Do we let the video games begin?


The use of video games in the classroom can have a positive effect on engagement, but does this kind of learning really influence attainment and achievement? Carlo Perrotta examines the evidence.

Video games have been in the news a lot over the past six months, and often for the wrong reasons. The Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012 was a tragic event that sparked a high-profile political debate about gun control in the US, but it also caused a considerable amount of soul-searching in the international gaming community. Like uncontrolled access to guns, violent video games are regularly called into question in these circumstances, as many struggling to comprehend the nature of such behaviours desperately need to identify clear, discrete forces that “corrupt” sensitive young minds.

In the UK, video games have also been at the centre of a minor media storm. A spate of cases emerged where young children racked up huge bills for playing apparently harmless games on tablets or SmartPhones. 

The public outrage caused a decision from the Office of Fair Trading to launch an investigation into whether certain video games place “undue pressure” on children to pay for additional features, like virtual items, or simply for the ability to progress (“level-up”) faster through the game.

In both cases, and with the due differences, a similar dynamic is at play – people assume that video games have some sort of implicit, “stealth” influence on young people, eliciting behaviours that would not occur under normal circumstances. 

Empirical research has so far failed to prove the association between video games and violence; although it has suggested a link with aggression, which is something altogether different. 

Similarly, the ways in which principles and strategies derived from game design can be used to subtly motivate or to create mild forms of addiction – the so called “gamification” – bring to mind research on gambling. Studies have in fact highlighted that gambling uses reinforcement techniques derived from behaviourist psychology (AKA Skinner-box psychology) to engineer that “just another go” syndrome that many video game players are also familiar with.

This dynamic is usually presented in a decidedly more positive light in educational technology circles. For some time, video games have been something of a “holy grail”, enticing educators with visions of the so-called “flow experience”: a sort of intense, highly immersive engagement that leads to extraordinary performances in sports or in intellectually demanding activities. It is not hard to understand why a maths teacher would find such visions alluring.

Games-based learning evidence

Aware of the continued interest in the threats and potentials of video games in society, NFER decided that it was timely to provide teachers with an up-to-date analysis of the evidence.

For obvious reasons of scope, we opted to focus on the influence of video games on academic performance. The resulting report, Game-based Learning: Latest evidence and future directions, is based on a targeted review of the most relevant and recent research on “game-based learning”. Below, I summarise its main findings and recommendations.

Our literature review suggests a definition of game-based learning that reflects the most recent developments in academic research. It goes more or less like this: game-based learning is a form of learning where students may learn by trial and error, by role-playing and by treating a certain topic not as “content” but as a set of rules, or a system of choices and consequences. 

In school language, this means translating an element of a subject – such as a law of physics or the law of supply and demand – into the mechanics of a game, which operate within a self-contained system based on choices and consequences. 

In other words, video games (not all video games, but those that have the potential to support learning) are simplified models of real phenomena. The key feature of such models is a non-threatening form of interactivity, which means that actions cause reactions, or that choices have consequences. 

However, these actions and choices never look as complex and overwhelming as they often do in real life. For instance, in the popular and long-running series of simulation games, SimCity, players are tasked with running a virtual city, managing a number of concurrent activities and priorities to keep the population happy.

According to the creator of the series, the gameplay in SimCity reflects a specific logic (a “model”) of city-wide management. This could be likened to gardening: “If you really think about playing the game, it’s more like gardening. So you are kind of tilling the soil, and fertilizing it, and then things pop up and they surprise you, and occasionally you have to go in and weed the garden, and then you maybe think about expanding it, and so on.”

In SimCity, players act according to the rules determined by this internal logic, which means that each choice you make in the game has a specific effect. As such, “game-based learning” in SimCity means exploring the possibilities and the limits that are offered by the underlying model: if the population is starved, then chaos and riots will ensue; if the city is to be expanded, then sources of income are needed; and so forth. 

All this is performed in a safe environment where failure is not only contemplated but actively encouraged. In fact, part of the fun is the awareness that mistakes have no lasting or real consequences, but are simply necessary to improve performance (incidentally, a SimCity “EDU” version has just been announced).

Measurable impacts?

Now, this is all very fascinating but we were also interested in whether game-based learning has a measurable impact on actual performance in schools. This is what we found: 

  • The literature was split on the extent to which video games can impact upon overall academic performance.

  • The studies consistently found that video games can impact positively on problem-solving skills, motivation and engagement. However, it was unclear whether this impact could be sustained over time. 

  • Despite some promising results, the current literature does not evidence adequately the presumed link between motivation, attitude to learning and learning outcomes. Overall, the strength of the evidence was often affected by the research design or lack of information about the research design. Simply put, studies often were not rigorous enough. For instance, many did not use control groups or other established methods to guarantee validity. 

Advice for teachers

So, what’s in it for teachers? First, the evidence suggests that game-based learning can improve engagement and motivation, but don’t rely on games to improve attainment – there is still a lot we don’t know about the impact of video games on learning. 

The best way of integrating gaming into teaching is by using it within a clear pedagogic process:

  • Place learning activities and academic content within the video game’s fictional and entertainment context, maintaining a balance between “fun” and “learning”.

  • Make the academic content integral to the game rather than an add-on. Content-specific tasks work better when embedded in the fictional context and rules (“mechanics”) of the game. For example, in a maths game, asking learners to compute distances to help a likeable game character jump over obstacles will be more engaging than asking them to complete traditional maths tests in order to make a story advance.

  • Carefully plan the roles that you and your learners will take on in the game. Teachers should play roles that allow them to mediate the experience for learners: providing guidance when needed, ensuring that rules are followed, and maintaining a respectful atmosphere.

  • Don’t try to divorce decontextualised components of a game (such as badges, scores or leaderboards) from the fictional context and rules of the game (the “mechanics”). Using badges and medals can work for certain simple tasks, but actual game-based learning will require using those techniques in the context of rule-sets and role-playing.

Advice for school leaders

The report also has some recommendations for senior leaders who wish to support the use of game-based learning in their schools: 

  • Ensure that teachers are not left on their own when trying to enable game-based learning. Beyond the video game itself, teachers should have the time and the resources for offline activities to support learning. These include time to organise collaborative tasks, and the ability and the skills to provide timely guidance while students play the game. 

  • If you are trying to bring game-based learning into your school, buy-in from teachers is needed to ensure that video games are fully integrated. To achieve integration, you will probably need to invest in in-depth and sustained professional development.

  • Acknowledge and, if possible, address the barriers that may stop your teachers from engaging with game-based learning. These include lack of preparation time, poor technical support, outdated technologies and lack of opportunities for collaboration due to the rigid structure and time constraints of formal instruction. 

  • Carlo Perrotta is research manager at NFER’s Futurelab Research Centre.

Games-based Learning
You can read the full NFER report – Game-based Learning: Latest evidence and future directions – at
Further reading & information
  • Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1996), Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York: Harper Perennial.
  • Gentile, Douglas A., et al. The Effects of Violent Video Game Habits on Adolescent Hostility, Aggressive Behaviors, and School Performance. Journal of Adolescence 27.1 (2004): 5-22.
  • Gupta, R. & Derevensky, J. (1996). The Relationship Between Gambling and Video-game Playing Behavior in Children and Adolescents. Journal of Gambling Studies, 12(4), 375-394.
  • Pearce, C. (2002). Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata God and Go. A Conversation with Will Wright. Game studies, 2(1). (accessed 12/02/13).
  • Sim City EDU:
Research Insights Articles
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