MET:Games and Gamification

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Games are structured play. Games are often but not exclusively played for enjoyment but this page focuses on those played for deliberate educational purposes.For decades educators and developers have been trying to blend video games with education. Factors that determine the structure of games frequently include goals, rules, challenges and communication.[1][2] Educational games can be understood as those designed to intentionally teach players about subjects, concepts and skills. These efforts have led to the development of a branch of pedagogy called Game-Based Learning (GBL). Generally speaking, GBL occurs when students play video games that were designed to help them accomplish defined learning outcomes.

Gamification refers to using game elements and mechanics in non-game situations as a problem-solving tool. It is characterized by using rewards, consequences and competition to make tasks feel engaging like games.[3][4][5]. GBL differs from gamification in that, in gamification, learning and game elements run parallel to each other, where the game mechanics have nothing to do with the learning outcomes but are more focused on incenting motivation to participate.  However, in GBL, the player is immersed in the game context, and must play to learn and learn as they play.

Games, gamification and game based learning (GBL) can take place in the physical world or digitally.


Games can be traced back to at least 2600 BC.[6][7] They have been found in all cultures and exactly what constitutes or defines a “game” varies.[8][1][9] How long games have been used for educational purposes is unknown. Some would argue that all games involve informal learning while educational games are those that promote intended learning. Game based learning is generally designed to balance educational content with gameplay with the intention of encouraging the player to retain and apply said subject matter[10]

Why are games, gamification and game-based learning of interest?

The primary role of games, gamification and game based learning in education has psychology and neurology at its root. Psychologically, the idea relates to using components of games to engage learners. This engagement leads players to learn more overall, learn faster and learn to a greater depth than without these aspects.[11]James Paul Gee, in 2012, outlined the benefits of GBL: role-playing, problem solving, collaboration, deep technical skills development, and most importantly, development affinity spaces, which is building and extending knowledge.[12] GBL expert, Russel Francis, shares that we know that the design and development of innovative and imaginative learning environments remains important. He informs of a number of organisations which are actively promoting innovative designs for ‘educational’ games. Francis underscores that “We cannot develop a theoretical understanding of the educational potential of video games without understanding suitable designs (Holland, Jenkins, & Squire, 2003)” [13]

Pedagogical Foundations

By their nature games are a form of active learning and aspects of gaming including narratives can lead players to feel immersed in the game. Interactions with other players can also foster a sense of community and/or competition.[10]

In Constructivism, according to Glasersfeld [14] for a constructivist “to have ‘learned’ means to have drawn conclusions from experience and to act accordingly”. In the Kerbal Space Program game, players create realistic spaceships and rockets that behave just as they would in the real world. As students play, they actively construct their knowledge via their experiences in game. This knowledge is easily transferable to the real world.  

In Situated Learning, students experience learning in the correct context and in authentic ways. For example – Farming Simulator 17 students develop an understanding of the processes related to agriculture in ways that would be impossible using traditional direct instruction. They learn as farmers as they play.

In Distributed Cognition, cognitive processes are distributed across members of a social group. This distribution of knowledge allows individuals to specialize and share their cognitive abilities with the group. Minecraft is an example which has students building, solving, sharing and working together to learn. 

What are the benefits?

In a neurological context games can encourage learning through dopamine. Judy Willis explains it as “games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product. The fuel for this process is the pleasure experience related to the release of dopamine.”[11] According to Annetta [15], the most prevalent outcome is students’ positive emotional engagement, thus making the learning experience more motivating and appealing” .

According to Rosas [16], “achievement in algebra, reading comprehension, and spelling and coding of grammar improve. Cognitive abilities such as problem solving, strategic planning, and self-regulated learning are also enhanced.  Schrier [17] has shown that video games can be used to help students develop pro social thoughts and behavior, which are important foundations for experiences in failure. Finally, Hayes [18] reports other benefits including, “enhanced spatial ability, motor skills, mental rotation skills and geometry performance, and Dondlinger shares that deductive reasoning and hypothesis testing knowledge are improved, which are critical for developing adaptivity.

However, there are concerns including addiction patterning which occurs when the brain is highly stimulated through GBL, and the student therefore finds non digital activity to be dull and boring. Many students also report getting lost and losing time during game play. According to Lemke, [19] students can become disconnected from the real world because they spend significant amounts of time in the virtual world

Insights into what is driving positive outcomes

Maura Smale [20] discusses the following game features that facilitate the learning process:

  • Students creatively take new identities in role playing
  • Interactivity is experienced because students must perform an action in order to get feedback
  • Students fail and learn from failure
  • Content can be scaffolded into well-ordered problems
  • Students learn by doing
  • Students cannot proceed to the next level unless a skill is learned


See Also

Video Games

Video Games in Health Care Education

The Intersection of Game Design Theory and Learning Theory

Digital Game-Based Learning

Video-game play in schools inadvisable

Epistemic Games




3D Virtual Learning Environments


Is Game-based Learning an effective means to increase student engagement?



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  2. Maroney, Kevin (2001). My Entire Waking Life. The Games Journal.
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  14. Ernst Von (2008), “Who Conceives Society?” Constructivist Foundations 3.2: 59-64; referenced by Klaus Krippendorff’s (2008) Towards a Radically Social Constructivism
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