A Multi-domain Framework for Modelling Educational Games: Towards the Development of Effective Educational Games

  • Mifrah Ahmad
  • Lukman Ab Rahim
  • Noreen Izza Arshad
  • Mazlina Mehat


A recent study conducted by the authors indicates the lack of methods and techniques to create a model for educational games, and using these models for software engineering activities such as validation. The complex nature of an educational game covers various knowledge domains such as learning theories, subject being taught, rules and regulations in activities, and gaming environment. This warrants for modelling to be part of the educational game development to enhance and ensure effectiveness. In relation to that, this paper proposes a multi-domain framework consisting of four major domains, namely, game environment, game play, learning theories and subject matter. Each domain is equipped with respective game elements based on their definition. Consequently, the implicit relationships between these elements and domains are presented with the aim of highlighting how these elements relates to each other to gain effectiveness. The result presented in this paper is the framework and implicit relationship that is created by systematic literature review.


Educational games Development Domains Framework Relationships 

34.1 Introduction

Game literacy finds its genesis inside the conventional perception of literacy. Several researchers and theorists have been exploring this area of learning in recent years, among them are Prensky (2003) and Shute and Ke (2012). As video games occupy a prominent position at present, it is impractical to ignore the significance of game literacy in “isolation” deciphering what makes a game an effective game while including cultural context. When game literacy involves game based learning, the understanding of games and their context, applying games in the perspective of learning is least appealing in the game itself, and more in the game as facilitator of learning. Games, themselves are known as essential learning machinery (Gee 2005). Additionally, players immerse into the game to master the learning concepts (McClarty et al. 2012). Thus, game based learning is an act of appropriate game mechanics, scenario recreation, and problem oriented learning processes to ensure learning objective is accomplished (Poulsen 2011). To develop an educational game (EG), it should include domains, pedagogical foundation, learning theories, game design components, and other requirements such as the target users, developer expert, subject-matter (teacher) etc.

A large number of literatures have described varieties of elements to be included in an educational game and advocate the importance of learning theories as one of the factors to consider when designing the game. Squire and Jenkins (2003) highlighted that a large number of scholars have confidence on computer games to become a learning tool that will inspire the students and enhance their focus on learning in subjects such as chemistry (Romli et al. 2003), physics (Bakar et al. 2002), health education (Barker et al. 2013; Mellecker et al. 2013) and mathematics (Ke 2013), and initiate a pioneering educational paradigm (Tan et al. 2007). Furthermore, GBL allows a rich learning context to assist learners to build a higher-level of knowledge through imprecise and confronting opportunities (Van Eck 2006). In addition, there has been a research which declared that games are capable of tendering 16 learning principles (Gee 2005). Computer games1 as a favorite online activity for teenagers includes role playing games, real time strategy games, shooting and fighting games, adventure games, action games, puzzle games and chess games (Han and Zhang 2008)). Gaming trend has also changed from personal games (i.e. games played individually) to Massively Multi-player Online games (MMOG),2 e.g. Lineage II and Everquest, where players play in a group over the internet (Learning 2005, January).

In United States, the video game industry approaches yearly revenues of 15 billion, with the game playing population falls between the ages of 10–34 years old, the majority are between 14 and 19 years old (Annetta 2008). A preliminary study conducted in 16 local secondary schools involving 341 students found that majority of them (92.1 %) have experienced playing computer or video games (Annetta 2008). In the context of Malaysia, a study by Rubijesmin (2007) investigated the experience of students from five schools in Malaysia and he found that 92 % of the respondents have experienced playing computer game. The study shows most of the students in Malaysia are no stranger to computer gaming.

To ensure the education and delivery of information from the game is provided to the learners in the certified style. In a recent study (Ahmad et al. 2014) gaps have been highlighted in the development of educational games from software engineering perspective, which include the implicit or missing discussion on the relationships between elements of an EG and how these elements work together to make the game more effective. A game developer has to be clear on the relationship that exists between learning theories and game environment to build an EG that assembles its goals (Tan et al. 2007).

