Why use DGBL in the Primary Curriculum?

by Andrew Pinelli



Playing games, living in imaginary worlds and role play are all part of growing up when in a primary classroom and on the playground. In an education system that was founded in, and on, industrial revolution principles, how will teachers utilise these learning principles to develop Digital Game Based Learning (DGBL) and the development of 21st century skills? How can teachers harness these learning strategies into very busy classrooms with an already overcrowded curriculum and why should they go to the effort to do so?

This chapter will discuss supporting evidence as to why DGBL should be implemented as a learning and teaching strategy.  Following on, classroom teachers will be invited to adopt DGBL as a significant learning tool in their upper primary classrooms.  With many teachers not necessarily identifying as or being ‘gamers’, potential barriers and challenges will be identified with possible solutions and support strategies suggested to enable a DGBL strategy to be implemented that will assist in achieving curriculum outcomes and, quite possibly go, beyond.


Games and learning, at their best, engage humans at a deep level of pleasure. (Gee 2005)

The students in our primary school classrooms today are very different to those who attended school primary school with the author in the 1970’s.  Prensky (2001) has famously identified the students of today as digital natives meaning that they have been raised in a world that abounds with technology that is readily available and is also portable.  Further, he goes on to suggest that this fact has changed the way that they learn as well as their disposition.  Gee (2003) has investigated what the guiding principles are that make games so appealing and engaging to these digital natives and uses these principles to suggest that teachers need to change the way that they have their learning and teaching programme structured.  With minimal research having been published as to the success of utilising digital game based learning in a classroom, how can a classroom teacher justify the leap of faith required to implement such a strategy.  This chapter aims to support teachers to take this leap of faith.

James Paul Gee explains here how strategies deployed in games can and do link well with principles of learning.



Why introduce Digital Game Based Learning (DGBL) into the Curriculum?

Teachers, worldwide are aware that games permeate all facets of life.  Games have actually been part of all of our lives since we were children.  Most significantly, if a teacher has their own children, they would be acutely aware of the impact of games, in particular digital games, in the lives of children today. However as Rosmalen and Westera (2014) identified that the uptake of digital games in education is lagging behind that which occurs in a student’s home life, “Despite the continuous and abundant growth of the game market the uptake of games in education has been hampered by the general impression that games require complex technologies and that games are difficult to organise and to embed in education curriculums.” (2014, p. 564).

Beavis, Muspratt and Thompson (2015, p.29) found that competition and getting ahead figured highly as favourite aspects of digital games but discovery rated as the most important to the students involved in their research.  Meanwhile social aspects, including helping other players, being part of a team, becoming friends with others and chatting or getting to know others players, were more evenly distributed throughout the results indicating varying importance to the students involved in the research.

21st Century skills are named in many curriculum documents as well as research pieces as being important skills that need to be developed now by educational institutions for the citizens of the future.  These skills comprising critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity are difficult to develop in an industrial age type classroom and accompanying pedagogy.  The clip below, produced by Extra Credits (2014), gives a relatively simple explanation why introducing digital game based learning into the curriculum needs to occur.



In addition to developing 21st Century skills, DGBL and game environments, as Rosmalen and Westera found, also encourage the player/learner to become involved in the game, “Game environments tend to be highly responsive and demanding and thus provoke active learner involvement” (2014, p.564) whilst Turkay, et al reported that video games are designed experiences and a powerful tool as it is possible to develop situated understanding (2014, p.4,5).  This level of involvement in the game encourages deeper thinking about, and learning of, the content being addressed.

The recent New Horizons Report for K – 12 2014 referred to a study by the American Psychological Association that highlighted the cognitive, motivational, emotional and social impact that video games have on human behaviour and noted the overwhelming potential of video games (2014, p.38).  Further, Rosmalen and Westera (2014, p. 564) quote Pivec saying games allow for exploration, experimentation, competition and co-operation while requiring self-regulation, information skills, strategic thinking, anticipation and critical thinking.  These skills are all needed for our students of today to be able to functioning members of society tomorrow.  They are also skills that are noted in the description of learning for Grades 5 and 6 in the Australian Curriculum Digital Technologies Syllabus,  where it states that students will “….acquire, validate, interpret, track and manage various types of data….”, “…learn to further develop abstractions…”, “…check and validate their designs to increase the likelihood of creating working solutions”, “…valuate their solutions and examine the sustainability of their own and existing information systems”.

