Expert Commentary

Outcomes of game-based learning: Research roundup

2013 collection of academic scholarship on the popularity and effectiveness of game-based learning.


Constructivism, or learning by doing, is a classic approach to educational instruction that has generated renewed interest in the digital era. Constructivist practices such as apprenticeships have a long history, but in contemporary classrooms they and other hands-on programs often take a back seat to teachers telling students what they need to know rather than facilitating each person’s natural curiosity and learning style. Digital learning tools have the potential of being customized to fit the abilities of individual students and can engage them with interactive tasks and simulate real-life situations.

One approach to digital learning is to harness the broad appeal of video games for educational purposes. While research on the cognitive and behavioral impacts of violent video games have shown mixed outcomes, some nonviolent games have shown promise. Certain video games have been shown to improve brain functions, while others have the potential of reversing cognitive loss associated with aging. These “serious games” require players to make decisions to drive its progress, and they can range from the simple to the sophisticated.

Serious games harness the form and popularity of electronic entertainment to teach everything from the three Rs to public-policy issues, and it has been suggested that game design could even save the humanities through its emphasis on storytelling. Off-the-shelf games such as Civilization or The Sims have been used as a platform for students to learn a language and explore world history while developing skills such as reading, math, logic and collaboration. Emerson College professor Eric Gordon and his team designed an online platform that encourages community engagement through a game-like rewards process. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has invested in iCivics, which instructs players on issues of civil rights, voting and public policy, and MTV produced Darfur Is Dying, an online game that involves fetching water from a desert well without getting kidnapped by guerilla fighters.

While serious games have been embraced by educators in and out of the classroom, many questions remain. What are the possible effects of digital gaming, connectivity and multitasking for younger learners, whose bodies and brains are still maturing? Some research has shown that laptop use can hinder classroom learning, and critics assert that online learning disrupts deep reading practices. And where connections have been seen between students’ gameplay and improved cognitive abilities, boys and girls don’t benefit equally.

In a June 2013 article, Yale University School of Medicine researchers suggest how the future of these technologies is now evolving:

Electronic games are a promising tool for educating people and changing behavior. While the first wave of interactive educational games relied on what some call the “chocolate-covered broccoli” model, where the narrative was interrupted by tedious, poorly constructed tasks that proceeded like homework, the new trend is to integrate learning and fun. One of our primary goals is that more researchers and funding sources will emerge to take on the task of developing and rigorously testing evidence-based electronic games to find the best ways to encourage healthy behaviors among young people.

Below is a collection of recent academic scholarship that addresses the use and effectiveness of digital and game-based learning in the classroom and beyond.


“A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games”
Sitzmann, Traci. Personnel Psychology, Summer 2011, Vol. 64, No. 2, 489-528.

Abstract: “Interactive cognitive complexity theory suggests that simulation games are more effective than other instructional methods because they simultaneously engage trainees’ affective and cognitive processes. Meta-analytic techniques were used to examine the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games relative to a comparison group (k= 65, N= 6,476). Consistent with theory, post-training self-efficacy was 20% higher, declarative knowledge was 11% higher, procedural knowledge was 14% higher, and retention was 9% higher for trainees taught with simulation games, relative to a comparison group. However, the results provide strong evidence of publication bias in simulation games research. Characteristics of simulation games and the instructional context also moderated the effectiveness of simulation games. Trainees learned more, relative to a comparison group, when simulation games conveyed course material actively rather than passively, trainees could access the simulation game as many times as desired, and the simulation game was a supplement to other instructional methods rather than stand-alone instruction. However, trainees learned less from simulation games than comparison instructional methods when the instruction the comparison group received as a substitute for the simulation game actively engaged them in the learning experience.”


“Serious Games as New Educational Tools: How Effective Are They? A Meta-Analysis of Recent Studies”
Girard, C.; Ecalle, J.; Magnan, A. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, June 2013, Vol. 29, No. 3, 207-219. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2012.00489.x.

Findings: “Three of the 11 studied games had a positive effect on learning compared with other types of training or no training at all. These included two SGs [serious games] (Re-Mission and DimensionM) and one VG (SimCity). Seven games had no beneficial effect on learning, including three SGs … and four VGs (Indiana Jones & the Emperor’s Tomb, Medal of Honor Allied Assault, Rise of Nations, New Super Mario Bros.). Finally, the results for one SG (Triage Trainer) were mixed. Because of the lack of precise quantitative data in many studies, it was not possible to calculate the size of the learning effect.”


