Engaging learners through games: Help or hype?

Select games that allow room for self-paced exploration and experimentation, the author writes.

“Engagement” has become a popular buzzword, as educators increasingly cite disengaged students as a problem that needs to be fixed. In this context, games are often trumpeted as the perfect tool for creating student engagement. But what do we really know about how engagement works? What opportunities and risks do games present as tools for increasing engagement? And how can educators judge whether a game product truly helps drive student engagement or is merely hype?

There is no standard for what “engagement” means. As in the parable of the blind men describing the elephant, each expert perceives different aspects of student engagement: academic, behavioral, cognitive, emotional, institutional, intellectual, psychological, and social. Likewise, “games” are a broad and varied content category. This article will use “games” in the sense of interactive, student-initiated activities of inherent entertainment value that are played on an electronic device. The attributes “student-initiated” and “of inherent entertainment value” are keys to the success of games as learning tools.

How student engagement develops

It is useful to break down student engagement into three core elements: interest, motivation, and attention. Doing so can provide a useful rubric for evaluating the efficacy of games and, equally important, how best to integrate games in a blended learning model.

Engagement begins with interest, which refers to a student’s inclination to use content. Interest has biological roots; neuroscientists have found that it is part of a “seeking system” imprinted in our brains (Panksepp & Moskal, 2008). That is to say, we are hard-wired to seek knowledge and skills that we find useful, consciously or not. Student interest in learning sports, fashion, music, or acting, for instance, may be driven by a deep need to gain the respect of peers. Games excel at tapping this incredibly powerful seeking system by triggering our inner drive to solve, self-improve, and to win.

A student’s interest evolves from “situational interest” to “individual interest.” Situational interest is a kneejerk reaction to a stimulus. For example, the mere fact that content is packaged in game form or is associated with a particular character may trigger immediate situational interest. Individual interest, on the other hand, involves excitement about the topic or content itself. Individual interest is often characterized by the student generating his or her own questions or challenges, even redefining or exceeding task demands. Both types of interest have proven impacts on academic motivation, attention, knowledge and skill acquisition, persistence, and recall across dozens of studies going back three decades (Hidi & Renninger, 2006).

In the context of learning games, this means that interest in the game’s theme and trappings ultimately can lead to interest in the underlying learning content. It is a simple mechanism, but one with profound implications for instructional design. It might lead to a rubric that goes something like this:

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