Why Educational Games Work

“Pay attention.” That’s what we were told to do in class, to focus on the teacher as he or she explained a new idea or way of solving a problem. And it used to be easy to pay attention, at least before digital media and mobile technologies became so pervasive. But now they’re everywhere, including the classroom, and today’s teachers struggle to engage students growing up in a world of distractions. How, teachers ask, am I supposed to compete against this flood of digital content?

Teachers, of course, aren’t the only ones struggling. Anyone who wants to learn something new faces the twin challenges of not only finding the time to study, but also resisting distraction when they do. How am I supposed to focus on my Spanish lesson when Angry Birds is sitting in my pocket?

Educational games and more generally game-based learning have been offered as one possible solution, a solution that applies to both the traditional classroom as well as the lifelong learner. Most of us used to think of educational games as either a time-filler or, at best, a supplement to traditional course materials. They were rarely seen as integral to the learning process. Attitudes have begun to change, though, as educators (many of them having grown up playing video games) discover an increasing number of empirical studies that suggest game-based learning and educational games improve academic performance. Richard Blunt, for example, recently analyzed three studies in which students who played course-relevant games boasted statistically-significant better grades.

Faced with this growing body of evidence, many educators wonder, “Why do educational games work?” Here are some reasons:

Educational games provide immediate feedback.

It takes time in a traditional classroom to properly evaluate students. Providing constructive feedback only complicates the matter. Many teachers, overburdened by expanding class sizes, struggle with the workload generated by these tasks, which is why many students receive feedback sporadically and sometimes just at the end of a unit or term.

Game-based learning remedies this situation, offering mechanisms not just for regularly measuring a student’s progress, but also providing constant feedback. As with other educational technologies, this real-time feedback does more than just evaluate; it also actively guides improvement. By making students immediately aware of their successes and failures through alerts, scores and summaries, educational games shorten the feedback loop. Because of this, game-based learning aligns with the goals of formative assessment: the game, as an assessment tool, provides information or signals that allow the teacher and/or student to immediately reshape the learning experience as it’s happening.

Educational games are personalized.

We often describe education as a journey, with the student moving through increasingly difficult content as they progress toward competency in a given subject area. Teachers design their lesson plans with this journey in mind. Unfortunately, though, every student moves at a different pace, and few teachers have the time or resources to customize the learning experience for every student in their classroom. The end result? Slower students struggle to keep up, and faster students grow bored.

Educational games, however, can customize the learning experience for every student. Because they represent an “always-on” assessment tool, one that tracks both correct answers and student behavior, they generate a gold-mine of analyzable data about each student’s competencies, problem areas, and progress over time. Using this data, well-designed educational games can respond to the differing needs of every student — and usually in real-time ways. Whether it’s through the spaced repetition of content (using the Leitner algorithm) or the posing of increasingly difficult questions, educational games can adapt and learn alongside each and every student, something that would be logistically impossible in real-world classrooms.

Educational games engage us.

The whole point of a game is to entertain, to engage the user in something enjoyable and worth doing. When you play a great game, you care about what’s happening. You’re involved. You’re paying attention. You’re taking the time to learn the rules, understand the mechanics, and identify the particulars. Respond appropriately, and you’ll be appropriately rewarded.

This applies not just to mainstream games, but also educational ones. The only difference is that in educational games students must learn not just the game’s mechanics, but also real-world content. Without absorbing both, the student cannot reap the rewards of success. Unlike many traditional forms of teaching content (e.g. a lecture), educational games thus require active engagement. They require, as John Dewey suggested, students to “learn by doing.”

Educational games motivate us to learn.

Educational games have a number of different tools in their motivational toolbox. They elicit, first and foremost, that pleasurable sense of flow discussed above. Games are inherently motivational because, simply put, we want to play them; so long as we’re not coerced into playing, we love games.

Mentioned above, the immediate feedback provided by game mechanisms such as points, levels, and badges gives learners a sense of accomplishment. By providing students with immediate encouragement and reinforcement, educational games improve a student’s confidence in their abilities, and thus motivation to continue learning.

Finally, games, unlike other educational tools, can improve motivation by incorporating competitive and/or collaborative features. The inclusion of social features like leaderboards and shared goals brings to bear group dynamics that encourage students to push the limits or pace of their own learning.

Educational games improve learning outcomes because they not only engage and motivate us, but also adapt to our needs and provide constant feedback. Educational games work, and because of this they’re changing the way we think about learning. Educators are redesigning the way they teach, and research has shown that students who play educational games have significantly better attitudes toward learning than those who don’t play. Educational games make us want to learn — and what could be more effective than that?

The question, then, is not whether or not to use educational games, but rather how to design (and identify) the most effective ones.


James Landau is an edtech enthusiast, lover of all things digital, and (some might say) an obsessive reader. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at New York University and is in the final stages of his Ph.D. in Contemporary Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. If you ever see him walking down the street while reading his Kindle, please don't be offended if he walks right past you -- and into a telephone pole.

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