This critical review considers three scholarly articles regarding digital games and game-based learning (Arnab et al., 2012; Beavis et al., 2014; Van Eck, 2006).  Firstly, a brief overview of the purpose of each article is considered herewith. Next, the relationship between games, play and learning is briefly explored along with current theories and trends that emerge from the articles. Finally, reflection of issues arising from the documents are considered, with implications for current practice and the education profession. The articles introduce arguments of value and are all still relevant as points of reference as game based learning moves forward.

Each article reflects on how digital game based learning (DGBL) enhances the learning process and advocate for the need for further research. While Arnab et al. (2012) refers to ‘serious games’ and Richard Van Eck (2006) to DGBL, the term digital games (DG) and game-based learning (GBL) are considered interchangeable with them for the purpose of this review.  Arnab et al. offers a European context; Beavis et al. (2014) looks at Australian research; and Richard Van Eck provides an American voice to the conversation about DGBL. It is interesting to note that the articles span less than ten years from Van Eck’s concerns to Beavis et al.’s more recent reflections and indicate just how rapidly game based environments have and are evolving.

The purpose of Arnab et al. (2012) article is to reflect on the adoption of serious games in formal education and particularly, higher learning institutions. It is a more formalised style of writing aimed at other researchers in the field.  The authors provide definitions of ‘serious games’ and adopt Stone’s general criteria of “games that support learning in its broadest sense” (Arnab et al., 2012, p.159).  The document discusses theoretical backgrounds with a focus on frameworks to support pedagogical learning outcomes of GBL. Furthermore, the authors contemplate issues from two perspectives, that of game design and game deployment i.e. context of using games in education and finally, they detail ongoing research.

The focus of Beavis et al. (2014) as clearly indicated in the title, is to look at the pivotal role of teachers’ beliefs’ about the possibilities and limitations of digital games in classrooms. As is stated in the abstract, these beliefs will “inevitably influence the decisions that they make about how, when, and for what specific purposes they will bring these games into their classrooms” (2014, p. 569). The authors’ aim, and a strength of the article, is to provide insight into teachers’ practice and how it can contribute to the ‘broader debates about the relationship between games, learning and school’ (Beavis et al., 2014, p.571).  They believe the role of teachers is an area that has been ignored to date. Furthermore, teachers’ professional development is considered a high priority alongside the introduction of any DGBL.

Van Eck’s article (2006) encourages the reader to think critically about digital game based learning. While the article, like Arnab et al. (2012) is aimed at educators in higher learning, the issues he addresses covers K-20 education. Van Eck brings a historical perspective to DGBL. The article provides a practical voice, advising the reader to look beyond the lens of digital games as engaging and motivating tools only. As Van Eck states ‘not all games are good for all learners and for all learning outcomes’ (Van Eck, 2006, p.18). Van Eck also states that further research is needed to explain why DGBL is engaging and effective, with ‘practical guidance needed for how (when, with whom and under what conditions) games can be integrated into the learning process’ (2006, p.18).

Trends and Theories for Educators

General trends articulated by the authors include how game based learning is becoming established in educational settings, with DGBL becoming an integral part of curricula over the coming years; and how it is connected with the socialisation of learning processes and students taking a more proactive role in their own learning (Arnab et al., 2012).

All authors acknowledge the growing body of literature documenting use of games in formal and informal learning environments. They consider, in brief, underlying learning principles, theories and frameworks as well as the interaction between games and learning (Arnab et al., 2012; Beavis et al., 2014; Van Eck). However, it is only Van Eck who highlights the relationship between play, games and learning: “Play is a primary socialization and learning mechanism common to all human cultures and many animal species…Games, clearly make use of the principle of play as an instructional strategy” (2006, p. 18).

Theories and principles of games and gaming indicate a strong relation between play, games and learning (Turkay, Hoffman et al, 2014). Learning is an intrinsic feature of game playing (Tikka et al., 2009). Similarly, the concept of game playing can extend to include all subjects or learning as ‘game’ or ‘aspect of doing’ to achieve learning goals (Gee, 2005, p. 34). Indeed, James Paul Gee demands we consider how we can make learning, with or without using games, more game-like since game playing embodies many learning principles educators actively encourage (2005).

Certainly, the three articles (and others, such as Gee, 2005; Turkay et al., 2014; Van Eck, 2015;) recognize the ‘potential’, or perhaps, the powerfully implied assumptions (Beavis et al, 2014) of games to positively support learning, including:

  • Motivational appeal and engagement
  • Learner-centred learning experiences and active construction
  • Development of 21st century skills such as problem solving, inquiry, collaboration, creativity, multitasking and decision making
  • Means to experientially understand complex matters; system
  • Teamwork and collaboration; development of communicative and social skills; distributed knowledge sharing and active construction
  • Diversity of contexts which shape what students themselves bring to a games based environment as well as how digital games meet the variety of student backgrounds. These diverse elements can include socio-economic and cultural background, disengaged learners, special learning needs, and gender.

Furthermore, the articles comment on three different approaches for integrating digital games into the learning process. These include students building games from scratch, educators and/or developers building educational games such as “serious games” or thirdly, integrating commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) games into the classroom such as Civilization, Age of Empires II and The Sims (Van Eck, 2006; Kafai & Burke, 2015; Shelton & Scoresby, 2011). What they do not include and overlook is the potential of gamification, applying game mechanics and principles to nongame environments, which is gathering momentum in education (Van Eck, 2015; Perotta et al., 2013).

Interestingly, in 2006, Van Eck could not see widespread development for educational games. However, the quick evolution of digital games for learning has led Van Eck to predict a ‘minor revolution’ in serious games in K-20 education (2015, p. 20).

