Educational Games

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Educational games have become more popular given the interests of the gamer generation in engaging games. Games have been found to enable a certain kind of immersive learning that allows people to live in a game world for a certain amount of time (through their imaginations and disembodied experiences) and to absorb certain learning contents experientially.



Learners will...

  • Explore what educational games are
  • Consider how educational games are used for learning and learning objectives
  • Review what off-the-shelf games are and how they are used in education (often through modding)
  • Explore some of the features of the most effective educational games
  • List some resources that are helpful for learning about educational games

Module Pretest

1. What are educational games?

2. How are educational games used for learning? What sorts of learning objectives are achieved through educational games?

3. What are “OTS” games, and how are they used for education? What is the role of “modding” of OTS games?

4. What are some of the features of the most effective educational games?

5. What are some resources for learning more about educational games?

Main Contents

This next section consists of some basic information about educational games.

1. What are educational games?

Some have argued that so-called educational games do not exist. By definition, educational games are both designed for learning and for entertainment. Games need to encourage “gameplay”—or all the thinking, decision-making, and actions that make a game fun (engaging) or not. Gameplay is part of the game designer’s strategy to motivate players. The optimal games may involve the whole person—intellectually (cognitively), physically (muscle memory, proprioception), and emotionally (affectively).

Traditionally, games have been understood to be “irrelevant” in the sense that what happens in gameplay does not have moral consequence. The “magic circle” (Huizinga’s concept) of a game defines the parameters of fixed limits of time and place, rules, and other aspects of contrivance which define these boundaries. A game is separate from the world as a space in which people may let their imaginations roam and in which they may interact with others in a space which does not spill over into the real world.

By contrast, an educational game is one in which the game experience should have an impact on people’s lived lives—their senses of the world, their sense of self, and their knowledge and skill base. The artificial constraints of a game, in this situation, are insufficient to hold back its effect from life. (Human facilitation of education games emphasizes the importance of that spillover effect, so the learning has actual transferability.) The learning should be inherent to the gameplay, and the gameplay should be inherent to the learning.

Basic Features of a Game: A game is a structured, competitive activity which is bound by particular rules—which must be followed—on the way to achieving a certain objective. Often, games are played within a context of a story or a created history.

“Ludic” games are rule-based ones. “Paidia” types of games are open-ended ones, with spontaneous improvised play expected during the game (usually human peer-to-peer play).

Four Types of Play Formations: There are four types of play formations.

1. Agon—competitive play

2. Alea—games of chance or fortune

3. Mimicry—games in which players are called to pretend

4. Ilinx—games that bring about vertigo or dizziness or disorder

What do People Find Entertaining? There is plenty of research into what people find entertaining in terms of educational gameplay.

Learners who learn through games have plenty of game motives. They appreciate some mix of the following:

  • A sense of discovery and exploration
  • New sensory sensations
  • New experiences
  • “Hard fun” or challenges
  • Social interactions and communications
  • A sense of achievement and dominance over others

Types of Online Games: There are different types of online games: fantasy role-playing games, interactive fiction, online immersive microworlds or synthetic worlds, artificial life survival / evolution games, adventure games, combat games, logic games, word games, and many others. Many sorts of games that have an “analog” version also have digital versions. (Think of card games and board games transferred into their digital versions.)

Many games are played via mobile devices. Some games exist only on mobile devices, for example, some locative games that involve people interacting in a physical space such as playing hide-and-seek or geocaching.

2. How are educational games used for learning? What sorts of learning objectives are achieved through educational games?

In general, educational games work in several ways.

Simple games may be used for practice or rote memorization. These allow people to practice particular skills (like 10-keying or word-processing). Or they may use technologies to memorize formulas. The simple games may allow word practices in a foreign language. Or they may enable the solving of puzzles or simple trouble-shooting. These types of games are close-ended, with the essential limits to the number of possible solutions or the range of play. Here, the game player engages the information, or in a few cases, they may interact with others who are playing them online. In these types of simple games, there is digital object interactivity and human-to-human interactivity.

Immersive game worlds contain rewards structures, with defined and implied rules of play (which may often only be acquired through trial-and-error learning. These worlds emulate some realities to capitalize on what is known about human perceptions. These world involve a variety of visual and auditory inputs, which emulate the polysensory richness of the world. Human-embodied avatars combine the intellect and emotions of humans with the multi-channel expressiveness of present-day avatars.

