Leveling Up: How Digital Game-Based Learning Is Altering Education

How Digital Game Based Learning is Altering Education - header image with a video game controller hooked to a computer monitor

At the turn of the 21st century, public interest in games as learning tools took hold. In the eyes of digital game-based learning proponents, the general public and today’s teachers finally understood something that students and educational researchers knew all along. To put it in the words of an elementary student at the 2004 Serious Games Summit, “Why read about ancient Rome when I can build it?”

Since the advent of digital games, ongoing research has supported their effectiveness in education. Another factor for the acceptance of digital game-based learning, according to EDUCAUSE Review, is that today’s students are a part of a digital generation that has become disengaged with traditional instruction. Finally, digital games have grown in popularity; worldwide revenues for digital gaming exceeded $70 billion in 2015.

As a result, digital games may have a permanent home in education. According to a survey of K-8 teachers, 55 percent have students play digital games in class at least weekly.

The Basics of Digital Game-Based Learning


Digital game-based learning refers to using actual digital video games as learning tools. The basic idea behind digital game-based learning in the classroom is that, as opposed to isolated tasks such as memorization, quizzing and drilling, digital games help students learn subject matter in context, as part of an interactive system.

Game-based learning should not be confused with gamification. Gamification takes an element of education and replaces it with a game-based element. For instance, a teacher may replace grades with levels or experience points.

According to Jisc, several types of games may be used in digital game-based learning.

  • Educational Games: Video and computer games that use an engaging and immersive learning experience to deliver specified learning goals, outcomes and experiences.
  • Online Games: Games that range from simple text-based games to games that span complex, virtual worlds used by large numbers of players simultaneously.
  • Serious Games: Games that train or educate users; generally, serious games have a primary purpose other than entertainment.
  • Simulations: Games that model real-world situations.

Approaches and Examples

Educators have three primary approaches to digital game-based learning: have students build games from scratch, have educators/developers build educational games from scratch and integrate commercial games into the classroom. The first approach involving students building games from scratch is typically limited to computer science. Additionally, many teachers lack the skill set required for game design.

Building educational games from scratch is often touted as the “Holy Grail” of digital game-based learning. This is due to how educational games, along with some serious games, have the potential to address education and entertainment equally. EDUCAUSE Review believes this approach “is clearly the future” of digital game-based learning, but widespread development of these games is not likely until digital game-based learning is demonstrated to be “more than just a fad and until we can point to persuasive examples that show games are being used effectively in education and that educators and parents view them as they now view textbooks and other instructional media.”

Using commercial games requires care, as these games are not designed to teach. But by analyzing a game’s strengths and weaknesses, and by matching it to course content, educators can take advantage of the many games that are suitable for the classroom. Games may include Civilization to teach history, SimCity to teach government and civil engineering, and CSI to teach forensics and criminal justice.

Games in the Civilization series are a popular research subject. This single-player turn-based strategy game involves managing a civilization from 4,000 B.C. to modern times. Each civilization has historical characteristics, along with gameplay that reflects concepts related to history, geography, management, diplomacy and technology. In the Journal of Social Studies Research, students in an 11th grade U.S. history class played Civilization III in conjunction with qualitative methods of assessment. The study revealed that students’ knowledge improved in relationship to gameplay; students learned about embassies, why they shouldn’t build a city in a flood plain, consequences of trespassing on another civilization’s territory and the impact of alliances.

Effectiveness of Digital Game-Based Learning

SRI International published meta-analyses of 77 peer-reviewed journal articles, studying the effects of using video games and computer-based simulations in K-16 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. The research found that “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 without digital games could have improved learning achievement by 12 percent with the digital game. For simulations, learning outcomes increased to 25 percent.

Digital games are effective teaching tools because, “Games embody well-established principles and models of learning,” according to EDUCAUSE Review. “For instance, games are effective partly because the learning takes place within a meaningful (to the game) context. What you must learn is directly related to the environment in which you learn and demonstrate it; thus, the learning is not only relevant but applied and practiced within that context. Learning that occurs in meaningful and relevant contexts is more effective than learning that occurs outside of those contexts, as is the case with most formal instruction. Researchers refer to this principle as situated cognition and have demonstrated its effectiveness in many studies over the last fifteen years.”

Other reasons help account for the success of digital games in education. Researchers point to play as a primary socialization and learning mechanism common to all human cultures and many animal species. Also, games apply to Jean Piaget’s theories about children and learning. The concepts of assimilation and accommodation are relevant to digital games, where cognitive disequilibrium is at play for the learner. In other words, students learn from failures and successes they encounter during digital games.

Digital games create environments for students that are immersive and actively engaging. The learning process is transformed, and students can gain value from the various cognitive, motivational, emotional and social benefits video games offer, American Psychologist explains.

Implementing Digital Game-Based Learning in the Classroom

Evaluate Resources

Resources may dictate the potential for digital game-based learning in your classroom. For instance, is school-owned hardware available or will students need to bring their own device? Will games be a full-class activity or will they make up a single station in a room full of learning activities?

Your ability to implement digital game-based learning in your classroom can be affected by financial and technical support as well. You may need financial resources for games and hardware. And you may require technical support for assistance with school-owned hardware or issues that arise with student-owned devices.

Select and Prepare the Game

Before choosing a game, keep a few considerations in mind.

  • Your Students’ Needs: Look for subject matter, intended grade levels and what skills the game promotes.
  • Resources: You may need to limit your search to free games or to games on a specific device or operating system.
  • Scope of Search: Widen or narrow your search based on your goals. Remember that several games are versatile. For instance, Minecraft, a sandbox building game, is used by art and science teachers across multiple grade levels.

Websites such as Common Sense Media’s Graphite can help you find a game. You can read editorial reviews and comments from other teachers to gauge the quality of the game and to see how other teachers implement it in their curriculum.

Once you find a game, play it. Get to know it inside and out, so that you’re aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Try to understand the game from the perspective of your students. This will help you understand how you should introduce and use the game as a learning tool.

Finally, prepare the game for your class. Develop a plan for integrating the game into the lesson. Websites such as Educade offer game-based lesson plans. You can also search online to see how other teachers are using the game in the classroom.

Enhancing Mathematics Education

Digital games can be an asset to all learners. Educators can consider using digital games in the classroom to drive learning and complement lessons. In an immersive, engaging and rewarding digital context, students can advance subject knowledge and learn important skills.

Mathematics is one of many subjects where instruction can be illuminated through digital games. At Aurora University, the online Master of Arts in Mathematics Education helps educators become more effective through the latest pedagogical techniques and knowledge. Teachers learn the skills and knowledge needed to become leaders and advocates for mathematics education.