Role of the Educator

Perhaps the one major theme explored explicitly by Arnab et al (2012), strongly exhorted by Beavis et al. (2014), and implicitly by Van Eck (2006) is the pivotal role of the educator or teacher.

Digital game based learning environments require the educator to rethink traditional roles (Arnab, 2012) with the teacher as facilitator and the student firmly at the centre of the learning experience. Teachers need to place themselves in varying roles as instructor, playmaker, guide and explorer (Arnab et al., 2012). This can be problematic, as evidenced by Beavis et al., when teachers see potential challenges to their sense of identity and personal competence (2014).

Yet, this learner-centred pedagogical approach is also one of the reasons digital games suit such innovative pedagogies as problem based learning, constructivist learning, discovery and situated learning with students immersed in meaningful, authentic and relevant contexts (Arnab, 2012; Turkay et al., 2014; Van Eck, 2015). DGBL also promotes peer collaboration and team work whereby ‘learners can build on each other’s knowledge and provide mutual feedback’ (Arnab, 2012, p 166).

It follows then, educators need to understand the differences between types of games; how games work and how game taxonomies align with learning taxonomies (Arnab et al., 2012; Beavis, 2014; Van Eck, 2006). As Van Eck declares ‘Not all games will be equally effective at all levels of learning …nor practical for all learners, all content and all the time’ (2006, p. 22, p.24).

Neither should digital games be represented as “‘teacher proof’ knowledge packages [that] generate learning across all student cohorts, regardless of where or when or how they are introduced into a classroom” (Beavis et al., 2014, p. 569). Educators need the knowledge to analyse and make informed choices to explicitly link digital games, curriculum goals and learning outcomes which are then shared with their students (Arnab et al., 2012; Beavis et al., 2014; Shelton & Scoresby, 2011; Van Eck, 2006).

Notably, both Arnab et al (2012) and Beavis et al. (2014) look further and emphasise the critical part of teachers’ attitude to GBL environments as to the success or failure of games based initiatives:

“What a games based learning environment in school actually becomes is closely tied to the way teachers think about games including what they believe can or cannot be achieved with games and how they believe games should or should not be used” (Beavis et al., 2014, p. 570).

Issues for Educators

The critiqued articles certainly raise a number of issues still relevant for educators. As mentioned, game based environments are evolving so rapidly which in itself is an issue for how DGBL is introduced and developed within formal settings. The annual  Horizon Reports for education are indicative of the continual evolvement of new tools and pedagogies impacting education.  Van Eck (2006) states the need for institutional support. While the article is dated with BYOD now predominant, institutions still need to consider the issue of access to technology.

The issue of informed choice is connected with access and teacher knowledge and attitudes toward game based playing. Van Eck questions: “How do teachers find serious games? How can they know whether serious games are of high quality and/or geared for their audience and grade level?” (2015, p. 20). This is being addressed with the creation of curation web resources such as Commonsense Media, Glass Lab and Think Zone  (Van Eck, 2015).  While teaching competence and knowledge of the curriculum are stronger indicators for game success than game familiarity (Becker, 2010), unfamiliarity with digital games will also negatively influence teacher attitudes.  Some stressors are limited time both in terms of scheduling, and support for teachers to become familiar enough with a game to know how to use it; inflexibility of the curriculum; and resourcing (Beavis et al., 2014, p. 575; Becker, 2010, p.30; Van Eck, 2006, p. 20; Van Eck, 2015, p. 18). The result are anxious teachers who “feel ill-equipped to make informed decisions related to deploying games for their classrooms” (Turkay et al, 2014, p.3). It would appear then, as Beavis et al. advocate, the role of teachers is an area that definitely requires further research and support.

The above has repercussions for professional development so educators have the opportunity and time to explore various digital games and to make the connection with different curriculum areas. This professional learning also needs to include practical guidance for how (when, with whom and under what conditions) games can be integrated into the learning process (Van Eck, 2006, p.18).

The issue of time also needs to be considered in relation to students interacting with digital games. Students require time ‘in the game to promote flow’ as well as significant time in extended learning activities (Van Eck, 2006, p. 26).

Another thread is the matter of assessment which is only cursorily explored in the critiqued articles. This can be problematic for teachers to assess DGBL within the traditional curriculum (Kitching, 2013). While, the authors (and others, including Apperley, 2010; Shelton & Scoresby, 2011; Van Eck, 2006) acknowledge the importance of reflective feedback and discussion with students; and planning for additional activities to achieve learning outcomes, consideration of other forms of formative and summative assessment are overlooked. Finally, what is also sketchily covered within the three critiqued articles are the negative effect of digital games such as aggression and the player experience (Van Eck, 2015) and the issue of gender divide (Kitching, 2013).


The rapidly evolving DGBL landscape has changed, to the extent that some of the suggestions and issues by the authors are now becoming part of wider practice, such as Arnab et al.’s (2012) recommendation for simpler tools for authoring educational games; and dedicated web based communities and resources. We need look no further than the dedicated wiki communities for Minecraft, for example. Van Eck’s (2015) call for examples of best practice to be collected and disseminated is expanding, and the need for research and development is now evident with the growth of game design programs at tertiary levels.

However, much of what the authors advocated are still ongoing issues that need addressing. These include professional development for educators; wide-scale access to pedagogically effective games, integration of tools for supporting metacognition and fostering collaborative gameplay; and adaption of games across cultural contexts to ensure inclusion of all learners in game based activities (Arnab et al., 2012).

Finally, and significantly, still relevant, all authors acknowledge the need for further critical research into the integration of digital games into teaching and learning (Arnab et al., 2012, pp. 163-164; Van Eck, 2006, p.18). While we now recognize the potential that DGBL has to transform how students learn (Van, 2006), we need to provide clear guidelines for educators to incorporate games in practice (Arnab et. al., 2012). The conversation continues.


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