Digital games based learning also affords the student users (players) opportunities to personalise the learning space for themselves.  Often, this will be at the commencement of the game where an avatar is selected and personalised according to the player’s choices.  It may also arise as the game progresses and awards or prizes can be chosen from a wide selection on offer.

Possible barriers and challenges to introducing DGBL into the Curriculum.

As with anything that is relatively new or might involve some form or level of change, there will be barriers and challenges to success.  Whilst many teachers are enthusiastic about the implementation of digital game based learning, processes need to be put in place so that this enthusiasm is not stymied.  Here I will list some that have been identified through research, Rosmalen and Westera (2014, p. 564), and propose possible solutions to manage the situation.

1. Teacher digital game playing skill

Many teachers do not consider themselves to be gamers so only witness the usage of games by others.  This means that they may not be familiar with how a game works or how it can be integrated into the curriculum of the class let alone how to assess outcomes of the activities and game play.  It can also lead to caution and anxiety when they may not be able to assist a student who is having trouble in the game.  Teachers need to be involved in the selection of what games might be introduced into the curriculum.  Further, they will need to be given a lengthy lead time so that they can become familiar with the mechanics of the game and the actual game play.  That being said, they do not need to finish the game, as some games do not have an end, nor do they need to be the expert player of the game.  What needs to be achieved and offered to teachers leading up to implementation of digital game based learning is the opportunity to become familiar with the game and how it can be associated with the curriculum.

A good starting point that would be proposed is the introduction of a programme like “Mathletics” or “Reading Eggs”. These applications are designed to teach the content of Maths or Reading but to learn at their own individual pace and individual level (Nansen, et al 2012, p.1220).  These games also make the most of relatively simple interfaces and readily available technologies as opposed to “complex, multifaceted, immersive and technically high demanding serious games” (Rosmalen and Westera 2014, p. 567).  The online functionality of these programmes also actively encourages the partnership between home and school.  Both of these programmes offer a digital game based approach but are very well supported by the developers.  Whilst both involve a paid subscription, they allow for access at both home and school, also have inbuilt online support for the user and player whilst also offering paper based materials, resources and curriculum alignment.  Many teachers would be surprised to learn that if they are already utilising these programmes in the classroom that they are already using digital games based learning.

2. Infrastructure and Technical Issues

Many teachers have experienced a lesson where they are very well prepared to utilise a digital device and the network failed or it was too slow or the device was not satisfactorily set up to allow for success.  Once a proposal that specifically identifies the digital game based learning to be implemented, a thorough check of the game requirements will need to be made in conjunction with a forensic check of the school and classroom infrastructure.  For example iPads do not have the capability, at the moment, of playing ‘Flash’ items.  The publishers of both Mathletics and Reading Eggs are redeveloping their software to work around this for release during 2015.  There is also a software solution called ‘Puffin browser’ that allows ‘Flash’ items to be played on an iPad.  Checks would also need to be undertaken to ensure that security software allowed access to all aspects of the software being implemented.  This could be done whilst the teacher is trialling and becoming familiar with the game.

3. Systemic Barriers

There are a variety of other barriers that will be named as systemic barriers.  These include barriers that the individual teacher might bring, the individual circumstances of a school as well as those that may be presented by the curriculum.

As has been noted already, teacher skill with playing digital games is a barrier to overcome.  That being noted, added to the individual skill is the perception of digital games that the teacher holds.  Whilst many teachers are very positive and enthusiastic about what could be learnt or developed as a result of playing games (Rosmalen and Westera 2014, p. 566), there are still some who do not share that passion or interest.  There is also the view that games do not fit in the education setting and are not relevant to education.  It is hoped that the resources presented as part of this chapter go a long way to placing digital game based learning in a more positive light.

Rosmalen and Westera (2014, p. 566) quote Klopfer et al as blaming the school system for the reluctance to give up purchasing text books or purchasing educational technologies that are not clearly linked to curriculum standards and the formal assessment standards.  As has been noted already, the Australian Curriculum frames a curriculum for digital Technologies but also considers the implementation of digital technologies and digital game based learning through the general capabilities that permeate all subjects in the curriculum.  There is curriculum support, if not encouragement, for teachers to adopt digital game based learning as a key learning and teaching strategy.

