Digital game-based learning (DGBL) is increasingly being used to refer to the use of games for expected learning outcomes. The expression emphasizes the importance of the context of using digital games for educational purpose rather than the use of stand-alone applications (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. 2011). Game-based learning (GBL) usually refers to the use of digital games called serious games, digital learning, or educational games. However, non-digital games are also widely used for educational purposes. GBL is not often clearly defined in research papers. This is probably due to the difficulty to defining what playing means. Two main criteria emerge (Brougère 2000). The first criteria is the second-degree, the meta-level of the activity. A same conduct might be considered to be a game or not depending on the meaning of the activity. As a consequence, a game is frivolous and nonproductive. The second criteria consist of the autonomy of the player. He/she is allowed to take his/her own decisions and to shape his/her decision. This autonomy is framed by rules and uncertainty always remains in regard to the ending. A core characteristic of a game is its agonistic dimension. A game is an artificial conflict (Salen and Zimmerman 2004) where a player competes with the game itself or opponents.
DGBL is a complex educational practice. It includes a large variety of games and gameplays, subjects and disciplines, formal and non-formal educational contexts, school levels, and also a variety of teaching, training, or other educational practices. In addition, DGBL does not only refer to the use of a specific game for expected learning outcomes. DGBL also refers to a learning scenario where playing is important, but is not limited to the use of a game. In particular, DGBL includes debriefing that is recognized important for the metacognition and the transfer of knowledge.
DGBL is close to gamification of learning contexts. However, while gamification refers to the implementation of motivational affordances in non-gaming educational contexts, DGBL refers to the use of a specific game, called serious games, educational game, or learning game for expected learning outcomes.
The usage of games for educational purposes is not a new idea. Already, in the Greco-Roman world, Plato, Aristo, and Quintilius valued the contribution of play to the moral and physical child’s development. In Greek, paidia (play) and paideia (education) have the same roots. In Latin ludus means both game and school. The idea that playing might have an educational value came back during the humanist area after a long period in which playing has been mostly rejected. Later on, in Europe, Fröbel (1782–1852), a German pedagogue, played an important role in spreading the idea that play might have an educational value. However, game-based learning has been mainly restricted to nursery school for a long time. Play is recognized to be important for child development (Piaget 1945); however, this idea has been challenged by Sutton-Smith in a book published in 1997, The Ambiguity of Play. Sutton-Smith underlines that there is rhetoric of play as progress, which poses play as a developmental arena, not supported by evidences but by values and ideologies.
The development of digital technologies that enable game design in various fields offers new opportunities for teaching and learning and digital video games were already employed in the 1970s (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. 2011). Today, digital game-based learning (DGBL) attracts more and more attention from educators and educational researchers. Learning games are now used in primary and secondary schools and also for vocational education. DGBL is used at university and by companies for training professionals. Persuasive games are also used by activists, politicians, and institutions. As a result, more and more research projects try to assess the educational value of learning games or to understand how playing is connected to learning.
DGBL is grounded on different educational theories. In a meta-analysis, Wu et al. (2012) distinguish DBGL based on behaviorism. Learning is considered to be produced by stimulation and reinforcement due to the feedbacks provided by the game. For cognitivists, DGBL is based on the acquisition of knowledge and growth of the mental structure: information is received, processed, and organized into existing schema. Humanists stress the importance of construction of meaning for learning. They emphasize that DGBL is student centered and personalized and foster student’s motivation. Constructivism and social constructivism consider learning to be an active, constructive, and social process. DGBL is grounded on its situated and experiential feature.
