MET:Digital Game-Based Learning

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Peter Cameron (2008).
This page was combined with "Video-game play in schools inadvisable" (author unknown) and edited by Maurice Last (2010).
This page was edited by Liang You (2011).

“It’s misleading to suppose there’s any basic difference between education and entertainment. This distinction merely relieves people of the responsibility of looking into the matter. It’s like setting up a distinction between didactic and lyric poetry on the ground that one teaches, the other pleases. However, it’s always been true that whatever pleases teaches more effectively.” (McLuhan, 1964; p.3)


Game-based learning is the outcome of integrating effective learning principles into game environments for the purpose of utilizing those elements of games that are engaging to learners as a means for improving the quality of education. While this is not a new concept to educators and designers, the modern extension to this perspective on learning is referred to as digital game-based learning {Prensky, 2004; Van Eck, 2007) and offers an evolutionary way of “improving engagement in learning and motivation in order to extend and challenge the ways in which learning takes place.” (Becta, 2005, p. 2)

Digital Game-based learning (DGBL) synthesizes learning principles into immersive video game environments in an effort to provide a new tool for education that is as modern and adaptive as our new generation of digital media users, or as Prensky (2001) describes them, digital natives.

Background of DGBL

In modern society, the multiplicity of communication technologies not only varies human’s entertainment, but also leads to an innovation in education area. Gee (2003) rise a point that if “playing video game a waste of time”? He argues that playing video games actively and critically is not a “waste of time”. On the contrary, he believes that (children) playing games can “learning to experience the world in a new way”, “gaining the potential to join and collaborate with a new affinity group”, “developing resources for future learning and problem solving in the semiotic domains to which the game is related” and “learning how to think about semiotic domains and design spaces that engage and manipulate people in certain ways and, in turn, help create certain relationships in society among people and groups of people, some of which have important implication for social justice”.

History of DGBL

According to Van Eck (2007), in the 1960s and 1970s, audio and video (and later, television) were touted as technologies that would revolutionize learning. During the 1970s, many studies were conducted to compare media-based classrooms to “traditional” classrooms, which brought modern technologies into public’s attention. By the 1980’s, there was an argument between the qualities of the instruction in “media” versus “traditional” classrooms, and the effectiveness of technologies was wrongly valued at this period. Finally in the 1990’s, educators started to integrate technologies with curriculum. By this time, Digital Game-based learning (DGBL) started it’s growth.

Generation "G" (Global): The Evolution of Learning

DGBL environments address a need to modify the approach of education to suit the needs of a qualitatively evolved type of learner. According to the Flynn Effect, the world has been experiencing a general increase in IQ test scores and, although there is much controversy over the possible causes for this phenomenon, one argument is that new technology enhancements and more recently the internet, are largely responsible (Flynn, 2007). Johnson (2005) suggests that the effect is caused by experiencing the cognitive complexities of mass entertainment, such as those afforded by video games. As well, there have been many articles written regarding generation ‘G’ and the new qualities this demographic offers the world of business as the result of their technological heritage.

Learning in an Immersive World

In a broad sense, the term constructivism has come to represent a number of theoretical facets to understanding the nature of learning. A few common constructivist learning principles that have received a great deal of attention include the following:

The application of DGBL environments has the potential of incorporating these assumptions into their immersive domains, thereby providing a learning environment rich with engaging, interactive and authentic affordances while addressing some key issues of concern regarding traditional pedagogical approaches to learners. According to Gee (2003), learning and play are largely interrelated and occur simultaneously. He also argues that a well-designed game will allow for higher order cognition as well as qualitative learning. (Gee 2003)

From the successful examples of commercial games which designed for a “consumer market”, we can know that as long as educational game-developers have been able to do is to create an “educational game” that offers its players the kind of engaging, immersive play-space in which users want to stay, explore, and learn, as they do consistently in commercial games (Suzanne& Jennifer, 2003), it would be helpful to create an immersive learning environment.

