & Pivec, 2011).  Whitton (2011) outlines  two types of motivation/engagement in digital games: initial motivation and the ability to sustain engagement throughout the digital game as it progresses (p.80).  This is an important consideration by Whitton as she cautions that relying on a digital game to engage all learners at the same time can be problematic as while games may cause initial enthusiasm it is in the sustained engagement that challenges may occur (p.76).  The analogy could be that every student is not going to enjoy or want to engage with the exact same novel or picture book till the end. 

Games are now being recognised as tools that allow the learner to actively construct their own knowledge whilst they are able to control their learning in a safe learning environment (Whitton, 2011; De Grove, Bourgonjon & Van Looy, 2012; Romero, Usart & Ott, 2015).  Features of digital games is that they have rules/goals, provide challenge, opportunities for interactions with others, aesthetics through images and animation, and they provide challenges that can be differentiated for students (Smith & Bowers, 2015) as well as just-in-time feedback (Whitton, 2011). Other affordances of digital games is their ability to assist students develop key skills, often referred to as 21st Century skills, such as problem-solving, decision-making, communication, inquiry, multitasking, collaboration and creativity ( Arnab et al., 2012; De Grove, Bourgonjon & Van Looy, 2012).  

 Retrieved from:

Digital game-based learning then is using digital games in the learning environment with the purpose of achieving learning aligned with learning theory.  Serious games are games designed for educational purposes but as Routledge (2009) states that any games can be used  in the classroom and the use or non-use of a game is limited only by the teacher’s imagination (p. 280).  The emphasis then is not the device, nor the game in itself but rather the learning that will be activated for the learner as a result of interacting with the game.  Digital games that will not be discussed within this chapter are those that align themselves with the behaviourist theory of learning. These games are known as edutainment games and promote drill-and-practice (Orr & McGuinness, 2014).

 How are Digital Literacy and Digital Game-based learning connected?

To understand how digital game-based learning and digital literacies connect needs some brief understanding of learning theories that align themselves to sound educational practices for achieving relevant and authentic learning for our students to be successful in their futures.

Cognitive constructivism is a learning theory that game-based learning could be aligned (Orr & McGuinness, 2014; St-Pierre, 2011).  This learning theory builds upon the theories of Piaget and Bruner, therefore, an important consideration in the digital game-based classroom would be that choosing games needs to fit the age and level of intellectual development the students are at (St-Pierre, 2011).  While cognitive constructivism is more individual socio-constructivist learning theory adds the intervention of a third party into the learning (Orr & McGuinness, 2014).  In the digital game-based classroom, this third party could be the teacher, a peer or even another player with whom the student may be interacting with in a game-based forum or affinity space (Orr & McGuinness, 2014; Gee & Hayes, 2011; Bommarito, 2014). A major focus of the socio-constructivist learning theory is that of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (St-Pierre, 2011).  The learning is designed “just beyond what the learner can do” (Orr & McGuinness, 2014, p. 223) and takes them beyond where their knowledge already exists.  It is within these two learning theories that digital game-based learning would best be placed.  

Information behaviour is a major component of digital literacies and digital game-based learning.  Robson & Robinson (2013), outline a number of information models – Ellis model, Kuhlthau’s model, Leckie model, Johnson model, Gorman model,Ingwersen and Jarvelin model, Wilson model- which show the various information seeking and communication behaviours that people undertake in developing their information and concurrently digital literacy practices.  They identify nine factors that emerge from these various models:

  1. context;
  2. demographics;
  3. expertise;
  4. psychological factors;
  5. needs / goals that initiate the user to seek information;
  6. the information providers needs / goals in communicating the information;
  7. motivational and inhibiting factors that encourage sustained engagement in the information task;
  8. activities, thoughts and feelings towards the information-seeking process and
  9. characteristics of information and sources of information in their usability and credibility. (pp. 184 – 185)

If the nine factors mentioned above are reflected upon in relation to the use of digital games in learning, it can be seen that there are parallels to be made.  The context of learning is the situated learning within the game but it can also be the learning that happens out of the game through reflection and debriefing of the learning made through using the game (Turkay, Hoffman, Kinzer, Chantes & Vicari, 2014; Routledge, 2009).   Expertise is evident in both digital literacies and digital game-based learning.  As learners there are always gaps.  the gaps in digital literacies may be how to access information using a device, the gaps in using a digital game for learning may be (as one example) in not knowing how to collect enough experience points on a certain level to progress to the next level.  This awareness of the knowledge gap may hinder full participation in a digital game just as it can lead to feelings of anxiety in the initial stages of inquiry learning (Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007; Routledge, 2009).  