From this complex landscape of GBL, two main approaches emerge. The first approach valuing DGBL is in line with Prensky claims (Prensky 2001) and the concept of edutainment, a form of entertainment designed to be educational. DGBL has its roots in the humanist tradition expressed in De civilitate morum puerilium, a handbook written by Erasme (1467–1536). Thus, DGBL is considered to address some of the pitfalls faced by educators such as lack of student’s motivation or student’s confidence (Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al. 2011). The second one is based on the idea that games might have an intrinsic educational value. This perspective is more in line with Fröbel’s ideas (Brougère 2000) and constructivist and cognitivist theories. According to this approach, the educational value of a learning game is not limited to its power to motivate students but results from the contextualization of knowledge in a challenging situation where the player can assess his/her way of thinking and behaving and develop the needed knowledge to adjust to this situation (Sanchez 2017).
An overview of the main principle of educational theories supporting DGBL is proposed in section “Toward a Game-Based Learning Theory.” In section “Diversity of Games and Gameplays for Learning,” we briefly describe the diversity of learning games and, in section “Different Uses of Games for Educational Purposes,” the diversity of the contexts for their use. Section “Challenges and Criticisms Leveled” is dedicated to emphasize the challenges faced for the implementation of DGBL and Section “Current Trends in Research” to current trends in DGBL research.
Toward a Game-Based Learning Theory
Game-Based Learning as Experiential Learning
Game-based learning has close relationships with problem-solving. Indeed, a game is an “artificial conflict” (Salen and Zimmerman 2004), a challenge that must be resolved by the learner. The learner/player faces an antagonist system composed by the game itself or adversaries (Sanchez 2017). The objectives of the player are antagonized by the resistance of the system, and the game becomes a factor of difficulties and disequilibrium (Balacheff et al. 1997). A conflict arises, and the player/learner takes decisions and shapes strategies based on his/her conception (even misconceptions), and bad decisions are punished with loss of points. Hence, from the player perspective, it demands to shape strategies and to develop the knowledge needed to win (Ibid.). This view of DGBL is line with Piagetian theories. Learning results from the adaptation of the learner to the game and, as a result, from the interactions that emerge within a given situation. Thus, learning from games has close relationships with learning from simulations and microworlds (Papert 1980). DGBL has also been linked with situated learning (Lave and Wenger 1991). For example, the so-called epistemic games (Sanchez et al. 2013; Shaffer 2006) offer the player/learner the opportunity to acting and learning professional practices. The player/learner is supposed to make his/her own discoveries and to learn from trial and error strategies through self-regulated learning. By recognizing inappropriate knowledge, the player/learner revises his/her knowledge and learns from his/her reflection on playing.
As a result, the core concepts of DGBL are interactions and feedbacks. Meaningful feedbacks provided with rewards (points, bonuses, or badges) play the role of a formative assessment. In addition, errors become useful for the learning process and provoke minimized consequences if compared with traditional teaching. These graceful failures (Plass et al. 2015) encourage risk-taking and further explorations. In this perspective, game-based learning is grounded on the philosophy of John Dewey and the idea of experiential learning (Dewey 1938).
Games-Based Learning as a Social Practice
Games have also been considered as demarcated universes or magic circles (Huizinga 1955) that stimulate a form of social practice. Social practices can take the form of collaboration so that teammates are involved in epistemic interactions (Ohlsson 1995) and learning consists in social participation (Wenger 1998). Epistemic interaction can involve different interactive processes such as explanation, production of an articulated discourse, elaboration of meaning, or clarification of views (Baker 1999). Teammates extend and make explicit the knowledge needed to address the challenge (ter Vrugte et al. 2015). By doing that, knowledge is developed, discussed, assessed, and shared. However, some authors stress that the positive effect on learning also depends on the epistemic quality of dialogues (Van der Meij et al. 2011).
Avatars have also been recognized to be important for DGBL. When players are represented by an avatar, the avatar plays the role of a projective identity (Gee 2003) in two different meanings. First, avatar is an Indian word which means incarnation. It allows the players to have a self-experience through introjection. The avatar plays the role of a mirror reflecting on his/her own values and choices. For example, he/she is led to check the relevance of the decisions he/she make by getting or losing points. The player immerses into a role, and he/she is protected from the consequences of his/her errors and failures that are assumed by his avatar. Second, the avatar is an emblematic figure which becomes the projection of an identity, an ideal figure in which the player can project his ideas, values, and desires and, therefore, find the opportunity of self-development (Sanchez et al. 2016b).
