Encyclopedia of Computer Graphics and Games

Living Edition
| Editors: Newton Lee

Computer Games in Education

  • Jule Hildmann
  • Hanno HildmannEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-08234-9_278-1



Computers have been used to create and play games for basically as long as they are around; according to Nyitray (2011), the first publicly accessible computer games appeared as early as 1958, though the term game might be rather grande for some of the early games. The game Pong, considered by many as the first, famously consisted of the moving of a bar on one side of the screen to deflect a moving dot (i.e., a ball) back to the other side of the screen, where another player attempted to do the same. There is evidence that traditional board games such as Checkers were developed (Jackson (2000) and Tic-Tac-Toe was implemented (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. 2008) as early as 1951. One of the motivation for using the then new computing paradigm for such a mundane thing as playing a game was to “convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance for society” (Nyitray 2011).

While many maintain that games do not seem to serve any cultural or social function other than to distract (Bogost 2007), we argue in this entry that there is evidence to the contrary. There is little doubt that games can be beneficial, if used correctly and by trained exerts. In fact, there is a vibrant and fast growing community of researchers and practitioners in the field of games-based learning (de Freitas 2011). That being said, it is important to consider the evidence from established fields such as psychology and pedagogics to ensure that the dangers and shortcomings of the games-based learning industry – which today is a billion dollar industry – are not to be overlooked. As it is to be expected for a relatively young field which promises many business opportunities, there are many projects that seem to take short cuts. Of course the use of computer games alone is not the end to all problems in pedagogics; professionals and researchers in the field have emphasized (e.g., Hildmann 2010) that computer technology, while showing a lot of potential and offering many benefits, is merely a tool for a teacher.

This entry provides the relevant background on long established fields such as pedagogics and developmental psychology. The aim is to inform the those interested in designing, implementing or using computer games for educational purposes and to highlight the potential benefits of doing so. However, the main message is that such games are a supporting technology, and not the dominant factor or even the core aspect to teaching endeavors.

Computer-Games Based Learning

Rowland and Gardner (1971) date the use of computers (and in a way, computer games) for educational purposes back to 1956 (Ricciardi et al. 1957). In this context, we will use the definition offered by Connolly and Stansfield (2007), who have suggested that computer (games)-based learning should be seen as “the use of a computer (games) based approach to deliver, support, and enhance teaching, learning, assessment, and evaluation”. When used appropriately, this means combining.

Validated approaches from pedagogics, known models from psychology and learning theory as well as adhering to best practices for the design and implementation of computer games and intelligent user interfaces.

If this is done correctly computer games have the potential to constitute a platform through which the experts can deliver their teaching in a way that makes use of all the befits while mitigating a number of normal human traits (such as e.g., waning attention and lack of motivation).

But the use of games for non-recreational purposes (i.e., as serious games) is certainly not new (consider that every maneuver is, in a way, a game and the literature on military maneuvers is more than 2000 years old, e.g., Tzu and Cleary 1988), nor is it restricted to education (Puschel et al. 2010): business games have been proposed for research as early as the 1960s (Babb et al. 1966) and 1970s (Rowland and Gardner 1971). Games have been used to great success to train complex problem management (Pasin and Giroux 2011) problem solving abilities (Christoph 2006) as well as practical and reasoning skills (Pee 2011). When used appropriately they can significantly reduce training time and demands on the instructor (Sandberg et al. 2001; Hildmann and Hildmann 2012a, b). In fact, (computer) games have been analyzed from a variety of perspectives, both negative (e.g., aggression, violence or gender stereotyping) and positive (e.g., skills development, engagement or motivation) (Connolly et al. 2008).

Games-Based Learning (GBL)

There are many positive aspects of the use of games for teaching in the literature. Arguably, games have never been just a children’s medium (Bogost 2007) and are generally something in which people of all ages engage in (Warren et al. 2011). Games have been shown to inherently drive high motivation levels in those that play them (Malone and Lepper 1987). Repetition is a core element to many games, which can be used to embody otherwise boring rehearsal tasks and e.g., large firms and companies have used game-like settings for decades to implement training session for employee training activities. The literature lists many areas where games have successfully been used as training and simulation tools: military training (Schneider et al. 2005), teaching exact sciences, specifically mathematics (Habgood 2007; Squire et al. 2004; Young and Upitis 1999), training in software engineering and computer science (Ford and Minsker 2003; Zhu et al. 2007) as well as medicine (Beale et al. 2007; Lennon 2006; Roubidoux 2005). Other fields where GBL has been applied are language education and project- and knowledge management (Johnson and Wu 2008; Rankin et al. 2006; Long 2010) and Christoph (2006); Chua (2005), respectively).

