Student Engagement through Game Based Learning: Promoting the inclusion of Game Based Learning in a 5/6 Classroom

by Wendy Newman


Students today are at the forefront of digital technologies, using them every day for either education or entertainment purposes. They are becoming disengaged in traditional pen and paper learning in the classroom and it is time that the education system is changed to cater for these 21st century learners. ‘The meaning of knowing today has shifted from being able to recall and repeat information to being able to find it, evaluate it and use it compellingly at the right time and in the right context’ (Institute of Play, 2015). With student engagement such a big issue in many schools, finding ways to motivate students to learn is becoming increasingly difficult. Many ideas have been put forward to engage students at my school, particularly boys in Years 5 and 6; ideas such as Genius Hour; a ‘Chat Stop’ where students can meet with friends; and planned activities during recess and lunch times, just to name a few. However none are raising results in the Student Attitude to School Survey (State of Victoria, 2015), done each year by students in Years 5 to 12 in Victoria. It is clear that we need to think outside the box in order to engage and motivate these students.

Project Based Learning (PBL) ‘ is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, problem, or challenge’ (Buck Institute of Education). With technology being such a large part of their lives, why not develop a project whereby these students learn through gaming. What is stopping us from introducing games such as RollerCoaster Tycoon and Sim City into our classrooms, integrating them within our curriculum, and teaching students through games?

Student Engagement

The Victorian Department of Education and Training states that ‘a supportive learning environment encourages student engagement and participation’ (State of Victoria, 2013). And according to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), there are three interrelated components to engagement – behavioural, emotional and cognitive engagement (State of Victoria, 2009). Engagement in classrooms requires students to participate in academic, social and extracurricular activities; it embraces students’ emotional responses and motivation to their learning. Boys in particular are becoming less engaged in traditional learning, and according to recent data from The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test results, girls are outperforming boys in reading, writing, spelling, and grammar and punctuation (National Assessment Program, 2013). The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in Virginia in the United States of America outlines several strategies for teaching boys effectively. These include:

  • increasing the use of graphics, pictures, and storyboards in literacy-related classes and assignments;
  • project-based education in which the teacher facilitates hands-on, kinaesthetic learning;
  • competitive learning opportunities;
  • including non-traditional materials, such as graphic novels, magazines, and comic books to classroom libraries;
  • movement in and around the classroom, as needed;
  • boys-only (and girls-only) group work and discussion groups in core classes such as language, math, science, and technology (Gurian and Stevens, 2010).

Individuality plays an important role in student engagement with many students disengaging due to lack of interest in what is being taught and how they are being taught it. While focusing on individual needs of students at risk is a high priority (State of Victoria, 2009), developing a learning environment that caters to each student’s individual wants and needs is also key.

Issues with Game Integration into Classrooms

Many people are nervous about bringing games into a classroom, with teachers and parents being the most prominent. There is a lot of media hype around video games and what it can do to children (and adults). Desai, Krishnan-Sarin, Cavallo, and Potenza (2010) state that ‘the effects of video gaming have been found to be mixed. There is little evidence that recreational play has poor consequences; however, problematic gaming has been recognized as a potential area of concern’. The media hype about video games is generally that of the problematic video gamers, when people become addicted to the detriment of their health and social wellbeing (Desai et al, 2010). However, many teachers and parents have taken on board this extreme and are now very concerned about the impact that gaming has on their children. Parents in particular often have very little knowledge about their children’s gaming because ‘game experiences are usually shared with peers, rather than parents’ (Bourgonjon, Valcke, Soetaert, de Wever and Schellens, 2011, pp. 1435). And according to Kutner, Olsen, Warner and Hertzog (2008), parents are concerned about a balance between gaming and other activities; the content of the games; and the potential of harmful health and social effects. Kutner et al (2008) discovered that many children, boys in particular, thought that ‘their parents were ignorant about video games in general or about their own game play in particular’ (pp. 87). The boys interviewed for Kutner et al’s (2008) study thought that their parents concerns were unjustified. Teachers are also concerned about bringing games into their classrooms and ‘while they value games in the classroom they feel that current video games, such as massive multiplayer online games, are not good learning tools’ (Ruggiero, 2013, pp. 1). ‘Teachers’ beliefs about what is (and is not) possible to achieve with digital games in education contexts will inevitably influence the decisions that they make about how, when, and for what specific purposes they will bring these games into their classrooms’ (Beavis, Rowan, Dezuanni, McGillivray, O’Mara, Prestridge, Stieler-Hunt, Thompsom and Zagami, 2014, pp. 1). The age of teachers also impacts their perception of gaming in the classroom according to Ruggiero (2013) with teachers having been in the classroom for, on average, 15 years, new technologies become more difficult to keep up with and are therefore less likely to be introduced. As newer teachers start their careers, games are becoming more widely acceptable as ‘teachers with less than five years teaching experience … report to learning about computer games in their pre-service teacher education classes’ (Ruggiero, 2013, pp. 2).

