Games and Virtual Worlds

Contributors: Linda Polin and David Gibson

Computer-based games and virtual worlds can transform school learning into “hard fun” by embedding learing activities in more fully realized contexts for content and by providing opportunities for learner-players to think about choices, take action, and see the impact of their decisions.

Games and virtual worlds typically appear in discussions of learning in one of three contexts. First and most commonly, both have been viewed as conduits or vehicles for the delivery of curricular content. This continues the trajectory of computer gaming that first arose in classroom use of titles such as Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand, Decisions! Decisions!, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, and so on. 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 such topic trending hot right now is the notion of gamification, which refers to adding game methods to content (there is some debate about using this approach versus embedding learning in more authentic game settings) and badge systems, which refers to the use of achievement markers to motivate continued involvement and development. A third perspective on the role of games and virtual worlds in education is perhaps the most 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 Civilization IV and Dragon Age where players’ decisions affect game outcomes.

Transformative Potential

Connecting Curriculum and Experience in Virtual Worlds

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.

Sustainability and scalability after federal project funding goes away is a key problem for specially funded games and virtual worlds aimed at educational outcomes. Harvard’s River City, which allowed students to analyze and track an epidemic, and EcoMUVE, which presents an ecosystem mystery to solve, began as design experiments or proof of concept work; they are now commercial products. River City, for instance, is available by license through Active Worlds. TERC’s Blue Mars project is part of a larger commercial space hosted by partner, VSE. Whyville and Quest Atlantis have found sustainability and scalability through private funding.

Connecting Learning Theory, Curriculum and Teaching Experience for Educators

The simSchool project is a game and simulation platform for adults designed as a “flight simulator for teachers.” The project is scalable to 4 million teachers, is capable of modeling over 4 million different kinds of students, and develops teaching knowledge, heuristic skills, self-efficacy and a change in the perceived locus of control of student outcomes (Christensen, Tyler-Wood, Knezek & Gibson 2011)


Every teacher education program has a research, teaching and service commitment to games and simulations in education.

Every classroom has rich connections to games and simulations that bridge informal and formal learning experiences.

The research and practice communities have an ongoing dialog that continuously improves: what educators know and can do with games and simulations, and what students have access to and are learning via games and simulations.

Games and simulations are utilized on a par with reading and mathematics instruction to better prepare students for life long learning.

Augmented reality games are more popular than “field trips” and “community service” because they subsume those former methods.

Students graduate from K-12 school and are certified and licensed by higher education programs (e.g. teacher licensing, engineering, medicine, STEM majors) with major components of their learning experiences delivered via games and simulations.


There is a lot of talk about the value of games but the research demonstrating this alleged value is still in its infancy. A lot of writing about games is either based on someone’s personal experience or proposes his/her theory about value. Countering this trend, the recently released book Computer Games and Instruction edited by Tobias and Fletcher has a review of literature and some findings that might be of interest, including:

  • improvement in processes dealing with attention, perception and cognition (Anderson and Bavelier)
  • past video game experience predicting laparoscopic proficiency scores (Rosser et al)
  • improvement in non-game tasks may occur if there is overlap between games and real-world tasks (Tobias et al)
  • lectures supplemented with a game were more effective for teaching economic principles than lectures alone (Gremmen and Potters)
  • using a particular game is implicitly also a test of the theory on which it is based (Gee)
  • gaems are considerably less expensive than a number of other instructional methods (Fletcher)

Do games and virtual worlds work for all learners? for all subjects?

  • (Wainess, 2010) according to Tobias and Fletcher has combined the motivational characteristics of games with instructional scaffolding, cognitive load theory and expectancy-value theory
  • Cognitive overload in a virtual reality game may distract players from the intended instructional aims (Moreno and Mayer)
  • see Aptitude Treatment Interaction research

How do we assess learning when it’s happening in games and virtual worlds? What does that look like?

  • Stealthily…unobtrusive data gathering, then AI-assisted pattern finding and comparisons with expert maps that are highly specific to the digital “performance space”
  • We may need new psychometrics for dynamic, time-based analysis, representations and modeling-prediction, including “data-mining” of psychometric data
  • We may need complex systems concepts, models and techniques to build models of learning with games and simulations
  • Formative evaluations of instructional games should pay equal attention to both learning and attitudinal outcomes (Tobias and Fletcher)
  • We need to grapple with the bias of state-based statistics and summative evaluation. Tobias and Fletcher argue that it “cannot be assumed that even numerous formative evaluation cycles make summative evaluation unnecessary, since formative evaluations are focused on design issues within games.” But what about formative evaluation (scaffolding, documenting growth trajectories) of the learner performance?

How does the kind of learning that happens in games and virtual worlds map onto curriculum standards?

  • Curriculum standards do not address “speed of processing, sensitivity to inputs in the environment, or flexibility in allocating cognitive and perceptual resources” that suggest flexibility to alternate between tasks (and perhaps other psychological constructs) – but these are demonstrated outcomes of games, which lead to increased skills needed by pilots, doctors, decision makers, etc.
  • More research is needed to identify game features that increase the probabilities that transfer will occur (Tobias and Fletcher


Games and virtual worlds have a lot of sociocultural baggage to overcome, based on beliefs in the general public that gaming is bad for youth, addicting, violent, and without redeeming social values. How do we get past those issues so that educators can bring gaming into the classroom without a lot of push back from families and communities?

  • create a public, vetted, trustworthy website of research that provides solid “grain of salt” information and emerging trends
  • emphasize the “simulation” aspects (e.g. that all games have simulation engines, but not all sims are games, and but can teach things and offer exploratory learning possibilities)
  • encourage public comment on serious games that have worked to enhance their children’s learning
  • show and compare findings of all kinds and scrutinize and critique the methods
  • invest heavily in serious games that meet immediate national priorities for education

Game platforms and titles are constantly changing. Furthermore, games are moving across smart phones, tablets, consoles, computers… how can we invest time and resources in something that is so dynamic and unstable?

  • Cloud-based resources
  • Open Educational Resources
  • Software APIs
  • Continuous improvement of research investments, strategies and implementation support

Top related areas in cyberlearning

Artificial Intelligence
Data mining
Remote sensing networks
Social networks
Network analysis


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).

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.

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.

Shaffer, D. L(2–6). 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.

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