Didactic aspects of game-based learning

Modern, efficient approaches to learning are student-centred, motivational, problem-based, directed to higher ordered educational goals, and often supported by ICT. Serious games can integrate most of the characteristics mentioned above. Even more, many prominent researchers in this domain claim that game design has a lot to teach us about learning, and contemporary learning theory can teach us about designing better games.

Marshall McLuhan, Canadian philosopher of communication theory, who predicted World Wide Web in the 1960s in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), where he described a global village, stated: “Anyone who makes a distinction between games and learning doesn’t know the first thing about either”. Famous cognitive and educational psychologists, such as Vygotsky, Piaget and Bruner, have also emphasized connections and similarities between playing games and learning.

Many studies about game-based learning show that students are highly motivated when learning materials are presented in a computer game format. However, for any quality learning to occur, this is not enough. Games can be very appealing to students but if they only entertain and do not induce learning, the use of games in education can’t be justified. So what are the elements that make computer games serious?

Gross (2003) claims that serious games must have well-defined learning goals and have to promote the development of important strategies and skills to increase cognitive and intellectual abilities of learners. According to Malone (1981) and Garris et al. (2002), the elements contributing to educational values of serious games are sensual stimuli (multimedia representations of learning material), fantasy (context presented in an imaginary setting), challenge (stimulating situation) and curiosity (desire to know or learn). These elements must be incorporated in the environment of a game, to structure objectives and rules, a context of meaningful learning, an appealing story, immediate feedback, a high level of interactivity, challenge and competition, random elements of surprise, and rich environments for learning. A game usually involves mental stimulation and develops practical skills, as it encourages the player to decide, to choose, to define priorities and/or to solve problems. Immediate reward is a major motivational factor, whether it is translated to game entities or feelings and emotions. Games can also represent social environments where the player communicates and collaborates with other players or with characters in the game. They imply self-learning abilities, allow transfer of learning from other realities, and are inherently experiential with the engagement of multiple senses.

Garris in his model of game based learning explains that instructional content needs to be blurred within a serious game. Students play a game and have fun, not being aware of the “learning” part of the game, even though they are presented with new concepts to which they have to adapt to be successful in a game. The player is expected to elicit desirable behaviour based on emotional and cognitive reactions that result from an interaction with and feedback from gameplay.

The use of serious games for learning has to be undertaken with a high degree of pragmatism.  The game must be designed to facilitate some kind of learning objectives. It is not a stand-alone activity but part of learning of activities in a learning package. The teacher has to prepare a learning package, taking into account students’ background and previous knowledge, learning goals, curriculum, available technical resources, and her own competences. A learning package usually contains briefing, post-game discussion and reflection, as essential accompanying supporting activities in game-based learning. They ensure that students understand the purpose of the game, relate the activities during the gameplay to the intended learning outcomes, and ensure that the game-based learning is focused and appropriate.

Whitton (2010) proposed a framework for good practice in serious games design from an active learning perspective. According to his guidelines, the game environment should  support active learning by encouraging exploration, problem solving and enquiry, engender engagement with explicit and achievable goals,  be appropriate for the learning context,  support and provide opportunities for reflection,  provide equal opportunities for all students,  provide ongoing support, with a gradual introduction of increasing complexity, supported with help or hints.

An important challenge for teachers is to monitor students’ game-based learning activities and to deduce what the student believes, knows, or can do. They need this information at any point in time during gameplay, without disturbing the flow of the game.  Features of performances are not just right or wrong, but how effective the learner is and how he exhibits strategy choices.  Mislevy and his colleagues (2014) defined three things that game designers should know about educational assessment. First, the principles of assessment design must be compatible with the principles of game design. Second, assessment is about the structure of reasoning, not about numbers. And third, the key constraints of assessment design need to be addressed from the very beginning of the design process. Assessment design should create situations such that students’ actions provide information about their learning.

There are three types of assessment in games: games scoring (e.g. achieved targets, problems overcome), embedded assessment (game analytics: time spent, problems solved…), and  external assessment (mainly after the game, based on outcomes – traditional assessment methods: tests, interviews)

Embedded assessment is the most appropriate for monitoring and assessing game-based learning and has most of the desirable features mentioned before, but is the most difficult to implement. It is characterised by the following properties: the teacher can follow and observe the learning process, timely and targeted feedback can be given to the student, it gives better insight into motivational, emotional, and cognitive aspects of learning, and the evidence needed for assessment is provided by the student’s interactions within the game. In adaptive environments, data from embedded assessment can also be used to adapt the learning difficulty to the student’s skill level.

Serious games are very powerful instructional technology and their use can be justified by all relevant learning theories. But only appropriate gaming technology and a didactic approach, as regards game design as well as its implementation in the learning environment, can support learning efficiently.


  • Garris, R., Ahlers, R., & Driskell, J. E. (2002). Games, motivation, and learning: A research and practice model. Simulation & Gaming, 33(4), 441-467.
  • Gross, B. (2003). The impact of videogames in education. First Monday, v. 8, n. 7, jul. 2003.
  • Malone, T.W. (1981). Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science 4.
  • Mislevy, R.J., Oranje, A., Bauer, M.I.,Von Davier, A., Hao, J., Corrigan, S., & John, M. (2014). Psychometric considerations in game-based assessment. GlassLab Report.
  • Whitton, N. (2010). Learning with digital games : a practical guide to engaging students in higher education. New York: Routledge.