The Research Supporting Digital Gaming and Learning Part 2: The Gamer’s Gains: Evidence of Efficacy

The Research Supporting Digital Gaming and Learning Part 2: The Gamer’s Gains: Evidence of Efficacy


By Ryan L. Schaaf


There are literally thousands of research studies, books, web articles, and news reports examining the effectiveness of games during the learning process. Some of these sources are research in nature; some are based on firsthand experiences or accounts, while others are formed on opinions or even sophistry. The truth is the analysis of gaming’s efficacy during the learning process are still evolving.

As often as we witness the digital generation’s love of games and the amazing societal, technological, and cultural impact they usher in, there remains the need for evidence of their success as learning tools, or even learning environments.

There is a substantial amount of research on gaming and learning – so much so that this post will be delivered in two parts. In the first part, entitled The Gamer’s Brain, readers examined what scientists, researchers, and educators have observed about the relationship between digital game play and the human brain. In this installment, entitled The Gamer’s Gains: Evidence of Efficacy, examines many of the recent studies and analyses that demonstrate the potential for learning with the use of digital games. The links and citations for each study, report, or data source will be listed below and cited within each snippet.

“Digital games have the potential to transform information for its players into valuable knowledge and experiences.”

Knowledge Gains

In a meta-analysis (an analysis of many studies) conducted in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Wouters and colleagues (2013) found that training with serious games is more effective for developing knowledge, knowledge retention, and cognitive skills than other instructional methods such as lectures, reading, drill, and practice, or hypertext learning environments. These results were further supported by Vogel and colleagues (2006) in a similar analysis as they observed higher cognitive gains in simulations or games as they did in traditional instructional techniques. Similar knowledge gains were evident in analyses conducted by Wolfe (1997), Sitzmann (2011), and Ke (2009). Digital games have the potential to transform information for its players into valuable knowledge and experiences.

“Game-based learning motivates and engages learners just as much, if not more, than other tried and true instructional approaches.”

Motivation to Learn

Student motivation is another powerful attribute that makes learning through gameplay that much more alluring. Thangagiri and Naganathan’s (2016) study explored if games affected student motivation. Their data analyses disclosed that using a gaming approach was both more active in stimulating students’ knowledge and more motivational than a non-online gaming approach. In another qualitative study conducted by Yu and Hsaio (2011), students’ learning motivation was a significant factor in knowledge acquisition during gameplay. These results were further supported by another participatory action research study conducted with learners ages 8 to 10 years of age. The data suggests digital game-based learning were as effective in the classroom as other research-based instructional strategies when measuring student motivation and time-on-task behavior. (Schaaf, 2012) So, regarding instructional strategies in a learning environment, game-based learning motivates and engages learners just as much, if not more, than other tried and true instructional approaches.

Attention, Attention!

The attentional benefits resulting from the use of digital games seems to be the most research-supported. Many studies performed by researchers such as Bavelier, Green, Dye, and others showed improvements in attention, optimization of attentional resources, integration between attentional and sensorimotor areas, and improvements in selective and peripheral visual attention (Paulus, Marron, Sobera, & Ripoli, 2017). Boot and his colleagues (2008) explored similar variables in their work and found participants improved in task switching and visual tracking. In summary, evidence suggests video game players show improvements in selective attention, divided attention, and sustained attention. Finally, McDermott, Bavelier, and Green (2014) observed their research participants showed evidence of greater speed of processing and enhanced visual short-term memory when compared to a control group.

“Students learn better when they assume ownership of the process, take the initiative, and direct their own learning.”

Skill Builders

There are numerous studies that explore the relationship between problem solving and game play. After all, most games have a problem or challenge for the player to face and overcome. The researchers assessed their problem-solving ability by examining the types of cognitive, goal-oriented, game-oriented, emotional and contextual statements they made. They found that younger children seemed to create short-term goals as they played games, while older children examined the problem as a whole. (Blumberg, Ismailer, 2008) Well-designed, content-deep games supported in-depth learning, as well as developed investigative, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. (Clark, Tanner-Smith, Hostetler, Fradkin, & Polikov, 2017) Games are also ideal for skills acquisition and retention.

As for student achievement, many studies support that games contribute to academic success. They can increase scores on achievement tests, (Posso, 2016) they can improve learning achievement (Hwang, Wu, & Chen, 2012) (Sitzmann, 2011)

Learner Ownership and Agency

Students learn better when they assume ownership of the process, take the initiative, and direct their own learning. (Savery, 1998; Zimmerman & Schunk, 1989) In a literature review conducted by Nousiainen and Kankaanranta (2008), learners that succeeded through gameplay felt ownership in the final outcome, meaning they felt responsible for their learning and accomplishments.