The main contribution of this paper is to propose a multi-domain framework for designing EG. This framework not only presents the elements of an educational game (the other literatures presents only the elements) but also the relationships between these elements. Using this framework, educational game developers will have clearer understanding of the relationships between elements of an educational game and how to design their games to become effective learning tools. Note that due to the limited number of pages, the authors are only able to present a few relationships.3 These relationships are created based on a systematic review of the games based learning, educational design and learning theories literatures cited from the year 2000 until 2013. In addition, literature discussing the importance of learning theories, game designing components, pedagogical foundations, game environment, game play, and subject experts are also explained. The remainder of this paper will discuss about existing frameworks proposed by other researchers (Sect. 34.3) and the proposed multi-domain framework (Sect. 34.4). Section 34.5 concludes the paper.

34.2 Literature Review

This section discusses the frameworks and models proposed for game developers or use the pedagogical foundations and learning theories. Although a systematic literature review by authors on twelve (12) frameworks and models have been discussed in the journal in press, this section discusses the most recent work to relate with their similarity and obtain conclusion. Annetta (2010) proposed the “I” framework for “people” who are interested to design educational games themselves. The author combines six elements as vital and fundamental for games i.e. identity, immersion, interactivity, increasing complexity, informed teaching and instructional. Annetta also covered many components such as feedback, cognitive learning theory, social activity, flow of learning state and cognitive. In addition, it can be used to assess performance-based learning to a new standardized testing. However, it has no relationship discussed in the framework where it can assist developers while developing games. Another model was introduced by Osman and Bakar (2012) based on five factors: pedagogical factor (teaching strategy), game-play design factor (rules integrated in the game), teacher factor, student factor, and other factors such as availability of technology etc. Although the model has the ability to show learner’s motivation and engagement, but it does not use any learning theories or pedagogical foundation in the development of model. This model also highlights the importance of involving educators, researchers and game developers (Osman and Bakar 2012). However, the model does not provide any relationships clearly.

Game-object model (GOM) was proposed to show theoretical basis for the design of educational games (Amory 2007). The model creates interconnection between narrative, conversations, challenges, and uses eight educational theories. The relevancy, exploration, emotions and engagement should take place in the environment of educational but facing complex challenges is difficult to achieve. However, it is also mentioned that the model can be easily misconceived, which indeed, is a serious matter while developing an educational games. In contrast, the experiential model by Kiili (2005a) was designed to combine experiential learning and game play to facilitate learners with a flow experience. In addition, the model provides cognitive and constructive learning practices to assist learners in enhancement of their behaviour and attitude. To conclude, Kiili (2005a) does not involve relationship aspects of the game components as it only focuses on learner’s experience and the knowledge gained.

34.3 Methodology

Systematic literature review (SLR) is the method used in reviewing the literature and selecting the most pertinent literature with the objective of proposing a new framework for educational game design. There are five (5) steps proposed by Khan et al. (2003) and adopted in proposing the multi-domain framework are briefly shown in Fig. 34.1. A broad search of the literature is performed from internet resources such as Google Scholar, IEEE Xplore, ACM Digital Library and Springer Link using keywords such as ‘educational games’, ‘framework’, ‘design framework’ and ‘game design’. The literatures collected from the broad search are narrowed further to literatures that discuss about elements of EG. Further literature search is conducted for the authors to have better understanding of the elements.
Fig 34.1

Five major steps to provide an effective systematic literature review

The gap in the literature is that the relationships between educational game elements are not explicitly discussed when designing EG. From the SLR, the authors are expecting to identify the elements of the EG and their relationships. The proposed framework will contain the elements and relationships. The relationships is more challenging to identify as they are not explicitly mentioned. The authors used the NVIVO software to code the literatures that contain the EG elements. Using the coding technique, sentences containing the elements can be highlighted. These sentences are analysed to discern sentences that explains the relationships between elements. The authors also categorize the elements into four domains: game play, game environment, subject-matter and learning theories.

