Engaging learners through games: Help or hype?

  • 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:

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