Game based learning -- an investigation of academic growth
GameBased Learning: An Investigation of Academic Growth
The University of South Carolina’s Educational Technology Program
EDET 780 Research Seminar in Educational Technology
May 29, 2014
Gamebased learning is a developing field that facilitates learning in the classroom.
Gamebased learning incorporates a number of design features that help educators present
material and content in an interactive and engaging way, and gamebased learning helps drive
student motivation and mastery. Games, play, video games, and video game play use a variety
of tools, elements, and features, and this study investigates how these factors contribute to
student learning, academic acquisition, and adherence to curricular standards.
Traditional classroom environments struggle to engage and motivate students. Whether
it’s morning math lessons or social studies at the end of the day, students become detached
from the lesson and the material, and when students disengage from the teacher and the
classroom, they have difficulty connecting with the information and understanding the content.
Fortunately, new research and technology are investigating ways to engage and motivate
student learning as well as drive classroom involvement, energy, and value. Games and play are
being incorporated into the classroom as gamebased learning to captivate and focus students.
Gamebased learning comes in a variety of forms, and some forms are more successful at
educating students than others. Some settings use games as motivation for students, but do not
incorporate the learning aspect of gamebased learning: “One reason for this unsuccessful
hybrid is that designers have taken a ‘chocolatecovered broccoli’ approach in which the gaming
element is a reward for completing the educational component. Educational games need to be
designed in a way that allows for the learning material to be delivered through the parts of the
game that are most motivating” (Habgood, Ainsworth, & Benford, 2005 & Bruckman, 1999, as
cited in Tran et al., 2012, p. 1). This study investigates the role of gamebased learning on
elementary school students, and it evaluates how elements of gamebased learning facilitate
mastery of content and adherence to curriculum.
Gamebased learning is the combination of educational content and gamic properties,
and it works to mirror and improve upon the educational results of traditional learning methods
(Prensky, 2001). At the core of gamebased learning is a game and gamic properties. A game is
any mental and/or physical activity that is defined by goals, rules, challenges, a feedback
system, voluntary participation, and results in a quantifiable outcome (Game, n.d.; McGonigal,
2011; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). Digital gamebased learning is a technological advancement
of gamebased learning, and it is the marriage between educational content and video games
(Prensky, 2001). A video game is a complex form of digital media that incorporates gamic
properties, and it requires the active interaction between a human and computer (Galloway,
2006; WardripFruin, 2009).
Games, video games, gamebased learning, and digital gamebased learning come in
different shapes and flavors; however, they inherently possess fundamental features that can be
designed and understood. These features include the player(s) of the game, i.e. who is the
decisionmaker that interacts with the system; the purpose(s) of the game, i.e. the reason for the
game’s existence; the procedure(s) of the game, i.e. what actions and methods guide the player
and help him/her acquire skills; the rule(s) of the game, i.e. what boundaries limit and control the
player’s behavior; the resistance(s) of the game, i.e. the uncertainty, opposition, tension, and
conflict the player experiences; the resource(s) of the game, what objects, attributes, and states
the player acquires and uses; the feedback(s) of the game, i.e. how the system evaluates and
responds to player actions; and finally the format(s) of the game, i.e. the game’s
blackboxformal elements and the physical engine that contains the game (Dignan, 2011;
Fullerton, 2008). The combination and manipulation of these properties create a unique
experience that has affects students in various ways.
