5 Ways to Make Digital Game-Based Learning Work

The presence of clear, measurable learning objectives is what differentiates Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL) from gamification.

Digital game-based learning (DGBL), however popular, often faces criticism. Sometimes its relevance cannot be determined, while in other instances failures during implementation do not provide the best experience for learners. Nonetheless, the use of digital learning games has been effectively use in a wide variety of settings, including health care, corporate training, the military, K-12 schools, and higher education. By adopting these five practices, instructors can enhance the experience of their learners:

  1. Identify the appropriate learning domain. Usually in instruction, it is easy to assume learners only need to acquire mental skills or knowledge they can recall or apply later on. This kind of domain, known as cognitive, is not the only aspect that is relevant to learners. Sometimes a change in behavior or attitude (i.e., affective domain) or the ability to learn a manual or physical activity is the ultimate goal. Before deciding on a digital game, it is important to evaluate and decide on the learning domain instructors want to improve or change. Some digital games will help learners memorize facts, while others will help them accept or reject ideas, or learn a physical routine. One of the causes for the failure of DGBL is trying to use the digital game to foster a change in the wrong learning domain.
  2. Determine what you want your learners to be able to do. DGBL loses its effectiveness if there are no clear learning objectives. Throughout the digital game, learners should be able to demonstrate that a change in their knowledge, skills, or attitudes has taken place. Before game time starts, learners should have a clear objective for what they should be able to do and how the game is going to allow them do that. For instance, a digital game can help learners master a specific process, learn new facts, make choices in a given scenario, or imitate a series of movements or steps. It is the instructor’s task to choose a game that allows such a display of learning evidence in order for DGBL to work. The presence of clear, measurable learning objectives is what differentiates DGBL from gamification. While DGBL has specific learning objectives at the beginning of instruction, gamification is simply using elements of a game in a non-gaming instructional scenario.
  3. Establish a degree. One of the most appealing aspects of a digital game for learning purposes is the wide variety of types of evidence it can provide to demonstrate learning. During game play, learners can demonstrate expertise or proficiency when they achieve a specific score, when they complete a level within a specific timeframe, or when their character has evolved in a particular way. An instructor can use scores, logs, rewards, or badges within the game to determine the degree of expertise the learners have achieved. Using the features of the game, known as embedded assessment, learners can know how near or far they are to reaching mastery of objectives. Quite often, DGBL fails when learners play a game without knowing the status of their progress and how completing the game is connected to mastering knowledge. It is the instructor’s responsibility to determine this degree and clearly communicate it to the learners.
  4. Don’t forget about your role. Even though instructors will not be lecturing during DGBL, they still have a key role in the implementation of this instructional method. It is recommended that the instructor becomes a facilitator before, during, and after the use of a digital game. Before game play, the instructor should play as needed until becoming thoroughly familiar with the game, its dynamics, rules, and instructions. During game time, the instructor should provide clear instructions on how to play the game and also place it within the context of instruction. It is important to let the learners know how the game is related to learning, as well as the learning objectives and degrees they should achieve. Observation is also key during game play for the instructor to identify the areas of the game that are the most challenging and how other instructional methods and materials can be used to reinforce learning with the game. Instructors should be aware that being disruptive can affect the momentum of learning during DGBL. For this reason, the role of facilitating should continue after game play; in that way, instructors get a chance to debrief, ask questions, encourage discussion, and make learners reflect. These activities are recommended after game play is over to let learners concentrate on their performance.
  5. Have fun! The goal of DGBL is to have fun and increase learners’ engagement while learning something new. If a digital game is too complex, too easy, or too irrelevant, the fun element might disappear. Similarly, if the instructor is not ready for the adoption of the learning game or sees it as a waste of time or resources, another instructional method might be a better alternative. It is important to keep in mind that a digital learning game is not always a suitable method and that it can work against the instructor if an adequate evaluation of the instructional process and game has taken place. The idea is that the enthusiasm of the instructor can help the students experience success as they really see how learning can take place in a fun way through a digital game.

Miguel (Miko) Nino is an Instructional Design & Training manager at Virginia Tech and a Ph.D. candidate in Instructional Design and Technology at Virginia Tech. His research focuses on digital game-based learning, online course quality, and professional development. His research has been published in journals and presented in several regional, national, and international conferences. For further information, he can be reached at mnino@vt.edu

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