What makes a learning game?

The phrase ‘video game’ brings to mind iconic images of Grand Theft Auto, Super Mario and Lara Croft which, to many people, seem incompatible with learning. One might equally struggle to see the role for film and literature in education if the key cultural reference points were Bad Boys II and the novels of David Baldacci.

However, as a society, we understand the affordances of these more mature media to convey ideas, information and meaning in different ways. We appreciate that the printed word can be used to produce poetry, teen romances and textbooks and that the moving image can produce superhero movies, feature documentaries and daytime TV.

When I think about the affordances of games, the question of whether they could be used as tools for learning seems entirely moot. Games are made up of narrative, problem solving, exploration, experimentation, feedback and repetition – the very stuff of learning. These affordances can be broken down into five essential elements:

A problem to solve: aliens invaded the Earth, a princess was kidnapped, pigs have stolen eggs, planets need to terraformed, enemies want your resources – a game starts with a problem to solve and often presents you with a skill that needs to be mastered to solve that problem. Defining that problem and the skill to master will define the learning outcomes for that game.

Mechanics: By mechanics, I mean the practical actions of play within a game (the tools you’re given to solve the problem). Elegant examples include the pull back, aim, release mechanic of Angry Birds (so perfectly designed for a touch screen interface) or Portal’s first person spatial problem solving with the portal gun. 

In many ways, the mechanic is the game and anything not directly tied to the mechanic can be skipped. This is why gameplay as a reward for learning (through text or video cut scenes) doesn’t work. The best learning games have the learning inherently built into the mechanics of the game – like Shaaron Ainsworth discusses this well in her blog about Zombie Division.

Story World: some games give access to an environment or character group where players simply want to spend time. The character design and narrative architecture of a game is hugely important for involving players. If a player emotionally engages with an environment or a character, they will stay with them on their journey, whether that’s a quest for coins or for knowledge. If the story world feels generic or dull, no one will want to spend time there.

Simulation: simulating complex problems or environments is one of the great promises of digital gaming. Simulated worlds allow for unstructured learning through exploring or more task-oriented problem solving or practice. Simulation doesn’t have to mean the very literal world recreation of environments such as those used by the US Army’s DSTS training system. For example the quirky and abstract simulation of gravity in Crayon Physics Deluxe can provide a great sandbox for experimentation.

Feedback: most games end with a score that allows the player to judge their performance against other players. Extrinsic rewards such as points are a useful benchmark in multiplayer environments but are much less powerful as a motivation to play than the intrinsic reward of mastery – which makes formative feedback during the game incredibly important to the player.

The enemy of game play is cognitive dissonance, where the player thinks a level is simply too hard to complete and gives up, rather than feeling appropriately challenged and wanting to continue. Some console games will have adaptive systems that change gameplay to respond to the player’s skills and playing style. Sometimes a secondary character will respond to a player spending too long on a level and offer tips on how to progress. Great game design keeps you challenged, but also keeps you playing until you have mastered the required skill to solve the problem at hand.

Effective use of any one of these five elements could point to a useful tool for teaching. A game that has a compelling problem to solve, strong characters to identify with, learning outcomes built into the mechanics, the ability to test real world ideas in a safe environment and enough feedback to keep the player engaged and motivated could be an excellent teaching tool. Used wisely of course.

That’s no small challenge, but when 20 per cent of the most disadvantaged children in the UK play games for more than three hours a day – it’s one worth tackling.


Tom Kenyon

Tom Kenyon

Tom Kenyon

Director of Education in a Digital Environment

Tom was programme director of the education in a digital environment programme which explores ways in which the proliferation of digital technologies can transform education.

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