Student agency refers to the degree of freedom and control that a student has to perform meaningful actions in a learning environment. Dalton (2000) reported that 56% of students who participate in online courses sensed a lack of interactivity; they were not active learners with the freedom of choice. Well-designed games, however, encourage students to adapt and design learning and teaching styles most suitable to them, which in turn leads to a more active role in learning. (Klopfer et al., 2009) Sawyer and colleagues experimented the impact of student agency on learning and problem-solving behavior in a game-based learning environment. They found that students showed significant learning gains when offered the freedom and control to learn on their own with some guidance. Game-based learning practitioners should allow learning to take place in an environment that provides freedom and ownership for learners.


At Amplify, we are committed to the educational potential of learning through digital gameplay. Aqua is a new kind of reading curriculum in development by the Center for Early Reading at Amplify. It is a reading adventure that gives students practice in phonological awareness, decoding, vocabulary, and reading comprehension through games. Learn more.


Blumberg, F., & Ismailer, S. (2008). Children’s problem-solving during video game play. In F. C. Blumberg & S. S. Ismailer (Cochairs), What do children learn when playing video games? Symposium paper presented at American Psychological Association Annual Meeting, Boston, MA.

Boot, W., Kramer, A., Simons, D., Fabiani, M., & Gratton, G. (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica 129, pp. 387–398.

Clark, D., Tanner-Smith, E., Hostetler, A., Fradkin, A., & Polikov, V. (2017). Substantial integration of typical educational games into extended curricula. Journal of the Learning Sciences.

Hwang, G., Wu, P., & Chen, C. (2012). An online game approach for improving students’ learning performance in web-based problem-solving activities. Computers & Education (59) 4. Pp. 1246–1256.

Ke, F. (2009). A qualitative meta-analysis of computer games as learning tools. In R.E. Ferdig (Ed.). Effective electronic gaming in education (Vol1, pp.1-32). Hersey, PA: Information Science Reference.

Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S., & Salen, K. (2009). Moving learning games forward. Cambridge, MA: The Education Arcade.

McDermott, A., Bavelier, D., & Green, S. (2014). Memory abilities in action video game players. Computers in Human Behavior 34, pp. 69–78.

Nousiainen, T., & Kankaanranta, M. (2008). Exploring children’s requirements for game-based learning environments. Advances in Human-Computer Interaction.

Paulus, M., Marron, E., Sobera, R., & Ripoli (2017). Neural basis of video gaming: A systematic review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Posso, A. (2016). Internet usage and educational outcomes among 15-year-old Australian students. International Journal of Communication.(10).

Savery, J. (1998). Fostering ownership with computer supported collaborative writing in higher education. In C.J. Bonk & K.S. King (Eds.), Electronic collaborators: Learner-centered Technologies for literacy, apprenticeship, and discourse (pp.103-127) Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Sawyer, R., Smith, A., Rowe, J., Azevado, R., & Lester, J. (2017). Is more agency better? The impact of student agency on Game-Based Learning. The IntelliMedia Group.

Schaaf, R. (2012). Does digital game-based learning improve student time-on-task behavior and engagement in comparison to alternative instructional strategies? Canadian Journal of Action Research,13(1), 50-64.

Schaaf, R., & Mohan, N. (2014). Making schools a game worth playing: Digital games in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA.| Corwin.

Sitzmann, T. (2011). A meta-analytical examination of the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games. Personnel Psychology 64. pp. 489-528.

Thangagiri, B., & Naganathan, R., (2016). Online educational games-based learning in Disaster Management Education: Influence on educational effectiveness and student motivation. Eighth International Conference on Technology for Education.

Vogel, J., Vogel, D., Cannon-Bower, J., Bower, C., Muse, K., & Wright, M. (2006). Computing games and interactive simulations for learning: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 34(4), pp.229-243.

Wolfe, J. (1997). The effectiveness of business games in strategic management course work. Simulations & Gaming 28(4), pp. 360-376.

Yu, F., & Hsiao, H. (2012). Exploring the factors influencing learning effectiveness in Digital Game based Learning. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, (15) 3. pp. 240-250

Wouters, P., van Nimwegen, C., van Oostendorp, H., & van der Spek, E. D. (2013, February 4). A Meta-Analysis of the Cognitive and Motivational Effects of Serious Games. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.




December 2017

Committed Sardine

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