Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 6 October 2006   Monday, October 30, 2006

ISSN 1748-3603

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August 5, 2005
Game On for learning
by Sara de Freitas


Since the earliest times, games have been used to support training and learning objectives (Coleman, 1971). The earliest games and simulations, for educational purposes, were in fact war games and this may partly explain the number of ‘first person shoot 'em up games’ available in the leisure games market today. With the development of computers and more recently the Internet, there has been increased interested in how leisure games and simulations can be used to support educational practices such as ‘immersive learning.’

Generally, simulations are used for specific training needs such as those required by the military, the medical and health professions or business. More recently, simulations and games have been used to practice scenarios and skills in advance of taking up professional employment. The trend for using simulations in this way has perhaps had an influence upon how games might be used for education and although these are clearly different forms, there are clear links between the two, not least historically. However while simulations are regarded as acceptable training tools particular ‘perceptions’ about games persist such as that they are violent and promote aggression; this has inhibited their inclusion in the tutor toolset. Learning in Immersive Worlds: a review of game-based learning presents the findings of a literature review with a set of case studies of game-based learning from everyday practice contexts.

Findings from the literature

Motivation, critical for effective learning, needs to be sustained through feedback, reflection and active involvement in order for the designed learning to occur (Garris et al., 2002). Therefore games must ensure that the learner is engaged, supported and interested but also that the learning to be undertaken is related to the learning outcomes and is relevant to real world contexts of practice. Factors that influence learner motivation include: the player’s sense of challenge; the realism of the game; opportunities to explore or discover new information and learner control.
Multiplayer online games are one of the most powerful forms of modern gaming because they allow students to relive situations and conflicts in different settings. Cognitive tools, such as discussion forums, bulletin boards and concept mapping software may be used to support multiplayer online games through the mediation of social interaction and by encouraging discussion.
One of the main barriers to using games in schools is lack of access to appropriate computer equipment and in particular the availability of up-to-date graphics/video cards. This has made it difficult for teachers to run games on their own computers and is a problem that is also faced in higher and further education. Also, lack of empirical data demonstrating the effectiveness of games in the learning context and understanding about how games might be used in practice has further inhibited their use.

Overview of trends in educational gaming

Widespread use of games technologies and applications
Computer and console games are increasingly used in leisure time activities. Currently 52% of UK households have Internet access and there are 20.8 million consoles and handhelds in UK homes. Over the last ten years, more than 335 million leisure software titles have been sold (Office of National Statistics/Screen Digest/Chart-Track, 2006). This explosion of leisure gaming has prompted a consideration of the use of games (and simulations) to support learning in pre- and post-16 education.

Different modes of gaming.
The explosion in the use of games is reflected by a range of different modes of gaming such as using: dedicated games consoles; PCs for single player gaming; PCs and consoles for Internet and online (MMORPG) gaming.

The use of online gaming (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games)
The use of online games for collaborative game-play, for example, Everquest and World of Warcraft, has increased dramatically over the last five to ten years: there are four million users of Everquest worldwide. Other online games with more of a training component such as the America’s Army game, developed by the US Army Moves Institute, currently has over seven million registered users. Alongside these games are large numbers of fanzine sites where users can ‘chat’ and share strategy and game ‘cheats’.

The authoring and development of immersive worlds
Modding (modifying existing software) and the use of dedicated software development kits to create immersive and 3D-like worlds is becoming a more widespread activity amongst the games community. Currently, a number of projects that use modifications of commercial games, for example, Neverwinter Nights are being used for educational purposes in the UK and abroad.

Ubiquitous gaming
Currently mobile phones are owned by more than 40 million Britons (BBC, 2006); the ubiquity of mobiles phones is leading to more mobile gaming applications. In particular recent research projects such as EU Mobilearn and MLearn projects have used this mode of delivery for supporting skills needs including literacy and numeracy. However while these studies have shown that mobile gaming can be used to engage students, desired learning outcomes are not always effectively demonstrated.

Alternate Reality Games (ARG)
These are cross-media games that distort the line between the game space and real world experience. A well-known example: Majestic used telephone calls to the player to blur the game space with the real world experience, similar to the scenario used in David Fincher’s film The Game. While this format has not led to any specific training or learning projects in the UK to date, the potential of the approach means that it could be applied effectively within learning contexts.

Today, the use of electronic simulations to support professional training and education are widespread. A convergence between simulations and games has been noted and hybrid forms are being developed to meet the motivational strengths of games with the instructional capabilities of simulations. The Serious Games – Engaging Training Solutions, DTI-funded research project, provides one example of this approach.

Inhibitors to gaming in higher and further education

One major inhibitor to the uptake of game-based learning is the perception that gaming is a leisure pursuit with no pedagogic value. Furthermore, differing generational perspectives to gaming may provide an additional barrier: Prensky (2001) for example argues that games and their uptake is often related to conversancy with new technologies. Therefore, digital natives who can use and switch between different technologies will accommodate games in learning better than digital immigrants (those not conversant with digital technologies). However, it should be noted that commentators have not always agreed on where the boundary line lies (in terms of age and skill levels) and notably studies with educational games have not always supported this perspective.

The differing definitions and terminologies associated with ‘games’ has led to confusion particularly when developers and educationalists work together. If educationalists want to contribute to the development of educational content of games for learning then they will need to become involved in the games development process and overcome differences in definitions and terms as well as accommodating quite different approaches to developing learning materials.


There is potential for learning with games and simulations and while the research to support the effectiveness of simulations is considerable, recent studies of using leisure games in learning contexts such as that by Egeneldt-Nielsen (2006) have found difficulties in terms of setting and fulfilling specified learning objectives. The aim to use game-based learning effectively means that the research community will need to continue to explore both the use of commercial games in learning contexts and the development of proprietary games. In both cases there needs to be an emphasis upon embedding games effectively and in accordance with sound pedagogic principles.

There is also a need for further rigorous baseline studies that can quantify how much games and simulations are currently being used to support learning and to evaluate in what ways they are most effectively being used. In addition there is a need for more detailed guidelines, case studies and exemplars from current practice to inform and improve the quality of delivery of games-based learning across the sector and to support better future planning and resource allocation to meet realistic user needs.

A copy of the full report of Learning in Immersive Worlds: a review of game-based learning is available from:


Coleman, J. (1971). Learning through games. In E. Avedon & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds). The study of games. New York & London. John Wiley, pp. 322-329.
de Freitas, S. and Oliver, M. (2006). How can exploratory learning with games and simulations within the curriculum be most effectively evaluated? Computers and Education Special Issue. 46 (2006) 249-264
Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon (2005). Beyond Edutainment: Exploring the Educational Potential of Computer Games. IT-University Copenhagen. Last retrieved 2nd May 2006 from
Garris, R., Ahlers, R. & Driskell, J. (2002). Games, motivation and learning: a research and practice model. Simulation and Gaming, 33: 441-467.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Games-based Learning. New York and London. McGraw Hill.
Sara de Freitas
Consultant to the JISC e-Learning Programme

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