Context and Teacher’s Roles
Numerous meta-analyses are inconclusive regarding the positive or negative effects of DGBL as individual cases could differ widely. Game, as a generic term, is so broad, that it is difficult to compare case studies. In addition, the studies differ in terms of types of games, subjects, integration into learning scenarios, school levels, and contexts for their use.
Depending on school systems, cultural traditions, and educational policies, DGBL might be favored or disfavored. In Europe, different initiatives have been taken for the promotion of DGBL. For example, in 2008, the European Commission launched a program for the development of the use of digital games in school (Pivec and Pivec 2008).
The teacher’s role has been recognized as a key factor for a successful implementation of DGBL. Teachers might participate to the game design (Sanchez et al. 2017). They are concerned with the selection of games adapted to their teaching objectives and the design of relevant scenarios. They might play the role of game-masters and use Play Management System designed to support both players and teachers to deliver, use, manage, and track play situations (Sanchez et al. 2016a).
There is a difference between mastering the rules of the game and recognizing the ways those rules structure our perception of reality (Jenkins et al. 2006). Thus, it is important that players/learners become able to evaluate the distance between the game and reality. In addition, learning occurs only after reflection and debriefing (Garris et al. 2002). Debriefing plays different roles for DGBL. First, debriefing fosters reflection and metacognition. The implicit knowledge dedicated to play becomes explicit through an after-playing debating session. Brousseau (Balacheff et al. 1997) terms institutionalization this debriefing session. The word institutionalization stresses that it leads to the change of the status of knowledge. The situated knowledge needed to win the game becomes more universal and is validated by an official external source, the teacher/trainer. Second, debriefing is recognized to be crucial for the transfer of knowledge and the learning experience is undermined if the players are not aware of the learning elements (Egenfeldt-Nielsen 2006). For some authors, the game-learned experience is transferable if the teacher clarifies the purpose of the simulation before using it (Aldrich 2005). However, the concern with debriefing seems to have been lost in a majority of research studies (Crookall 2010).
Diversity of Games and Gameplays for Learning
DGBL consists of the use of a huge diversity of games. All disciplines are concerned; however, business, mathematics, and science seem to be the most common disciplinary subjects addressed.
Some games that were not primarily designed for educational purposes have been adopted by teachers. For example, Civilization (MicroProse), a strategy game in which the player attempts to build an empire, is used to teach history (https://civilization.com). SimCity (Maxis), a game in which the challenge consists of founding and developing a city, is used by geography and economy teachers (http://www.simcity.com). Some physics teachers also designed learning scenarios for secondary students based on ballistic and mechanics studies with Angry Birds (Rovio Mobile), a game which consists of launching birds with the goal of destroying pigs. Many commercial games adapted to different disciplines have been adopted by teachers. For some of them, there is a specific version dedicated to education (https://www.angrybirds.com). SimCity EDU and Microsoft Educational Version of Minecraft launched in 2016 are the most famous of them. In 2017 Ubisoft announced a new version of the game Assassin’s Creed Origins tailored for teaching ancient Egypt at school (https://assassinscreed.ubisoft.com).
Games primarily designed for learning and training are often referred as educational serious games, educational games, or learning games. They often take the form of video games for computers, iPad, or smartphones. For example, DragonBox is a famous series of educational math apps that are designed to teach algebra to primary students (http://dragonbox.com). Mechanica, (Creo) a game about physics for secondary students, and Tamagocours (Sanchez 2017), a game about copyright of educational resources for preservice teachers, have been designed by teams composed of educators, game designers, and researchers (http://www.mecanika.ca).
