The role of games in digital learning

Guest blog by Jason Butler, Game Designer, Sponge UK

At present, the main argument for games in digital learning is user engagement. Trying to move the learner’s perception from something they ‘have’ to do, to something they ‘want’ to do.

But there is a deeper value to games in learning and the skills they can help to build.

Any successful game relies on capturing the attention of its players to fully engage with the game content and enjoy the experience. Apply the same approach to learning-based games and the benefits are obvious.

Traditional learning focuses on the ability to recall and repeat information. Games promote skills like problem solving, decision making, teamwork and strategic thinking.

These are the skills that employees will need in our ever-changing world.

Game Elements

Professor Karl M. Kapp identifies four game elements: engagement, autonomy, mastery and progression.

Game Elements

Fun may be a bi-product of these elements but there is much more going on.

Storytelling, narrative and challenge help learners to get involved with the game and connect with the content. By positioning the game in a world where learners can ‘buy in’ and see parallels pertinent to the learning, we create a much stronger connection to the content. For example, if failing a game challenge means a virtual patient is hurt, or your company loses money, you are more likely to connect emotionally to the outcome of your actions.

This allows people to take control and explore the game space. They are the protagonist. This increases the level of immersion in the learning. Not knowing what they will find can increase the sense of mystery and suspense.

By repeating a tricky task or using a set mechanic, learners can gain mastery in the game – which in turn fuels their enjoyment and sense of success. Working against the clock, or through levels that get harder, increases the challenge.

Rewards, points, achieving ranks, unlocking levels or leader boards help learners to see their development. This can encourage them to strive for the next goal until they win or ‘beat’ the game.

The challenge is to identify which game elements will achieve specific learning outcomes.

This is easier said than done. As an industry, we are still learning about game-based learning.

Move to mainstream

Data from Towards Maturity reveals that serious games are an aspirational or experimental area.

Serious Games Pie Chart
Will games ever become a mainstream part of the digital learning landscape?

Only if we do a better job of communicating the beneficial role games can play in learning.

There are three things that will help.

Skill up
Take every opportunity to expand your knowledge of what makes a good game. Understand how to achieve learning objectives using game elements. Look outside your usual learning circles and speak to a game designer. Don’t forget to play games yourself!

Find robust ways to measure the impact of digital learning games. This can be hard for organisations using games for the first time. Try to decide relevant measures before you start designing the game. Build up a body of evidence so you can show a clear link between game outcomes and business objectives.

Be generous in sharing what you discover about games in learning. You don’t have to give away trade secrets but share best practice tips and great examples.


In the spirit of moving forward, Sponge UK is hosting #gameweek from April 11 to 17, 2016. We are bringing together learning designers, academics, thought leaders and L&D professionals. The aim is to create a week long exploration of game-based learning and share ideas.

During the event, I’ll be taking part in a Google Hangout on games and gamification. Gamification expert, Professor Karl M. Kapp and Senior Manager for Learning Solutions at Yorkshire Building Society (YBS) Group, Emma Barrow are also on the panel.

Please post any questions for the Hangout on Twitter using the hashtag #gameweek. Feel free to share any resources, case studies or insights on game-based learning using the hashtag too.

I predict we will begin to see the influence of game thinking in more areas of digital learning as we move forward, and I can’t wait!

Guest post by Jason Butler, Game Designer, Sponge UK

Jason Butler Pic