CALRG Conf: Challenges for Game-Based Learning

Nicola Whitton – challenges for game-based learning. She keeps a blog at

Background in computing, HCI and gaming interfaces, then interested in educational side.

Some people sometimes learn some things from some games sometimes!

Can motivate or engage people who wouldn’t otherwise be so. Problem-based learning environments have a lot in common with instructivist learning environments.

Good games do a lot of what we know makes for good learning: Swift, timely appropriate feedback. Safe, can try things out. Scaffolding, things build up in difficulty. Offers goals and rewards.

But! Three big challenges.

1. Public perception. 2. We’re only scratching the surface. 3. Barriers are too high in practice.

First point is about media narrative – can be very problematic. Emotive language (‘ultra-violent’); spurious causal links (computer games fan ‘planned school massacre’; all video games are addictive, promote racism, hatred, sexism and they reward violence. Very little evidence to back this up.

Videos are age-rated for appropriateness like games, but nobody is suggesting you mustn’t use videos for teaching in schools. [My comment: but they used to!]

Second point – about the type of games. Brain Training on the DS – very widely used mass-market education game. Very behaviourist, repeat, drill-and-practice, very low-level learning, facts/memorisation. Why? Easy to create and test, and behaviourism works in that you can learn it – but doesn’t tell you whether it’s worth learning, or whether it transfers.

Can have very sophisticated stuff – e.g. Zelda – problem-solving, planning, strategising. Problem is how to take something from informal to formal setting.

Third point – very practical: barriers to entry are very high.

Worked with academics who want to use game-based learning. Have fantastic ideas, but couldn’t produce a game, even with tools. Studies generally done in engineering or computing where enthusiasts can just go out and build it themselves. Also studies with commercial off-the-shelf games, used for discussion around the game – learning outcomes not embedded. Bespoke games which do – but small scale, not sustainable or expandable.

Are some examples of game-builder templates – but tend to be very behaviourist, simplistic stuff, drag-and-drop – arguable they’re not even games.

How can you get the cool games builders mashed up with the people who know about the deeper learning stuff? No easy answers.


Difficult if you have a long-play-time game in informal settings with complex learning outcomes – hard to evaluate it. Need to rethink our methodologies.

Development methodologies – from COTS/cottage industries – to move to games that are fun and support learning.

Philosophical change – commercial games have failure rate of 9/10, but don’t accept failure in educational gaming, or spin it wildly. Need to accept that, and accept as cost of innovation. Innovation and creation – but learn from it.


Martin O: Resources for educators. Should the learners build games? Web 2.0, but focus on learning, have to articulate those models that they’re learning, lot to be gained.

Nicola: Absolutely. But good examples are in computing, or engineering – don’t have a system for concentrating not on the game design but on the learning. Need the toolkit to create the play, bring it in to the design too.

Someone: Many studies in game-based learning wasting money and time. Want to see how they could collaborate. Will retire and do something else when we stop studying games the same way we have stopped studying how books affect learning.

Nicola: Amazed at basic level of understanding in the community.

Caroline: Brain Training game – very popular game.

Nicola: But given free with the console in many deals! So harder to judge.

Caroline: Sense that it almost sold the DS. Quite often educators’ argument is wow, look at kids playing these games, let’s make them useful, and then they’ll do their homework with the same enthusiasm. But you’re inverting that – these have simplistic pedagogic models, we should develop more sophisticated games. Why start with the games?

Nicola: If you take a non-educational game – e.g. Zelda – have a sandbox world, can interact in any order; sophisticated learning going on – experiential, engaging, active, problem-based, collaborative. Lots of games are like that. But they’re not badged as educational games. Would that suck the fun out of them? Much media hype about the brain training.

Caroline: Has been marketed to adults, but not sold as an educational platform.

Nicola: Computers not really sold that way. But is sold as a training package, and is missing the point/potential.

Rob: These two approaches to games – behaviourist vs constructivist – what makes a game a game? The rules. Very obvious what the rules are in Brain Training, but only becomes apparent in Zelda. Different models of learning. Could be about how the rules are revealed as they go on.

Nicola: Also about control – very didactic versus exploration/discovery.

Rob: Zelda does have a linear element.

Nicola: At the core, but a lot that are non-linear.

Rob: Impression of choice, rather than true choice, is what matters.

Kim: Sticking up for drill and practice. Lots of people do need to practice things a lot, particularly children. And with lack of feedback from adults, getting feedback from computers can be very helpful.

Nicola: Not saying get rid of it. But by focusing on that because it’s easy to do we miss the point. It’s not that it doesn’t work or there’s anything wrong with it – but not much need of it in higher education.

Canan: Also agree drill-and-practice works. BBC study on brain training games – found that they didn’t work, shows that people go for the game, it is enjoyable.

Nicola: People do play it and enjoy it. The way it’s hyped up about how much people play it and enjoy it and what actually happens are divergent. It’s explicitly marketed to prevent brain degeneration, and that’s very troubling.

Eileen: Techniques used in schools for brain training that are very much not validated.

Shaaron: Wondering about the future, version where learners create their own games, educators do so to. Have heard these arguments about CAL. Have never believed it. Most of us are not creating books, we read and adapt what others create. We want great media that we can tweak, not the opportunity to create our own.

Nicola: What’s realistic, you limit where you might be going. Don’t think her vision is going to happen.

Shaaron: Most of us don’t have the expertise to create a really great game, or a textbook – but can tweak it for my own kids.

Nicola: The models we have don’t work. Models that do – could be customisation, working more closely. Need to explore new developmental methodologies. Turned from being very pro games-creating students: was fine in computing, but not physiology. How can we facilitate more people to get involved and bring down barriers to entry. Is it going to happen? Probably not … yet?

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

One thought on “CALRG Conf: Challenges for Game-Based Learning”

  1. Interesting points about the barrier to entry and use of the tools. There are some tools that allow you just to go and develop game based learning resources. Missionmaker is just one example within Thinking Worlds being another. they can provide excellent resources, if you work within the game industry there are also a range of resources available and its not always a straight pick.

    Within a development environment you would expect a range of skills to be involved so its not that surprising that some of the tools do need some previous experience or the ability to put into some tool time. I work with 2 computer game design degree courses and seen several engines.

    We have challenged the students to apply their understanding of game theory into game based learning and the results have been excellent. They challenge the power of the tools and how far they could push it.

    the tools can be used but they do need some time. A coleague of me from Anglia Ruskin was showing me how they have been using the unity engine to create games without needing to know the full script language.

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