34.4 Proposed Framework: A Result from Synthesising the Literature

The educational game design framework proposed here is developed based on an extensive review of the literature. From the review, there are four major domains that should be included as part of the development process of educational games, and should be included in the framework. As mentioned before these four major domains include: (1) game play, (2) game environment, (3) subject-matter and (4) learning theories. Based on the literature, these domains are explained in detail with reference to the components selected in each domain and their brief explanation in the following sub-sections. Figure 34.2 shows the multi-domain framework. It is important to note that not all components should be part of all games. Only necessary components should be part of a specific game depending on the requirement of the developers.
Fig 34.2

Proposed multi-domain framework

34.4.1 Learning Theories

Learning theories is defined as the concepts that is described how the information is absorbed, processed and retained during learning (Wu et al. 2012). Although there is a vast number of learning theories exist in the literature, however, Wu et al., highlighted that not all theories are utilized in the development process of EG. Four major learning theories are: behaviourism, cognitivism, humanism and constructivism as further described in Table 34.1. These learning theories have 16 learning principles which can also be used in the game development. In addition, other theories are well discussed in the previous literature and they are used in the framework such as flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi 2000), experiential learning, cognitive load theory, extraneous cognitive learning (Kiili 2005b), instructional theory (Hirumi and Stapleton 2009), engagement theory (Moser 2002), achievement learning theory (Weiner 1974) and guided learning (Squire 2008).
Table 34.1

Major learning theories and their principles





Deals with human constructing their knowledge through experience and learning in active process.

Social development, Problem based learning, Cognitive apprenticeship, Discovery, Case based learning, Situated learning, Actor network


Deals with learning through a drastic alteration in behaviour of student or the environment shape and the principle of reinforcement.

Direct instruction, Programmed instruction, Social learning


Deals with how the memory and preceding knowledge is an important part of learning.

Attribution, Elaboration, Cognitive development, Conditional, Memory impact, Critical thinking


Deals with factors such as self-determination, the value and potential of the user.


34.4.2 Game Play

From the synthesis of the literature, it was found that game play is another important domain that all game developers have to consider when developing educational games. This is due to the fact that game play provides the rules and regulations that should be part of the games. This include component such as goals, motivations, context, guidance and ethical game play. Other components that could be part of educational games are presented in Table 34.2. Components such as activities/tasks, competition, difficult level of task and flashbacks messages are also in game play domain.
Table 34.2

Game play components and their description






Provided by players about game activities, goal strategies and their understanding after completing certain goal.

Exploring Independently and goal

Allows the players to explore, make their own hypothesis and conduct experiments to solve the problem.

Interactive and reflection

Agency and pedagogic praxis. Inquiry based instructions

The student’s ability to interact with the material. One of the exploratory models of direct instruction principle

Flow experience

The components discussed about what the learners should have in their characteristics before, while and after the flow of learning occurs.


Combining different types of task into a coherent unit to sustain student’s engagement.

Motivation and recursive cycle of learning

To link game play with experiential learning to facilitate the flow experience; as a cyclic process through direct experience in the game world.

Pedagogy foundation, guidance and engagement

Described as entertaining, educational, engaging elements of the game.

Instructional game environment

Three events stated describe levels of moving through an environment where the player engages, and for exploring content, for elaboration on their result.

Ethical Dilemma. Immersion

Solving the right of character to achieve goals. Specified under pedagogy dimension for players to adapt to the scenario provided in the game.

Context and challenges

Attempt to identify with procedure of technological modernization and “scientific knowledge creation”.

Conversation. Adaptation. Creativity. Collaboration

Authentic practice

Students are combined into authentic practices through activity and social interaction.

Epistemic games

Advises on games to be suggested that such games should be based on communities of practice, reflective practices.


Self-efficacy is when a person’s belief to have ability that helps them to perform a specific task.

Object manipulation. Role models, Characters.. Collaborative problem solving.

Occurs when the players completed a goal, and another player has completed the same task. Hence, conflict integrated to include appropriate role models.

