Videogames and Learning

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playing to learn?
playing to learn?

Not a week goes by where I don't receive an unsolicited email from a company touting the benefits of its new 'educational videogame'. Indeed, just last week I opened my inbox to find two separate emails proclaiming how two different mobile gaming apps were destined to "transform learning!!!" Now, in a lot of the cases, I must confess that I am not always sure why something is an 'educational game', and not just a 'game' (although if I am in a difficult mood, I might offer that in too many instances an 'educational game' is 'a game that really isn't much fun'). That said, there is no denying that videogames are big business around the world. So -- increasingly -- is education. Even most people who fear that potential negative effects of some (or even most) videogames on young people would, at the same time, acknowledge the promise and potential for videogames to offer enriching learning experiences. The history of the introduction of educational technologies is in many ways long on promise and potential, however, and short on actual evidence of how they impact learning in tangible and fundamental ways.

Much is made of the potential for ICTs to be used to promote more personalized learning experiences through the introduction of various types of ICT-enabled assessment systems. For me, it has long seemed like the most powerful real-time learning assessment engines have been found in videogames, where actions (or inactions) are often met with near instantaneous responses, to which the player is then challenged to respond in turn. This feedback loop -- taking an action, being presented with information as a result, having to synthesize and analyze this information and doing something as a result -- might meet some people's definition of 'learning'. A good videogame engages its users so strongly that they are willing to fail, and fail, and fail again, until they learn enough from this failure that they can proceed with the game. Even where educational software is not explicitly labeled as a 'game', designers are increasingly introducing game-like elements (badges, achievement bonuses, scoring systems) as a way to promote user (learner? player?) engagement as part of a process known as 'gamification'.

The use of videogames for educational purposes, or at least in educational contexts, is far from an OECD or U.S. phenomenon. Whether I am visiting a school computer lab after hours in central Russia, an Internet cafe filled with students in Indonesia or standing behind some schoolgirls carrying phones between classes in Tanzania, 'educational' videogames seem to be nearly everywhere. Past posts on the EduTech blog have profiled things like the use of video games on mobile phones to promote literacy in rural India and EVOKE, an online game for students across Africa which the World Bank helped sponsor a few years ago. When I speak with young software entrepreneurs in Nairobi or Accra or Manila, they often talk excitedly about the latest educational game they are developing (for markets local and distant).

Do educational games 'work'?
Are they 'effective'?
And if so: How can they be used in schools?

Questions such as these are of increasing interest to scholars. Given both their potential for learning, and how aggressively videogames are being marketed to many education systems, they should be of increasing interest to educational policymakers as well. Some recent research brings us a little closer to a time when we can answer some of them.


While videogames are played all around the world, most recent research into videogames and learning has a strong OECD (and especially U.S.) bias, looking largely at learning contexts in industrialized country settings. The Gates Foundation has been funding lots of notable activities and research in this area, including a newly-released report by SRI (part of the Games Learning and Assessment Lab, or 'GlassLab', initiative) on Digital Games for Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, which summarizes and analyzes findings from 77 experimental or quasi-experimental studies published in peer-reviewed journals between 2000 and 2012. According to the paper, "With increasing access to computers, consoles, and cell phones, young people encounter opportunities for gaming everywhere. Given the extensive reach and saturation of game playing in modern youth culture, there is an untapped potential for increased learning if games can be successfully designed .... These preliminary findings will help GlassLab and other educational game designers make appropriate, research-based decisions in developing new digital games for students."

The academic tone and language of the paper may make for tough reading for most general readers. There is a lot of nuance in the findings, which are accompanied by a slew of caveats (e.g. related to sample sizes, and so analyses should be considered exploratory). The full report is due to be released in September/October of this year. Here are some of the highlights so far:

  • Most of the games studied were single player (82%) and almost all were played on PCs (92%).
  • When digital games were compared to other instruction conditions without digital games there was a moderate to strong effect in favor of digital games in terms of broad cognitive competencies.
  • Students at the median in the control group (no game) could have been raised 12% in cognitive learning outcomes if they had received the digital game. [For many observers, this has been the 'headline' finding.]
  • There was evidence that digital games contributed to increased intellectual openness and positive core self-evaluation outcomes.
  • Impacts of digital games on interpersonal competencies are less clear.
  • The efficacy of digital games for learning depends on their design.

