This paper will critically examine the effectiveness of Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL) and will start by presenting a broad definition of DGBL coupled with a description of the main issues it attempts to address. This is followed by a critical analysis of three key studies on the use of online games in education which discuss what is meant by effective learning via digital games and the different kinds of learning experience that they offer. Finally, a conclusion will be drawn on the future potential of Digital Game-Based Learning.
Game-Based Learning is referred to as a digital entertainment means with simple instructional formulae serving an educational objective (Prensky, 2003; Clark, 2007; All, Nunez Castelar & Van Looy, 2016). In a book exploring the various approaches in which games can be used in class as instructional and formative tools without losing their primary role, that is of entertaining, Clark C. Abt (1987) referenced to Jean Piaget’s interpretation of knowledge as not being a copy past life situation. According to Piaget ‘To know an object is to act on it. To know is to modify, to transform the object, and to understand the process of this transformation, and as a consequence to understand the way the object constructed. An operation is thus the essence of knowledge; it is an internalised action which modifies the object of knowledge…intelligence is born of action’. Hence, games have been introduced to education as a new paradigm (Appendix 1 & 2) to answer the growing hype around applied games and the concern for a more interactive approach to learning given that digital natives are more boosted when they are using common ICT devices (Prensky, 2012). Therefore, DGBL is utilised as medium conveying teaching priorities forward with an enjoyable learning method.
‘Games and simulations have been an exciting and creative part of learning for many years’ (Butler, 1988). Formerly, electronic games were used by medical, military, aerospace and business sectors in order to stimulate students’ and or employees’ knowledge. Despite the poor graphics, games aimed to foster skills’ acquisition and real-world decision making. The enhancement of information technology engaged and laid the foundation to the establishment of digital games as part of the educational landscape. Noticeably, in the early 1980s, a shift from simulation to Digital Game-Based Learning was due to the availability of personal computers and later on the increase in internet accessibility to people (Gros, 2007). In his ‘Third Generation Educational Use of Computer Games’, Egenfeldt-Nielsen (2007) further illustrated the fluctuation between three generation of game users (Appendix 3). The adoption of different learning characteristics would ultimately generate various types of players. Thus, behaviour, learner or setting focused games are important driving factors which resulted in providing three distinct digital experiences for users. Thanks to the advent of palm devices, educators now are more than ever interested in gaming and game elements to meet their learners’ concern (Prensky, 2012).
To avoid dry learning experiences, games as a system, owe to respect a set of rules and components. According to Patricia Deuble (2006) and Begoña Gros (2007) games are classified as action, adventure, fighting, puzzle, role-play, sport and strategy. Moreover, Deuble called on educators’ consciousness in selecting the appropriate type as each one of them serve a specific learning content and purpose. Accordingly, other aspects should be taken into consideration such as age, gender, the role of players and teacher. Likewise, Paul Gee (2007) brings an insightful interpretation of DGBL by outlining 16 real learning components that are integrated within games namely ‘risk-taking’, ‘well-oriented problems’, ‘situation meaning’, ‘cross-functional teams’ and ‘performance before competence’. All of these principles, which are part of the gaming mechanics, should aimfully be considered while used with students because they ‘empower learners and create deep understanding’ (Edutopia, 2013).
Digital Game-Based Learning went beyond reviewing the brain as an information retainer. Transcendentally appealing for children and adolescents, digital games offer an immersion in a full world of challenge, amusement and curiosity. To wit, their advancement in ‘flexibility, adaptability, distribution’ (Gros, 2007), not to forget accessibility to a myriad of tools and roles, permitted education specialists to approach learning differently. Indeed, Prensky (2003) denoted that there is a mismatch between the way the two generations approach learning and knowledge. He further explained that ‘the brain reorganizes and rewires itself in response to cultural stimuli, so a child who plays digital games at night is bored at class not because of “short attention span” or bad study habits but because the child’s brain has programmed itself to respond better to “twitch speed” interactivity” (ibid). Thus far, it is important to consider that ‘technology is integrated when it is used…to support and extend curriculum objectives and to engage students in meaningful learning’ (Dias, 1999; Zouaï, 2016) that would be an enhancement to knowledge transfer.
