Articles / Applying game-based thinking to increase learner engagement

As part of Towards Maturity’s eXchanges programme at Learning Technologies 2013, Wyver Solutions director, Mark Berthelemy, chaired a conversation with Ben Betts.

Ben is a researcher at Warwick University, and heads up Curatr – an online learning platform that uses game-based approaches to stimulate motivation to learn.

Ben was talking about how I can apply game based thinking to increase learner engagement.

In a lively, international discussion, he led me through the different ways in which games may be used to support learning, and provided a whistle-stop tour of the current research in this field.

The participants in the conversation came from widely different backgrounds. Each came with a different need to be addressed:

  • Applying games approaches to the revamp of a management course
  • Adopting an research-based approach to designing forensics training.
  • Encouraging more engagement with the training they provided on a complex software application.

Ben introduced me to the six categories of games-based learning that he had encountered in his research:

  1. Drill and practice
    An approach which is ideal for learning that requires simple repetition – ie. where retention is important. An important part of this is an element of challenge, such as beating the clock.
  2. Serious games
    An approach which takes the attributes of commercial games but for a “serious” purpose. There are two scenarios where a serious game is worthwhile:</p>
    • For situated learning – where it’s important to replicate a particular environment and a high risk situation, where failure is not an option. An example is America’s Army
    • For cognitive development – where the aim is to develop deep understanding of principles, models and schemas. An example is Fold It – a puzzle game about the structure of proteins, where the data from the solutions developed are also fed into the developers’ research.
  3. Commercial off the Shelf (COTS)
    These are games, such as Portal 2 and Minecraft which were created for entertainment, but that have been adopted by teachers to develop understanding of complex concepts.
    See: Minecraft in Education and Portal 2 education site.
  4. Alternate Reality Games (ARG)
    These have often been used in the context of marketing, but are starting to be adopted in a learning context. Given that marketing and learning are often both about changing behaviours, that’s not surprising. ARG’s take a mixture of fake and real information, both online and offline, to create a new reality in the mind of the audience. They are particularly good to help people explore human factors in situations.
  5. Simulations
    There is a question over whether these are really games, and there is some cross-over with serious games. Much depends on how you define “game” and also, not insignificantly, the perception of the person “playing” the Simulation – whether it is treated as a game or not.
  6. Gamification
    This is the process where a game-like characteristics is used in a non-game situation. Generally, these are included in order to induce particular behaviours in the participating people. However, it’s important to be careful that gamification doesn’t stimulate the wrong behaviours (eg. school league tables, which may have serious unintended consequences). Examples of these characteristics (which may be used alone or in combination) include:</p>
    • incentives, such as recognition or reward (eg. Mozilla’s Open Badges initiative) or leaderboards
    • measurements of progress, such as levels
    • providing support or scaffolding at the point of need, and withdrawing it when it’s not required (this is based on the concept of the Flow Channel – see below)

Why games are important

Games promote two things that are vital to learning taking place:

  1. Motivation – noting that if motivation is not an issue, then a game may not be required
  2. Activity – having to “do”, and even better, create, rather than just consume is an important factor to deep learning.

I looked briefly at the example of CodeAcademy, which is a great example of gamification:

  • learners are rewarded by badges
  • they gain a sense of rapid progression through the levels
  • support is provided at each point, with the ability to go back to earlier levels to revise
  • the learning is personalised in that learners progress at their own pace/li>
  • learners are actively involved in doing, and making mistakes, not just reading.

The Flow Channel

The concept of a flow channel maps the difficulty of a task against the ability of an individual to do the task. If the person is significantly more able than the task requires, then there is the risk that they will become bored. If the task is more difficult than the person is able, then there’s the risk that the person will become stressed. The ideal is a narrow band around the place where ability and difficulty are matched.

This relates closely to Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development.


I discussed how these concepts may be applied to each of the participants’ situations. In particular, I looked at software training, which is often treated as an afterthought – post-application development.

If, however, the software was built from the mind-set of a games developer, where the aim is to enable users to get better at using the application, then perhaps I would see things like:

  • progressively more complex functionality being released as users get deeper into the application
  • when a user encounters a function for the first few times, help on how to use it being provided there and then


A study of intrinsically motivating computer games – Thomas Malone (1981) – PDF

Overview of the research on the educational use of video games – Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen (2006) – PDF

A meta-analytic examination of the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games – Traci Sitzmann (2011) – behind a paywall

Serious Games Institute

For more, see Ben’s write-up from Learning Technologies 2013

Posted: 05 February 2013

Tags: Learning