Digital Game-Based Learning Environments


Van Eck (2006) provides four principles of learning which are inherent in digital game-based learning environments. These principles are significant in that they coincide with current constructivist ideals for learning:

1. Game playing involves an affective learning paradigm that requires a cycle of interaction and participation, resulting in immersive engagement.
2. Games employ problem-based learning structures.
3. All learning in games is situated and relevant to the game.
4. Game environments provide opportunity for questioning, disequilibrium and scaffolding.

According to Van Eck (2007) DGBL environments (DGBLE) have the capacity to facilitate learning while providing an immersive environment that is interactive, engaging, builds in feedback and assessment, and utilizes proven instructional strategies as well as modern skill sets. The following environments can be included in this description:

As summarized by de Freitas (2005), games can also be categorized by their modes of use as metaphors, microworlds and/or tools. For instance, as metaphors, games can be used to emulate real and fictional worlds for use in exploration and experimentation. One example of a game as metaphor is Racing Academy, which simulates learners’ progressive understanding of engineering and racing cars.

Examples of DGBLEs

Second Life
Immersive Education (3rd generation)
World of Warcraft
Racing Academy
Tactical Language
Global Conflicts: Palestine
Farmtasia (used to teach ESL)

We can include hand held devices such as the iPod Touch and the Nintendo DS as well as the personal computers and video game consoles as platforms for the DGBLE. Robertson (2009) used the Nintendo DS with students for Mathematics with considerable success.

Implementing DGBL in the Classroom

de Freitas and Oliver (2006) present a framework of factors which they suggest need to be considered when exploring the use DGBLEs in formal educational setting. This Four Dimensional Framework for implementing games centers around their context (i.e. place, access, support), learner specification (i.e. demographic, preferences, skills), representation (i.e. immersion, fidelity, level of interactivity) and pedagogy (i.e. situative, associative, cognitive), and reflects much of the current thinking on constructivism.

Gee (2003) raised the following principles for implement digital games in classroom:

    • Active, critical learning principle;
    • Design principle;
    • Semitic principle;
    • Semitic domains principle;
    • Matalevel thinking about semitic domains principle.

Issues and Drawbacks to DGBL

Although the pedagogical evidence supporting the use of DGBL in formal educational settings is rapidly increasing, the extent of its present application remains largely unresolved. There are several issues that have been raised with regard to the implementation of DGBL in the classroom, including:

  • Not enough evidence to show impact/effects of gaming on outcomes (i.e. learning objectvies)
  • No common interpretation of what defines a ‘game’
  • Ethical issues regarding the persuasive capabilities of video games
  • The majority of funding for the research and development of DGBLEs is confined to commercial developers who are reluctant to risk financial loss
  • Many educators do not have the training or support system to provide adequate expert knowledge of DGBLEs
  • Many schools are not equipped with adequate technical equipment (i.e. video cards, processors) to meet the requirements of many DGBLEs
  • DGBLE may not be suitable for all ages of students
  • Gender issues may be neglected

As well there is some debate as to the validity of some of the research that has been done, especially given that terminology and clarity may not have been well defined in some research (Egenfeldt-Nielsen 2007).

No Common Interpretation, Part 1

There is a lack of commonality in the terminology surrounding DGBLE. We must become explicit in the use of the term “video-game” and the "game" portion of Game Based Learning Environments because there is a vast array of computer software that are called “video-games”, or "gaming software". In fact there is a spectrum of products with hand-eye coordination type games at one end, and cooperative problem solving games at the other (perhaps we can call this spectrum the game style spectrum). We can also arrange the software in a spectrum from shoot-em up type (arcade) games with little or no educational value to complex interactive educational type games, often referred to in the software industry as edutainment (perhaps this spectrum can be called the game type spectrum). The two spectra are independent. Just because a game has an arcade style does not eliminate it from having educational merit. It is therefore important that those involved in designing and/or delivering learning to ask: where on these spectra should our theorizing/planning point be located if there is going to exist (some) integration of video-games into the instructional process. The style of the game and the game type need to be properly defined so as to enable researchers and designers to gain and compare knowledge on the impact of a particular game based learning environment.