This indicates that for members of a society to engage in playful activity has the potential to significantly influence the later performance of individuals as well as entire groups. Every military maneuver (Giles 1974; Leonhard 1994) or every play-acting of, e.g., household situations – as often performed by children – can be seen as a game with educational content.

When investigating the aspects that are credited with making a gaming experience fun, many parallels are found with what researchers such as Gee (2003) and Tiotuico et al. (2008) think makes for a good learning experience. This is consistent with insights from psychology which have long since accepted that the playing of games is an important factor in the early development of children and young adults. Bruce (2004) showed that the act of playing during childhood can strongly impact social behavior later in life. Green et al. (2010) report on research that indicates that playing action video games can have a beneficial impact in decision making.

As far back as the 1970s, games have also been considered in the context of serving as a platform for research projects, e.g., Cohen and Rhenman (1961) or Rowland and Gardner (1971) and Babb et al. (1966) report on investigations on using management games or business games (respectively) for research. In recent years a number of conferences and academic circles have focused on this subject and the field is rapidly growing. Today, the teaching and learning paradigm is no longer restricted to human-human interactions: advanced research is now considering knowledge transfer between humans and machines (from the former to the latter) and e.g., Arsenio (2004) reports on using simple games to assist humans when teaching robots.

Key Concepts of (Computer) Games-Based Learning

The behavioral activity of engaging in play is considered by e.g., Brown (1998) to be a fundamental basis for development in complex animals, on par with the act of sleeping and dreaming. As mentioned above, it is considered a significant help for the process of maturing from children to fully rounded adults and a strongly determining factor in the shaping of a functioning member of society (Bruce 2004). Specifically, video games are said to have a unique persuasive power and to have the potential to support existing social and cultural positions (Bogost 2007). They can maintain high motivation levels and seem to center around a number of fundamental principles (Malone and Lepper 1987). We briefly discuss intrinsic motivation attributed to games and identify a number of key skills and abilities that are especially prone to be supported through educational games.

Intrinsic Motivation

Malone and Lepper (1987) offer a detailed argument on just how important intrinsic motivation is to the designer of educational (computer) games. They identify four individual factors as well as three interpersonal factors that are elementary to providing and maintaining intrinsic motivation (Table 1).
Table 1

The individual and interpersonal factors considered to be the main factors provide and maintain intrinsic motivation (Malone and Lepper 1987)

Individual factors

Interpersonal factors









As stated by Connolly et al. (2008), it is safe to say that the effect of (computer) games-based learning has been analyzed from a variety of both negative (e.g., aggression, violence or gender stereotyping) as well as positive (e.g., skills development, engagement, learning or motivation) perspectives. In all these, as two successive comparative studies by Connolly et al. (2007a, b) have shown, curiosity, challenge and cooperation consistently emerged as the most important motivations for playing computer games.

Fundamental Principles of Good Games

Besides aiming at important aspects of intrinsic motivation identified in the previous section the game should aim to include as many as possible of the fundamental principles of good games. There is an extensive body of literature that tries to identify those principles; Gee (2003, 2004, 2005) identified the following (Table 2).
Table 2

Fundamental principles of good games, cf. Gee (2003, 2004, 2005)


Challenge & Consolidation


Pleasantly frustrating


Well-ordered problems


System thinking

Risk taking


These principles are:
  • Identity: Through fictional identities, a game stimulates the player to embrace a new role and to take on the corresponding responsibilities. Adapting this new role requires learning new domain knowledge.

  • Interaction: Players experience responses/feedback to their actions.

  • Customization: Customizing a game to the specific interests of a group elicits the group’s interest and provide stimulating challenges.

  • Production: Decisions of the players directly impact events in the game.

  • Risk Taking: Since the game provides a stand-alone environment in a virtual world, actions in the game rarely have consequences in the real world, inviting the player to experiment and to take risks.

  • Challenge and Consolidation: Through repetition, the player can master skills and advance through increasingly challenging stages.

  • Pleasantly frustrating: Good computer games have realistically attainable goals that are, while achievable, at the outer edge of the players regime of competence.

  • Well-ordered problems: Offering an underlying structure to presented challenges motivates the player to consider the problems on an abstract level. This allows to draw on previous experiences to solve future problems.

  • System thinking: Good games encourage or even require players to think about the effect their decisions have on the course of the game. As a result a player considers abstract relationships instead of isolated events.

  • Agency: Giving the player a sense of ownership over their decisions.

When creating a serious game, the designer should try to include and address as many of the above as possible. In the next section we discuss key skills that have been shown to be supported by GBL. It is unlikely that any one game will target all of these skills equally or even at the same time. The principles listed above should be adopted, but which principles should receive the largest attention will be determined by the targeted skills.