Even where there are demonstrated benefits from the use of certain educational games, it can be quite difficult for teachers to figure out how to integrate their use into student learning. A very interesting report published earlier this year by the Joan Cooney Ganz Center (the folks behind Sesame Street) highlights some of these challenges, and offers some related recommendations. Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis analyzes the sales and market potential for digital learning games in the institutional K-12 market in the United States. While the U.S. is probably the largest and most 'mature' (relatively speaking) market for educational videogames, Games for the Digital Age contains insights that may well be relevant and applicable for other education systems around the world. I am increasingly contacted  by young entrepreneurs and software developers in developing countries who are interested in creating educational videogames, or educational apps that contain many elements borrowed from videogames. It is exciting that such people are turning their attentions to developing useful products and services for the education sector. To the extent that they have their eyes on OECD markets while at the same time selling to ministries of education, schools and communities closer to home, this report should be of interest. It is, thankfully, a quick read (and much easier to digest than the one from SRI highlighted above). Here are some quick things I took away from it (as well as from a related presentation that one of the authors, John Richards, gave at this year's EdTech Industry Summit):

  • Educational games are supplemental (i.e. not core to learning activities in schools)
  • Educational games need to fit into the established calendar of the school day (e.g. 50 minute periods), and year.
  • A game that requires accompanying teacher professional development to be used successfully is a non-starter.
  • If they are to be used, games need to be easy: easy to find, easy to access, easy to understand, and easy to link to existing learning activities.
  • Generally speaking, you can divide educational games into two types, by time required:
    • short form (not very profitable, little research, easy to insert into class)
    • long form (solid research, difficult to integrate into schools, offer opportunities for in-depth learning, promotes development of 21st century skills)

Another report last year from the Cooney Center (Teacher Attitudes about Digital Games in the Classroom) highlighted some of the barriers to the U.S. of educational games in U.S. schools, but in my experience these barriers are pretty representative of challenges in most other countries as well. Cost was seen by teachers as the top impediment to the use of educational games. Inadequate access to necessary technology, and emphasis on standardized test scores (few educational games are seen as relevant to related test prep activities) and unsupportive administrators and parents were other key barriers.

an educational game boy
an educational game boy

Educators are faced with an apparent dilemma: If they want to take advantage of the types of education games (i.e. the 'long form' ones) whose impact is well-researched, and to integrate their use into classroom activities, existing schooling practices need to be changed. This is unlikely to happen, of course. On the other hand, the types of games that can most easily be integrated into existing schooling practices ('short form' games) are not very profitable for firms to produce (in which case, they may not be produced in sufficient quantities) and there is not a solid research base to support their use. What to do, then? Games for the Digital Age suggests that game developers focus on creating repositories of *lots* of little, short games, easily findable by teachers, linked to specific curricular objectives. [I would note parenthetically that this applies just as well to digital learning resources of any sort, not just games.] Practically speaking, developers may thus need to invest in many short form games so that teachers can then find the handful of games that are relevant to them. This means that lots of games may need to be developed, and most of them probably will not be used very much. While this advice is aimed at the developers of educational games, there are clear messages here for policymakers as well.

While researchers have been studying the potential impact of videogames on learning for decades, in many ways the related research base and industry remain in their infancy. Both are now growing quickly, however. No doubt the 'adolescent' stage of the use of educational videogames will be messy and complicated (as it is for most students in real life who play and learn with them!). The English comedian Stephen Fry has remarked that "No adolescent ever wants to be understood, which is why they complain about being misunderstood all the time." Perhaps. Hopefully research from groups like Gates, SRI, the Cooney Center and scores of other groups going forward will help to minimize the inevitable pain and misunderstandings along the way.

Of potentially related interest:

Note: Both images that accompany this blog post ("playing to learn?" and "an educational game boy") come via Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.



Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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