Learning to Play and Playing to Learn!

Angelina Gherardelli


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By Angelina Gherardelli

“If you want to take all the fun out of it, get a bunch of educators involved”

A common joke in game designer circles.

As children we run, jump, and most importantly we play. When my five year old nephew was learning geometrical shapes and colors he played a game where he had to assemble a red square, a green triangle, and other colored shapes into a perfect cube. No one would think of sitting him down in a classroom with a chalkboard and telling him ‘learn this’, at least not at that age. But the game taught him to figure out the rules for himself through patient trial and error. In the same way this simple game taught my nephew basics geometry concepts, colors, and how to follow rules, games can also teach us how to set personal goals, create social bonds and socialize, and learn to navigate in a world that is mostly unknown.

This probably won’t come as much of a surprise to many. The idea that games are effective learning tools is not new. Gaming and role-playing have been used for several decades not only to teach children, but also to teach adults in fields such as economics, psychology, and military science to train and teach technical, as well as interpersonal skills. For example, in business schools around the world, first and second year students engage in a game where they start their own factitious enterprise, keep records of the company and make it succeed in the market. In this way students are more motivated and involved in learning the principles of accounting and marketing, in learning how to collaborate and compete, and at the end in learning what creates a thriving business.

But why is this? What are the characteristics of games that make them potentially excellent learning tools?

Games are FUN. They generate feelings of joy, fear, excitement, determination, and achievement and this is the basic reason why we like them so much. But games are much more than a blissful time or a distraction in our daily routine. Games motivate and engage us in achieving short and long-term goals, reward us when we successfully complete tasks, and most importantly they also help us to understand the world that surrounds us. As Brenda Brathwaite, game designer and developer, best known for her work on the role-playing video game Wizardy, explains in her TED talk, games help us cover difficult topics and allow us to explain them in simple ways, and because of their role-playing and storytelling dynamic they are able to put us outside ourselves and help us to understand others’ points of view, and complex real life processes.

Theories of situated cognition explain that games allow us to access others’ ways of thinking, which includes skills, knowledge, and values. They let us “live the world in different and new ways”, as Kurt Squire, Director of the Games, Learning & Society Initiative, mentions in his article published in the Journal of Science, Education and Technology. An old Chinese proverb says, “tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” Gaming, role-playing and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes through gaming is in fact a fun way to understand the world.

Another key feature of games is that they help us to put action into knowledge. As David Crookall and Warren Thorngate, editors of the Journal Simulation and Gaming, explain in an editorial piece, formal education, at least in Western cultures, is based on a knowledge-action dynamic. We first learn the theory and then at a later stage we put this theoretical knowledge into action. However, games teach us through an action-knowledge process. They provide an experience that later on is processed as knowledge through reflection, and this is the key to understanding the potential games have as learning tools. Furthermore, in his Forbes article, Jordan Shapiro, author of Freeplay: A Video Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss, argues that game-based learning is a type of learning that can provide a bridge between technical and artistic disciplines which are usually seen and learned as separate fields. When talking about Gamestar Mechanic, “a game-based quest that helps to learn game design and to make your own video games,” Shapiro asserts that computational technologies harness and offer “new integrated ways to think about how a child’s emotional and creative self-expression fits into our educational categories, disciplines, and curricula.”

Serious games, role-playing, and computer-based simulation games do offer infinite possibilities as educative tools. Though the characteristics found in these games can also be found in traditional face-to-face games, computer-based games are able to offer more flexibility, provide interactive storytelling, be open-ended, and adapt to the needs and skills of each individual, and hence can be more effective in the learning process.

A research roundup published in Journalist’s Resource about the outcomes of game-based learning explains how computer-based gaming has proven to varied degrees to be more effective than traditional gaming. This is because computer-based games stimulate our natural curiosity and learning style and are able to simulate and explore real-life situations in a more accurate way. For example, a paper written by Thomas Connolly et al., published in Computers & Education, examines 129 research articles with empirical evidence on serious games that aim at learning, skill enhancement, and engagement. The findings showed that “gaming is linked to a range of perceptual, cognitive, behavioral, affective and motivational impacts and outcomes.” Another interesting example comes from a study conducted by Traci Sitzmann, expert in self-regulated learning and Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Denver. Sitzmann examined the effectiveness of computer-based learning. The results revealed that, “self-efficacy was 20% higher, declarative knowledge was 11% higher, procedural knowledge was 14% higher, and retention was 9% higher for students taught with simulation games”, relative to a comparison group.

The key feature of games is that they are fun, motivating, and engaging. As the situated cognition theory explains, because we are having fun, we are motivated to continue and we engage with the game in ways that we usually are not able to with a tedious 1,000 page paper. Gaming allows an experiential and constructive learning process. In gaming players are boosted by active participation and engagement in the game, they have agency and control over the story, and this participation contributes to the learning and retention of information.

[contact-form to=’iouliafenton@gmail.com’ subject=’Sim – Learning to Play’][contact-field label=’Like this article? Enter your email for weekly updates from INESAD’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

Angelina Gherardelli is an research and communications associate with INESAD.

For your reference

Brown, J.S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989) Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Research, 18, 32-42.

Connolly, T., Boyle, E., MacArthur, E., Hainey, T., & Boyle, J. (2012). A systematic literature review of empirical evidence on computer games and serious games. Computers and Education, 59(2), 661-686.

Crookall, D., & Thorngate, W. (2009). Acting, knowing, learning, simulating, gaming. Simulation and Gaming, 40(1), 8-26.


Sitzmann, T. (2011). A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games. Personnel Psychology, 64, 489-528.


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