Games for Learning: Three Fields of Study

When I began working in games research about a decade ago, games for learning was still the catch-all term to describe any intersection of the two ideas. Over the last three decades, scholars have made enormous strides in both theoretical and practical application of games for learning. As new theories of educational theories emerged, how we think and talk about research into the field has had to change as well. 

Not what you’re looking for? Head to the games and learning wiki top page

Over the next few blog articles, we will expand our wiki to summarize some of the most influential and exciting games for learning research trends. From bleeding edge technologies like AR gaming to drag and drop game design tools being deployed in the classroom, how we study games is evolving constantly.

Below I introduce some of the major emerging trends in games research, but these are only just the beginning. Games for learning research is increasingly recognized as a valuable field by academics, industry, and funding organizations. This is an exciting time to be in games for learning research.

Learn about the affordances and theories of games-based learning

If you’re just getting started or simply curious about games-based research, this article will provide a solid foundation for you. However, each topic within this summary has its own thriving sub-field. To learn more, just follow the links within each description.

Note: The wiki project is a work in progress. Red text indicates a topic that we plan to write an article for, but haven’t yet gotten to. If you have an interest in any of these topics and wish to contribute, please email Clayton at blog@nasaga.org.

Games for Learning: What are People Studying

To keep things from going completely off the rails, we have tried to organize our summary by some of the primary research pathways being pursued. Those three research fields are applied games for learning, methods for studying games, and emerging technologies.

Applied Games for Learning

The first major research trend is the one that started this all: applied games for learning. When I say “applied” I am referring to researchers, educators, and trainers who want to use or understand games in different educational contexts. When games research started out, most researchers saw games as something that could be designed to teach. In recent years, though, this has expanded to four distinct fields. The original Playing Games to Learn field, the emergent field of Learning by Making Games, the social field of the MetaGame, and Gamification.

Playing Games

Playing games to learn  is still one of the most influential fields for game-based education. Scholars continue to study the specific design aspects for learning, what skills can be learned, and how games can be integrated into either learning in the classroom through games or learning individually through play. An important distinction within this subfield is the one between formal and informal learning. Formal games for learning researchers study how games can be used to teach scholastic content, while informal researchers look into how and what players learn by playing games for their own entertainment.

Making games

Aside from playing games, actually making games has become a major research trend. Teachers have used game design to help students increase content knowledge and to gain the computer science skills necessary to actually make a game. Tools for aiding in this are also a topic of interest for researchers as software suites like Scratch become popular. 

Metagame

The Metagame, or the “Big G Game” as some call it, was one of the first major offshoots for games for learning research. Metagame refers to the space surrounding the game, including everything from the advertising around the game to the affinity spaces players create to talk about games. Kurt Squire was one of the first researchers to dive into this field and it has since led to extremely informative research fields such as esports research.

Gamification

Gamification has a divisive history in games-based research. While many sing the praises of gamification as a way of capturing the most motivational qualities of games for learning, others see the practice as reductionist. Whatever your perspective, the popularity of gamification for learning can’t be denied as it has seen success in military, scholastic, and corporate training sectors. 

Gamification usually involves introducing some simple game elements such as points or leaderboards into educational settings in order to provide motivation to learners.

Methods for studying and understanding

Aside from the actual educational theories, there are a litany of practices for collecting data that have grown popular within the games for learning field. Many of these methods, such as in-game data such as chat logs and user scores gained popularity because the data were completely unique to games research. Other types of data, such as the epistemic network analysis methodology created by epistemicnetworkanalysis.org David Shaffer were created as a way to study gaming communities. Finally, on the hard-science side of educational game research, biometrics are gaining increasing popularity as a way of gathering data on player engagement with topics and designs.

Emerging technologies

Finally, many researchers choose to focus on the technology that drives games for learning and how emerging technologies may provide new opportunities for learning. Popular technologies for games research in the past few years have ranged from mobile gaming to geolocation to virtual/augmented reality. Each of these technologies offers unique affordances and has its own library of research specific to those affordances.

Where to go from here

Games for learning is a research field with both depth and breadth. The days of games-based learning researchers fighting for recognition and legitimacy have disappeared as institutional acceptance of the affordances games offer has become the norm.

While the sheer scale of research in the field can be a bit intimidation, we recommend starting with the applied uses of games in research and learning. This article gives a more thorough rundown of how players learn from games without delving too deeply into the technical details of methodological approaches or emerging tech.

Wherever you go next, remember that NASAGA’s games research wiki project is always growing! If there is anything you would like so see added, you can message Clayton Whittle at blog@nasaga.org

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