Games and Virtual Worlds

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Contributors: Linda Polin, David Gibson, Shuchi Grover, Cynthia D’Angelo
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Computer-based games and virtual worlds provide opportunities for learners to be immersed in situations in which they can experience and get close to phenomena and processes. This immersion helps them develop tacit/implicit understanding and intuitions about such phenomena and processes as they think about choices, take action, and see the impact of their decisions in a meaningful context. These opportunities can be applied to school topics, enabling new genres where school learning becomes “hard fun” or a “serious game.” Games are increasingly being seen as an attractive use of technology to enhance learning, and researchers and designers are actively investigating the many ways that games and game-like features can be implemented to motivate and increase student learning. Some genres of games motivate learners to work hard at learning; games can also provide opportunities to interact with phenomena and contexts (e.g. the spread of an infectious disease) that would otherwise not be available in a classroom (Barab & Dede, 2007; Rosenbaum, Klopfer & Perry, 2007).

Although games as a medium of teaching are maturing, more extensive research on deeper learning of concepts beyond simple engagement is needed before it can be conclusively established that games are indeed beneficial in learning contexts. As with all learning technologies that have the potential to engage and engender critical thinking and deeper learning, it depends on the specific game and the design of the learning experience with it. It is difficult to get the integration of games and learning right. Without iterative design improvement which incorporates measurement of learning outcomes in addition to measurement of usability and game play characteristics, impacts on learning are unlikely. Some of the best results in recent years have emerged from virtual worlds through thoughtful design of the learning environment that leveraged what we know about how children learn, especially in collaborative, technology-mediated spaces. These required iterative design-based research studies that helped create the right balance of engaging narratives, roles, and inquiry-based learning that incorporates student agency and choice.

The research literature suggests three different perspectives on designing games for learning. In the design perspective with the longest history, games have been viewed as conduits or vehicles for the delivery of curricular content. This perspective first arose in classroom use of titles such as Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? These games succeeded in large part due to their interesting storylines and ability to provide learners with engaging opportunities to problem solve in authentic contexts. There were also other successful games such as Math Blaster (and many similar games), where game levels were imposed on unrelated content. These provided extrinsic motivation to increase student engagement in mathematics tasks, however pedagogically they were little more than drill exercises (Bruckman, 1999).

Second, with the growing sophistication of game play and its rise in the general population, educators have looked for game elements or “game mechanics” that can be borrowed and transferred to educational settings to improve engagement. One example is gamification (Deterding et al., 2011), which refers to integrating game methods into content and adding badge systems (the use of achievement markers to motivate continued involvement and development). However there is much debate about using this approach versus embedding learning in more authentic game settings (Tuloch, 2014) where the focus is on the core mechanics of the game and not just on the trivial aspects such as reward systems (Bogost, 2011).

A third perspective on the role of games and virtual worlds in education is organic: looking for and exploiting curricular topics inherent in popular games. Two obvious examples are the opportunity for improving reading that arises in almost every quest-based game, such as World of Warcraft, or the use of critical thinking or strategizing required in role-playing and real-time strategy games such as Portal, Civilization IV, Starcraft and Dragon Age, where players’ decisions affect game outcomes. The recent popularity of Minecraft in elementary and middle school classrooms (Duncan, 2011) has underscored the value of well-designed video games to not only engage, but also help children develop life skills such as creative thinking, and perseverance, in addition to visuospatial skills (as described in several articles in mainstream media, e.g. Smith, 2014).

Virtual worlds are sometimes viewed as a sub-genre of games and sometimes seen as just complex simulations with game elements, but the general principles of games hold. Virtual worlds are typically more focused on exploration than a specific game mechanic and they open up other possibilities for learning. Engaging narratives can further motivate students to explore the virtual world and situate themselves in a historical or fictional context that can include specific learning objectives. Virtual worlds support the placement of curricular concepts in the context of their natural or practical use, bringing concepts to practical life and allowing learners to interact and experiment with the changeable elements of the closed system or world. Unlike many purely playful virtual worlds that may offer a thin background of ‘lore,’ virtual worlds in the service of education make a point of foregrounding the narrative or unifying story element that creates the motive for investigative and exploratory engagement in the world.

Many popular research-based digital games for learning fall into this category, including River City, Quest Atlantis, and Whyville. Research on science learning in these multi-user immersive virtual environments (Barab, et al., 2010; Dede, 2009; Neulight et al., 2007) suggests that authentic designs and contextual narratives around science phenomena are not only engaging but also help learners acquire deep science inquiry skills and conceptual knowledge. Additionally, as Dede (2009) notes of River City, the digital immersion allows low-performing students especially to “build confidence in their academic abilities by stepping out of their real-world identity of poor performer academically, which shifts their frame of self reference to successful scientist in the virtual context.”