“Game-Based Learning in Science Education: A Review of Relevant Research”
Li, Ming-Chaun; Tsai, Chin-Chun. Journal of Science Education and Technology, February 2013. doi: 10.1007/s10956-013-9436-x.

Abstract: “The purpose of this study is to review empirical research articles regarding game-based science learning (GBSL) published from 2000 to 2011…. The results indicate that cognitivism and constructivism were the major theoretical foundations employed by the GBSL researchers and that the socio-cultural perspective and enactivism are two emerging theoretical paradigms that have started to draw attention from GBSL researchers in recent years. The analysis of the learning foci showed that most of the digital games were utilized to promote scientific knowledge/concept learning, while less than one-third were implemented to facilitate the students’ problem-solving skills. Only a few studies explored the GBSL outcomes from the aspects of scientific processes, affect, engagement, and socio-contextual learning. Suggestions are made to extend the current GBSL research to address the affective and socio-contextual aspects of science learning. The roles of digital games as tutor, tool, and tutee for science education are discussed, while the potentials of digital games to bridge science learning between real and virtual worlds, to promote collaborative problem-solving, to provide affective learning environments, and to facilitate science learning for younger students are also addressed.”


“Our Princess Is in Another Castle: A Review of Trends in Serious Gaming for Education”
Young, Michael F.; Slota, Stephen; Cutter, Andrew B. Review of Educational Research, March 2012, Vol. 82, No. 1, pp. 61-89. 10.3102/003465431243698

Abstract: “Do video games show demonstrable relationships to academic achievement gains when used to support the K-12 curriculum? In a review of literature, we identified 300+ articles whose descriptions related to video games and academic achievement. We found some evidence for the effects of video games on language learning, history, and physical education (specifically exergames), but little support for the academic value of video games in science and math. We summarize the trends for each subject area and supply recommendations for the nascent field of video games research. Many educationally interesting games exist, yet evidence for their impact on student achievement is slim. We recommend separating simulations from games and refocusing the question onto the situated nature of game-player-context interactions, including meta-game social collaborative elements.”


“Intercultural Simulation Games: A Review (of the United States and Beyond)”
Fowler, Sandra M.; Pusch, Margaret D. Simulation and Gaming, February 2010, Vol. 41, No. 1, 94-115. doi: 10.1177/1046878109352204.

Abstract: “Intercultural simulations are instructional activities that engage and challenge participants with experiences integral to encounters between people of more than one cultural group. Simulations designed specifically to support intercultural encounters have been in use since the 1970s. This article examines the conceptual bases for intercultural simulation games, their history, contexts in which they are being or have been used, their efficacy, and the current situation for intercultural simulation games. The article concludes with a look at future directions, which will rely on technological advances and the creative work of promising young interculturalists.”


“Digital Game-Based Learning in High School Computer Science Education: Impact on Educational Effectiveness and Student Motivation”
Papastergiou, Marina. Computers & Education, January 2009, Vol. 52, No. 1, 1-12. doi:

Abstract: “The aim of this study was to assess the learning effectiveness and motivational appeal of a computer game for learning computer memory concepts, which was designed according to the curricular objectives and the subject matter of the Greek high school Computer Science (CS) curriculum, as compared to a similar application, encompassing identical learning objectives and content but lacking the gaming aspect…Data analyses showed that the gaming approach was both more effective in promoting students’ knowledge of computer memory concepts and more motivational than the non-gaming approach. Despite boys’ greater involvement with, liking of and experience in computer gaming, and their greater initial computer memory knowledge, the learning gains that boys and girls achieved through the use of the game did not differ significantly, and the game was found to be equally motivational for boys and girls. The results suggest that within high school CS, educational computer games can be exploited as effective and motivational learning environments, regardless of students’ gender.”


