December 3, 2023

Many teachers see digital learning games primarily as a way to help students review information they’ve already learned in a more conventional way.

But when it comes to improving how deeply students master material, the technology can actually be, well, a game changer.

Students can learn more overall from digital games than from traditional instructional approaches such as lectures, according to a meta-analysis by researchers at Saarland University in Germany.

Digital games are also more effective than traditional approaches in motivating students, the researchers found, though the effect was smaller. Games’ positive impact was apparent across a range of school subjects, from learning a language to grasping STEM concepts, the researchers found.

The researchers examined more than 30 high-quality studies involving school-aged participants. All were published between 2015 and 2020. Those dates are important because similar, previous analyses considered older studies, the authors wrote. Digital games created more recently can be much more technologically complex, interactive, and include assessment features, they wrote.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, learning with digital media is more relevant than ever,” the authors wrote. “But learners may experience mere e-learning environments as boring because those environments often lack engaging elements. One solution could be the application of digital game-based learning because games can be highly motivating.”

The overall findings came as no surprise to Christopher Dede, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in learning technology.

“If games are of high quality, they work pretty well because they’re motivating, because it’s active learning, rather than learning by listening,” Dede said. “And if games are not of high quality, then they tend to not work.”

The features of high-quality games tend to be similar to those of other high-quality lessons, Dede said. For instance, students may learn more and feel more engaged if they are helping someone else—even a digital creature—navigate the material. And they are likely to learn more if the reward is intrinsic, meaning that understanding one concept leads to the introduction of a deeper, more exciting lesson, he added.

Digital games have been trying to inject a fun twist into learning since the days of Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, both popular with school children more than 30 years ago. But despite two decades of research consistently showing a positive impact, many educators still don’t take learning games seriously, Dede said.

“For people who make decisions based on evidence, the skepticism [about games] is over,” he said, noting that games are no longer “off at the fringes” of the education technology world. But he added that “there’s these different schools of thought that still are resistant to something like games because [students are] learning by doing instead of teaching by telling.”

Games may be impactful but they can’t replace teachers

Elena Novak, an associate professor of educational technology at Kent State University in Ohio, agreed that the study’s conclusions echo past research. But she wondered whether the takeaway would have been different if the researchers compared digital games to more engaging, inquiry-based teaching approaches.

“Let’s say you have this recorded lecture. Yes, it’s very boring and people don’t pay attention. But if you give them hands-on experience, project-based learning, that’s a completely different story,” Novak said. “This analysis doesn’t capture that.” Instead, it refers to a “traditional approach,” a phrase that’s open to broad interpretation, Novak said.

Digital games are most useful when teachers have a firm grounding in how to use them effectively, she added.

Jan Plass, a professor in digital media and learning sciences at New York University echoed those sentiments. He added that no educator should read the analysis and decide to swap out teachers for educational video games, no matter how well-designed they are.

“If one were to replace all curriculum in one subject, with games over weeks or months, I’m not sure we would find the same” positive conclusion as the study, he said.

The same is true of other educational technologies that can be effective at improving student learning or engagement, such as virtual reality or AI-powered tools, Plass added.

When a new technology comes into vogue, “we get super excited and think everything has to happen that way” even though “that should never be the goal of any medium.”


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