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Learning from gaming

Open University Innovation Report 2

 This article is an edited extract from Sharples, M., McAndrew, P., Weller, M., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Hirst, T., and Gaved, M. (2013). Innovating Pedagogy 2013: Open University Innovation Report 2. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA United Kingdom. © The Open University, 2013.

During the past decade, interest has developed in the ways in which digital games can be linked with education. Several factors have combined to increase interest in these connections. Some of these have well-established roots. The classical notion of ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’ has traditionally linked physical games with education, and by the 18th century intellectual games such as chess were also being presented as a means of self-improvement. In the early 20th century, influential educational theorists such as Vygotsky and Piaget drew attention to links between play and learning.

More recently, there have been efforts by gaming companies to move into the lucrative educational market. At the same time, widely reported challenges – for example, the notion that videogames can change children’s brains and cause attention and behaviour problems – have provoked the industry to respond by emphasising educational benefits of gaming. The website of the US Entertainment Software Association currently promotes research showing that 'surgeons who played video games three hours a week made 37 percent fewer errors than non-players in laparoscopic surgery simulations, which involves joystick controls'.

The rise of ‘gamification’

This combination of factors has produced widespread interest in ‘edutainment’, or the ‘gamification’ of learning. This can take several forms. One is the ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’ approach where a game provides a veneer of fun covering a mundane educational task. The game may offer a stimulus or reward, but the underlying exercise does not change. A related approach is to use the trappings of games – including badges, scores and timed challenges – to make drill-and-practice work appear more appealing. Popular examples of this approach have included Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training and Junior Brain Trainer for the Nintendo DS.

A more radical approach is to situate learning within a game environment or virtual world. Virtual worlds such as Minecraft offer learners and educators environments in which they can engage in activities that would be too difficult, dangerous or impossible in the physical world. When used effectively, such settings can promote creativity and the development of ‘21st-century skills’ such as collaboration and problem solving.

However, use of a gaming environment is not necessarily linked with new approaches to learning and teaching. Lessons in these worlds can be designed to support a behaviourist approach to the transfer of skills and information; they do not automatically promote the construction and development of knowledge. At the simplest level, they may offer nothing more than gamification of maths and spelling tests within a virtual world, with participants receiving small rewards in return for sessions of drill and repetition.

As O’Neil and his colleagues found, when carrying out a meta-analysis of research relating to learning outcomes and computer games in 2005: 'The evidence of potential is striking, but the empirical evidence for effectiveness of games as learning environments is scant.'

Gaming and learning

Gamification jumbles elements of play, gaming and incentive-centred design in an unstable mixture that has no clear association with learning gains. Nevertheless, there are clear links between games and learning, and these can be used to inform pedagogy.

Jesper Juul defines a game as 'a rule-based formal system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are optional and negotiable.' Replace the word ‘player’ with the word ‘learner’, and any section of this definition could also be applied to education.

Game play is seen to be engaging and intrinsically motivating, acting as its own reward. These qualities are sought after in educational contexts. They are associated with flow, a concept developed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi. Individuals who experience flow encounter a balance between the challenge and their skill level, the merging of action and awareness, the existence of clear goals, clear feedback, focused concentration, a sense of control, a loss of self-consciousness, a reduced awareness of time and a sense that the activity is intrinsically rewarding. Once again, there is an overlap between gaming and education, as an experience of flow is desirable in both settings, though effective learning also requires learners to break the flow in order reflect on their activity.