Whilst addressing the curriculum demands of the Australian Curriculum children today need to be prepared for a world very different to that which their teachers grew up in.  They need to develop thinking and processing skills that are well honed for the demands of, and to function in, the digital age, be it digital games or digital life.  The development of the SAMR model supports teachers with a methodology to incorporate digital game based learning and other technologies into their classroom.  The SAMR model gives teachers tools that encourage greater use of digital technologies and digital games into their classrooms and supports this by helping teachers to develop opportunities to use digital games and digital technologies in the classroom.  Dr Ruben Puentedura, creator of the SAMR model, explains in this video how teachers simply apply the model in their learning and teaching sequence.

4. Financial Considerations

Financial considerations are another significant element to be considered to ensure that the implementation of games based learning is sustainable and capable of being incorporated into the learning and teaching programme into the future across a whole school campus.  Once infrastructure concerns have been investigated and rectified where identified, other financial considerations like device purchase for both staff and students as well as software purchase and license costs need to be factored into the plan.  There may also be professional development opportunities that will need to be supported so that teachers can further their skills and also ensure that teachers feel confident during implementation of games based learning into their classroom.


This chapter has drawn on a variety of sources to support primary school teachers as they embark on the world of digital game based learning.  Whilst the thought of implementing a digital games based approach may appear daunting when faced with an education system founded on industrial revolution principles, there are many aspects of this approach which are very well supported by those passionate about educating the students of today for the world of tomorrow.  Possible barriers and challenges have been identified with suggestions on how these could be planned for and subsequently overcome.  Some of the barriers identified are not necessarily going to be confronted in the classroom setting as they would be deemed whole school or system based, however they still need careful consideration prior to embarking on this learning adventure.  Well respected educators from around the world have been identified who advocate for a digital games based approach to learning and teaching.  At the same time, support from curriculum documents  has been sourced which indicate the introduction of digital game based learning as an approach to learning and teaching is well founded.



3P Learning, (2015). Mathletics Retrieved fromhttp://www.mathletics.com.au/

3P Learning, (2015). Reading Eggs Retrieved fromhttp://readingeggs.com.au/

australiancurriculum.edu.au, (2014).The Australian curriculum v7.5 Retrieved May 2015, from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/

Beavis, C., Muspratt, S., Thompson, R., (2015) ‘Computer games can get your brain working’: student experience and perceptions of digital games in the classroom, Learning, Media and Technology, 40:1, 21-42, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2014.904339

Common Sense Media. Ruben Puentedura on applying the SAMR model. Available from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/videos/ruben-puentedura-on-applying-the-samr-model

Extra Credits (2014). How Games Prepare You for Life – Education: 21st Century Skills. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0hoeAmqwvyY&list=PLB9B0CA00461BB187&index=189

Gee, J. P. (2003) What video games have to teach us about literacy and learning.  New York: Plagave MacMillan.

Gee, J. P. (2005) Why Video Games are good for your soul: Pleasure and Learning. Melbourne: Common Ground

Gee, J.P. (2013) Principles of Gaming. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aQAgAjTozk

Johnson, L., Adams Becker, S., Estrada, V., and Freeman, A. (2014). NMC Horizon Report: 2014 K-12 Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-5.

Nansen, B., Chakraborty, K., Gibbs, L., Vetere, F., and MacDougall, C. (2014) ‘You do the math’: Mathletics and the play of online learning. New Media & Society 14: (7) 1216 – 1235, DOI: 10.1177/146144481244926

Van Rosmalen, P., Westera, W., (2014) Introducing serious games with Wikis: empowering the teacher with simple technologies, Interactive Learning Environments, 22: (5) 564-577, DOI: 10.1080/10494820.2012.707128

Turkay, S., Hoffman, D., Kinzer, C.K., Chantes,m P., Vicari, C., (2014) Toward Understanding the Potential of Games for Learning: Learning Theory, Game Design Characteristics, and Situating Video Games in Classrooms,Computers in the Schools: Interdisciplinary Journal of Practice, Theory, and Applied Research, 31:2-22, DOI: 10.1080/07380569.2014.890879

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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