No Common Interpretation, Part 2

It is far too simple to indicate being either for or against video-games in education and then to move on with the conversation, assuming that others share your understandings of the terminology. Clarity is needed because

  • what is educational software is not well defined
  • the "edutainment" term is not clear - in fact it may have been first applied to video games by software marketers attempting to sell more of their product
  • some games are easily definable as being educational and others are easily definable as being non-educational but most are somewhere in between
  • children and young adults see video games quite specifically: in the popular use of the term, games such as Doom, Far-Cry and Call of Duty define and dominate the video-game environment.
  • the video-game Doom and by association all video-games in the minds of many are forever tainted by the Columbine tragedy of the 1990’s, wherein it was found that the perpetrators of that tragedy had been avid video-gamers and had perhaps “practiced” their acts of violence in a customized version of Doom of their own creation.
  • Many parents, teachers and other adults have, increasingly since Columbine, viewed all video game-playing with suspicion, and certainly without any educational merit
  • Bridge-contest software is an excellent counterpoint and is an example of “interactive educational software”, but could be viewed as a video-game. Bridge-contest has the functionality whereby a teacher may track and evaluate the activity of the student and monitor if learning outcomes are being attained
  • describing a software experience such as Bridge-Contest as an audio-visual interactive assignment instead of a game changes the way it is viewed by everyone involved

It is widely accepted that there must be educationally relevant outcomes that serve as the reason for any educational activity. An assignment, as opposed to a game, requires learning outcomes. The developers of the e-adventure game authoring editor similarly highlighted the necessity for educational games to include features specific to the educational domain; again, game functionality that provides a teacher with the means to provide expected outcomes, evaluate student activity, and also adapt the game to suit different ranges of students is necessary. (Torrente J. et al, 2008)

Suitability for High School

It may be that the secondary school classroom is not the best place for the use of GBLE. Perhaps once games with educational merit become popularly known by other than the misnomer “video-game” it will be time to reconsider this issue. Consider that:

  • Video-games in their mind are for one thing and one thing only, fun…the best thing being that there are no teacher’s rules and certainly no learning outcomes to worry about
  • For a great many their habits outside of class-time are entrenched, video-games and more video-games. Indeed “many of today’s youth spend more time playing in digital worlds than they do watching television, reading or watching films” (Squire, 2006, para. 1). Importantly, by far the greatest interest shown and time spent involves games such as the aforementioned Doom and Grand-Theft Auto etc.
  • It may be too much to expect students at the secondary school level to “switch gears” sufficiently that they can play Doom at home, then to focus on the educational aspects of a different video-game during class time.
  • The maturity level of typical secondary school students is such that video-games during class time means only one thing: escape from learning outcomes and academic rigor
  • For post-secondary learners these issues have reduced significance because the higher level of maturity (and the learner’s intent to focus & learn) increases the ability of the learner to switch between work and play as the need dictates.

Gender Issues

File:Male and female.gif

Female characters in most video games a less important, some times even hostage, someone need to be rescued. "'The Videogame Battle of The Sexes"' seems like will last forever.

It’s also not so hard to find out that most of the popular games do not have equal numbers of male characters and female characters. Also, more powerful female characters for its still largely male audience to consume and play. Jennifer& Suzanne (2010) point that technologies are “gendered”, girls and women certainly are less visible as gamers, and they are less concerned when the games are designed. Not matter in commercial or educational games, female players should be paid enough attention.

Henry Jenkins' book From Barbie® to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games explores the issue of gender in computer games -particularly the development of video games for girls, and give some insights about gender and technology.

Videos about gender issue in digital games:

Commercial Games VS. Educational Games

Some educators use commercial games directly in classroom and then they found the most common problem with educational software is that students don’t pay attention to or learn the way that designers intended’ (Klawe, 2000). This is because commercial game developers look at software uses from the standpoint of game design. Their concern is with what the design enables or prevents, not what the user does ‘wrong’. In educational game design, by contrast, it is the students who are implicated, not the developer’s own designs. The status differential between ‘student’ and ‘purchaser’ allows and encourages a very different analysis on the part of commercial and educational developers and, therefore, quite different approaches to troubleshooting game design—with negative results for the playability of educational games (Suzanne& Jennifer, 2003).