34.4.3 Game Environment

Game environment defined as a part of the game that allows the learners to discover new rules and ideas rather than memorizing. Furthermore, based on the literature, game environment is another domain that is crucial and should be part of the development of educational games. This is because it involves every other component and combines them together to provide an ambiance that will give the learner a motivation to continue with task to achieve goals. For example, if the environment is instructional, it will be able to provide learner with instructions to complete complex level or be productive to follow instructions throughout the game level. Table 34.3 describes the components under game environment.
Table 34.3

Game environment components and their description





Authentic Environment

Game environment reflecting the real world with complex tasks.

Multimedia learning environment (gesture, sound, fun, fantasy, multi-task interface)

The graphic design of the educational game is a factor of attracting the players to indulge in the game. Players/students’ prefer exploratory task where the information is in multiple form.


A friendly environment can combine content and skills to use all four factors of game.

Immersive environment

The components connect and combine as a whole to maintain a link between the player and the game.

Simulated/interactive learning environment

These can be distraction or a fundamental part of knowledge and intellectual expansion.

Complex scenario

A game environment exhibiting complex real world scenario.

Gamification elements

Achieved by player when a goal is completed. This also helps to assess the assessment, knowledge skills or the ability at each point in the game.

Collaborative environment

Playing game is referred to as solving challenges in an emotive environment.

Problem solving, gaming experience and game levels

A game environment allowing players to engage in problem solving.

Educational system design

Interactive is one of the fun elements of the game to keep the interaction between the player and the game.

Gender/race inclusive contents and plots

Gender differentiation should be designed in the game to keep track of the actors/character in the game. The story/subject/topic of the game embedded in the game for the learner/player to understand at the completion of the activity.

Social capital environment. Usability factor

An environment with supporting learning and shared understanding. Usability is the speediness and easiness of use.

Instructional environment

A game shall include skills, knowledge and values for learner to gain experience of a different profession perform and solve problems.

Game types. Game design. Genre modelling environment

Such as action-based, complex, interactive events, non-interactive events, effective, motivating instructional Technique of delivery.

34.4.4 Subject-Matter

The value of subject-matter is stressed in many literatures when the development of game is concerned. The subject-matter is described in many different contexts of the educational games. Some literature makes subject-matter as the course/syllabus being used in the content of game, whereas, some use the term as learner or educator or teacher. Table 34.4 describes what can be referred to as a subject-matter.
Table 34.4

Subject-matter components and their description





Skill. Learner’s skill level

The level of player’s skill and applying them in an activity of a game. The ability to solve and handle challenge to balance them easily.

Moral building. Complex thinking

The values or the outcome that the learners learn throughout the game.

Assessment technology

Learner’s performance can be assessed through assessments to find their abilities or knowledge they have gained.

Knowledge. Syllabus

This contains both the pre-knowledge and post knowledge of the learner before and after playing game. The course content in the educational game plot.

Learning outcome

The objective set by the game itself to achieve at the end of a topic or a module of the game.

Attention, observation,

Learner’s thinking skills.

Learning performance, competition practice

Pathway students take to learn a set of knowledge i.e., the order in which they develop their skills.


It is in a form of puzzle or quest, to test the skills and knowledge gained.

34.4.5 Relationships

The relationships found in Amory (2007), Hirumi and Stapleton (2009), Kiili (2005b) and McClarty et al. (2012) are in theoretical form, henceforth be known as theoretical relationships. The authors have to analyse the theoretical relationships and match them with the components in the framework. The paragraphed relationships are then re-written as relationship statements and highlighting the components (bold) in the framework. Table 34.5 presents some of the relationship statements.
Table 34.5



Relationship statements


Game play, game environment, subject-matter and learning theories are important in educational games.


Game play also evolves visualization of objectives and competition among players.


Game play has the concept of formation of goals and creativity by learners occurs.


Narrative story in games should match the challenges with learner’s skill level to maximize engagement.


Learners feel intrinsically motivated when they achieve a goal and the game rewards them for completing the challenge.


Narrative context is interpretive and games are formal. Narrative elements in games can provide structural sequence of learning in educational games.


When the learner encounters flow, they improve learning, change in their attitude appears and exploratory behaviour exists.


