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:

  • Step One: Arouse a student’s situational interest so that he or she initiates play unforced. Use failure as a learning opportunity rather than penalizing it, which risks extinguishing interest.
  • Step Two: Provide content that is of inherent entertainment value or relevant to a student’s psychological needs to develop individual interest.
  • Step Three: Sustain individual interest by building a feeling of competence balanced with sufficient challenge. After all, we associate positive feelings with things we like and that we feel confident about. While challenge is absolutely necessary in games, excessive frustration can damage not only self-confidence, but also brain development (Papagni & Benetti, 2011).

Motivation and attention

Student motivation has been one of the challenges most commonly cited by educators for many decades (Midgley & Maehr, 1999; Stipek, 2002). Motivation is important because it not only contributes to achievement, but is also an important outcome in and of itself. We want our students to learn how to learn and to love learning.

Well-designed games can be intrinsically motivating. They can deliver enjoyment, challenge, and personal goal fulfillment through creativity, narrative progress, social status, and even self-actualization. And yet, just as students exhibit different learning styles, so too do they favor different gaming styles. Some players are driven by competition or adrenaline, some by teamwork, and others by self-set challenges. Game-based programs need a diversity of pathways that cater to different student needs.

At the same time, games hold motivational risks. Some “educational” games, rather than delivering entertainment value and goal fulfillment, deliver only superficially game-like experiences that reward student achievement—basically a quiz-with-prizes approach. This risks the phenomenon of “over-justification,” which occurs when the expectation of receiving incentives actually decreases the student’s motivation to perform a learning task.

This peril is illustrated by moves to offer cash payments to students. A Harvard study (Fryer, 2010) found mixed evidence of improvement as long as the students are paid. But what happens, though, when the money stops? And so it goes with prizes, coins, badges, virtual items, and other hallmarks of the “gamification” trend.

A more powerful application of gamification would be to integrate gaming principles and mechanics into the underlying content. For example, a “gamified” curriculum might feature discovery-based tasks that allow broad student choice and branching paths that reflect a student’s personal goals and interests, rather than simply filling curriculum gaps. However, such solutions are an expensive undertaking for publishers, which is one reason why the practice is not widespread. Another reason is that many instructional designers remain skeptical of changes that might loosen control of a student’s learning. But, in fact, shifting more control to the learner is key to increasing engagement and is something that games can do very well.

Many instructional designers also insist that corrective feedback is necessary not only for learning, but for avoiding “fossilization”—where a wrong answer becomes a learned behavior that takes substantial effort to unlearn. While evidence supports this, educators should beware of products that give premature corrective feedback. A student who does not feel that a game is a low-risk place to experiment through trial and error may lose interest, motivation, and attention.

A third pillar of engagement is attention, which means that the student is alert, focused, concentrates intently, expends effort, and processes information. A heightened state of attention has been proven to have a direct impact on learning, such as with phonics (Guion & Pederson, 2007). The mechanisms by which games increase student attention vary by age, but here are some examples:

  • Use of well-known TV and book characters;
  • Highly saturated colors that young children find attractive;
  • Animation or other movement on screen;
  • Immersion in a full-screen environment;
  • Game challenges like puzzles, hazards, and time performance;
  • Music and sound effects;
  • Suspenseful storytelling.

The interactive nature of games, which require continuous student input, also heightens alertness and creates a “lean-forward,” active learning experience.

Surprisingly, intense and emotionally engaging game experiences can cause long-lasting neurological changes. Neuroscientists have found that the brain actually remodels itself when confronted with intense challenges (Kays et al., 2012), and they’ve even established a direct causal relationship between playing a “first-person shooter” game and stronger neural pathways (Wu et al., 2012). Shooting games are completely inappropriate in a school setting, but many similarly intense yet non-violent games exist. (A note of caution: Time-dependent games favor students with advanced fine motor and visual processing skills and can frustrate those less gifted in these areas. Games in which players can adjust the speed or difficulty are preferable.) For an example of emotional engagement, imagine a game about the ocean ecosystem that models how species feed, migrate, and interact. Simulating the ecosystem as a whole might be less emotionally engaging than a game about saving cute dolphins, seals, and sea turtles.

