The potential of games-based environments for learning

Video games have been widely used in educational settings for decades now. More often than not they are used to generate interest in a subject or as a reward for students (Takeuchi & Vaala, 2014).

A search on a popular app store for educational games yields over 150 apps to choose from. Almost all of these are skill and drill games aimed at young children to improve their literacy and numeracy at home, but very few of these games are designed by educators for use in schools.

The market for games in a school setting is rapidly increasing, with over 74 per cent of teachers reporting that they now use video games in the classroom (Takeuchi & Vaala, 2014). We need games that are designed in conjunction with educators that will meet the growing demand for deeper learning experiences.

The current research focuses on evidence-based, individualised programs that are highly progressive in their implementation. The skills that are needed for the modern student are more sophisticated now than they have ever been. It has been suggested that a significant number of children today will have jobs in the future that do not exist yet.

This is a major part of the reason for the international focus on 21st century skills. One of the highest priorities for education today is to meet this future focus mandate. It also requires us to tackle one of the biggest challenges education faces – interdisciplinary learning.

As John Hattie recently said in a Teacher podcast, ‘… The hardest thing in this business is to understand how to transfer your learning from one situation to the other. And it's been a dirty secret in education for many, many decades that it's very, very hard to find transfer.' (Meloney, 2015).

Video games may have some of the answers. There are already several platforms being used by educators to increase creativity and collaboration in a virtual classroom. In fact, Minecraft already has an education edition to meet this need. The people behind it are also responsible for Kerbel Space Program, which was developed in concert with NASA.

[A screenshot from Kerbal Space Program]

Then there is Second Life, a virtual world that was started in 2003 with a purpose to create a sandbox environment for ‘players' to use. Today they have an educational portal that is used by schools and universities as a virtual learning environment. Within these platforms, it is possible to construct problem-based scenarios that require students to use a wide range of knowledge and concepts to solve them, before progressing.

Given the rapidly expanding and seemingly unlimited possibilities that are now available to educators, how can we maximise these resources for educational advantage?

A successful game will:

  • Identify and challenge students at their level and progress them when they are successful. This correlates strongly with the knowledge that learning is enhanced when teachers build on what learners already know (Forster & Masters, 2010).
  • Use progress in a game environment to improve motivation of the player. Teachers can then use an individual's progress to assist them in enhancing their understanding.
  • Ask players to be active participants. Active learners tend to use higher order conceptual thinking (Anderson & Barnett, 2013).

Games such as Minecraft Edu, or Second Life and a raft of others can already do this, and they also offer other benefits for learners. Students who are learning in a games based environment tend to take more ‘risks' and repeat activities more readily than non-gaming students. Repeated attempts at a task in a game are the norm, and it is not seen as ‘failure'.

They also allow for, and can even require, collaboration between participants to achieve a task. Students are provided a wide range of communication pathways in a gaming environment, allowing them to provide peer feedback and seek support from anyone in the game.

It is important to point out that game-based learning does not supersede the role of the teacher. It is not a question of ‘set and forget'. Several studies have shown that progress is enhanced when worked examples and teacher support are available to students (Chen, Wong & Wang, 2014; Dominguez et al., 2013).

Instead, consider what is possible in a games-based environment and how you, as the teacher, can transition more readily from whole group content delivery to individualised conceptual instruction. Teachers will have more time to support students who are not progressing, have access to real time data of student progress and be able to tailor effective, subsequent learning experiences to suit the students in their class.

The difficulty comes in finding a game that can provide the above conditions and meet the curriculum needs of teachers. This is by far the biggest stumbling block to their implementation in the classroom. The most prevalent way to meet this is for teachers to use the open ended platforms, such as the ones mentioned above, and create the learning themselves. There is a growing database of ‘lessons' that teachers can access through open source wikis.

However, for those teachers who are not computer savvy, this may seem impossible. The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) is currently running the STEM Video Game Challenge for students, which may be the answer for those whose computer skills are not much more advanced than our students.

This could prove to be far more advantageous for teachers and students as it has the added benefit of developing programming skills for all involved.


Anderson, J. L., & Barnett, M. (2013). Learning Physics with Digital Game Simulations in Middle School Science. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 22(6), 914-926.

Chen, M.-P., Wong, Y.-T., & Wang, L.-C. (2014). Effects of Type of Exploratory Strategy and Prior Knowledge on Middle School Students' Learning of Chemical Formulas from a 3D Role-Playing Game. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(2), 163-185.

De-Marcos, L., Domínguez, A., Saenz-De-Navarrete, J., & Pagés, C. (2014). An empirical study comparing gamification and social networking on e-learning. Computers and Education, 75, 82-91. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.01.012

Dominguez, A., Saenz-de-Navarrete, J., de-Marcos, L., Fernandez-Sanz, L., Pages, C., & Martinez-Herraiz, J.-J. (2013). Gamifying Learning Experiences: Practical Implications and Outcomes. Computers and Education, 63, 380-392.

Forster, M., & Masters, G. (2010). Progression and assessment: Developmental assessment International Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 369-377): Elsevier Ltd.

Meloney, D. (Interviewer). (2015, May 28). Research Files episode #10: Professor John Hattie [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

Takeuchi, L., & Vaala, S. (2014). Level up learning: A national survey on teaching with digital games. Paper presented at the New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame

If you’re using educational games in the classroom are you mapping them to curriculum content?

If you’re planning to use educational games in your teaching what are the learning outcomes you’ll be hoping to achieve?

How could you use progress in a game environment to improve motivation and resilience of your students?