In educational games, accordingly, design features imported into computer-gaming environments from traditional classroom curriculum design-and-delivery contexts function handily as justifications for diminished attention to playability—and as disincentives to educational engagement (Rieber and Matzko 2001). For educational purpose, in educational games, players cannot ‘move on’ in the game until they complete, in linear and lock-step fashion, particular tasks and/or skills; no potential within a game for chance/luck and no room for intuitive leaps or ‘twitch-speed’ perception and skill; few opportunities for learning through imitation or collaboration, where players can work together through a differential distribution of competence based on players’ interests, prior abilities, and particular talents; no game-based reason to dwell in and develop familiarity with the game environment; and few opportunities for instant feedback/pleasure/gratification(Suzanne& Jennifer, 2003).


Perhaps the lesson here is that there are available all manner of computer software titles many of which are grouped under the umbrella term video-game. However the degree to which the term video-game is appropriate depends very much on the particulars of the case. Perhaps what is needed is that software that is nowhere near the entertainment end of the software spectrum be assigned a descriptor other than video-game. Arguably, in the world of youth popular culture, the generations for whom in their mind video-games were invented, the definition for video-game is set in stone…and it has nothing to do with education.

Still, the benefits of progressing toward the implementation of DGBLEs are impressive and as academic research continues to uncover a better understanding of learning, the future of video games will remain a worthwhile topic for discussion and provide an array of promising possibilities for gamers and educators alike.

Stop Motion Video

Exploring the manners of implementing Digital Game-Based Learning in the Classroom Created by Danielle F Couture (2016)


Becta. (2006). Engagement and motivation in games development processes. Retrieved Feb 21, 2008 from

de Freitas, S. (2006). Learning in Immersive Worlds. Bristol. Joint Information Systems Committee.

de Freitas, S., Oliver, M. (2006). How can exploratory learning with games and simulations within the curriculum be most effectively evaluated? Computers and Education, Special Issue. 46 (2006) 249-264.

de Castell, Suzanne, & Jenson, Jennifer. (2003). Serious play. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35(6), 649-665.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon. (2007) Making sweet music: The Educational Use of Computer Games. In: Linderoth, Jonas (Ed). Datorspelandets Dynamik. Studentlitteratur.

Flynn, J. R. (2007). What is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect. Cambridge: University Press.

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

Gee, J. (2003). Semiotic domains: Is playing video games a “waste of time? Chapter in: What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave.

Johnson, S. (2005). Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books.

Jenson, J., & de Castell, S. (2010). Gender, Simulation, and Gaming: Research Review and Redirections. Simulation & Gaming, 41(1), 51-71. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Klawe, M. (2000) The effective design and use of educational computer games. Public lecture.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The extensions of man. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.

Prensky, M. (2003). Digital game based learning. Exploring the Digital Generation. Educational Technology, US Department of Education.

Robertson, D. (2008). Dr. Kawishima's brain training. Retrieved from Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Rieber, L. P. and Matzko, M. J. (2001) Serious design for serious play in physics. Educational Technology, 41 (1), 14–24.

Torrente, J., Moreno-Ger, P., Martínez-Ortiz, I., & Fernandez-Manjon, B. (2009). Integration and Deployment of Educational Games in e-Learning Environments: The Learning Object Model Meets Educational Gaming. Educational Technology & Society, 12 (4), 359–371.

Squire, K. (2006). From content to context: Video-games as designed experience. Educational Researcher, 35(8), p. 19-29.

Van Eck, R. (2007) Building Artificially Intelligent Learning Games. In Gibson, D., Aldrich, C., Prensky, M., Games and Simulations in Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks (pp. 271-306). Idea Group Inc.

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

Werth, C. (2009). Shoot first, feel bad later. Newsweek. Jan 10, 2009

See Also

Serious Games Initiative
The Education Arcade (MIT)
USC institute for Creative technologies
Learning Light
Make-A-Hero by Lucas Learning
Henry Jenkins' Blog
Gender-bending popular in video games Use of Commercial Games for Educational Purposes: Will Today’s Teacher Candidates Use them in the Future? []