To meet the goal of a task in EG, cross-functional teams and collaboration between players is necessary.


A story in EG should be educative, simple, immersive and engaging to the player.


Gaming experience elements provide continued practice and consequences that are associated with failure of task. Failure provides learning experience.


Entertaining game designers fail to include pedagogical principles, hence, the learners lack their skills and knowledge. However, they are entertained.


Educational game should adapt player’s learning process to enhance learning experience.


Students prefer rich graphics, multi-tasking interface and competing environment to improve self-determination.


A game that has authentic setting provides suitable knowledge and representation of complex idea to learners.


Instructional games have levels of assessing the skills and knowledge of learners, hence, provides details of learner’s progress through monitoring skills.


Learning environment is more productive if it is multi-user.


Learners prefer rich graphics, animated designs, and interfaces showing multi-type of information.


Rich graphic can also be a distraction to learners to rather focus on.


Games and stories are not the same. Games provide interaction and stories provide narrative context of games.


The relationship between reader/story is different to that between player/game.


Well-designed games are able to expose learners with complex tasks and professional diagnostic feedback to provide narrative content efficiently.


Complex games are able to provide new strategies for learners to solve ethical dilemma.


Digital games are able to teach the ‘future’ skills for future jobs such as collaboration, problem-solving, and communication.


Authentic task-based collaborative learning environments involve complex activities across numerous domains.


Authentic task-based collaborative learning environments allow reflection on the results of learner’s assessment.


Authentic task-based collaborative learning environments have the diversity in results of integrated assessments.


Evaluating the efficacy of games can be considered if the length of game play, content, structure, and mechanic of games.


A learning environment should be discovery of new rules and ideas, not memorizing.


Well-designed games are able to provide a diagnostic feedback and integrated learning experience in the actions that the learners take.


Problem solving in education game is also called discovery learning.


Authentic task-based collaborative learning provides scenario based on the real world scenario to produce integrated assessment results.


Behavioural approach revolves around story (key facts), concepts and game play.


To enhance learning experience for learners, students should adapt to the feedback provided throughout the games.


Learner need to face failure in order to master the experience of learning more efficiently.


Engaged learning has three elements, clear goals &tasks, reinforcing feedback, and increasing challenges.


21st century skills (collaboration, innovation and production) provide actual learning through educational game.


Assessments in educational game provide a mean for quantify knowledge and abilities to create more accurate models of student’s knowledge and behaviour.


To engage students with the achievements, they should be given curriculum choices.


21st century skills include collaboration, problem-solving, and procedural thinking.


A good formative assessment is reinforced by immediate feedback, hence, enhances motivation.


Players think scientifically and consider relationships instead of isolated events when they play immersive games.


Learners feel rewarded when they achieve goals and outcomes in an activity.


Game developers must determine when the skills of learners should be assessed while they are playing educational games.


“Play” is an important part of learner’s imaginative development.


Assessment process allows evaluation of player’s action and provides feedback.


Assessments process has learning theories such as behaviourism, constructivism and cognitivism.


Action-based games have drill and practice that can affect the behaviour of the learner.


Flow components of the game include clear goals, balanced ability, and level of learners & sense of control.


Flow experience has control over activity, exploratory behaviour of learners and positive effect on learner’s learning.


Flow provides control over actions and a stronger sense of self in flow experience.


Before flow occurs, focused attention and immediate feedback needs to be provided to learners.


Non-interactive elements are implemented as animation.


Games should have features such as difficulty levels and creation of definition and models for many of the attributes such as motivation and engagement.


Challenges superior than player’s skill level will cause the player to feel anxiety.


Game play is important but components such as engaging storyline, appropriate graphics and sounds, and game balance need to be considered.


Game play and narrative can provide cognitive resources and perception of patterns to narrative context.


Combining game play and narrative provides immersion and engagement to the learner throughout their gaming experience.


In action-based games nature, the learners tend to try actions with no reflection on outcomes unless they improve their scores.


Players keep experimenting with actions of games just to improve scores, not learning.