“The Concept of Flow in Collaborative Game-Based Learning”
Admiraal, Wilfried; Huizenga, Jantina; Akkerman, Sanne; ten Dam, Geert. Computers in Human Behavior, May 2011, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1185-1194. doi:

Abstract: “Generally, high-school students have been characterized as bored and disengaged from the learning process. However, certain educational designs promote excitement and engagement. Game-based learning is assumed to be such a design. In this study, the concept of flow is used as a framework to investigate student engagement in the process of gaming and to explain effects on game performance and student learning outcome. Frequency 1550, a game about medieval Amsterdam merging digital and urban play spaces, has been examined as an exemplar of game-based learning. This one-day game was played in teams by 216 students of three schools for secondary education in Amsterdam. Generally, these students show flow with their game activities, although they were distracted by solving problems in technology and navigation. Flow was shown to have an effect on their game performance, but not on their learning outcome. Distractive activities and being occupied with competition between teams did show an effect on the learning outcome of students: the fewer students were distracted from the game and the more they were engaged in group competition, the more students learned about the medieval history of Amsterdam.”


“The Relationship Between Design, Gameplay and Outcomes: Computer Games and Learning”
Schrader, Claudia; Bastiaens, Theo. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 2012, Vol. 23, No. 3, 251-271.

Findings: “Overall, authors agree on the beneficial effect on learning of the engagement and motivation generated by games. They often refer to the Flow Theory of Csikszentmihalyi. According to this theory, the ‘flow’ state experienced by players (state of complete involvement or engagement in an activity that results in an optimum experience of the activity) during the game has a positive effect on their learning. Good games are particularly adept at keeping subjects in a state of flow by increasing the skill level involved in the game as the skill level exhibited by the player increases. However, our observations indicate that not all the experimental results support this theory and that further research is therefore required.”

“Digital Game-Based Learning: Impact of Instructions and Feedback on Motivation and Learning Effectiveness”
Erhel, S.; Jamet, E. Computers and Education, September 2013, Vol. 67, 156-167. doi:

Abstract: “Although many studies have investigated the effects of digital game-based learning (DGBL) on learning and motivation, its benefits have never been systematically demonstrated. In our first experiment, we sought to identify the conditions under which DGBL is most effective, by analyzing the effects of two different types of instructions (learning instruction vs. entertainment instruction). Results showed that the learning instruction elicited deeper learning than the entertainment one, without impacting negatively on motivation. In our second experiment, we showed that if learners are given regular feedback about their performance, the entertainment instruction results in deep learning. These two experiments demonstrate that a serious game environment can promote learning and motivation, providing it includes features that prompt learners to actively process the educational content.”


“Evaluating Learners’ Motivational and Cognitive Processing in an Online Game-Based Learning Environment”
Hao-Huang, Wen. Computers in Human Behavior, March 2011, Vol. 27, No. 2, 694-704. doi:

Abstract: “This paper describes the process and results of an evaluation on an online game-based learning environment (GBLE) by focusing on learners’ motivational processing and cognitive processing. The goal is to explore how online GBLE might initiate and support learners’ goal-setting activities and impact learners’ cognitive loads. The study surveyed 144 undergraduate students after their autonomous participation in the online game available at the Nobel Prize Foundation website teaching the Heckscher–Ohlin Theory on international trade. Grounded in the integrative theory of motivation, volition, and performance (MVP), the evaluation indicated that participants felt significantly confident in learning the subject. The perceived satisfaction, however, was lower than the rest of motivational components possibly due to heavy cognitive processing. The finding of cognitive load reported that learners perceived a significantly higher level of intrinsic load than the germane load due to the novelty of the subject matter. Data analysis further indicated a significant canonical correlation between learners’ motivational and cognitive processing. This particular finding could inform future research to investigate specific motivational processing components’ effects on learners’ cognitive load levels in online GBLEs.”


“Learning through Playing for or Against Each Other? Promoting Collaborative Learning in Digital Game-Based Learning”
Romero, Margarida; Usert, Mireia; Ott, Michela; Earp, Jeffrey. European Conference on Information Systems, 2012.

Abstract: “The process of learning through Game Based Learning (GBL) presents both positive aspects and challenges to be faced in order to support the achievement of learning goals and knowledge creation. This study aims to characterize game dynamics in the adoption of multi-player GBL. In particular, we examine the multi-player GBL dynamics may enhance collaborative learning through a relation of positive interdependence while at the same time maintaining a certain level of competition for ensuring multi-player GBL gameplay. The first section of the paper introduces collaborative GBL and describes the combination of intragroup dynamics of cooperation and positive interdependence and an intergroup dynamic of competition to maintain gameplay. The second part of the paper describes two multi-player GBL scenarios: the multi-player game with interpersonal competition and the multi-player game with intergroup competition. For each scenario a case analysis of existing collaborative games is provided, which may help instructional and game designers when defining the collaborative GBL dynamics.”


