The relative advantages of Digital Game-based Learning

As I read and researched this week, I learned that there are not as many history based games for a 5th grade curriculum as there are for a subject such as Mathematics.  I wrote this blog from a wider standpoint rather than just focusing on one subject area. The benefits I learned about apply to all subjects that I teach in elementary and so it seemed natural to write a post which reflected on my thoughts in a wider sense.

6 Years ago, I wanted to try and get a group of 5th grade boys in my class more involved in their creative writing. They all loved video games and so I set about creating a way to weave a game into our curriculum. I had a smart board in the class and that was about it. I read some ideas on message boards (this was well before I discovered Twitter) and decided to use an older game to engage them  – The classic game MYST.

Often the group struggled for ideas, or wrote simple variations on the same thing, over and over. I decided to hook the game up to the smart board and use it as a story opener. The class watched as different pupils took turns to interact with the game and used the graphics and scenarios to prompt short writing pieces. It was deeply flawed in many ways as a series of lessons but what was clear was the engagement of the large majority of not just the reluctant writers but all of the class. The children got excited about using the game, they were drawn in and I remember comments about how it was, ‘fun not school’ and ‘awesome to play’. The reality was that most children were not playing games at all but simply watching and using the constructed digital world to help jump start their own imaginations. However, the result was higher engagement and some wonderful pieces of writing.

Since then I have loosely followed the game-based learning movement out of interest and have experimented with using Rezzly (formerly 3D Gamelab) and regularly use MangaHigh in my maths lessons. It is clear that game-based learning has been around for a lot longer than many of us think but is now  really starting to take off. As with any ‘new’ idea in education there are instant detractors and champions of which I lie somewhere closer to champion that detractor.

There is not wealth of academic research into the subject at the moment but it is growing steadily. Using the word ‘digital game’ in schools seems to send some people to a dark place. Comments about the negative impact of Video Games are often made in the media. I would argue that from the earliest age, we learn through play. Early years programs for students are play based – that is how children learn to construct and make sense of the world around them. The fun factor seems to also scare some detractors away. Fun. . . in school? Game-based learning is “effective and engaging” (Van Eck p.18) so why would we ignore it.

So what are the advantages of game based learning? Well there seem to be a few key benefits which I have summarized below. As always it should not be taken that games are a ‘solution’ to all educational issues but that using them with pupils can help in the following areas.

  1. Problem solving skills and strategic thinking develop as a result of many games being structured about solving problems often under a time constraint
  2. Memorization skills develop as a result of many games requiring the pupil memorize facts and information to proceed or be successful
  3. Games can contribute towards Neural plasticity development as a result of complex multi-step processing that occurs during games.
  4. Attention, focus and motivation increase as rewards for pupils in games are often based on their step by step achievements. Feedback on performance is immediate which keeps the student engaged. No waiting for teacher.
  5. Computer literacy skills are developed. Playing and using games makes pupils more fluent and confident with technologies that they will use in later life.

As a teacher I have always tried to tune into what children that I teach are interested in. Gaming is something which most of my pupils now do at some point in the week. Embracing that is something I should do. In their article, “The benefits of playing Video Games” authors Isabela Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels present a clear study into the topic arguing that there are social, emotional, cognitive and motivational benefits to the use of games. They do acknowledge that more needs to be studied but argue that games, “likely provide benefits similar to those provided by play more generally” (p. 76)

I have always believed that as educators we have to embrace new things and approaches Not blindly as ‘cure-alls’ but in the same way a company would product test and launch a new line. Try it small, evaluate the results, try again with more people, evaluate again. If it seems to work add it to the product line. Don’t get rid of all the other products. Game based learning is the same. Add it to the toolkit, don’t expect it to replace it.


Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engels, R. C. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. American Psychologist, 69(1), 66-78.
Van Eck, R, (2006). Digital game based learning: It’s not just the Digital Natives who are restless. EDUCAUSE Review,  41(2), 16–30.




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