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Educational Video Game Design: A Review of the Literature

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Abstract

Much attention has been directed to the use of video games for learning in recent years, in part due to the staggering amounts of capital spent on games in the entertainment industry, but also because of their ability to captivate player attention and hold it for lengthy periods of time as players learn to master game complexities and accomplish objectives. This review of the literature on video game research focuses on publications analyzing educational game design, namely those that present design elements conducive to learning, the theoretical underpinnings of game design, and learning outcomes from video game play.
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Educational Video Game Design: A Review of the Literature
Mary Jo Dondlinger
Doctoral Student
Department of Technology & Cognition, College of Education
University of North Texas
Abstract
Much attention has been directed to the use of video games for learning in recent years, in part
due to the staggering amounts of capital spent on games in the entertainment industry, but also
because of their ability to captivate player attention and hold it for lengthy periods of time as
players learn to master game complexities and accomplish objectives. This review of the
literature on video game research focuses on publications analyzing educational game design,
namely those that present design elements conducive to learning, the theoretical underpinnings
of game design, and learning outcomes from video game play.
Introduction
Many articles have been published in the last 20 years on video games for learning, and several reviews
of the literature on educational games have been completed within the last few years (Aguilera & Mendiz, 2003;
O’Neil, Wainess, & Baker, 2005). However, these reviews focused on literature that addressed what players
learn from video games rather than how video games can be designed to facilitate learning. This review focuses
on publications addressing educational video game design, seeking to identify elements of game design that
promote learning as well as the learning theories that conceptualize how video games foster learning.
Research Focus and Search Methods
A multiple database search using the search terms game design AND video or computer or PC AND
educational or instructional, yielded nearly 100 publications from the following databases:
Academic Search Premier
ACM Digital Library
Communication and Mass Media Complete
Computer Source
ERIC
Information Science and Technology Abstracts
Internet and Personal Computing Abstracts
Library, Information Science, and Technology Abstracts
PsychARTICLES
Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection
PsychINFO
Science and Technology Collection
Social Sciences Abstracts
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Volume 4, Number 1 Spring/Summer 2007
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Search results were further limited to include only peer-reviewed journal articles, conference
proceedings, and frequently cited books, criteria which culled the list to 56. Closer review of these publications
revealed that several did not address issues related to game design. The resulting list contained 35 items
spanning the last ten years, most of which were published in the last three (30 of 35 items). Results were not
narrowed by specific game types, nor were design studies on game-like environments excluded as they apply
design elements from video games to environments for learning and are consequently relevant to this review.
Game-like environments included augmented and virtual reality, multi-user virtual environments, interactive
learning environments, simulations, and simulation games.
The publications reviewed are organized loosely into those that address characteristics of educational
games, elements of effective video game design, learning theories for video games, learning outcomes from
game play, and gender preferences in video game design. These categories provide an organizational framework
for understanding significant design considerations revealed in the literature. Nevertheless, most of the
publications reviewed do not fit neatly into a single category. Many of the studies contain findings that are
relevant to several of the categories employed here, but may be reviewed fully only once and simply cited
where otherwise appropriate.
Elements of Effective Video Game Design
Edutainment vs. Educational Games
It is important to distinguish between educational and edutainment games prior to proceeding with a
review focused on educational video game design. According to Denis and Jouvelot (2005), “The main
characteristic that differentiates edutainment and video games is interactivity, because, the former being
grounded on didactical and linear progressions, no place is left to wandering and alternatives” (p. 464).
Edutainment games, then, are those which follow a skill and drill format in which players either practice
repetitive skills or rehearse memorized facts. As such, “Edutainment often fails in transmitting non trivial (or
previously assimilated) knowledge, calling again and again the same action patterns and not throwing the
learning curve into relief” (Denis & Jouvelot, 2005, p. 464). In contrast, educational video games require
strategizing, hypothesis testing, or problem-solving, usually with higher order thinking rather than rote
memorization or simple comprehension. Characteristics of such games include a system of rewards and goals
which motivate players, a narrative context which situates activity and establishes rules of engagement, learning
content that is relevant to the narrative plot, and interactive cues that prompt learning and provide feedback.