“Video Game–Based Learning: An Emerging Paradigm for Instruction”
Squire, Kurt D. Performance Improvement Quarterly, April 2013, Vol. 26, No. 1, 101-130. doi: 10.1002/piq.21139.

Abstract: “Interactive digital media, or video games, are a powerful new medium. They offer immersive experiences in which players solve problems. Players learn more than just facts — ways of seeing and understanding problems so that they ‘become’ different kinds of people. ‘Serious games’ coming from business strategy, advergaming, and entertainment gaming embody these features and point to a future paradigm for eLearning. Building on interviews with leading designers of serious games, this article presents case studies of three organizations building serious games, coming from different perspectives but arriving at similar conclusions. This article argues that such games challenge us to rethink the role of information, tools, and aesthetics in a digital age.”


“Dynamical Model for Gamification: Optimization of Four Primary Factors of Learning Games for Educational Effectiveness”
Kim, Jung Tae; Lee, Won-Hyung. Computer Applications for Graphics, Grid Computing, and Industrial Environment, Communications in Computer and Information Science, 2012, Vol. 351, 24-32. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-35600-1_4.

Abstract: “This paper proposes a dynamical model for the gamification of learning. The main idea of this model is based on the correlations of four primary factors (curiosity, challenge, fantasy and control) originating from digital games which are built on the foundations of separate theories: (1) Game Design Features, (2) Key Characteristics of a Learning Game, (3) ARCS Model, and (4) MDA framework. Through this dynamical model, we will show that the effectiveness of the gamification of learning is educationally superior to traditional ways of learning in a specific setting, after an elapsed adaptive time period with a reasonable relationship of the four primary factors. The model presents the meaningful positions of four primary factors on the equation for educational effectiveness of gamification. We posit that this dynamical model for the gamification can strengthen the ‘theoretical foundation’ of gamification as well as spread the idea of ‘the pure and right function of game.’”


“Gamification in a Social Learning Environment”
Giannetto, David; Chao, Joseph; Fontana, Anthony. Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, 2013, Vol. 10.

Abstract: “Gamification has gained traction in recent years as an effective way of engaging users to perform actions in contexts that would otherwise be considered tedious and undesirable. Education is an area in which user engagement could have the greatest impact on success, with some advantages for students being improved grades or better comprehension. The authors of this paper have designed and implemented a three-part system for gamifying a social learning environment designed for use in higher education lecture classrooms. Our goal in doing so is to foster greater user engagement from the students using the system and thereby promote an environment better suited for active learning.”


“Gamifying Learning Experiences: Practical Implications and Outcomes”
Dominguez, Adrian; Saenz-de-Navarrete, Joseba; de Marcos, Luis; Fernandoes-Sanz, Luis; Pages, Carmen; Martinez-Herriaiz, Jose-Javier. Computers in Education, April 2013, Vol. 63, 380-392. doi:

Abstract: “Gamification is the use of game design elements and game mechanics in non-game contexts. This idea has been used successfully in many web-based businesses to increase user engagement. Some researchers suggest that it could also be used in web-based education as a tool to increase student motivation and engagement. In an attempt to verify those theories, we have designed and built a gamification plugin for a well-known e-learning platform. We have made an experiment using this plugin in a university course, collecting quantitative and qualitative data in the process. Our findings suggest that some common beliefs about the benefits obtained when using games in education can be challenged. Students who completed the gamified experience got better scores in practical assignments and in overall score, but our findings also suggest that these students performed poorly on written assignments and participated less on class activities, although their initial motivation was higher.”


