Motivational Learning and Games

At their core, all games are, is learning. A game is a series of rules applied to play, rules that you seek to understand, and then within those limits, see how far you can excel. When discussing how we make games there are a multitude of similarities to how teachers and others design learning experiences. You have to build a foundational understanding, encourage exploration, and connect it all with personal application and resonance.

Because learning, and motivating people to continue to learn, is so intrinsic to how games are created and played, there is a part of the “proof” factor that feels slightly askew. It is the nature of games to teach, it is how they exist, so of course they are “good” at teaching people things. But to simply claim this is an area where games naturally excel lacks a burden of proof that is problematic.

To aid in our understanding of just how games motivate learning, we can look at what work has been done to see just how well games teach more traditional educational topics. Of course games are good at teaching an entire universe of things: how to stack blocks just right, how to get that frog across the road safety, how to win at chess, but these things are abstractions and that often have the sole motivation of providing value within the game itself. What happens when we try to expand the value gained, the knowledge transferred outside of the game itself.  

Enhanced Outcomes

There are a number of individual examples that demonstrate student learning increases with the utilization of a game in areas such as math, language, history, and even physical education. A recent study completed by XXX even showed suggested that digital games enhanced student learning relative to conventional instruction. Through studies like this we can see that games can increase the retention of learning objectives on particular topics that are applicable outside of a game space.

However, this finding comes with a very important caveat. Design is critical. Almost every finding of increased learning has an example of how a poor design did not garner the same results. A game that isn’t fun or well designed won’t help anyone learn better, while a game that is engaging, exciting, and excels in it’s design will.

This is where we come to an inherent challenge in evaluating how games improve learning. Games are just a delivery tool, like any other, and there’s a simple case to be made that just like a lecture can be good or bad, a game can be, and that, rather than the format, is actually what makes all the difference. There are many things related the education that games excel at, but there are many things that other learning formats do well as well. The best game-based approaches have included a combination of real-world learning and game learning, as researcher XXX points out:

"In recent years, there's been this emphasis on whether games are better than traditional instruction, but that's not really a helpful distinction because it's not an either-or concept," says Clark. "The research shows that games as a medium can be effective, but not always. Design is really what matters. Nobody assumes that all lectures, labs or books are good simply because of their medium."

That being said, there is valuable work that can be done in tying games to measurable impacts in learning. Clark additionally notes, "We really need to look more at these value-added comparisons, and conduct studies that look at the cognitive processes these games invoke."

Collaborative Learning

An interesting area of research with much crisper results is the benefit that is gained in educational gaming environments when players are encouraged to play and learn together. In a study conducted by New York University and the City University of New York, which found that math video games can enhance middle-schoolers' motivation to learn, they additionally found fascinating results in terms of how collaboration enhances learning.

When students played the game together, side by side, talking as they worked to achieve the desired results, they showed stronger outcomes. The outcomes were particularly strong in building a mastery mindset. “Mastery Mindset" refers to having a goal of mastering certain subjects, skills, or materials, and a belief that this can be done. For example, rather than thinking I’m just bad at math” you instead pivot your thinking to “I can be good at math as long as I keep working at it.” This attitude is of course highly conductive to learning, as it opens to the door of motivation to seeking new skills and knowledge.

Not only did this learning outcome increase, but the students reported they actually had more fun playing the game itself when playing with a partner. This resulted in a game-play experience that not only improved the scientific outcomes but was just a better time for the students involved.


Marguerite Dibble