Nevertheless, even skill and drill games that employ such characteristics have demonstrated gains in
learning. Lee, Luchini, Michael, Norris, and Soloway (2004) found that a math facts game for second graders
deployed on handheld computers encouraged learners to complete a greater number of problems at an increased
degree of difficulty. Learners playing the handheld game completed nearly three times the number of problems
in 19 days as those using paper worksheets. Learners using the handheld game also voluntarily increased the
level of difficulty in the game as they continued to play.
Motivation
Several publications examine motivation in video games. However, not all researchers entirely agree on
the source of this motivation. Some attribute the compelling nature of games to their narrative context (Dickey,
2005, 2006; Fisch, 2005; Waraich, 2004) while others find motivation is linked to goals and rewards within the
game itself or intrinsic to the act of playing (Amory, Naicker, Vincent, & Adams, 1999; Denis & Jouvelot,
2005; Jennings, 2001). Nevertheless, all find that motivation to play is a significant characteristic of educational
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video games and that effective game design considers both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for play. Denis and
Jouvelot (2005) distinguished between the two and their absence as follows: “Intrinsic motivation pushes us to
act freely, on our own, for the sake of it; extrinsic motivation pulls us to act due to factors that are external to
the activity itself, like reward or threat; amotivation denotes the absence of motivation.” (p. 462) These authors
see motivation as the interplay between desire and pleasure—the desire to be competent and the pleasure one
feels when one is. They argue that competence, autonomy, and relatedness are factors that affect motivation.
“Motivation also leads to the activation of efficient cognitive strategies for long-term memory issues like
monitoring, elaborating or organizing information. On the opposite side, resignation and amotivation have
negative results on memorization and personal development” (p. 463).
Amory, Naicker, Vincent, & Adams (1999) examined four different game types and analyzed elements
that players liked most. In this study, students rated a number of game qualities including “the fun aspect,
sounds and graphics, type of game, game story and use of technology”; “the importance of some skills [logic,
memory, visualisation, and mathematics, reflexes, and problem solving]”; “whether the game was easy to play,
addictive, too long, challenging, confusing, too difficult, illogical, difficult to play or manoeuvre and if their
performance increased with continuous play” (p. 314). Adventure and strategy games were found to be the most
stimulating and rated the highest, a finding which suggests that players preferred or were more motivated to
play games with objectives requiring higher order thinking skills, including visualization strategies that nurture
creative problem solving and decision-making. (p. 317).
On a similar note, Dickey (2006) argued that a narrative context that promotes “challenge, fantasy, and
curiosity” and provides feedback for players is one that promotes intrinsic motivation for play (p. 2). She also
finds that, “Strategies of design that lead to engagement may include role-playing, narrative arcs, challenges,
and interactive choices within the game as well as interaction with other players” (p. 1). In another study,
Waraich (2004) agreed narrative is essential to motivation but cautioned that, “intrinsic rewards are based on a
high congruence between the material being taught and the motivational techniques used” (p. 98). Dissonance
between the two can decrease learning.
Narrative Context
Disagreement on the source of motivation aside, a general consensus that narrative context is an
important element of effective video game design does exist. Five articles in this survey supported this finding
and dealt most prominently with narrative as a significant design element. In two studies on game-like
environments for learning, Dickey (2006) found that 3-D learning environments not only provide a narrative
context for situating and contextualizing learning, they also enable spatial relationships rather than linear ones.
In an article on the design of Murder on Grimm Isle, a game created to cultivate argumentative writing skills,
Dickey concluded spatial and narrative contexts offer learners, “a cognitive framework for problem-solving
because the narrative storyline in games provides an environment in which players can identify and construct
causal patterns which integrates what is known (backstory, environment, rules, etc.) with that which is
conjectural yet plausible within the context of the story” (p. 2).