“Serious Games and Learning Effectiveness: The Case of It’s a Deal!
Guillen-Nieto, Victoria; et al. Computers and Education, January 2012, Vol. 58, No. 1, 435-448. doi:

Abstract: “Although the value of serious games in education is undeniable and the potential benefits of using video games as ideal companions to classroom instruction is unquestionable, there is still little consensus on the game features supporting learning effectiveness, the process by which games engage learners, and the types of learning outcomes that can be achieved through game play… Findings of this study demonstrate that the video game is an effective learning tool for the teaching of intercultural communication between Spaniards and Britons in business settings in which English is used as the lingua franca. In particular, whereas the game had a small learning effect on intercultural awareness and a medium learning effect on intercultural knowledge, it had a large learning effect on intercultural communicative competence. The study also documents correlating factors that make serious games effective, since it shows that the learning effectiveness of It’s a Deal! stems from the correct balance of the different dimensions involved in the creation of serious games, specifically instructional content, game dimensions, game cycle, debriefing, perceived educational value, transfer of learned skills and intrinsic motivation.”


“Learning in Serious Virtual Worlds: Evaluation of Learning Effectiveness and Appeal to Students in the E-Junior Project”
Wrzesien, Maja; Alcaniz-Raa, Mariano. Computers and Education, August 2010, Vol. 55, No. 1, 178-187. doi:

Abstract: “The objective of this study is to present and to evaluate the E-Junior application: a serious virtual world (SVW) for teaching children natural science and ecology. E-Junior was designed according to pedagogical theories and curricular objectives to help children learn about the Mediterranean Sea and its environmental issues while playing. In this study, we present data about the E-Junior evaluation. A class in a serious virtual world (virtual group) was compared with a traditional type of class (traditional group) that contained identical learning objectives and contents but lacked a gaming aspect…. The results showed that the serious virtual world does not present statistically significant differences with the traditional type of class. However, students from the virtual group reported enjoying the class more, being more engaged, and having greater intentions to participate than students from the traditional group. The plausible explanation for this can be found in the qualitative data. The implications of these results and improvement proposals are also discussed in this work.”


“The Effects of Modern Mathematics Computer Games on Mathematics Achievement and Class Motivation”
Kebritchi, Mansureh; Hirumi, Atsusi; Bai, Haiyan. Computers and Education, September 2010, Vol. 22, No. 2, 427-443. doi:

Abstract: “This study examined the effects of a computer game on students’ mathematics achievement and motivation, and the role of prior mathematics knowledge, computer skill, and English language skill on their achievement and motivation as they played the game. A total of 193 students and 10 teachers participated in this study…. The results indicated significant improvement of the achievement of the experimental versus control group. No significant improvement was found in the motivation of the groups. Students who played the games in their classrooms and school labs reported greater motivation compared to the ones who played the games only in the school labs. Prior knowledge, computer and English language skill did not play significant roles in achievement and motivation of the experimental group.”


“Red Light, Purple Light: Findings from a Randomized Trial Using Circle Time Games to Improve Behavioral Self-Regulation in Preschool”
Tominey, Shauna L.; McClelland, Megan M. Early Education & Development Special Issue: Self-Regulation in Early Childhood, 2011, Vol. 22, No. 3, 480-519.

Findings: “The present study examined the efficacy of a self-regulation intervention with 65 preschool children. Using circle time games, the study examined whether participating in a treatment group significantly improved behavioral self-regulation and early academic outcomes. Half of the children were randomly assigned to participate in 16 playgroups during the winter of the school year. Behavioral aspects of self-regulation and early achievement were assessed in the fall and spring. Although there was no treatment effect in the overall sample, post hoc analyses revealed that participation in the treatment group was significantly related to self-regulation gains in children who started the year with low levels of these skills. Children in the treatment group also demonstrated significant letter-word identification gains compared to children in the control group…. The findings from this study provide preliminary evidence for the efficacy of the intervention in terms of improving preschoolers’ behavioral self-regulation for children low in these skills and improving letter-word identification. Although preliminary, these results have the potential to inform preschool curricula that emphasize behavioral self-regulation as a means of facilitating school readiness.”


“Students’ Perceptions About the Use of Video Games in the Classroom”
Bourgonjon, Jeroen; Valcke, Martin; Soetaert, Ronald; Schellens, Tammy. Computers and Education, May 2010, Vol. 54, No. 4, 1145-1156. doi:

Abstract: “In this study, a path model to examine and predict student acceptance of video games is proposed, and empirically tested by involving 858 secondary school students. The results show that students’ preference for using video games in the classroom is affected directly by a number of factors: the perceptions of students regarding the usefulness, ease of use, learning opportunities, and personal experience with video games in general. Gender effects are found as well, but appear to be mediated by experience and ease of use.”

Tags: technology, cognition, children, youth, research roundup


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