Games for educational purposes, or “serious games”, share the same “creative and enjoyable essence” (Akilli, 2011, p. 152) with games for entertainment, but are aimed to induce learning that meets certain pedagogic objectives. It has been identified as one type of simulation-based learning approaches, along with role-play and computer simulation (Feinstein, Mann & Corsun, 2002), with its distinctive element of “interaction within a predetermined context involving competition, cooperation, conflict or collusion” (Lean, Moizer, Towler & Abbey, 2006, p. 228).

Games were adopted to promote learning as early as around 3,000 B.C., when war game simulations were used in China and India (Keys & Wolfe, 1990). Price (1990) categorizes today’s educational games into “academic games” that teach and provide practice, and “life simulation games” that simulate either real-life contexts with strict rules, or open-ended and flexible social science contexts. Simulation games can be drilled-based, exercise-based, or problem-based (Deshpande & Huang, 2011) for students to observe a process or phenomenon, choose and apply the correct techniques, or solve problems by trying learned approaches. Additionally, gameification (or gamification) has been a growing trend, which refers to adding game mechanics or other game-associated elements to educational activities (Landers & Callen, 2011).

 The introduction of business simulation games in the late 1950s (Greenlaw & Wyman, 1973) expanded the development and use of games in higher education settings across disciplines including undergraduate economics (Stanley, 2001), chemistry (Russell, 1999), and psychology (Weisskirch, 2003). Technology has boosted the development and use of computerized games in engineering (Coller & Scott, 2009), geology (Mayo, 2007), biology (Amory, Naicker, Vincent & Adams, 1998), landscape planning (Herwig & Paar, 2002), nursing and medicine (Cook, McAloon, O'Neill & Beggs, 2012), statistics (Ramler & Chapman, 2011), media and communications (Delwiche, 2006), and social studies (Gestwicki & Morris, 2012). 

Games enable effective situated learning by simulating environments or scenarios that cannot be directly presented in a traditional classroom. They can “mimic real world situations without importing unwanted constraints and risks of the real world” (Westera, Nadolski, Hummel & Wopereis, 2008, p. 420). Games encourage dynamic participation and lessen resistance to innovative ideas and concepts (Petranek, 1994). As drill and repetition are made more enjoyable through play, students show greater retention over time, develop proficiency more steadily, and become more motivated for optional learning tasks (Randel, Morris, Wetzel & Whitehill, 1992; Philpot et al., 2003; Landers & Callan, 2011). With computerized games, graphics and multimedia elements can capture more student attention (Deshpande & Huang, 2011).

Although research is yet to reach a conclusive answer on the effectiveness of educational games as measured by direct learning outcomes, but empirical studies have proved the benefits of the particular games investigated (Randel et al, 1992; Susi, Johannesson & Backlund, 2007). Games have proved to stimulate deeper learning (Coller & Scott, 2009), comprehension of subject complexity (Mayo, 2007) and maximize the transference of academic knowledge to industry (Deshpande & Huang, 2011). Games have also been found to exert positive effects on students’ attention, visuospatial skills (Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani & Gratton, 2008; Green & Bavelier, 2003), and team functioning (Deshpande & Huang, 2011). 

Along with the multiple benefits come new challenges to instructors. As games enable students to take decisions and manage the process, instructors are required to switch into a facilitator’s role, instead of just being an observer (Torres & Macedo, 2000), by revamping the traditional, linear approach of content creation and delivery (Morrison, 2003). It is also worth noting that educational games, or “serious games”, differ from leisure games whose main motives are fun, amusement and relaxation; instructors, especially those in higher education, are encouraged to apply the games that require reasoning, reflection, and collaboration, rather than following the approaches for developing and using leisure games (Westera et al., 2008). It is recommended that only the context, approach, and game mechanics suitable to specific learning objectives be selected so as to make learning happen (Landers & Callan, 2011).


 Written by Danxi Shen, Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education




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Further Resources:

  • Amory, A., Naicker, K., Vincent, J., & Adams, C. (1999). The use of computer games as an educational tool: identification of appropriate game types and game elements. British Journal of Educational Technology, 30(4), 311-321.
  • Amory, A., & Seagram, R. (2003). Educational game models: conceptualization and evaluation: the practice of higher education. South African Journal of Higher Education, 17(2), p-206.
  • Prensky, M. (2011). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Squire, K., & Jenkins, H. (2003). Harnessing the power of games in education. Insight, 3(1), 5-33.