Examples of GameBased Learning
Gamebased learning occurs through nondigital games, like the World Peace game,
through digital games, like Wii Sports, in gamefocused school systems, like Quest to Learn
schools, with gamic elements, like avatar representation and experience acquisition in
Classcraft, and through a number of different methodologies. For example, there are elaborate
video games like SimCity that immerse players in a world of challenge wherein players actively
solve problems and reflect over the dynamics of processes. Alternatively, there are ‘brain fitness’
games like Math Blaster that provide minitasks for players to practice in a rinseandrepeat
fashion (Green, 2012; Ito, 2009). Educators can use games to teach specific lessons like
fractions in Wii bowling, explore the complex dynamics of microworlds like Civilization, build
interest and engagement on a topic such as history through Age of Empires, and practice
specific skills such as engineering and management abilities in RollerCoaster Tycoon (Foster,
2009; Winner, 2014; Van Eck, 2006). As gamebased learning continues to develop, game
designers are creating video games for specific courses and content, such as Industry Giant II
for business, Zapitalism for economics, and Virtual U for management (Blunt, n.d.). Gamebased
learning incorporates these educational paradigms, i.e. children’s software, learning games, and
edutainment, to create a site of learning (Ito, 2009).
The Effects of GameBased Learning
Gamebased learning brings a priceless phenomenon to the classroom: play. Play
requires a participant to voluntarily interact with a game, and through his or her voluntary
participation, the player enters a ‘magic circle’ that transforms the activity into entertainment and
recreation (Huizinga, 1955). Through play, the classroom experience becomes fun. Play is
enjoyable, and it is biologically encouraged. Human brains are wired to motivate exploration and
learning ‘in the moment’in one’s immediate experience (Dignan, 2011). Gamebased learning
promotes student exploration and learning by motivating students to interact with their current
situation, i.e. the game, and as Dignan and other researchers point out, “games are learning
engines” that train and develop players (2011).
One way games and video games develop players is through cognitive develop.
Cognition is the ability to think, and cognitive abilities include mental processes involved in
thinking, like memory, attention, language, and problem solving (Goldstein, 2011). Various
aspects of life train and develop cognitive abilities: reading, writing, cooking, driving, riding a bike,
and playing a sport to name a few. In order to be successful in life’s activities and in an
educational setting, students need to train and develop their cognitive abilities. Games and video
games train a number of cognitive skills (Croisile, 2007; Gentile et al., 2012; Green & Bavelier,
2012; Green & Bavelier 2006; Green & Bavelier, 2003; Mayas et al., 2014; Oei & Patterson,
2013), and by developing these cognitive skills, students can master educational content (Boyan
& Sherry, 2011).
Mastery refers to the expert performance or literacy of an individual, and it occurs through
deliberate learning and practice (Ericsson et al., 1993). Deliberate learning consists of three key
components: setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback, and concentrating as much
on technique as on outcome (Levitt & Dubner, 2009). Gamebased learning encourages
deliberate learning because it provides players with an engaging learning environment that
motivates, provides feedback, and develops problem solving and decisionmaking skills.
Through a cyclical process, games promote volitionthe will to do somethingand facultythe
ability to do itwhich drive deliberate learning, which in turn develop student motivation and
mastery, and ultimately, provide the student with the will and ability to continue to train (Dignan,
Games, video games, and gamebased learning can be created, modified, and integrated
with instructional strategies for specific outcomes, like fostering active learners (Van Eck, 2006).
“Active learners embark on a process of discovery through video game play, allowing students to
develop their own understanding and concept of both content and environment. Students are
more likely to remember their experiences and be able to connect them to future situations and
are more likely to engage and invest in the learning goals and outcomes presented by the game”
(Barab, Barnett, & Squire, 2002 & Gee, 2004, as cited by Blunt, n.d., p. 4). Blunt references three
research studies with similar findings: students using games to reinforce concepts learned in
class scored higher on assessments than their counterparts who did not use gamebased
learning. The data also showed that there was no discrepancy between the effect of
gamebased learning and its advantages between genders or ethnic groups when it came to a
given assessment. As Fishman & Aguilar state, “good games succeed because they tap into our
deepseated desire to learn and be engaged “(Gee, 2003, as cited in Fishman & Aguilar, 2012, p.
111). Good games promote selfefficacy, and as learners experiment and play through a game,
they learn that failure, i.e. restarting an activity or level, is a necessary component of the
experience. By playing these games, students gain confidence and begin taking risks in as well
as ownership of their education.
