My claim is that games don’t teach. Not that games can’t teach, but that advocating games as a main or even frequent instructional strategy is misleading. Here’s why.

What is a game?

If you ask a group of trainers to define what they mean by the term “game,” you will likely hear a rather eclectic mix of features or examples. Kapp defines games as “a system in which players engage in an abstract challenge, defined by rules, interactivity, and feedback, that results in a quantifiable outcome often eliciting an emotional reaction.” Mayer identifies the following four features that characterize all games: 1) rule-based 2) responsive 3) challenging and 4) cumulative. I have no argument with these definitions. However, they encompass such a broad range of possibilities that I’m sure we can come up with a lot of items that we could call a game but which would not necessarily lead to learning.

So what about a taxonomy of games? There are several of these around, based primarily on the major types of entertainment games you’ve likely seen or played. Common categories include action, action-adventure, adventure, roleplay, strategy, simulations, puzzle, sports, board, and card games. My guess is that we could classify many specific games into two or more of these categories. And I’m not sure that any of these categories relate to the instructional effectiveness of a game.

We need a taxonomy of games or game features that link to desired instructional outcomes. Let me give an example from a different common instructional strategy: graphics. Chopeta Lyons and I defined graphics from three perspectives in order to organize their potentially relevant features. First, we defined graphics in terms of surface features such as still graphics versus animated graphics. Second, we identified communication functions such as decorative graphics or explanatory graphics. Third, we listed psychological functions of graphics or graphic features such as promoting encoding, focusing attention, or minimizing extraneous mental load. I believe game categories such as adventure or strategy tell us a bit about the surface features of games but little about their instructional potential. My challenge to game advocates is to develop a meaningful taxonomy that connects game features to learning outcomes.

There is little evidence for learning value of games

A couple of recent technical reviews have carefully evaluated documents on games, looking for credible evidence of what works. The consistent conclusion is that there is insufficient well-designed experimental research on which to base many conclusions. For example, Hays initially identified 274 documents on the design, use, and evaluation of games. Of these, he discarded 62 percent because they were opinion-based rather than data-based. His final review included 105 documents, of which 48 reported empirical evidence of game effectiveness. Based on the 48 studies, he concluded that there is no evidence to indicate that games are the preferred instructional method in all situations, allowing, however, that some games can provide effective learning for a variety of learners for several different tasks such as math, electronics, and economics.

Sitzmann also reviewed research studies that compared the learning effectiveness of computer-based simulation games with a comparison group. Although she weighed in favor of simulation games, her analysis shows that when the comparison group involved some form of active learning (versus listening to a lecture or reading), learning was less effective among the simulation-game learners. Specifically, she concluded, “computerized tutorials were much more effective than simulation games.” Overall I read her analysis as support for active learning, be it in a simulation game or a computer tutorial. Take a look at her report and see what you think.

Moving beyond game hyperbole

Because games come in so many varieties and are useful for so many purposes, I hope that we will move beyond hyperbole and start to consider what specific features of games will promote learning of a particular type. Mayer and his colleagues have conducted a series of experiments in which they create two or more versions of the same game and identify how specific features promote or depress learning. From these experiments he is building a repository of guidelines for game design.

For example, using a circuit game which he describes as a puzzle game intended to teach how electrical circuits work, he has found that encouraging learners to engage in self-explanations by clicking on a rationale for a game move resulted in better learning than the same game without the self-explanation additive. In another experiment with the circuit game, Fiorella and Mayer report that adding an interactive paper-based game principles sheet improved learning from the game among those who correctly identified the principles. Furthermore, learners using the paper-based aids enjoyed the games more than those who played the games without the aids. As these types of experiments accumulate, we will have a number of prescriptions for how games can be made more effective for learning as well as what to avoid.

So, can games teach?

Certainly games that align to the instructional goals, and that offer the right balance of challenge and guidance, can support learning. I’m a language learner, and one game used to stimulate vocabulary learning is a digital version of Concentration. You see 16 facedown cards on the screen and you can click on any two. Half of the cards have pictures and the others have vocabulary words. If the two that you select match, the game eliminates them. You continue clicking on pairs of cards until you have eliminated all of them. What’s the problem with this game design for learning vocabulary?

Here’s my analysis as a player. Since the goal is to learn vocabulary, it’s a good idea to have some drill and practice activity that involves matching pictures and words. Learning vocabulary is a rather tedious process, so putting a game face on a drill-and-practice exercise is a good idea. The problem, however, is that the task of having to recall the location of a particular picture or word among the cards adds irrelevant mental load to learning vocabulary. The game requires me to match words and pictures (good), but at the same time to recall the location of specific word and picture cards (irrelevant to learning a language).

How would I design a more effective game? A better version involves displaying 16 cards with pictures facing the player. Then by audio (or print) the game presents a word and the learner must click on the correct picture. As the words become more automatic, response time would be faster. Therefore the basis for the score could be the time to identify all of the words. Displaying a record of scores over game trials would allow the player to see learning progress. These two game versions illustrate how the instructional goal of accurately and quickly matching a word to a meaning could be slowed or enhanced based on the design features of a game.


Although many games don’t teach, that’s not to say that they can’t teach. Our challenge is to empirically identify and catalog game features that align to learning goals and build a repertoire of principles for game design. Meanwhile, we should work to implement games that will encourage the mental processes required by the learning objectives and add features to these games such as self-explanation questions known to improve learning.


Clark, R.C., Lyons, C. (2011). Graphics for Learning – 2nd Edition. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Fiorella, L, & Mayer, R.E. (2012). Paper-based aids for learning with a computer-based game. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104, 1074-1082.

Hays, R.T. (2005). The effectiveness of instructional games: a literature review and discussion. Technical Report 2005-004. Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division.

Kapp, K.M. (2012). The Gamification of Learning and Instruction. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Mayer, R.E. (2011). Multimedia learning and games. In S. Tobias & D Fletcher (Eds.), Can Computer
Games be Used for Instruction?
Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publisher.

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