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Ibrahim Jabary

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The science of video-based game learning


Is 2014 the year of game learning? Ibrahim Jabary makes the case.

Video games are ubiquitous. Americans spent $20.5bn on video games in 2013, with over 170m Americans (60%) spending money on them. That’s 100m paying gamers with an average monthly spend of $16.50. In the U.K., the amount spent on video games in 2013 was over £3bn. Globally, figures are even more impressive with over a $100bn being predicted to be spent this year on video games, including game consoles. Gamers are not just the stereotype of young men. Almost half (47%) of gamers are women, and 29% are over the age of 50.

Providing learning experiences through video games offers tremendous opportunity. Given the reluctance sometimes of learning and development professionals to seek out new but unproven learning methods, questions, however, surround the effectiveness of video games as a learning tool.


A growing scientific consensus finds playing video games has widespread positive benefits that physically change the brain. Using MRI studies, neuroscientists at York University in Toronto mapped brain activity, and found distinguishing characteristics in how gamers’ brains processed information. Much in the same way that physical exercise builds muscles, video games stimulate the brain’s neurotransmitters to produce dopamine, which focuses attention and connects neurons. Games that involve real-time action engage the pre-motor and parietal cortex; games that require logical thinking activate the pre-frontal cortex. These connections, or synapses, are the basis for learning and come about through all learning activity, whether reading, playing a musical instrument or driving a car.  Games, however, happen to be a particularly powerful way of engaging the brain’s learning mechanism.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, students recall 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, and 30% of what they see and hear. On the other hand, according to the study, if a student engages in a simulation game successful recollection becomes 90%. A study by researchers at the University of Colorado (“A Meta-Analytical Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games” [2011], Tracy Sitzmann) demonstrated that game-based learning compared with traditional forms of instruction increases confidence levels by 20%, knowledge of skills by 14% and knowledge of facts by 11%. 

Other studies conducted also report encouraging results.  A recent study by the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division found that video game players performed 10 to 20% better in perceptual and cognitive ability than their non-playing peers.

In the interest of transparency, some studies have reported poor results. A 2012 study, for example, by Mayer, MacNamara, Koenig and Wainess found video games took longer to complete and resulted in poorer learning than simply showing content on a slide. 

What to look for

Not surprisingly, the reason for the discrepancy between study results most probably has to do with the particular design of the learning tool being studied. As the authors of the Naval research put it when analysing different video game design teams:

Although each company used interdisciplinary design teams to create their instructional games, none of the teams included instructional developers. Teams usually consisted of: (1) graphic artists, (2) program managers and (3) programmers.”

Commenting on the absence of instructional designers, the study noted:

Most game-based learning approaches do not employ that particular category of expert whatsoever. In most cases, the game designers fulfilled the role of instructional developer. It appears that the 'instructional gaming' industry does not value the skills of instructional developers.”

The lesson, of course, is not that video game instruction always works or never works, but rather that the best ones do and many do not. Game-based learning improvements occur by applying four well-proven learning principles in video game design:

Just-in-time learning. Video games should give just enough information that the student can usefully apply. Students should not be given information that is needed for level 8 at level 1, which can be overwhelming. Rather, video games for learning should pose doable challenges that are constantly pushing the edge of a player’s competence.

Critical thinking. When playing video games, the student enters a virtual world with only the vaguest idea of what she is supposed to do. As a result, the student needs to explore the physics of the game and generate hypothesis of how to navigate it. And then test it. Accordingly, well-designed learning video games are increasingly complex, so that students continually reformulate and test their hypotheses, the hallmark of critical thinking.

Emotional engagement

.Well-designed video games are emotionally engaging. Players are engaged by what Gartner refers to as 'M3':  Motivation, momentum and meaning.

  • Motivation is brought about extrinsically and intrinsically through rewards. Extrinsic rewards can be money, points, or simply ranking higher than other players. Intrinsic rewards derive from being interested in, an enjoying, the game and/or recognising the value and worth of what the game is teaching.
  • Momentum depends on sustained engagement. Game challenges cannot be too easy or too hard, there has to be the right balance or players get bored or frustrated.
  • Meaning is about serving a larger purpose.  Meaning is realised by mastering task and acquiring new skills, in the context of employee learning and development.

We learn best through seeing and doing. Vision is our most dominant sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. The more visual the input, the more likely it is to be recognised and recalled.  Highly interactive and visually appealing designs, therefore, are at a premium and reinforce learning.


As more companies adopt next-generation learning content, video game-based learning will become commonplace for demographic and other reasons, including scalability and cost-effectiveness. In a growing marketplace and knowing the science supports the validity of the learning, it will be up to the buyer to assess alternatives in light of how well options succeed in applying the four learning principles and whether solution providers have really learned to value the skills of instructional designers.

Ibrahim Jabary is a game-based learning expert and founder of Gamelearn


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