Games, play, and gamebased learning affect players mentally and physically. From a
psychological perspective, they make learning more accessible: they present information in a
variety of ways, provide several ways to plan and perform tasks, and motivate and engage
players (About UDL, n.d.). From a physical perspective, they affect several areas in the brain:
sensory and recognition areas such as the visual cortex, the auditory cortex, and the
somatosensory cortex, strategy and execution regions like the premotor cortex, the motor
cortex, and the prefrontal cortex, as well as reward centers and affective networks such the
basal ganglia, the limbic system, and structures in the medial forebrain circuit (Gazzaniga, 2009;
Goldstein, 2011; Kalat, 2013; Linden, 2011). In other words, games, play, and gamebased
learning use the entire brain to learn, and more brain involvement means more interaction and
engagement with the immediate experience.
Gamebased learning makes information interactive, which allows a player to recognize
and understand that information in a personal way (Figure 1 Column 1). Allowing players to
recognize and understand objects, controls, and other gamic properties is an important and
easily employable characteristic of gamebased learning. As players learn, plan, and execute
physical and mental tasks, they make choices to achieve goals and objectives, which reflect
what they know and how they express that knowledge (Figure 1 Column 2). Each action is
coupled with feedback, which promotes deliberate learning and mastery towards the task at
hand. When successful, feedback provides gratification for actions executed at the right time
with a reward for each accomplishment. By giving players small and frequent rewards, they
maintain a constant level of interest, and it instills in them selfbelief and confidence to achieve
larger goals (Figure 1 Column 3). Students show greater attention to learning when they have
clear and specific goalsincluding both short and longterm educational goals (Garris, et al.
2002, as cited in Alkhafaji et al., 2012, p.51). Gamebased learning is challenging and rewarding,
and gamebased learning research has shown that student choice has a positive impact on
motivation and engagement (Fishman & Aguilar, 2012). As Gabe Zichermann asserts,
statusnot cashis the best reward. Introducing skill levels encourages positive competition,
and it reduces the fear of failure because students’ skill levels can only increase (Moth, 2012).
Figure 1: The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines depict three main principles:
Representation, Action, and Engagement.
Columbia University researchers Lee & Hammer point out, “Gamification attempts to
harness the motivational power of games and apply it to realworld problemssuch as, in our
case, the motivational problems of schools” (as cited in Arora, 2013). In order to be effective,
games should challenge students. If the game is too easy, students will become bored. If the
game is too difficult, students will become frustrated. Effective games allow students to win by a
small margin to keep them engaged. (Alkhafaji et al., 2012). Teachers can personalize
instruction and assess knowledge through gamebased learning, which provides them with
useful data on their students (Millstone, 2012). Gamebased strategies can be applied to
assignments and assessments as a purpose to engage and motivate learners. When students
have choice of and control over their assignments, research shows that students are
encouraged to work harder. For example, an education course used experience points for
assignments that were given and skill points to increase their grades. If students lost points,
such as for missing a class or assignment, they could select assignments on their own to earn
enough points for their desired grade. In other words, students worked to earn the grade they
wanted by obtaining extra points that bumped their grade. The research showed that students
greatly enjoyed this gameinspired grading system and many worked harder (Fishman & Aguilar,
This study is interested in finding out how:
● Games and video games can help players learn academic content.
● Gamebased learning drives student activity and if students learn more than, less than, or
as much as traditional methods.
● Gamebased learning and video games educate students on curricular content and
● Gamebased learning engages and motivates students in a productive / meaningful way.
We hypothesize that:
1. Games and video games will help players learn and recall more academic content.
2. Gamebased learning will drive student activity; the students will learn more than
students learning with just a traditional method.
3. Gamebased learning and video games will educate students on curricular content and
lessons, while enforcing concepts studied within the classroom.