In another article, Dickey (2005) presented similar findings in case studies of two 3-D environments for
courses in business computing and 3-D modeling, arguing that contextual elements such as a first person
symbolic perspective and 3-D representations of space increase learners’ sense of presence and consequently
their interaction and collaboration. “This [narrative] context builds on learners’ real-world knowledge by
providing a visual metaphor, or perhaps more aptly stated, a visual narrative of the course content” (p. 444).
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In a study of a variety of design elements on game environments for instruction in computer science
architecture, Waraich (2004) focused mainly on narrative. This empirical study analyzed the role of both
narrative context and game goals as features for motivating and conceptualizing learning in a 2-D interactive
learning environment (ILE). The mixed methods design of the study revealed quantifiable knowledge gains in
the ILE over traditional instruction. Waraich concluded that, “For any learning task to be meaningful to the
learner they must have both a sufficient context for the learning and motivation to perform the tasks that will
help them to learn. We believe that game based learning environments that incorporate a strong narrative can
meet these requirements if the learning tasks are appropriately designed and tightly coupled with the narrative”
(p. 98).
In what is largely a theoretical discussion more so than a research study, Fisch (2005) made a similar
observation. Although narrative context does motivate learning, for an educational game to be effective the
learning content must align with the narrative plotline. According to Fisch’s analysis, “research on lectures and
textbook readings has suggested that seductive details do not work; children exposed to such material tend to
remember the appealing elements but not the intended educational content” (p. 57). He found that a “far more
powerful approach is to place the educational content at the heart of engaging game play, so that children
employ the targeted academic skills and knowledge as an integral part of playing the game” (p.58). Fisch also
maintained that selecting appropriate media as well as providing feedback and scaffolding within and outside of
the game are essential to effective educational game design.
Goals and Rules
Another significant element of effective video game design is a system of objectives, goals, and rules of
play (Waraich, 2004; Zagal, Nussbaum, & Rosas, 2000). Although they are integrated within a narrative
context, goals and rules are not subordinate to context; they are equally important elements of it. In an overview
of initiatives in educational games, Jenkins, Klopfer, Squire, and Tan (2003) described the design and testing of
three video game prototypes: Supercharged!, a game on electromagnetism; Environmental Detectives, an
environmental science game; and Revolution, a game for American history. Each has a narrative structure that
students follow to determine their objectives or goals. Players take the role of a charged particle in
Supercharged!; a scientist in Environmental Detectives; and a soldier, revolutionary, or townsperson in
Revolution. Each game has distinct objectives and a variety of rules frame the play. Players must master the
rules of the game to accomplish the objectives. For example, the laws of electromagnetism provide the rules in
Supercharged!
Swartout and van Lent (2003) further elaborated on goals in effective video games, finding that goals of
different levels help motivate learners to continue playing. “Game designers often seek to keep players engaged
by creating three levels of goals: short-term (collect the magic keys), lasting, perhaps, seconds; medium-term
(open the enchanted safe), lasting minutes; and finally, long-term (save the world), lasting the length of the
game” and that the “interplay of these levels, with the support of the environment, is crafted to draw players
into the storyline of the game” (p.34). This design concept is similar to Gee’s (2003) “Achievement Principle”
which states that, “for learners of all levels of skill there are instrinsic rewards from the beginning, customized
to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signaling the learner’s ongoing achievement” (p. 67).
Interactivity and Multisensory Cues
Interaction between the player (or players) and the game environment is another element embedded in
the narrative context and game objectives. Effective games weave objects and characters into a game
environment that provide feedback and hint structures for successful game play (Fisch, 2005). Moreover, the
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degree of user control over the game environment further constitutes the level of interactivity. Swartout and van
Lent (2003) deemed that the best games are “highly interactive, deliberately generating tension between the degree
of control the story imposes and the player’s freedom of interaction” (p. 34), reasoning that in games with complete
freedom of interaction, the playing experience can be boring and unchallenging. On the other hand, when the plotline
imposes too much control, the player becomes a passive observer rather than an active participant. Providing a
balance to these extremes, effective game design gives players, “the perception they have free will, even though at
any time their options are actually quite limited” (p. 34). Gee (2003) called this concept the “Regime of
Competence” Principle, which states the player/learner is challenged at the edge of his or her abilities.