Measuring Learning. For many researchers who are designing and using games to teach specific concepts, some of the most pressing issues are related to the assessment (measurement) of learning, and especially, how the kind of learning that happens in games and virtual worlds maps onto curriculum standards. There is, however, a strand of game-based learning research where the game itself is designed to be an assessment: students’ choices during gameplay are measures of their higher-order thinking skills and “preparation for future learning” (Schwartz & Arena, 2013).

Balancing Instruction and Game-Play. Another design challenge for educational games is how to embed instruction in the game while still making the game fun and engaging. One way to address this is to use games as an exploratory space that prepares students for better conceptual learning that follows using more traditional means (Arena & Schwartz, 2014). This allows learners to indirectly encounter targeted curricular concepts embedded in the game, that are then reinforced through more direct instruction. Exploration and instruction remains a challenging balancing act in inquiry-based learning, and getting this timing right is important. This balance also may be achieved when a teacher integrates non-game and game elements of instruction while teaching a particular topic.

Avoiding Superficial “Gamification”. While most educators agree that sticking a layer of gamification to boring, poorly-designed curricula that emphasize rote learning is ill-advised, it is an easy trap to fall into as it does provide a convenient way to make classroom learning more motivating. Gee (2003) provides an excellent list of design principles that make the best games so compelling for youth. Educators and game designers would find these useful to keep from adding a layer of gamification without deeper thought to the things that make good video games good and could advance learning simultaneously.

Socio-Cultural Issues. Games and virtual worlds sometimes carry sociocultural baggage owing to long-held beliefs in the public mindset that gaming is bad for youth, addicting, violent, and without redeeming social values. Further, in some cases, gaming communities have perpetuated negative stereotypes of women and rejected non-male designers. How do we get past those issues so that educators can bring productive gaming into the classroom? Additionally, how do we design games that appeal to learners who are non-gamers, of different genders, and drawn from diverse sociocultural backgrounds?

Data Analytics, Sharing & Privacy. As big data and game-based analytics become increasingly the go-to means of analyzing student actions and pathways in games, issues of data sharing and privacy become pertinent. There is a need for resolution on these issues as well as cloud-based data sharing protocols for research purposes. There is perhaps a need also for new psychometric models for assessing student learning in such environments as well as models of learning through games and simulations.

Ethical concerns. People can have strong emotional reactions after they leave immersive environments. Unanticipated psychological effects created by the strong illusion of virtual worlds may pose new risks. Researchers (such as Madary and Metzinger) are beginning to raise awarness of possible risks and propose recommendations for reducing them.

Teacher Training and Buy-In. Due in part to the social taboo associated with video games, K-12 teachers have been slow to adopt games for classroom teaching and learning. With the growing pervasiveness of iPads (along with educational games designed specifically for tablets and phones) and the viral popularity of games such as Minecraft among children, educational games are seeing increasing adoption in K-12 classrooms. Just as online resources are now rapidly shifting from being seen as standalone to being a component of a system for learning with strong teacher as well as strong technology roles, games are unlikely to be standalone learning components in the future. As of yet, too little is known about how to blend game-inspired experiences with other instructional genres so as to maximize the opportunities for learning targeted content. Further, understanding how to blend games with other types of instruction is likely to be essential to achieving wider teacher adoption of games into the classroom.


Examples of NSF Cyberlearning projects that overlap with topics discussed in this primer (see project tag map).

Games and Virtual Worlds

More posts: games-and-virtual-worlds

Modeling and Simulation

More posts: modeling-and-simulation

Virtual and Remote Labs

More posts: virtual-and-remote-laboratories


References and key readings documenting the thinking behind the concept, important milestones in the work, foundational examples to build from, and summaries along the way.

See also: publications from NSF-funded cyberlearning projects.

Key Readings

Arena, D. A., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Experience and explanation: using videogames to prepare students for formal instruction in statistics. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 23(4), 538-548.

Bruckman, A. (1999). Can educational be fun? In Game developers conference (Vol. 99).

Barab, S. and Dede, C. (Eds.) (2007). Games and immersive participatory simulations for science education: An emerging type of curricula. Special issue of Journal of science education and technology, 16(1).

Barab, S. A., Sadler, T. D., Heiselt, C., Hickey, D., & Zuiker, S. (2010). Erratum to: Relating narrative, inquiry, and inscriptions: Supporting consequential play. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 19(4), 387-407.

Bogost, I. (2011). Persuasive games: exploitationware. Gamasutra. Retrieved from

Christensen, R., Tyler-Wood, T., Knezek, G., & Gibson, D. (2011). SimSchool: An online dynamic simulator for enhancing teacher preparation. International Journal of Learning Technology, 6(2), 201-220.