Key Skills Supported by Games-Based Learning

A (non-exhaustive) list of key skills that have been shown to be promoted by serious games has been published by Hildmann and Hirsch (2008). For a detailed discourse on these the reader is referred to Healy (2006) (Table 3).
Table 3

A summary of the key skills that can be promoted through serious games (cf. Hildmann and Hirsch 2008), for a full discussion the reader is referred to Healy (2006)

Problem solving


Analytical thinking


Team working


Social and cultural

Logical thinking

Critical thinking


Considerations, Shortcomings, and Disadvantages

Computer games are more and more considered as tools in the education sector (Pee 2011). This interest notwithstanding, there are many negative aspects of games acknowledged in the literature such as e.g., the increase of aggressive behavior (Uhlmann and Swanson 2004) or the decrease in physical exercise (Liliana Escobar-Chaves et al. 2010).

Among these negative aspects is also the proven fact that computer games can be extremely addictive (which should be unsurprising since gambling, known to be highly addictive, is often embodied by a game). The fact that games can become an alternate reality to which the player can escape from real world problems has been widely discussed, and while this surely has large potential for negative consequences, it is also a property that motivates the use of games as educational tools: problems that real life scenarios and approaches inherently face can often be completely ignored in games.

Lack of Supporting Evidence

While we have motivated the benefits of using computer games in the educational sector, the GBL approach is far from being accepted by all practitioners in the field. There are plenty of reasons to caution against hailing the use of computer games as a silver bullet for all educational challenges. For example, an investigation conducted 25 years ago by Randel et al. (1992) found that only 50% of the considered studies showed any significant difference between using games and using conventional instructions. The field has certainly evolved since the 1990’s and market analysts consider games-based learning to be one of the fastest growing division in the eLearning market (cf. Connolly et al. 2008), but commercial success does not imply the validity of an approach. As Gura (2005) cautions: “[e]ducation is a highly politicized field, […] littered with obstacles to reform and populated by powerful individuals with their own pet theories”. The fact that there is a market for the idea does not imply that the idea works; it merely suggests that it is selling well. It is not uncommon that the performances and benefits claimed by the marketing departments of major game producers are met with considerable skepticism by some experts in the field (cf. Fuyuno 2007).

There is a shortage of solid evidence for the validity of using computer games for teaching, training and instruction Connolly et al. (2007b). Furthermore, a fair number of known shortcomings are in need of receiving more attention from the community. Examples of such open challenges are the distinct lack of frameworks or guidelines. GBL continues to attract attention by funding bodies and, to a lesser degree, acceptance as a mainstream approach for learning and teaching, and the focus should be on guidelines and frameworks to support other advances in the field.

However, it is also the case that games for play are often perceived differently from games for serious purposes. When this distinction is made by the player it can have a significant impact on the willingness to engage in a game and – as a result – on the benefits gained from playing that game. If knowing whether a game is meant to be serving a serious purpose affects the performance of the game, then cunning game design and the framing of learning activities becomes a significant factor. This makes objective evaluation even more difficult and once again highlights the importance of applying best practices from the fields of psychology and pedagogics when engaging in the development of serious games.

Lack of Interdisciplinary Communication

The field of games-based learning and serious games is commonly dominated by experts from the computer games industry and commercially driven by companies. In Hildmann and Hildmann (2009), the authors emphasize the gap between approaches to teaching and learning offered through GBL and established models for human learning (from cognitive or behavioral psychology) or validated practices used by teachers in classrooms. In light of the large amount of funding recently offered for the development of new learning approaches, there is the danger of overlooking basic needs and requirements. This problem is well documented in the literature: Powell (2003) states that “some education experts argue that the scientists who are now developing an interest in the subject are ignoring prior research”, while Gura (2005) goes so far as to claim that “[u]ntil now, science and educational research have not mixed well”. While more recent publications increasingly acknowledge the need to integrate alternative approaches instead of imposing them on the field (e.g., McGonigal (2012): “The future will belong to those who can understand, design and play games”), there is still the issue of verification and comparison of the usefulness of contributions. While the short-term gains from heeding the advice of pedagogues, psychologists and practitioners in the training sector may be reduced, the long-term benefit (both financially as well as with regard to the actual performance of the created products) can only increase. Therefore, computer scientists and game designers have to start listening more to the practitioners. At the same time, the education sector is undergoing fundamental changes and teachers in a classroom have to accept that old teaching paradigms might have become outdated or may be falling behind what is technically possible. Even without challenging any of the established theories about how children learn, the world in which today’s children grow up is vastly different from the world into which senior educationalists were born. All sides need to acknowledge that there are contributions from other fields, and that only by working together and fostering interdisciplinary communication can GBL achieve its full potential.



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Copyright information

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of EdinburghEdinburghUK
  2. 2.Departamento de Ingenieria de Sistemas y Automatica, Av. UniversidadUniversidad Carlos III de MadridMadridSpain