Characteristics of engaging games

The advent of the App Store has created a strange paradox. We have a glut of educational game apps available to us on new platforms and devices, and yet it is hugely challenging to sift through them all to find the diamonds in the rough. In the spirit of aiding your evaluation, here are some suggested criteria:

  • Select games that allow room for self-paced exploration and experimentation. Study after study has backed this up with empirical evidence (Taylor & Parsons, 2011). As far back as 2000, researchers were already identifying the fact that kids growing up with electronic devices and interactive media are demanding different ways of learning: “[Today’s students] want more hands-on, inquiry based approaches to learning and are less willing to simply absorb what is put before them” (Hay, 2000).
  • Look for built-in adaptive supports that automatically present students with the most relevant and level-appropriate content. These sorts of recommendations systems guide students toward specific learning objectives while still leaving ample freedom of choice.
  • Seek games that support project-based learning where students can create and save their work, such as building a gearbox or a inventing a new species of animal. Your students will repay you by spending vast amounts of time on task outside of school.
  • A learning rewards system is important, but what students can do with the rewards might matter more than the rewards themselves. Check if students can customize the game’s visual environment or their virtual self (avatar), thus increasing their emotional stake in learning.
  • Games can be the victim of their own success when the class period ends abruptly and interrupts problem-solving in mid-process. Because time is a significant constraint at school, games might work best when extended into home settings. Home access also gives parents the opportunity to monitor and encourage their children. In fact, games offer exciting opportunities to bring students, parents, and educators together.
  • Test products with students and solicit their feedback. After all, students know best what will engage them!
  • Lastly, the best way to increase learner engagement is still a caring teacher who creates a culture of learning, shows interest in students’ work, takes the time to understand their individual learning styles, and who respects the integrity of their unique personalities. That said, games are a useful and potentially change-catalyzing tool to have in any educator’s arsenal. They just need to be deployed strategically with the same level of thoughtfulness as other resources.

Ben Grimley is an educational gaming expert, former head and founder of PBS Game and App Publishing, and co-creator of PBS KIDS PLAY!, a game-based learning program for students in pre-kindergarten through first grade. Find him on Twitter @ben_grimley or connect at http://linkedin.com/in/grimley.


Fryer, Roland G. Financial Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from Randomized Trials. Harvard University, EdLabs, and NBER, April 8, 2010.

Guion, S.G., and E. Pederson. Investigating the Role of Attention in Phonetic Learning. In Language Experience in Second Language Speech Learning: In Honor of James Emil Flege.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins: 2007. Print.

Hay, L. E. (2000). Educating the Net Generation. The Social Administrator 57(54), 6-10.

Hidi, S., & Renninger, A. (2006). “The four-phase model of interest development.” Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 111–127.

Kays, Jill L., Robin A. Hurley, and Katherine H. Taber. “The Dynamic Brain: Neuroplasticity and Mental Health.” The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 24: (2012): 118-124. Print.

Midgley, C., & Maehr, M. L.(1999). Using motivational theory to guide school reform. In A. J. Reynolds, H. J. Walberg, & R. P. Weissberg (Eds.), Promoting positive outcomes in childrens’ and families’ lives (129-159). Washington, D. C.: CWLA Press.

Panksepp, J., & Moskal, J. (2008). Dopamine and SEEKING: Subcortical “reward” systems and appetitive urges. In: Handbook of Approach and Avoidance Motivation, ed. A. Elliot. New York: Taylor & Francis, pp. 67–87. Print.

Papagni, SA, S. Arulanantham, S. Benetti. “Effects of Stressful Life Events on Human Brain Structure: A Longitudinal, Voxel-Based Morphometry Study.” Stress 14 (2011): 227-232. Print.

Stipek, D. (2002). Motivation to learn: integrating theory and practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Taylor, L. & Parsons, J. (2011). Improving Student Engagement. Current Issues in Education, 14(1).

Wu S., C. K. Cheng, J. Feng, L. D’Angelo, C. Alain, I. Spence. “Playing a First-person Shooter Video Game Induces Neuroplastic Change.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 24:6 (June 2012): 1286-1293. Print.

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