Affinity groups

Complex video games require their players to develop new skills and to build detailed understanding of the gaming environment, its characters, capabilities and stories. This learning is key to success within the game – but these skills and knowledge need to be developed in an engaging way, or players will simply switch off and give up. The methods used by video game designers to motivate, train, inform, support and reward gamers, both individually and in teams, might usefully be applied to other areas of online and distance learning. When James Paul Gee investigated what video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, he drew on this understanding as he identified 36 principles of learning in these environments. These include:

  • Self-knowledge principle: the virtual world is constructed in such a way that learners learn not only about the domain but also about themselves and their current and potential capacities.
  • Achievement principle: for learners of all levels of skill there are intrinsic rewards from the outset, customised to each learner’s level, effort and growing mastery, and signalling the learner’s on-going achievements.
  • Discovery principle: overt telling is kept to a well-thought-out minimum, allowing ample opportunity for the learner to experiment and make discoveries.
  • Affinity group principle: learners constitute an ‘affinity group’, that is, a group that is bonded primarily through shared endeavours, goals and practices and not shared race, gender, nation, ethnicity or culture.

Gee went on to expand the concept of affinity groups as environments in which learning takes place. In doing so, he combined findings from the science of learning and from gaming. The affinity group is a pedagogically informed way of organising both learners and learning environments. It can be applied not only in gaming, but also in other online settings and in face-to-face environments. Affinity groups are organised around a passion. Within them, people use ‘smart tools’ such as interactive maps to be productive, they do not simply consume. The groups are not age-graded; they bring beginners and experts together. Within these groups people both mentor and are mentored, knowledge is both distributed and dispersed, learning is proactive but aided and everyone is still a learner.

The principles of the affinity group can be seen in action in the work of MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten. This section of the MIT Media Lab takes a constructionist approach to learning, on the basis that 'people learn a great deal when they are actively engaged in designing, creating, and inventing things.' The group’s work with the Lego toy company led to the development of the internationally successful Lego Mindstorms robotics kits that can be used for both play and learning. They also developed the Scratch programming language and community – an international learning community that has all the characteristics of an affinity group.

Another example of an affinity group successfully supporting learning is the Massively@Jokaydia community in the virtual world of Minecraft. This international community brings together children from across the world who are interested in developing digital media skills, exploring their creativity and developing online social skills. Badges and awards are used to empower children to ‘level-up’ and become game-makers and community moderators as well as players and learners.


Games and gaming environments support the development of knowledge and skills that are relevant within the game, but these may have little use within the wider world. Game-informed pedagogy draws on study of games to increase engagement and a sense of ‘flow’ within learning settings. Adding the trappings of games – colourful avatars, bright badges and staged challenges – is not enough. The organisation and environment of the ‘affinity group’ allows the practices of gaming to be effectively applied within learning contexts.

Sharples, M., McAndrew, P., Weller, M., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Hirst, T., and Gaved, M. (2013). Innovating Pedagogy 2013: Open University Innovation Report 2. Milton Keynes: The Open University. Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA United Kingdom. © The Open University, 2013


Entertainment Software Association: http://www.theesa.com/

James Paul Gee talks about gaming, learning and affinity groups at the Handheld Learning 2009
conference. http://vimeo.com/10793931

Jokaydia Minecrafts http://minecraft.jokaydia.com/

Lifelong Kindergarten at MIT http://llk.media.mit.edu/

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Gee, J. P. (2008). What Video Games Have To Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (revised and
updated edition). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Habgood, M. P. J. (2007). The Effective Integration of Digital Games and Learning Content. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham, UK. http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/etheses/

Iacovides, I., Aczel, J., Scanlon, E., Taylor, J., & Woods, W. (2011). Motivation, engagement and
learning through digital games. International Journal of Virtual and Personal Learning Environments, 2(2), 1-16.

Iacovides, I. (2012). Digital Games: Motivation, Engagement and Informal Learning. PhD thesis,
The Open University, Milton Keynes. http://oro.open.ac.uk/35603/

Juul, J. (2003). The Game, the player, the world: looking for a heart of gameness. In M. Copier
and J. Raessens (eds.), Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings. Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003, pp. 30-45. http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/gameplayerworld/

O’Neil, H. F., Wainess, R., & Baker, E. L. (2005). Classification of learning outcomes: evidence from the computer games literature. Curriculum Journal, 16(4), 455-474.


Subject Headings

Educational innovations
Teaching and learning