Numerous serious games have also been designed for training professionals such as soldiers (e.g., America’s Army (https://www.americasarmy.com)) or surgeons (e.g., Touch Surgery (https://www.touchsurgery.com)), and the training sector has put considerable effort and money to improve professional training with DGBL. The health sector has also adopted DGBL for professional and patients.
There is also a huge diversity of games in terms of game apparatus and gameplays. The most common games are video games, online video games, or apps for cellphones and tablets. DGBL also encompasses location-based games, role-play games. Since several years, new games attract more and more attention. Alternate reality games enable for the design of complex learning environment that combines physical reality and simulations. During the recent years, teachers have also designed escape games with educational content. S’CAPE, an online platform, enables teachers to share their games and to collaborate for designing the games (http://scape.enepe.fr).
Different Uses of Games for Educational Purposes
Fostering Motivation and Engagement
Following a humanist tradition, DGBL is often considered to have the power to promote positive attitudes toward disciplines (Ke 2008), to make the learning experience more enjoyable, to foster student’s motivation, and to engage students to learn (Dickey 2005; Jabbar and Felicia 2015). The main reasons that are evoked are grounded in the self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci 2000). Games are known to fulfill innate human psychological needs such as autonomy (freedom framed by rules), self-confidence (game levels that promote successes), and relatedness (interactions with teammates and adversaries). Flow is also often mentioned. Flow is defined as the highest degree of motivation by being completely involved in an activity for its own sake (Csikszentmihalyi 1990). However, engagement in games is not only related to elements inherent in games. It depends, as well, to the attributes of players such as motivation to play, playing styles, ages, or gender (Connolly et al. 2012).
Drill and Practice: Games for Training
Like simulations, games offer the opportunity to practice in a safe environment. The learner can test different strategies and make mistake without bad consequences. Moreover, bad strategies can be experimented and their outcomes assessed. Thus, DGBL have been used to train professionals for the development of various competences. One of the most famous examples relates to America’s Army which is used for the recruitment and training of soldiers. Serious games are also used to train pilots to handle unknown and unexpected situations (Kuindersma et al. 2017) and teachers to react to school mass shooting (EDGE – Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment (https://www.dhs.gov)).
Different games have also been designed to train professional to interact with customers (Adoptez la client attitude !(http://www.ktm-advance.com)) or employees (Entretien Annuel d’Evaluation11).
Raising Awareness with Persuasive Games
Serious games also realize a new form of rhetoric (Bogost 2007). Thus, some of them have been designed to persuade people to adopt a specific conduct or to change their opinion. They are called persuasive games. For example, there is a huge diversity of games for health that intend to help people to adopt conduct for preventing or treating disease and to develop self-management skills. There are many examples of such games for young diabetics (Times Out) or obese persons (Fat World (http://www.gamesforchange.org/play/fatworld/)).
Numerous games are also employed to raise people awareness on social and environmental issues such as fight against terrorism (September 12th (http://www.gamesforchange.org)), consequences of the exploitation of oil shale (Fort Mac Money(http://www.fortmcmoney.com)), or fast food (McDonalds (http://molleindustria.org/)).
All the examples mentioned above elaborate on the idea that a game is a medium that can support or disrupt conducts or social positions through procedural rhetoric, i.e., rule-based representations and interactions (Bogost 2007).
Learning from Creating Games and Modding
In a study published in 2011, Vos et al. (2011) concluded that students involved in creating games demonstrated more cognitive competence than those who just played existing games. Some platforms enables for the creation of games. For example, Scratch (Resnick et al. 2009) enables young learners to develop computational thinking through the creation of mini games. DGBL can also take the form of modding. Modding consists of the alteration of already existing games. Bayliss (2012) reports on modding the commercial game Minecraft for a course on artificial intelligence.