Gender differences are also a concern when introducing gaming into the classroom, with ‘Information Technology use and implementation…often considered a “male domain”’ (Bourgonjon et al, 2011, pp. 1437), with male students [showing] more positive attitudes toward computers and [reporting] less problems when using IT (Reinen and Plomp, 1997). Reinen and Plomp (1997) investigated the gender gap and found that ‘boys and girls equally enjoyed using computers for practical jobs’ (pp. 67), however ‘males are more interested in video games, play video games more often and for longer periods’ (Bourgonjon et al, 2011, pp. 1437).

As with movies, video games require a rating, stating what age the game is appropriate for. Many online reviews contradict these ratings, often implying that the rating is either too low or too high. According to Common Sense Media (2015), both RollerCoaster Tycoon and Sim City are appropriate for children aged 9 and up, which is in my proposed range, given students in Years 5 and 6 are between 10 and 13 years old.


‘Education in the early part of the twentieth century tended to focus on the acquisition of basic skills and content knowledge, like reading, writing, calculation, history or science. Many experts believe that success in the twenty-first century depends on education that treats higher order skills, like the ability to think, solve complex problems or interact critically through language and media’ (Institute of Play, 2015). With gaming becoming a part of the lives of children in the 21st century, it is important that we begin to transition in to a new way of thinking about our teaching and learning. Hew and Brush (2006) state that there are 123 knowledge gaps in current pedagogy in integrating technology into teaching and learning. They identify a few that they considered most relevant to current teachers. These include knowledge and skills, the institution, attitudes and beliefs, assessment, and subject culture (Hew and Brush, 2006). Many teachers feel that they do not have the knowledge or the expertise to integrate gaming into their classrooms and are often not willing to up skill themselves for fear of failure. They often take the approach that it is too hard and what they are teaching is working so why would they change it. This ties in to attitudes and beliefs about what they are teaching and whether it is working for their students. Many teachers believe that traditional teaching techniques are still relevant, and while some are, many are causing disengagement amongst 21st century learners. The institution, or school, that teachers work at also affects their pedagogy and thoughts towards Game Based Learning. How leadership at schools approaches technology integration directly affects how teachers can use it in their classrooms. Timetabling at many schools is also an issue, with ratios of computers to students needing to be factored in to when technology is available. In order to facilitate a change in pedagogy in our schools, we need to begin with a shared vision for a technology integration plan. This involves putting the kids first and finding a leadership team who will support the vision, according to Gillispie and Lawson’s work with World of Warcraft in Schools. ‘Along with high levels of engagement, the use of games in classrooms offers exciting, powerful vehicles that can stimulate collaboration, problem solving, creativity, innovation, critical thinking, communication and digital literacy to satisfy contemporary curriculum goals and cross curricular approaches to student learning’ (State of Victoria, 2011).

The Games

RollerCoaster Tycoon ( is a game on either the computer, smart phone or tablet, where the player builds and maintains a theme park, including games, rides, hotels and food stalls. The player is required to keep guests happy based on the caliber of the theme park, as well as keep their theme park financially viable. It requires the player to pay attention to the physics required in building an effective rollercoaster as well as the architectural design of a popular and successful theme park.