First and in terms of effectiveness, popularity stands as the most used argument by literature. Professor James Carse (1986) explained that expectations determine whether the survival quest is made of fear of failure or dying in each player or from a more playful and choicely experience with a set of alternatives. Thus, allowing every element of the play to transform game users by taking pleasure in every surprise they may meet. Those are the differences between finite and infinite players.” He, therefore, believes that augmented sense of achievement and fun are persuaded through the ability to choose over rough challenges. Moreover, DGBL could be associated with the ARCS model approach, an acronym introduced by Kellers (2010) and refers to Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction. In his book, Keller lists four concepts that may help to sustain learners’ engagement and hence acclaim among them. For this purpose, students’ attention can be hooked either through ‘perceptional arousal’ such as dilemmas or ‘inquiry arousal’ such as questions. This will help elevate their curiosity and thus their interest. In addition, the relatedness of the learning experience to their ‘present worth’ would help gain their self-confidence in the accomplishment of the task. Lastly, establishing a reward mechanism will uplift their self-satisfaction and enhance their involvement in gaming. Interestedly, the pamperedness around digital games is incremented through players’ simulated motivation and leveraged by their concern too.
Accordingly, motivation is another compelling aspect of DGBL. ‘Advocates for games suggest that they are highly motivating vehicles that could support learning, problem-solving, and collaborative skills’ (Clark, 2007). Ryan and Deci (2000) hold the view that intrinsic human motivation is as ‘volitional’ and ‘pervasive’ as any other psychological need. Consequently, ‘Digital Game-Based Learning as intrinsic motivation to perform an activity is associated with higher levels of enjoyment, interest, performance, higher quality of learning and heightened self-esteem’ (All et all, 2016). In support of this, the Flow Theory also suggests that a unique sense of purpose towards an activity would enhance concentration and thus interest. Csikszentmihalyi (2004) argues for the importance of equilibrating individual’s skills with challenge level. He also pointed out to the validity of clear feedback which weight in favour of learners’ autonomy. A motivated student, therefore, is an irrepressible trainee who enjoys autonomous learning through digital games.
Second, DGBL enhances learners’ learning strategy. ‘People learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone… this assertion – which can be called the multimedia principle– underlies much of the interest in multimedia learning’ (Mayer, 2014). A possible explanation of this can be illustrated by Mark Thomas (2009) and Prensky (2006, 2012) who asserted the role of digital games to turn players from passive students who listen and read instructions to active actors who interact and produce. Hence, players are put in a productive stage that would enable them to interact with online platforms as single, or multiplayer for the sake of creating games tactics and/ or editing the rules, for instance, which helps to level up their creative capacities. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that gameness evolves the enhancement of internal and external cognitive processes. In ‘ Boys’ and Girls’ Use of Cognitive Strategy When Learning to Play Video Games’, Blumberg and Sokol (2004) separated between internal cognitive strategies, where experienced gamers would have acquired enough knowledge to understand the jargon or principles of a digital game, and external cognitive strategies where this learned knowledge would be transferred to other players (Appendix 4). The endorsement of autonomous self or collaborative cognitive performances has been proven recently to be a spontaneous behaviour undertaken by learners when exposed to ICT resources (Mitra, 2000). This makes ‘ remembering, retention, understanding and transfer’ (Mayer, 2001) as prevalent sequences in a multimedia learning environment. For this purpose, ‘ if learning can become a rich experience, the problem of forgetting can be managed’ (Dale, 1969).
Lastly, Digital Game-Based Learning improves basic educational skills and reduce health related issues among special needs learners. In ‘ Brain Plasticity Through the Life Span: Learning to Learn and Action Video Games’, Bravelier et all (2012) refer to the ability of gamers to analyse information and decide on the right follow-up action quickly. This was illustrated by a recruitment process by Royal Air Force towards gamers in order to drive drones. The cohort surpassed expectations by performing delegate mission with precision and tact. Likewise, Jane McGonigal (2007,2013) inferred to the enhancement of leadership skills among game users. She believes that applied games elevate decision-making, autonomy and develop empathy. Further to that, Mark Griffiths (2002) hinted at the benefits in reducing reaction time, improving hand-eye coordination and promoting social integration among students with special needs. He further explained saying that digital games offer ‘the visual pattern, speed and storyline that help children’s basic skills development.’ (ibid). In addition, DGBL has been considered by live stream books and literature reviews as real boosters over the acquisition of linguistic, mathematical or reading skills.