Dede, C. (2009). Immersive interfaces for engagement and learning. Science, 323(5910), 66-69.

Deterding, S., Dixon, D., Khaled, R., & Nacke, L. (2011). From game design elements to gamefulness: defining gamification. In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments (pp. 9-15). ACM.

Duncan, S. C. (2011). Minecraft, beyond construction and survival. Well Played: a journal on video games, value and meaning, 1(1), 1-22.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Computers in Entertainment (CIE), 1(1), 20-20.

Gibson, D. (2003). Network-based assessment in education. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 3(3).

Gibson, D. (2009). Designing a Computational Model of Learning. In R. Ferdig (Ed.), Handbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education (2nd ed.). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.

Gibson, D., Aldrich, C., & Prensky, M. (2007). Games and simulations in online learning: Research and development frameworks. Information Science Publishing.

Kafai, Y., Quintero, M. and D. Feldon. (2010). Investigating the “why” in Whypox: Casual and systematic explorations of a virtual epidemic. Games and culture, 5(1), 116-135.

Ketelhut, D., Nelson, B., Clarke, J., and Dede, C. (2010). A multi-user virtual environment for building and assessing higher order inquiry skills in science. British journal of educational technology. 41(1), 56-58.

Neulight, N., Kafai, Y. B., Kao, L., Foley, B., & Galas, C. (2007). Children’s participation in a virtual epidemic in the science classroom: Making connections to natural infectious diseases. Journal of Science Education and Technology,16(1), 47-58.

Rosenbaum, E., Klopfer, E., & Perry, J. (2007). On location learning: Authentic applied science with networked augmented realities. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(1), 31-45.

Schank, R., Fano, A., Bell B., Jona M., (1993/1994). The Design of Goal-Based Scenarios. The Journal of Learning Sciences, 3(4), 305-345.

Schwartz, D. L., & Arena, D. (2013). Measuring what matters most: Choice-based assessments for the digital age. MIT Press.

Shaffer, D. L. (2006). Epistemic frames for epistemic games. Computers and education, 46(3), 223-234.

Squire, K., Halverson, R. & J. Gee. (2011). Video games and learning: Teaching and participatory culture in the digital age. NY: Teachers College Press.

Smith, M. (2014). What your kids are learning from Minecraft. Retrieved from

Steinkeuhler, C. & Duncan, S. (2008). Scientific habits of mind in virtual worlds. Journal of science education and technology. 17(6), 530-543.

Tobias, S., & Fletcher, J. D. F. (2011). Computer Games and Instruction. Information Age Publishing.

Tulloch, R. (2014). Reconceptualising gamification: Play and pedagogy. Digital Culture & Education, 6:4, 317-333.

Publications from NSF-funded Cyberlearning Projects

Horn, M. S. (2014). Beyond video games for social change. Interactions, Vol. 21(2), pp. 66-68.

Xie, C. (2012). Framing Mixed-Reality Labs. Concord – Spring 2012.

Xie, C. (2013). Mixed Reality Brings Science Concepts to Life. Concord- Spring 2013.

Ke, F., & Shute, V. (2015). Design of Game-Based Stealth Assessment and Learning Support. Serious Games Analytics, pp. 301-318. Springer International Publishing.

Valls-Vargas, J., Kahl, A., Patterson, J., Muschio, G., Foster, A., & Zhu, J., (2015). Designing and Tracking Play Styles in Solving the Incognitum. In Proceedings of the Global Leadership Summit 2015.

Valls-Vargas, J., Ontanón, S., & Zhu, J. (2015, September). Exploring Player Trace Segmentation for Dynamic Play Style Prediction. In Proceedings of the Eleventh Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference, (pp. 93-99). Stanford, California: Association of the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

Alstad, Z., Dahlstrom-Hakki, I., Asbell-Clarke, J., Rowe, E., & Altman, M. (2016). The Use of Multidimensional Biopsychological Markers to Detect Learning in Educational Gaming Environments. OpenScholar MIT.

Stahl, G., Mantoan, A., & Weimar, S. (2013). Demo: Collaborative dynamic mathematics in virtual math teams. In Proceedings of the International Conference of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, Madison, WI: Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning.

Singh, G., Bowman, D. A., Hicks, D., Cline, D., Ogle, J. T., Ragan, E. D., Johnson, A., & Zlokas, R. (2014). [Poster] CI-Spy: Using mobile-AR for scaffolding historical inquiry learning. In 2014 IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality – Media, Art, Social Science, Humanities and Design (ISMAR-MASH’D), Munich, Germany.


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