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Aurora Institute

Gaming in K-12 online learning – Anuar Andres Lequerica (Guest blogger)

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Anuar Andres Lequerica

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Today’s guest post is by one of iNACOL’s Research Interns, Anuar Andres Lequerica, who is interested in K-12 online learning and the power of gaming. His post today is a brief literature review on gaming. Enjoy his post!


Recent Developments and Research in the Games-based Learning Field

A pair of education technology tools has started to generate much excitement in the past few years: educational games and simulations. They go by many other names: serious games, edutaiment, learning games, etc. According to new research by Ambient Insight (Greer, 2013), worldwide revenues for game-based learning reached $1.5 billion in 2012, revenues are expected to reach $2.3 billion by 2017 and sales growth is being driven primarily by game-based educational apps. There are a number of yearly academic conferences on the subject, for example Games Learning Society and Games for Change. There are game-based charter schools, for example Quest to Learn and ChicagoQuest. There are databases that allow teachers to find games for specific subjects and grade-levels like Playful Learning and Graphite. Online education companies like Amplify are starting to incorporate games into their courses (EdSurge, 2013). MOOCs are also starting to incorporate games, for example a game created for a Coursera probability course (Coursera blog, 2013). Speaking of MOOCs, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is teaching one called Videogames and Learning.

Why use games and simulations for learning?

According to Gee (2005) and the National Research Council (2011): games and simulations are engaging, maybe more so than other teaching methods; games and simulations adjust to learners, providing “personalized instruction”; games and simulations easily generate lots of student data; games and simulations are cheap to run and update, when compared to other teaching methods; assessment is included within the games and simulations; games and simulations allow the learner to experience and manipulate situations and phenomena that would otherwise be impossible or impractical to do; games and simulations make the learner assume and commit to the identity of a game’s main character; games and simulations offer information just when it is useful, in a meaningful context and provide just the right amount of challenge for the learner to keep engaged.

UC-Irvine professor Mimi Ito divides games into three categories (Ito, 2009): education, entertainment, and construction. Educational games are curriculum-centered. They mostly use simple game-mechanics to get students to master academic content. They are mostly played by young children. Example: Jumpstart and Math Blaster. Entertainment games are not centered on academic content but enjoyment. They might have some educational value but focus is on fun. Examples: Pajama Sam 2, Lego Racers. Construction games allow expressions of creativity and authorship. Example: SimCity, Minecraft.

Is there evidence of the effectiveness of games and simulations as instructional tools?

A number of studies of military simulations used to train military personnel have shown them to be effective in a number of ways, including transfer of the knowledge from the learning setting to actual use (Tobias & Fletcher, 2011). A number of studies have also found effects for people playing action and racing games on perception, attention, and cognition (Tobias & Fletcher, 2011; Rusli, 2013).

What about evidence related to K-12?

The National Research Council (2011) reports: “Overall, the research provides promising evidence that the use of simulations can enhance conceptual understanding in science and moderate evidence that simulations can motivate interest in science and science learning”.

SRI (2013a) did a meta-analysis of the literature on computer simulations for K–12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning topics, reviewing studies with experimental or quasi-experimental designs. They find simulation treatments were shown to have an advantage in learning achievement over non-simulation instruction. SRI (2013b) also did a similar study on education games and found that they were associated with significantly better cognitive competency outcomes among students relative to the other instruction comparison conditions.

There has also been research into which elements of games improve learning outcomes. Hint buttons and game avatars that interact with the player thru audio/text are some examples (Tobias & Fletcher, 2011). It’s important to remember too that creating a game is partly an art. As Scot Osterweil of the MIT Education Arcade says in the Coursera games and learning MOOC (2013), “You can’t design from statistics, you have to design from the heart and from the gut.”

Future of the educational games and simulations field

Educational games and simulations are improving in quality and increasing in popularity, just like other online learning tools. A large number of the early games and simulations were part of academic investigations, built with tiny design budgets and little intention of being widely incorporated into curricula. Now, we are seeing big commercial projects by major companies: Electronic Arts building SimCityEDU, Valve Software creating Learn with Portals. The biggest entertainment game of the year will likely be Grand Theft Auto V, which cost its developer $250 million to produce and market. A lot is in store for educational gaming when you consider the education market is 30 times the size of the entertainment game market.


Clark, D., Tanner-Smith, E., Killingsworth, S ., Bellamy, S. (2013). Digital Games for Learning: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (Executive Summary). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Retrieved from

Coursera blog. (2013, October 18). Why one professor created the first-ever social gaming platform for a MOOC. Retrieved from

D’Angelo, C., Rutstein, D., Harris, C., Bernard, R., Borokhovski, E., Haertel, G. (2013). Simulations for STEM Learning: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis (Executive Summary). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Retrieved from

EdSurge News Brief. (2013, June 17). Amplify Debuts Edtech Games For Learning Language Arts & STEM. Retrieved from

Gee, J. P. (2005). Good Video Games and Good Learning. Retrieved from

Greer, T. (2013, August 27). Global Game-based Learning Market to Reach $2.3 Billion by 2017. Retrieved from

Ito, M. (2009). Engineering Play: A Cultural. History of Children’s Software. (2009). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

National Research Council. (2011). Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations. Retrieved from

Osterweil, S. (2013). Videogames and Learning [Lecture 23]. Coursera. Retrieved from

Rusli, E.M. (2013). Scientists Use Videogames to Improve Older Brains. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

Tobias, S., & Fletcher, J. D. (Eds). (2011). Computer Games and Instruction. Scottsdale, AZ: Information Age Publishing.