Three challenges for game-based learning

I was fortunate to be asked to talk at the Open University’s Computers and Learning Research Group conference yesterday. The afternoon was dedicated to the topic of game-based learning and this game me the opportunity to watch some very interesting talks and meet other researchers in the area, most notably Shaaron Ainsworth,  who specialises in investigating the psychological and cognitive effects of games, Richard Joiner, who is doing some interesting work on games and gender, and Jo Iacovides, who is half-way through her doctoral research on engagement and motivation in games.

I presented my first talk since returning from maternity leave, and found it more daunting than I had been expecting. It was lucky that they were a friendly, interested group (even last thing in the afternoon) and what the presentation lacked was compensated for by the lively audience participation at the end. The presentation centred around what I think will be the three biggest challenges facing game-based learning as a discipline in years to come. These are:

  1. Perceptions of games, fuelled by media sensationalism, overly emotive language, erroneous causality and unsubstantiated and unquestioned claims regarding games and violence, addiction, etc. This should really be a non-issue since no-one is actually suggesting using violent video games for learning, but somehow the facts that most games aren’t violent (and that if children are playing violent games it says more about the lack of parental control than about the games) don’t fit neatly within the media narrative.
  2. The commercial focus on teh development of behaviourist learning games, which highlight repetition of fairly trivial tasks, because they are easy to design and easy to evaluate the immediate learning impact. I’m not saying behaviourism doesn’t work, or that it doesn’t have a place in learning, but simply that if the focus is on behaviourist games then we are missing out on a big opportunity. While many games exist that clearly show higher-level learning (for example, the lateral thinking, problem-solving and strategizing required in the Zelda games) these have not yet been translated into games for formal learning.
  3. The barriers to entry into the field for most educators. Except in areas such as computing and engineering, it is almost impossible for a teacher with a good idea to develop a learning game, which means that innovation is limited to commercial developments (where markets for sophisticated constructivist games are unproven), research projects or enthusiastic individuals in technical disciplines (where the outputs are often unsustainable) .

I would suggest that what the field needs is to focus on two areas: rethinking the research methodologies by which we investigate the learning impact of complex games, drawing on the whole range of disciplines that make up the field of game-based learning; and rethinking the development models that exist for involvement the creation of games to become a possibility for more people. I think we also need to create an environment for innovation and be more open to the possibility of failure, including its open discussion and dissemination, if we are to learn from our mistakes and build up a robust body of evidence in a relatively new research field.

Doug Clow’s write-up of the session can be found here.


  1. Katherine Senko

    As a former teacher, a former instructional designer and a current creative thinker I found #3- barriers to entry into the field quite true. I am seeking to return to the work environment after a personal sabbatical. However, because I am unfamiliar with some of the newer technologies used today it is difficult. I have been told that I have great ideas, concepts that would work well in the field, however, because I do not know Flash, Captivate, etc. I am not “hire-able”. However, I am familiar with these programs, I am constantly using the “free trail period” to learn what I can without purchasing the expensive software. So, no, I am not proficient in the latest. I, however, am very well versed in the old software technologies such as Authorware, Director, etc. and the platforms are similar enough to allow me to ramp up quickly. BUT HOW do I enter into a field where I have ideas but am up against fresh graduates who have the knowledge of the software?

  2. Scott Hewitt

    Very interesting blog with 3 elements that do come up time after time. As someone else also involved in Game Based Learning I’ve found that there is another key way to break down the barrier into game based learning. Many practitioners, teachers and educators would benefit from understanding the basics of game theory. This underlines many games but also can be used within your own elearning and resource creation and not just games. It is important that people understand the theory behing where games are interested before the jump straight to creating your own resources.

    For Katherine, there are many low cost game engines that you can use, that also don’t need huge programming skills. Missionmaker is just one such example.

  3. Liz Cable

    It would be good to discuss at some point what progress has been made with “rethinking the research methodologies by which we investigate the learning impact of complex games” in the seven years since this post.

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