Assessing Skills with Games
In general, games provide immediate feedbacks to the actions performed by the player/learner. As a result, a game plays the role of a space for reflexivity within which the player can test his ways of behaving because his/her decisions translate into immediate feedback (Sanchez et al. 2016b). Gee and Shaffer (2010) develop a similar idea when they state that we are wrong when we design games for learning; they should be designed for testing, and they are assessment systems (Shaffer 2007). The same authors stress that inherently require and assess a set of twenty-first-century skills. Indeed, the so-called epistemic games (Shaffer 2006) enable for distinguishing between experts and novices than can any standard paper-and-pencil test.
Such an approach has been followed by Renault Trucks, a French company. The company developed a game dedicated to train their employees to interact with customers. Finally, they recognized that the game did not add any value to the training. However the company decided to use the game as an assessment system as it demonstrated its power to assess the skills required to interact with customers.
Information and Media Literacy
Since digital games represent now an economic sector with a more important turnover than the trade of books or music, there is a need to develop game literacy for the young generation (Buckingham and Burn 2007). As a result, games should not be regarded merely as educational tools. Education about games should be taken into account. Indeed, the gaming culture is important for the new generation. In addition, playing a game can become a persuasion to believe in the general ideology surrounding them (Sutton-Smith 1997). Thus, game literacy is a form of media literacy. This issue has been addressed by teachers. A blog post reports how Pascal Mériaux, a French history teacher, has integrated Assassin’s Creed into his course on the French revolution (https://blogs.microsoft.fr/enseigner-lhistoire-geo-avec-assassins-creed-cest-lidee-geniale-de-ce-professeur-de-lycee/). Students are asked to discuss the representation of this period by the game.
Challenges and Criticisms Leveled
Digital game-based learning has often faced criticisms and has been called chocolate-covered broccoli approach (Bruckman 1999) or sugar-coating education (Kirriemuir and McFarlane 2004). Disguised educational content is recognized to have a negative effect. These criticisms are in line with Freinet’s opinion. Freinet draws a distinction between play-work and work-play. Play-work is free play which can become bad kind of play. Work-play, on the other hand, is real and productive work done by children (Freinet 1946). There is also a non-negligible proportion of students that is reluctant to consider that learning result from playing (Egenfeldt-Nielsen 2007) or who prefer direct instruction. Another criticism leveled is the short-term effect of DGBL. When the novelty of using reward system within games wore off, the learners’ engagement decreased (Ronimus et al. 2014).
Thus, the difficult challenge faced by game designers consists of merging gameplay and educational content. The so-called serious games are often designed by educators and not by game designers. They are often poor in terms of playfulness. Others game might be fun but not really educational since the players can address the challenge with no learning gain. Game mechanics should be aligned with the learning goals of the game. Games that manage to combine attractive gameplay and educational content are said to be intrinsic (Habgood 2007).
Current Trends in Research
A majority of current research falls within an essentialist viewpoint on DGBL. The functions of a game are considered resulting from a set of attributes that might be studied independently. For example, some studies focus on the effect of specific game mechanics like competition (ter Vrugte et al. 2015) or game elements (Filsecker and Hickey 2014). A new research trend is currently emerging. Play is considered to be performative (Sanchez and Mandran 2017) and to depend on the lusory attitude of an individual who accepts the arbitrary and artificial rules of the game. This emphasizing of the player is also noticeable in the expression playful learning proposed by Plass et al. (2015). Playful learning describes learning that incorporates game elements, even though the learning environment might not be considered a game. Already, in 2007 Mitgutsch advocated for the adoption of the expression play-based learning and thus emphasized the importance of the player. Henriot’s work (Henriot 1969, 1989) about game and play is important regarding this question.
Playing analytics, the collection, and analysis of player’s interactions with the game during play activity offer new opportunities for the understanding of DGBL. Most of the recent studies are limited to qualitative studies about numbers of players connected, players’ clicks on the interface, or needed time for achievement. However, some researchers try to go beyond with players’ strategies or error analysis (Sanchez and Mandran 2017). Playing analytics should play an important role for future research into DGBL.
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