Four Studies That Make the Case for Game-Based Learning

The case for integrating game-based learning into school curriculum is not new.  Over the last 30 years, there has been an immense amount of game based learning research demonstrating  the benefits of educational games. Here are a few studies that have uncovered a variety of advantages associated with using games to improve student performance and achievement.

Digital Games, Design and Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis In 2014, SRI Education, an organization that analyzes different approaches to education, conducted a meta-analysis of studies on the use of educational computer games between 2000-2012. Although studies on educational video games began as early as the 1980’s, the SRI researchers focused on the first decade of the 21st century due to the tremendous advances in gaming technology that occurred.

The SRI meta-analysis found that “digital games significantly enhanced student learning.” The game based learning research report also highlighted evidence that the more sessions that students play educational games, the greater the advantage they gain over their peers who are not provided games as part of their course.

The analysis also investigated the hypothesis that games encouraging multi-player collaboration would be more effective than single-player games. The analysis did not find strong evidence that collaborative games were more effective than single-player games. It found, however, that collaborative competitive games and single-player games that lacked a competitive element were both more effective than single-player competitive games.

While other game based learning research studies have found that “non-game instruction” would enhance the educational effects of the gameplay, the meta-analysis did not find evidence that additional instruction made a significant difference.   

Clark, D., Tanner-Smith, E., & Killingsworth, S. (2014). Digital games, design and learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis [Executive Summary]. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Retrieved from -and-learning-executive_summary.pdf.

The National Survey of Digital Game Use Among Teachers A survey of 513 K-8 teachers conducted in 2014, showed that a majority (55 percent) use games at least once a week to teach their curriculum. When asked what the teachers believed was the most valuable effect of games, 55 percent cited that games have ability to motivate struggling, low-performing or special education students. In addition, nearly half (47 percent) of teachers reported that low-performing students benefited the most from using games while only 15 percent reported that high-performing students benefited from the games. Overall, 30% of the teachers said all students benefit equally.

The survey not only showed that teachers are already seizing opportunities to introduce game-based learning to students, but that they wish more opportunities existed. Teachers agree (45 percent) that even commercial games, that are not specifically designed with educational outcomes in mind, can serve an educational purpose. However, 80 percent of the surveyed teachers would like more games that align with their curriculum standards. A good example is Variant: Limits which aligns with standard pre-calculus and calculus curriculum and National standards.

Joan Ganz Cooney Center (2013). Teachers surveyed on using digital games in class: A games and learning research report. New York, NY.

Substantial Integration of Typical Educational Games into Extended Curricula: Researchers at Vanderbilt conducted a study on more than 1,000 students in 13 schools across in seven different U.S. states (Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington D.C.) that produced compelling evidence that games can be helpful in teaching history. As part of the study, each teacher was asked to teach at least one classroom about Jacksonian democracy without the assistance of games and one classroom with the help of 55 different educational video games.

Post-tests featured four multi-choice questions and seven short essay questions about the content covered in the course. The student responses on multi-choice questions were evaluated based on the percentage correct, while the essays were assessed based on both a 0-10 scale of “evidentiary depth and contextualization” about the Jackson presidency as well as the length of the response. Separately, students took an engagement survey that examined both their interest in the subject and their confidence in their understanding of the content.

The greatest observed difference between students in the control group and those who learned the content through games was in reported interest in the subject. Those who played games exhibited much greater enthusiasm for the curriculum.

At first, the results of the post-test did not appear to show a significant difference between those who played games and those who didn’t. However, the study authors noted that the average performance of the game-playing students was brought down dramatically by one outlier classroom that performed much worse than every other classroom (in both conditions). When that classroom was excluded from the evaluation, the advantage gained by game-playing students over the control group was statistically significant.  

Clark D.B., Tanner-Smith E., Hostetler A., Fradkin A., & Polikov V. (2017). Substantial integration of typical educational games into extended curricula. Journal of the Learning Sciences. 27(2), 265-318.

The Power of Play: The Effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills: In this study, researchers at Florida State University found evidence that a popular video game (Portal 2) did more to bolster certain cognitive skills than a computer program (Luminosity) designed specifically for cognitive training. The study highlights the fact that, like any other type of learning strategy, there is a right way and a wrong way to do game-based learning.

The study featured 77 college students, all of whom were randomly assigned to play one of the two games for eight hours. All of the participants completed pretest questions that assessed problem-solving, spatial skills and persistence. After playing the game for eight hours, they took post-test evaluations.

The study authors hypothesized that players of both games would show improved performance on two distinct problem-solving measures: rule application and cognitive flexibility. They also hypothesized those who played Portal 2 would improve “all three facets of spatial skill: “figural, vista and environmental,” while those who played Luminosity would “only improve their figural and vista skills.”

The study actually found that neither game produced gains in problem-solving skills. However, it did find that those who played Portal 2 showed measurable improvement in two of the three spatial tests (mental rotation test and a virtual spatial navigation assessment), while those who played Luminosity did not display any significant improvement.

Shute, V. J., Ventura, M., Ke F., (2014). The power of play: The effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on cognitive and noncognitive skills. Computers & Education. 80, 58-67.

Game based learning research for Variant is available here. Additionally a year long game based learning research project that took place in 5 countries in the European Union yielded great results and can be found here.