4. Gamebased learning will engage and motivate students in a meaningful way, making the
content more enjoyable and relevant to the learners.
This study will investigate the use of gamebased learning through a quasiexperimental
setup that investigates the effects of gamebased learning on student achievement and
engagement. A school in PseudoCity, US volunteers to participate. Forty subjects from two
classes of X graders will participate in the study. One class (n=19) will comprise the control
group, and the other class (n=21) will comprise the experimental gamebased learning group.
Both classes will receive a standard intelligence battery, i.e. the WoodcockJohnson Test of
Cognitive Abilities, and a brief questionnaire will be sent to their parents asking for personal
information such as age and ethnicity, at home activities such as time spent watching tv, playing
sports, video games, and so on, as well as the child’s general interests in school courses and
Both classes will receive the same curriculum and class structure, i.e. both classes start
with the same traditional setup, standards, and support. However, the experimental group will
supplement the traditional style Lessons 2 and 3 with GameA, Lesson 5 with GameB, and
Lesson 7 with GameC. Students in the experimental group will use 2014 computers with
Windows 8 to access and play GameA, GameB, and GameC. During and after lessons,
students will be tested with traditional methods, i.e. quizzes, tests, class participation, and
smallscale projects. At the end of the semester, both classes will receive another intelligence
test and the same questionnaire will be sent to their parents again. Assessment data from each
class will be compared along with the results from the parent questionnaire, and the results will
be analyzed using a ttest with independent samples.
This study is a hypothetical study. There is no actual data.
Our hope is that the experimental gamebased group experiences:
1. A deeper understanding and/or better recall of the lesson’s content.
2. Motivate students to pursue the material more.
3. More enjoyment from the classroom.
Once the study is conducted, we’ll be able to analyze the data we collect to determine
the effects of gamebased learning on student achievement and motivation. However, we lack
the games, the content and curriculum focus, and the age / grade level to test this study. Ideally,
we would prioritize the study based on funding or budgetary constraints. This would give shape
and direction to the study. For example, the games used in the study could range from free
online games to purchasable games for devices like an iPad to games that must be created for
a custom lesson. Additionally, there may be a specific grade level or content area that we have
to focus on.
Limitations that can impact the results of the study include factors such as the individual
differences among students and the prior knowledge they activate, learning behaviors, learning
styles, any accommodations they need, access to the games and interactive material, and other
personal and environmental differences. Many of these limitations would be noted with the
results from the initial questionnaire. In addition to the student’s learning styles, teacher’s
instructional styles need to be taken into consideration as well. Teachers present information in
different ways and have access to various resources, which can impact their comfort level with
the content, as well as their command of the subject matter. Another limitation can be found
with the technology that is offered in the classroom. If a teacher is not comfortable with
technology, or is unable to use gaming technology, he or she may not be able to implement the
technology into his or her classroom. The amount of technology offered in a classroom also
could have a large impact on the study, such as if the classroom has onetoone technology or
has a high ratio of students to technology in the classroom, which may impact how the time is
allotted for students to play games.
For future research, we will design a study that investigates the elements within each
game, test the games outside of the classroom environment, and then analyze those results
using an analysis of variance (ANOVA) test. Each game will be broken into the player(s),
purpose(s), procedure(s), rule(s), resistance(s), resource(s), feedback(s), and format(s) of the
game. Next, we would compare the elements of each game, the results of each group, and how
the elements affected the results. After analyzing which factors, such as resources or
resistances, differed in the more successful groups, we would reconstruct the games with the
amended features and measure the new outcomes.
Gamebased learning is a promising field that offers a lot to students and teachers. As
we understand more about gamebased learning, we’ll be able to design for specific students,
content, and curriculums. “It is also important to acknowledge that there is no single approach,
but rather a tremendous variety of ways that gamebased and gameinspired thinking may
transform the way we think about formal education” (Fishman & Aguilar, 2012, p. 116).
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