How Games Help: Learning


At their core, all games are simply 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 design learning experiences. You have to build a foundational understanding, encourage exploration, and connect it all together with personal application and resonance.

Because learning, and motivating people to continue to learn, is so intrinsic to how games are created and played, part of the “proof” factor 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 how 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 safely, how to capture a queen with a pawn, 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 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 Clark 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 its design, will.

"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."

- Douglas Clark PhD , Vanderbilt University.

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 a game can be good or bad and that makes all the difference. There are many things related to education that games excel at, but there are many things that other learning formats do well also. The best game-based approaches have included a combination of real-world learning and game learning.

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.

A study conducted by New York University and the City University of New York found that math video games can enhance middle-schoolers' motivation to learn, and 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 when you as a learner have a goal of mastering certain subjects, skills, or materials, and believe 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.”

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.


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Marguerite Dibble