Gamification elements such as leader board, points awarded after each activity and badges, tend to increase engagement and motivation.


Educational system design may provide motivational learning, content and interactive components, to combine itself with fun elements of the game to provide better learning.


Games should be able to provide authentic environment and assessments.


Effective Games provide sound learning principles, personalized learning opportunities, and robust feedback.


Games should also have features such as gaming genre and delivery environment.


Gaming experience has elements such as limited consequences, agency, and choices for learners.


Learners prefer fast, active and exploratory learning environment in educational games.


Games should support complex scenarios such as relevancy, explorative and engaging.


Game should support complex scenarios such as relevancy, and emotive towards learners.


Instructional games should have epistemic frames, which includes practice, identity, interest, understanding, and epistemology.


Instructional games should be based on reflective practices and pedagogical praxis (performance) to engage learners.


Interactive entertainment of games should have story (why), game (how), and play (what).


Educational games should provide guidance and collaboration to meet the challenges.


Games should provide exploring phenomena, testing hypothesis and constructing objects.


Flow of learning includes ability of concentration and deep involvement of learners through the game activities.


Before flow of learning occurs, perception of challenges to match one’s skills, speed of learner to solve an activity and ease of use need to be established.


Experiential learning does not require teacher as it is completely meaning-making process in individual experience.


Mastery-based learning requires students to spend adequate time to learn each skill.


Debriefing provides connection between learning in game and applying those skills to other contexts.


Behavioural learning approach has story, concepts and game play to encourage the learners play dependently.


Experiential learning theory and flow theory combined with game design can provide immediate feedback to match the learner’s skill level.


Experiential learning theory and flow theory combined with game design can provide clear goals and challenges to match the learner’s skill level.


Goal-directed action is a continuous learning and an appropriate feedback is provided.


Cognitive development involves sensory motor and formal operation of learning.


Cognitive apprenticeship provides social interaction through authentic practices.


Knowledge and experience of learners must match to learner’s knowledge level to achieve higher experience flow.


Educational practice and learning can provide fun and instructional practice to the learner.


Educational practice should be able to provide motivational learning for learners.


Reflective observations of feedback provide construction of plan to establish complex thinking.


Reflective observation of feedback allows discovery of new solutions when learners achieve goals.


Assessment technology has collaborative environment to engage and motive learning while assessing their skills.


Games should indulge learners with assessments to quantify knowledge and abilities.


To improve the enforcement of learning objectives by learners, learning and entertainment element must be connected.


Learning process combines explicit knowledge, conversations, and reflection of results for learners to construct knowledge.


Player’s ideal solution is to overcome the challenges with less repetitions of solving.


Players meet the challenges through guidance and collaboration throughout the process of solving a task.

34.5 Conclusion

This paper presents a multi-domain framework to visualize the 154 components in four (4) major domains in educational games with their relationships. The components of the domains are chosen from various literature with respect to game design, effective game elements, learning theories, subject-matter aspect, and pedagogical factors. There have been many frameworks and models developed by other researchers, however, the highlight the proposed framework is that it demonstrates implicit relationships amongst the components and domains of multi-domain framework, hence, provides a better overview for game developers to cooperate and identify the needs to provide an effective educational game.

The authors will further validate the framework by conducting expert interviews to verify the implicit relationships and modify the relationships according to expert’s point of view. Hence, this will provide explicit relationships for game developers. In addition, the case study on educational games will be conducted where the subject-matter related to the educational game course/content will be chosen. This will further highlight the practicality of the framework.


  1. 1.

    Educational games have related terms: computer games, video games, game-based learning, instructional game.

  2. 2.

    Online games have related terms: Massively multiplayer online role play games (MMORPGs), Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs).

  3. 3.

    For the full list of relationships, please contact the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mifrah Ahmad
    • 1
  • Lukman Ab Rahim
    • 1
  • Noreen Izza Arshad
    • 1
  • Mazlina Mehat
    • 1
  1. 1.Computer and Information Sciences DepartmentUniversiti Teknologi PETRONASTronohMalaysia

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