Games for a Digital Age, Part 1

In January 2013 the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released the report Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis by John Richards, Leslie Stebbins and Kurt Moellering. The report features a sector analysis and market map of game‐based learning initiatives with an analysis of relevant trends in education and digital technology that are likely to impact development of a robust game-based learning market segment.

With permission from the Cooney Center, AEP is republishing key excerpts from the report. Our goal is to create a common language surrounding discussions of educational technology and to help ensure that digital learning providers develop an understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities in the K-12 market.

Defining the K-12 Games Landscape

The language of gaming and learning games is still in flux, and there has been little agreement between experts in the field about what falls under the category of “learning game” and what is not a game, but has “game-like” elements. Not surprisingly, the literature of games contains no agreed upon definition of a learning game. When we asked our interviewees what they considered a game, we found no consensus. One extreme cited any “formative assessment based on an adaptive engine,” while the other cited products with aspects of game mechanics such as badges, rewards, and points. Although the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) Codie awards category is for “Games and Simulations” (and researchers are sometimes careful to distinguish between simulations and games), for the purposes of this report we have included simulations in our broad definition of learning games.

Such a wide range of products is confusing to the K-12 audience, because “games” can vary from products that are prototypical to ones that only leverage somewhat extraneous game mechanics to engage and to motivate. Confusion among types of games is of particular concern when examining the research evidence of the effectiveness of games in learning. Most university-based research evaluates learning games in environments that engage students for several weeks with immersive, challenging experiences. Thus, when researchers argue that learning games are efficacious, promote critical thinking, and engage 21st century skills, it is not necessarily clear that these conclusions apply to many shorter forms of learning games.

All games have game mechanics that are the central element of the game and, to some degree, are integrated with the learning content. As James Gee argues in his keynote at the 2012 Games for Change conference, the extent to which the mechanics of creating motivation and directing attention is intrinsic to the content of the game can greatly influence learning outcomes.

Gamification is the use of game-based elements or game mechanics to drive user engagement and actions in non-game contexts. In gamification, the game mechanics are divorced from the content being taught and are instead added in the form of some sort of reward element after completion of an activity. For example, a short-form math game that involves answering math questions where correct answers are followed by a badge or the reward of playing a “dunk the clown” game would be called gamification. David Dockterman, Ed.D., Chief Architect, Learning Sciences with Tom Snyder Productions/Scholastic is concerned about this use of game mechanics, stating “Gamification can begin to undermine a kid’s desire to learn” (CS4Ed interview, March, 2012).


In the pages that follow this excerpt, the authors define a time continuum for games and also attempt to categorize and provide examples of different types of learning games in order to better understand the value and market potential of each in the K-12 world.

Read the complete report.

Richards, J., Stebbins, L., & Moellering, K. (2013). Games for a Digital Age: K-12 Market Map and Investment Analysis. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

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