In an overview of the design process and the various elements of multiplayer games, Zagal, Nussbaum,
and Rosas (2000) examined the role of interactivity as a critical element in effective games, proposing that
game designers should consider the extent to which the game rules, props, and tools affect stimulated and
natural social interaction. Such interactions might depend on cooperation, competition, or a combination of
both. They might also require synchronicity or coordination, types of interactions which are determined by
player composition in the game. The article included a model for analyzing player composition and social
interaction in game design.
Quax, Jehaes, Jorissen, and Lamotte (2003) described the design of a game that allowed users to stream
video of their facial expressions to specific regions within a multi-user virtual environment. They found that
segmenting the game world so that video is streamed only to the regions occupied by the player uses less
bandwidth. The significance of this study for game design is the finding that visual cues afforded by streaming
video provided nonverbal communication which increased player immersion and collaboration with others in
the environment.
A study by Salzman, Loftin, Dede, and McGlynn (1996) further confirmed that multisensory cues are a
significant component of successful game-like environments. The researchers concluded that, “Multisensory
cues can engage learners, direct their attention to important behaviors and relationships, help them understand
new sensory perspectives, prevent errors through feedback cues, and enhance ease of use” (p. 2). While learning
outcomes afforded by gaming media will be discussed in greater depth later in this review, another significant
finding in this study is that multisensory interactions “can help learners understand complex phenomena,”
particularly for students with “severely limited or inaccurate mental models of science concepts” (p. 2).
Learning Theories for Video Games
Constructivism
Several researchers previously cited found that learning with well-designed video games adheres to
constructivist principles (Dede, Nelson, Ketelhut, Clarke, & Bowman, 2004; Dickey, 2005, 2006; Gee, 2003;
Schrier, 2006). In an article describing the multi-user virtual world, SciCtr, Corbit (2005) underscored the
merits of a constructivist approach for analyzing game-like environments. In SciCtr, students create virtual
science worlds, such as rainforests or deserts, that other learners can visit and explore. According to Corbit,
these worlds, the paths to navigate through them, and content embedded in them, are constructed by the
developer/learner through meticulous research and thoughtful design.
Constructionism
Designing and developing video games, rather than playing them, applies a contructionist approach to
learning with games (Robertson & Good, 2005; Robertson et al., 2004). El-Nasr and Smith (2006) viewed game
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modding—the development of new modules in an existing game using toolkits packaged with the game—as a
constructionist method of learning. The constructionist approach to learning involves two activities: the
construction of knowledge through experience and the creation of personally relevant products. The theory
proposes that whatever the product, be it a birdhouse, computer program, or robot, the, “design and
implementation of products are meaningful to those creating them and that learning becomes active and self-
directed through the construction of artifacts” (p. 2).
Steiner, Kaplan, & Moulthrop (2006) concurred with this constructivist view and contended that,
“children as design partners improve the technologies they consume as well as gain educational benefits from
the experience” (p. 137). Burrow and More (2005) applied constructionist techniques in an architecture course
by having students render their designs with a game-engine thereby exploring spatial relationships as well as
atmosphere, lighting, and other environmental conditions in a 3-D simulation of their architectural designs.
Situated Cognition
In a symposium on learning theories for the analysis of educational video games, Halverson, Shaffer,
Squire, and Steinkuehler (2006) asserted that situated cognition provides a meaningful framework for the study
of games, given that games have an ability to situate learning in an authentic context and engage players in a
community of practice. Dede, Nelson, Ketelhut, Clarke, and Bowman (2004) outlined both constructivist and
situated learning design principles present in effective video games including GST (guided social constructivist
design), EMC (expert modeling and coaching) and LPP (legitimate peripheral participation). These authors
employed such principles in evaluating game design and applied their findings to future iterations of the design.
