Educational games Possibilities and limitations

Learning with digital media
Learning with digital media | © Bloom Design / Shutterstock

Computer games are all the rage, with the educational aspect of games becoming the focus of increasing interest. But what potential do educational games really have? Where are the limitations of digital games in terms of their educational use? And what role will be played by teachers if games dominate lesson time in the future?

Are you still busy learning, or already at play?

Gustavo Rochato has recently started learning German – using a game he can take with him wherever he goes. Thanks to the Duolingo app he has learnt 251 words, collected 511 experience points and managed to reach level six. To date, Gustavo has never taken a German class, let alone visited Germany, yet he is still unaware of the difference between the language he is learning through play and the language that is actually spoken in real life. Gustavo is no exception: millions of users regularly play and learn online in a variety of settings.
In terms of game theory, every game constitutes a learning process. During a game we attempt voluntarily to overcome unnecessary obstacles, we interact with a system that follows particular rules and combines an exciting narrative with appealing aesthetics. The key factor here is that players interact with the system of their own free will and do not derive any real consequences for their lives. The purpose of the game may be entertainment or education, and ideally will combine the two.

The four potential benefits of educational games

Every game begins with a challenge that motivates the gamer to put their knowledge and skills to the test. Games are designed such that the game adapts to the abilities of the individual player and increases the level of difficulty at the right pace. By learning from their mistakes, players improve with every task they tackle. The challenge of the game allows players to fail in an enjoyable way while encouraging them to learn and improve.
A second potential benefit is the possibility to explore and test one’s own abilities within the realm of play. Because the decisions taken during the game have no consequences in real life, players can experiment and try things out. They explore the virtual consequences of their own actions in a kind of simulation. There is hardly any potential for this in reality, as “game over” in real life tends to have very genuine consequences.
The third potential benefit is the chance to explore roles and identities. In a game the players slip into fictitious guises, pretend and can thus adopt new perspectives. Each new perspective opens up novel challenges and stimulates learning processes that only become possible thanks to the identity assumed in the game.
All these potential benefits are exploited by being applied during the game. Application and immediate feedback allow players to put what they have learnt directly into practice in the game. The players find out whether their abilities are sufficient to meet the requirements. Their own progress in the game gives them the reassurance of having achieved and learnt something. Educational Games: potential benefits, limitations and pedagogical challenges Educational Games: potential benefits, limitations and pedagogical challenges | © Dr Konstatin Mitgutsch

The four limitations to educational games

The question of how the things learnt during the game can be transferred into reality reveals the Achilles’ heel of digital gaming. Challenges in video games are generally fictional and have no relevance to everyday life, they are illusions. Fighting dragons, racing cars or shifting Tetris puzzle pieces into place allows players to acquire knowledge and skills that are meaningless and not directly applicable in everyday life.
A second limitation is the aspect of simplification. Games reduce complex systems to their core aspects and are merely a programmed representation of the real world. Yet the world in which we live is more complex and cannot be boiled down to the simple logic of the game. This gives rise to the next problem, namely that learners often lose sight of the system that is being simulated in the game.
The third limitation is the game’s lack of context as regards real life. Games are not designed to have any impact on the player once the game has been switched off, because the players and the worlds they live in are too different and the world in general is too complicated. Even games that pursue a genuine end – known as serious games or educational games – tend to fail when it comes to translating the game into a real-life context. That is the good news for those who fear that violent games produce violent behaviour – and the bad news for those who believe that intelligent games automatically make the player more intelligent.
The fourth limitation follows on from the question of context. As a rule, players are not able of their own accord to establish any direct relation between what they have learnt in the game and real life. They acquire huge amounts of information in play and retain this information long-term, yet in school they are unable to remember even the simplest historical dates. Many players and teachers overlook the correlation between learning accomplishments in play and those in the real-life context.
Games open the door to transformational learning experiences, but the players have to go through the door themselves. This is where the importance of the teacher’s role when games are used – something that is underestimated to this day – becomes all too clear. The learners require constructive support if they are to take anything relevant to their own learning process with them from the productive game settings.

The four pedagogical challenges of educational games

The illusory character of many gaming experiences makes it harder to transfer the experience to real life. External impetus is therefore needed to direct attention to the potential of the games and to what has been learnt in them. This is a meta perspective that teachers can and should adopt in order to foster the educational potential of games. The content of what has actually been learnt – the increase in knowledge and skill – needs to be highlighted and discussed together with the gamers. Once they have been made aware of the relevant content and their learning accomplishments, it is important to create a bridge between the virtual and the real domain. The pedagogical question here is to determine in which real context players can apply what they have learnt and which aspects can be transferred directly from the game. The third task for educators is to establish the – missing – connection between the real world and the simulated game. Gamers should be inspired to perceive the connections and to put what they have learnt to the test in everyday life.
The fourth task involves confrontation with the game contents that are difficult to access directly. While playing it is often hard to adopt a critical attitude to what has been learnt, so players must be encouraged to do this by others. If teachers are able to create a link between the virtual and the real context, their action may make a transfer possible. To put it somewhat provocatively, it is only through the support of the teacher that the dimensions of educational games which hinder such transfer can be overcome, allowing the potential to be exploited. This novel educational role demands that teachers be interested and willing to engage with educational games. The experiment can be well worthwhile, thus becoming a new learning challenge for teachers.


James Paul Gee: What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003
Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, Katie Salen: Moving learning games forward: Obstacles opportunities and openness. The Education Arcade, 2009
Konstantin Mitgutsch, Herbert Rosenstingl: Schauplatz Computerspiele, Lesethek Verlag, 2009
Dominik Petko: Unterrichten mit Computerspielen. Didaktische Potenziale und Ansätze für den gezielten Einsatz in Schule und Ausbildung. MedienPädagogik 15/16, 2009