Interactive games are powerful environments for learning. Research consistently finds that players learn new skills, knowledge, insights, attitudes, or even behaviors, in games that challenge them to think, explore, and respond. How do games stimulate and support learning? Consider the following features of well-designed games, found also in the best non-game learning environments. Typically, interactive games challenge players to solve compelling problems. Players learn by doing, in a virtual setting that responds to every move and decision they make. They interact with the game environment, develop skills to succeed in that environment, and rehearse those skills repeatedly. They have opportunities to experiment, fail, and try again until they succeed, and they receive help when needed. Games usually adapt to players’ abilities and keep the level of difficulty in a range that is challenging but not impossible for each individual. Players receive feedback on their progress and they are able to see how their choices enhance or hinder the desired outcome. They learn what is valued by receiving rewards (e.g., gaining points or status) or punishments (e.g., losing points or status) for their decisions and performance. They may also observe role-model characters experiencing positive or negative consequences for their behaviors. And, players often collaborate with other people so they can learn from each other and develop strategies to use in a game.
These well-established approaches to teaching and learning occur with skillful tutors and classroom teachers, and also with interactive games. It is important to note that the capacity of games to teach does not guarantee that their lessons will be desirable ones. For example, the entertainment industry has produced a variety of popular games that promote fear, hate, and violence. Most studies investigating games’ effects on players’ emotions, attitudes, and behaviors conclude that players learn these lessons well, sometimes to the point of antisocial behavior. On the other hand, games designed to teach more valuable lessons can also be effective, and the curriculum of games has been expanding into new topic areas and applications. Almost any message could be conveyed, condoned, and rehearsed in an interactive game. To paraphrase former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson’s famous quotation made decades ago about the effects of television, and substituting “games” for “television,” it is fair to say today that “All (interactive) games are educational games. The question is: What are they teaching?”
To begin to answer that question, and to consider implications for future game design, this chapter cites research that has identified the kinds of learning that takes place with games and, in some cases, how this learning happens. It organizes current research on interactive games and learning into nine areas:
• Motivation to learn
• Perception and coordination
• Thinking and problem-solving
• Skills and behaviors
• Self-regulation and therapy
• Social relationships
• Attitudes and values
This chapter appears in the book, Playing Video Games: Motives, Responses, and Consequences.
Lieberman, D.A. (2006). What can we learn from playing interactive games? Chapter in P. Vorderer & J. Bryant (Eds.), Playing video games: Motives, responses, and consequences. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 379-397.