Lunce (2006) also argued that situated or contextual learning provides the rationale for simulations and
simulation games in a classroom environment because of their ability to provide an authentic context in which
to situate learning. According to these and other scholars, the authentic, situated context affords greater content
mastery and transfer of knowledge than a traditional classroom learning (Dickey, 2005, 2006; Klopfer & Yoon,
2005; Schrier, 2006).
Learning Outcomes from Educational Video Games
21st Century Skills
In a historical review of the research on video game design, Aguilera and Mendiz (2003) maintained
that, “arguments in favor of the cognitive importance of video games are based on a number of studies
indicating that many video games are conducive to the development of specific skills: attention, spatial
concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, collaborative work, creativity, and, of course, ICT skills” (p.
8). Many of these skills are earmarked as necessary to successfully participate in the global, knowledge based
economy of the 21st Century. Employing cursory case studies of specific games and anecdotal comments from
young video game players as evidence of his assertions, Prensky (2006) contrasted the nature of digital
immigrants (those who have recently migrated to the use of digital technology) to that of digital natives (those
who have grown up with it). Although Prensky is not an educational researcher, he is a widely acclaimed
speaker and writer on how complex video games teach digital natives in ways not offered by traditional
instruction. The most significant of his ideas include his description of complex videos games and the 21st
Century skills that game play can impart.
Schrier (2006) designed an augmented reality game designed specifically to foster modern skills. The
research design employed a mixed-methods approach which included pre- and post attitudinal surveys,
interviews, and video taped learning sessions. These efforts yielded results which suggest that problem-based
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learning augmented with game-like design features can indeed encourage the development of modern skills.
Since Schrier’s research did not employ an experimental design comparing the augmented reality treatment to a
control group, generalizations about learning gains in the game-like environment over a traditional classroom
were not supported by the study.
Deduction and Hypothesis Testing
The results of a variety of studies suggest that video games and game-like environments are conducive
to deductive reasoning and hypothesis testing (Aguilera & Mendiz, 2003; Gee, 2003; Jenkins et al., 2003;
Klopfer & Yoon, 2005; Lunce, 2006; Salzman, Dede, & Loftin, 1999; Salzman et al., 1996). In a qualitative
analysis of both what and how students learned playing Civilization III in an interdisciplinary history,
humanities, and social studies course, Squire and Barab (2004) found that game play promoted deep learning,
hypothesis testing, strategizing, and appropriating content (history, in this case) as a tool for play. Squire,
Barnett, Grant and Higginbotham (2004) established that students in an experimental group who played the
simulation-game Supercharged! better mastered the abstract and conceptual knowledge related to
electromagnetism than those in the control group who learned through guided discovery-based science methods.
The researchers attributed these learning gains to replay for testing new hypotheses afforded by the simulation
game.
Complex Concepts and Abstract Thinking
Other studies concurred with the findings of Squire, Barnett, Grant, and Higginbotham (2004)
concerning mastery of abstract and conceptual knowledge through game play (Aguilera & Mendiz, 2003; Gee,
2003; Lunce, 2006; Prensky, 2006). Writing about technology in general rather than games specifically, Kelly
(2005) argued that technology applications including video games promote mastery of complex concepts. In a
qualitative case study of the game-like computer-modeling environment, StarLogo, Klopfer and Yoon (2005)
discovered that struggling students were able to better comprehend complex systems after working with
StarLogo.