Sim City ( is a computer game that requires the player to build and manage a city. The player must consider what the city’s people need, such as electricity, water, sewage, and emergency services, to name a few. They must keep their citizens happy by maintain a safe and economically sound city. The gamer must also consider ethical ways to manage natural disasters as well as keep their city environmentally friendly.


This chapter is proposing that, for a 10-week period, students in Years 5 and 6 at Ripponlea Primary School undertake Project Based Learning through playing either RollerCoaster Tycoon or Sim City. Hanghøj (2013) identifies pedagogical approaches to teaching with games, and based on his findings, both explorative and pragmatic approaches are required to integrate RollerCoaster Tycoon and Sim City in the curriculum of Year 5 and 6 classrooms. Both of these approaches are needed due to the project (or inquiry) based teaching and learning taking place as well as the content being taught through the game. Project Based Learning (PBL) is an excellent approach to pedagogy when integrating games into the classroom. ‘The Common Core and other present-day standards emphasize real-world application of knowledge and skills, and the development of the 21st century competencies such as critical thinking, communication in a variety of media, and collaboration. PBL provides an effective way to address such standards’ (Buck Institute for Education). PBL encourages individual learning through real-world relevance and ‘develops deeper learning competencies required for success in college, career and civic life’ (Buck Institute for Education). Recent changes to the Australian Curriculum identify communication, critical and creative thinking, and social and ethical understanding as general capabilities across all subject areas. Gaming is an ideal platform to promote these capabilities through Project Based Learning. Students’ Mathematics, English and Science lessons would be taught based on what is happening in their games. While these games are very personal to the player, students can still use their experiences to complete the required curriculum. Topics in Mathematics that can be taught through both of these games include addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, money, statistics and probability, decimals and fractions, measurement, and mapping. Students will complete written reports and proposals based on the building of their theme park or city. They will need to complete persuasive letters and applications addressed to countless stakeholders. During Science lessons, students can physically build various structures from their theme park or city, using light, sound, physics, and architectural knowledge in order to complete models to scale. Students will of course spend a portion of their day playing the game, utilizing their knowledge and skills in computer use. They will be encouraged to seek out sources of game news and information, using YouTube and social media hubs to discover new and successful ways to play their game, as well as add their own experiences to these forums. They will interact with each other in the game, visiting each other’s theme parks and cities, exchanging advice, and selling and buying goods and resources. Not only can we integrate the game into the three areas of the curriculum that we report on twice a year, but we will also encourage communication, critical thinking, ethical and social awareness, and excellent Information and Communication Technology skills. Both RollerCoaster Tycoon and Sim City are both gender appropriate and appeal to boys as well as girls and with the curriculum based around the games; every child will find an area that is relevant to their interests. This is consistent with Volma, van Eck, Heemskerk and Kuiper’s (2004) comment that ‘boys find it more enjoyable to be able to beat someone at a computer game, while for girls it is more important to be able to create something pretty with the computer’ (pp. 50). Students will conclude the project at the end of the term or 10-week session, and will share with their peers the achievements. Their final product should demonstrate their participation in the game, including the core curriculum subjects that they have completed. They should be able to show a successful, functioning theme park or city and present their external involvement in their games world.


‘Games-based learning is one of the emerging technologies most likely to be adopted in the coming years’ (State of Victoria, 2011). By acknowledging that today’s students require a different pedagogical approach to teaching and learning, and being willing to investigate new ways to engage them in the classroom, attitudes towards their learning will become more positive. Introducing games that they already know and play outside of school into their school environment will show our students that we are aware of their learning needs and wants, and want them to be engaged in the curriculum. RollerCoaster Tycoon and Sim City are two games that have been proven to be successful in a commercial setting, and warrant a genuine trial in primary school classrooms.



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Part 3: Invitation

Part 3: Invitation

Inviting organisations, systems or workplaces to meet, respond & adopt the challenge of game-based learning.

In this section:

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