All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Student

The development and deployment of digital game based learning centered initially around widespread adoption of personal computers. Game based learning, despite its benefits, still requires training instructors to run the simulations (in a non-digital context)- which Spierre, et al (2012) points out can be a major cost and impediment to scalability.  With the availability of computers however, digital game based learning became a low-cost educational option that has only flourished under the distribution and cooperation afforded by the internet. The first to develop and explore digital game based learning were those in the military, particularly those in aviation.

Since these early efforts a lot of the work in game based learning has been for public education. From the 1970s to 90s a lot of this work, mostly from Universities, went unnoticed but as Van Eck (2006) said:

After years of research and proselytizing, the proponents of digital game-based learning (DGBL) have been caught unaware. …But now, unexpectedly, we have everyone’s attention. (p. 1)

A recent boom in support for digital game based learning has led to school districts like the local Kyrene School District, who have invested large sums of money to build some of the first public digital classrooms, what a recent New York Times article stated was “an educational Utopia” (Ricthel, 2011). In addition to the growing advocacy for game based learning from exalted institutions (TED, MIT, Carnegie Mellon), this movement has been aided by recent legislation. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have put increased pressure on schools to perform. Movements towards low-cost standardized education have made the easily distributable game based learning an ideal candidate for mass development and adoption.

The feverish spread of game based learning, however, has had drawbacks. In 1997 a science and technology committee assembled by President Clinton issued an urgent call about the need to equip schools with technology. Members including educators like Charles M. Vest, then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and business executives like John A. Young, the former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard stated that if  “spending was not increased by billions of dollars, American competitiveness could suffer.” Their report’s final sentence read however, “The panel does not, however, recommend that the deployment of technology within America’s schools be deferred pending the completion of such research,” referring to research on digital game based learning’s effectiveness.

This has led to issues with the Kyrene School District, for example, whose test scores have stagnated since 2005 despite rising scores across the state. Additionally, in controlled experiments by those like Carr (2012), who explored the use of iPads to teach mathematics to fifth-graders, found no significant effect (Kiger et al, 2012). Bill Gates ( Kiger et al, 2012) and other prominent persons have called for technology and games in schools, a call echoed by a system and government in need of cheap, scalable interventions.  However, these forces may be calling for a revolution that looks remarkably like more of the same.

Carr, J. M. (2012). Does Math Achievement h’APP’en when iPads and Game-Based Learning are Incorporated into Fifth-Grade Mathematics Instruction?.Journal of Information Technology Education: Research11, 269-286.

Kiger, D., Herro, D., & Prunty, D. (2012). Examining the Influence of a Mobile Learning Intervention on Third Grade Math Achievement. Journal of Research on Technology in Education45(1), 61-82.

Pivec, P. (2009). Game-based learning or game-based teaching?

“Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States” (March 1997)

Richtel, M. (2011) NYTimes.

Spierre S, Sadowski J, Berardy A, McClintock S, Augustin S-A, Hohman N, Banna J. 2012. An Instructor’s Guide to Teaching the Pisces Game for Sustainability Ethics. School of Sustainable Engineering & The Built Environment, Arizona State University: Tempe AZ

Van Eck, R. (2006). Digital game-based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless. EDUCAUSE review41(2), 16.

Social Problems and Challenges

A major problem in the development of game based learning has been the conflict between games for entertainment and games in education. A great example of this interaction is the story of SimCalc.


SimCalc is program developed and robustly tested by multiple universities (Kaput & Schorr, 2008). The goal of SimCalc is not only to increase calculus understanding through a kinesthetic and game-based approach but to change how teachers and students approach calculus. SimCalc advocates calculus as “the math of change and the math of nature,” rather than an educational infrastructure that often portrays different types of math as iterative- with calculus at the pinnacle of k-12 education. Though SimCalc has had some success, SimCalc is not just a computer program that utilizes game based learning. Simcalc is Academia’s standard-bearer in an effort to change math education, an effort that has required a large investment by the NSF and public institutions. Part of the reason that SimCalc aims to do so much is that it cannot afford to do any less- this is the problem that has been important in game based learning.

Games require a lot of infrastructure- especially those aimed at the education sector. These games require manuals for teachers in how to use the games, incorporate the games into the classroom, these games often need support textbooks, liaisons with school districts to help incorporate games into current teaching expectations, and in addition, these games need ongoing technical support for bugs. This infrastructure does not exist in Academia nor is there cooperation between public and private game designers to create this infrastructure. This has two effects.


First, there is little room for incremental or experimental efforts in educational games. There are a few companies that buy game designs from universities and sell them to schools while retaining the game’s integrity- however most efforts coming from universities still die between development and implementation because of lack of support.


Second, because there is little room for small efforts, those who want to make educationally aimed games have to prepare for a large investment- and as this monetary need mounts- so do the expectations of how the money should be used. This is why SimCalc cannot afford to be anything other than revolutionary.


The effect of this problem in game based learning is the development of silos of game based design. Until recently (something we have addressed in earlier blogs and is discussed in several game based learning TED talks) game based learning was something used most often by public institutions like the military- without interaction between private and public, and without interaction with other powerful political domains who would benefit from cooperation. This has led to projects from Academia that fail on arrival, and games from industry that Prensky (2005) notes, are at the “bottom of the barrel.”



Kaput, J., & Schorr, R. (2008). The Case of SimCalc, Algebra, and Calculus.Research on Technology and the Teaching and Learning of Mathematics: Cases and perspectives, 211.


Prensky, M. (2005). ” Engage Me or Enrage Me”: What Today’s Learners Demand. Educause review40(5), 60.

Roschelle, J., & Kaput, J. (1996). SimCalc MathWorlds: Composable components for calculus learning. Communications of the ACM39(8), 97-99.