Within digital games there are problems to be solved and decisions to be made. This is also true when using digital literacy skills, as, to make an inquiry, is to pose a problem or a question that needs to be answered(Kuhlthau, Maniotes, Caspari, 2007).  They then begin seeking information by immersing themselves with various information sources to gain the learning they need. Decisions then need to be made as to the best information sources available to find solutions and the best information creation tools to communicate learning (Kuhlthau, Maniotes & Caspari, 2012).  This is how games have been described, as immersive experiences where information is gained through trial and error, exploration and in a game the learner will make mistakes because they misunderstood the information that was communicated to them.  feedback is given and the student is able to go back and start again.  Digital game-based learning levels up information behaviours, just as guided inquiry enhances the development of information behaviours, consequently levelling up digital literacies through the learning becoming a learner-centred activity (Romero, Usart & Ott, 2015). 

Routledge (2009) identifies that digital game-based learning is “designed to transfer knowledge to the player through interaction with objects, characters or environments” (p. 276) and it can be inferred that the use of graphics, movement and sound would assist the learner navigate their way through the game, thereby levelling up their digital literacy skills through the use of visual, media, ICT and information literacies (McLoughlin, 2011).  Erstad (2013), identifies the concept of lifelong learning as “the ability to continuously reinvent your knowledge and expertise to manage changing problem situations” (p.150) which is essentially what a digitally literate person does in the face of changing technologies and what a learner does within the context of a game.

Students are not only limited to using games for information seeking endeavours but through game design experiences, students are able to use their digital literacy skills for communication purposes (Walsh, 2010; Reynolds & Chiu, 2013).  They can take learning that they have made in their own inquiry-learning process and design a game to assist others to learn what they now know(Walsh, 2010). Again, this is an example as to how digital game-based learning can level up digital literacy practices.  One example that can be used for game design, especially when beginning in this area of digital game-based learning is through using Gamestar Mechanic.  This is a well supported design platform that allows the learners to play a game whilst learning about the elements of game design.  Minecraft™ (PC/Mac version) is another game that allows learners to develop their creativity literacy through design and could be used in a number of ways for a number of curriculum areas.  When a teacher uses their own digital literacy skills to seek information about how to use Minecraft in the classroom they will find a number of examples.

It is important to realise that digital game-based classrooms and classrooms that view digital literacies practices as embedded within digital game-based learning do not recognise the use of digital games as a replacement for the teacher (Routledge, 2009).  As identified earlier, digital literacies and digital game-based learning are both aligned with constructivist and socio-constructivist learning theories (Routledge, 2009). With the realisation of the connectedness between digital literacies and digital game-based learning, teachers will begin to think and work differently.  Their role becomes not one of expert but of facilitator and guide and as such, the teacher needs to be familiar with the elements and infrastructure of the game such as rules / goals, levels and settings (Routledge, 2009).  Part of the teacher’s role then is to research, assess and evaluate a digital game for “its potential and limitations” to ensure that “rich learning drives educational decisions” (Philip & Garcia, 2013, p. 302), to facilitate digital game-based learning.



Similarities between game-based learning and digital literacies  Created with Wordle by Michelle Cook (2015)

Similarities between game-based learning and digital literacies
Created with Wordle by Michelle Cook (2015)

In conclusion, through the adoption of digital game-based learning in the formal education setting, teachers are definitely levelling up their students digital literacy skills.  There are too many similarities, as can be seen from the Wordle above, not to consider digital game-based learning as an effective and relevant pedagogy for a 21st century learning environment.  While there are barriers that can exist, perhaps with some innovative planning and motivation to design learning instruction that promotes authentic and meaningful tasks then educational discourse can continue to move forward.  To consider how the students will construct and communicate their knowledge and understandings is necessary not only for the learners’ futures but also in transforming formal education settings into spaces of creativity, critical and evaluative thinking and spaces where students can have a voice and co-create their own learning pathways (Beavis, Muspratt & Thompson, 2014).  



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