Visual and Spatial Processing
Because most complex video games are situated in 2- or 3-D environments, it is no surprise that research
has found increased spatial development in video game players. According to Aguilera and Mendiz (2003),
“adolescents with medium- or long-term experience playing video games show greater visual capacity, motor
activity, and spatial abilities-reflexes and responses” (p. 6). Using game engines to render and then explore the
effects of architectural designs, Burrow and More (2005) observed that the capabilities of game-engines “allow
participants to experience the spatial design in ways that are not predetermined by the designer” (p. 35). The
objective of the Burrow and More project was to explore the relationship between architectural design elements
and atmosphere, analyzing both the atmosphere produced by the architectural design and the impact of
atmosphere on the design. Burrow and More argued that this focus “emphasizes critical thinking on the nature
of space and its representation … and its interactivity” (p. 38).
Gender Preferences in Video Game Design
Studies on the gaming habits of girls present rather mixed results. While it is widely presumed that girls
do not play video games with the same intensity or for durations as lengthy as boys do, empirical research finds
little evidence to support this supposition. In a study that observed the gaming preferences of girls in a games
club at an all-girl state school in the United Kingdom, Carr (2005) observed that girls played games they were
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exposed to and knew about, regardless of genre or avatar gender. As a result, she concluded that preferences
have little to do with gender or gendered game types and more to do with access and prior gaming experience.
To the extent that games and certain game genres are marketed to males, girls may have little knowledge of
their attributes. But, once exposed to conventionally “male” games, girls played them aggressively and seemed
to enjoy the games.
In the development of an evolution game targeting girls, Heeter, Winn, and Green (2005) developed and
play tested 50 iterations of the game. Results throughout the process indicated that failed iterations were due to
poor game design rather than inadequate attention to gender preferences. Nevertheless, play testing throughout
the process did produce findings about the play habits of girls, namely that girls consistently play significantly
slower than boys. However, additional data on the play habits of both sexes need to be collected to validate
generalizations about gender differences in play habits.
In a study aimed at determining whether girls differ from boys in visual cognition, Ziemek (2006)
concluded that females are less spatially dexterous than males. Girls prefer to use a wider view (more of an
overview) than most 3D games provide. The study indicates that girls struggled with camera angles in 3D
games and preferred the closed view of a 2D environment. However, given the relatively small sample size (34
subjects; 19 girls) the results may not be conclusive or broadly generalizable. Nevertheless, the results point to a
need for further investigation.
Conclusion
It is fairly clear from the breadth of research on the subject, that video games do affect learning. While
there is widespread consensus that games motivate players to spend time on task mastering the skills a game
imparts, some disagreement over the specific characteristics that provoke that motivation exists. Nevertheless,
the literature reveals that a number of distinct design elements, such as narrative context, rules, goals, rewards,
multisensory cues, and interactivity, seem necessary to stimulate desired learning outcomes. Moreover,
researchers are beginning to theorize the cognitive processes that occur through video game play. As these
inquiries progress, a better understanding of educational game design and the production of improved
educational games will ensue. In turn, design and development will likely generate further research on the
learning outcomes afforded by educational game play, including those affected by gender preferences.
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... Quality computer games with gamification features increase user concentration (Connolly, Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey & Boyle, 2012), provide deep learning (Dondlinger, 2007), change behavior positively (Read & Shortell, 2011), and make it easy to remember important information (Andrews, 2011). Another useful feature is that the system with gamification elements enables interaction and information sharing between users, if possible (Palmer, Lunceford & Patton, 2012). ...
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Thesis
This exploratory study seeks to investigate how a mathematical education game, DragonBox12+, effects students’ learning about algebra. Data for this research was collected from middle school 7th grade students in the Northeast region of the United States of America.The interviews and classroom observations were recorded on videotape. The research results showed that the video game DragonBox 12+ affects students’ attitude of mathematics and learning of mathematics by the help of using game mechanics to teaching algebraic rules. Keywords: Algebra, video game, DragonBox 12+, middle school, 7th grade
... A metaphor for this could be the wide walls concept in the Scratch programming language, the walls should be wide enough to engage people with many different preferences, and different learning styles in the same learning environment [55]. Finally, as brought up by Dondlinger [56], the presumption that girls and women differ from boys and men in gaming habits, such as it is not done with the same intensity and duration, has little empirical support. ...
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