Nevertheless, the ability to enhance knowledge acquisition through Digital Game-Based Learning has been a matter of disjoint among the literature. The lack of empirical research in the interactive digital media field has not helped ‘edugaming’ industries to merge game design with learning principles. This is probably due to the initial focus of DGBL on ‘instructional authority’ rather than on ‘students’ performances’ (Clark, 2007). ‘The implication is that educational decision-makers may, out of bias and/ or a lack of understanding, discount or discourage investment in serious games’ (ibid). Similarly, Clark (2007) further argues that digital games are highly-priced products and then not accessible by education industry. In ‘Why video Games Are So Expensive to Develop’ The Economist (2014) lists a set of reasons namely the high-quality graphs and its use in the cinema business, add to the rise in ‘professionalism’ in the domain makes digital media quite costly. ‘ There is no wonder, as thus far, most large-scale game-based learning efforts have been conducted in the absence of good theories of learning’ (Squire, 2005). In addition, despite educators’ positive attitude towards integrating a multimedia tool in a classroom setting, most of them reported in a study by Mcfarlane et all (2002) the difficulty in selecting the right game and match it with their lessons. They also expressed their concern on the time it protracted while aiming to achieve the curriculum’s targets.
There is an urge to search for better scientific measurement of DGBL (Jan, 2010). Since education, as an industry is obstinate with the assessment of the output; researchers are challenged to find ‘robust evidence’ (Clark, 2007) in order to prove the effectiveness of digital games on motivating, and enhancing students’ cognitive outcomes. In an attempt to initiate a standardised process to evaluate Digital Game-Based Learning validity, All et all (2016) pointed out that most of the previously mentioned methods suffer from some serious limitations. This inconsistency may be due to the type of game elements, interaction features and feedback. For instance, it is hard to come out with a general rule while studying the use of serious games and MMOGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Games) in a classroom setting as there is no similarity between design elements and instruction principles. ‘It is clear that a more standardized approach is not only possible but is required to be able to improve rigorousness of DGBL effectiveness research and define guidelines’(ibid).
Beyond the perception, cost, and measurement of Digital Game-Based Learning, the primary concern is on individuals’ cognitive fulfilment. ‘Motivation is not a prerequisite to learning’ (All et all, 2016). Instead, current pedagogical trends are more attentive to creating learning opportunities aiming to foster reflection and autonomy in and outside of the classroom. In his seminal study (Games Are Motivating, Aren’t They? Disputing The Arguments for Digital Game-Based Learning), Wim Westera (2015) critically examines the level of cognitive and deductive involvement of DGBL. On the one hand, he denoted current ICT (Information Communications and Technology) trends in profiling users’ attitude towards a product instead of estimating the level of their cognitive flow. According to him, this constitutes a biased feedback built on a no-fail policy performance which is gained during a short period of time. Thus, it engenders ‘superficial meta-cognitive learning’ which makes it harder to evaluate the degree of understanding. On the other hand, Westera did not acknowledge the idea of ‘learning by doing’ through digital games. The adoption of hit-and-miss approach by gamers is a significant lack of interpretation in comprehending a new situation. Apparently, this shows an absence of intellectual involvement while playing. As a result, users would adopt a performance-oriented strategy rather than an educational-oriented one.
In recent years, Digital Game-Based Learning got more attention vis-à-vis their popularity and implementation in the learning process. The problem addressed in this paper was to examine the effectiveness of gaming among learners. A comparative between the available studies that acknowledge the role of applied games as sources of motivation, social integration and knowledge acquisition tools and those who minimalize the performances of games based on the lack of secured measurement evidence to justify the outcomes. Thereupon, ‘I challenge anyone to show me a literature review of empirical studies about game-based learning. There are none…We need studies’(Blunt, 2007). Unless there is a collaboration between the educational and gaming industries, little attention will be given to the reliability and validity of interactive digital media. Hence an imperative call from various scholars namely Cannon-Bowers Jan (2010) who emphasised the importance of aligning both sectors and encouraging researchers in this field to help game designers. By doing so, they will contribute to enlarging ‘ the body of evidence that explains what factors and conditions produce most favourable outcomes’ (Westera, 2015).
However, the future of DGBL is constantly evolving due to the advancement in technology. With the rise of transformative technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), empathy interaction and Virtual Reality (VR), primary usage were integrated in medical, space and science fields (ESA, 2015) but the recommendations are that (1) educators should be trained on the use of serious games to better design digital game-based lesson (Appendix 5), (2) learners should be made aware and encouraged to reflect on their cognitive performances, (3) and game designers should work hand in hand with teachers to meet methodological requirements.
To sum up, Digital Game-Based Learning was able recently to captivate the attention of stakeholders, thanks to recent tech improvements and the growing number of game users. Nevertheless, there is insufficient support for its adoption as an integral part of learning as a system, and that is chiefly because there is a need to more evidence on its effectiveness apart from its amusement side.
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