Games may place people into scenarios which would be inhospitable ones in real life (in a helicopter in a war zone, for example), or expensive scenarios (in a 737 airliner cockpit, for example, for practice flight), or small-scale environments (inside a human’s cell, for example), and others—with low-risk to the individual.

3. What are "COTS" and “OTS” games, and how are they used for education? What is the role of “modding” of OTS games?

Some other game types are known as "commercial off-the-shelf" or "COTS" games. These are adapted for learning value, but these require the work of strong game facilitators to extract the learning value. “OTS” games are off-the-shelf ones used in education. These are “modded” or “modified” in order to enable a wider range of learning or to customize a game for a particular learning aim.

Other ways to “modify” a game for an educational purpose is to create the learning context around the playing of the game. For example, there can be human facilitation of the learning, the assigning of lead-up assignments, facilitation during the game playing, and a debriefing of the focused learning afterward (with a dismissal of undesirable negative learning based on the game’s design).

4. What are some of the features of the most effective educational games?

The most effective educational games …

  • Help learners achieve the learning objectives
  • Focus on the learning (albeit without promoting “negative learning”)
  • Provide sufficient feedback to learners
  • Are engaging and fun (they provide hard challenges)
  • Maintain some sort of memory of player actions and deliver customized contents based on learner level of play
  • Are persistent spaces that are accessible over time
  • Play on a variety of platforms and operating systems

Low, Medium, or High Fidelity. While some emphasize the sensory experience of gameplay, effective educational games really most often use selective fidelity. The experiences that players go through are vetted for effectiveness, and the details they see evoke the learning without bogging down the play in computer latency (slowness).

In some cases, games may be played against a very low-fidelity background (think dungeons and dragons with a pure text interface but played by many people with vivid imaginations and deep understandings of the rules of play). Most games are not expected to have the photo-realistic level of visual fidelity but are expected to evoke a universe sufficiently and to not offer information or experiences which break the “suspension of disbelief” (the believing that a simulated game emulates some aspects of reality) which must often be used for gameplay.

Meanwhile, some researchers suggest that there is no actual point at which play ends (Dovey & Kennedy, 2006).

5. What are some resources for learning more about educational games?

Serious Games Initiative

The Serious Games Blog

SLED (Second Life Educators) Blog

Second Life® Education Wiki


Anders, B.A., Briggs, D.J., Hai-Jew, S., Caby, Z.J., and Werick, M. (2011). Creating an Online Global Health Course and Game. Retrieved at

How To

Possible Pitfalls

Educational games need to fit the learning, and they need to fit the learners. Games often lead to divergent insights, so for games to be more effective for specific types of learning, it would be important to define what the learning is and to have some sort of supervision and / or debriefing for the learning (to avoid misperceptions).

Module Post-Test

1. What are educational games?

2. How are educational games used for learning? What sorts of learning objectives are achieved through educational games?

3. What are “OTS” games, and how are they used for education? What is the role of “modding” of OTS games?

4. What are some of the features of the most effective educational games?


Dovey, J. and H.W. Kennedy. (2006). Game Cultures: Computer Games as New Media. New York: Open University Press.

Extra Resources

Raph Koster’s Website

A Suggested Reading List (below)

• James Paul Gee’s Gaming Lives in the Twenty-First Century: Literate Connections

• David Williamson Shaffer’s How Computer Games Help Children Learn

• James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy

• Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide

• Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames

• James Paul Gee’s Why Video Games are Good for Your Soul

• Marc Prensky’s Don’t Bother me Mom—I’m Learning!

• Marc Prensky and Sivasailam (FWD) Thiagarajan’s Digital Game-Based Learning

• David Gibson, Clark Aldrich and Marc Prensky’s Games and Simulations in Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks

• John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade’s The Kids are Alright: How the Gamer Generation is Changing the Workplace

• Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun for Game Design

• Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

• Chris Crawford’s Chris Crawford on Game Design

• Chris Crawford’s Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling

• Chris Crawford’s The Art of Interactive Design: A Euphonious and Illuminating Guide to Building Successful Software

• Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain and Steven Hoffman’s Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games

• Luke Ahearn’s 3D Game Art f/x and Design

• John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade’s Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever