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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

The thin line between gaming and learning

Hans Hummel, Associate Professor at Open University of the Netherlands

When we went into ‘lockdown’ because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and were denied access to face-to-face education, educators had to swiftly improvise. By transferring existing educational materials and classes online, they did an excellent job in making ‘instant online education’ (like when you’re in some kind of crisis and just have time to make a cup of instant coffee).

However, as has been well-argued and substantiated by others (see for example Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, & Bond, 2020), courses offered in response to crisis or disaster are meaningfully different from well-designed online courses. Now that four months of teaching and studying from home have passed, both teachers and students appear demotivated by ‘serving and drinking that same old cup of instant coffee from just another mug’, and in need of more attractive and meaningful online education. Game-based learning holds much potential here, and has been investigated in a great variety of scientific disciplines and domains over the last two decades. However, its uptake as a mainstream educational medium still lags far behind that academic hype.

Gaming and education: Paradox or partnership?

One reason for this is the conceived paradox between more motivating, active and meaningful learning on one side, and practical limitations with online learning on the other. There was already a need for more blended learning before the current crisis, and that need will probably continue after the pandemic has blown over. So can we expect a more succesful partnership between gaming and online education?

At my institute we have spent quite some efforts over the years on developing ‘online didactics’, and have invested heavily in human resources and infrastructures to develop online learning. In line with my earlier metaphor, I would say we train baristas to prepare high-quality and personalised coffee for our customers. The good news from our experiences is: yes, such a fruitful partnership is indeed possible – if we are willing to acknowledge some common (and hard to correct) misunderstandings about gaming and learning. I will address two of them in this blog: ‘good authoring tools will do the trick’, and ‘motivated students learn better’.

Authoring tools

The relatively high cost and effort involved in developing serious games certainly plays a crucial role, as does the lack of pedagogical expertise among most game studios, and the challenges of translating good learning design into good learning game design. Providing authoring tools and assets to ‘plug and play’ will not suffice. A large body of research reveals that designers most of all need an integrated instructional design approach to guide them, with good worked examples to inspire them (see for example Nadolski et al., 2008).

In supporting game designers there is always is delicate balance to be found between simplicity and usability of authoring platforms on one side, and enabling sufficient complexity and potential of the intended games on the other side (see Slootmaker, Hummel, & Koper, 2017). Even when such an optimal balance could be found, teachers-content experts would still remain in need of instructional guidance and inspiration. Adequate relationships between learning attributes and gaming mechanics are found to be critical for the quality of instructional (game) design and desired learning outcomes, and some models for their mapping have been elaborated (see for example Arnab et al., 2015; Carvalho et al., 2015). Even with the most powerful and usable authoring, lousy designs and learning output will result when teachers lack sufficient knowledge and ID support (leading to ‘garbage in, garbage out’ in learning). Besides authoring tools, designers need design methods, worked examples, designer wizzards and templates, and to work in multidisciplinary development teams.

Gamification and games

A way to provide students with motivational learning experiences is to offer them ill-defined, authentic tasks from realistic problem contexts, and give them autonomy in finding solutions through meaningful gameplay (a game example is provided in Hummel et al., 2020). Games as well-designed, integrated learning systems have the potential to make knowledge a valuable commodity and learning a desirable process. In this sense, to design a serious game is rather different from the ‘gamification’ of education, whereby just one or some gaming elements (like badges or a Kahoot quiz) are added to existing education for a more playful appearance (Shaffer [2007] referred to this as ‘chocolate-covered broccoli’). Gamification has indeed been found to initially motivate learners (it is more fun for a while), but not to contribute to sustained learning of complex skills.

Research highlights the importance of personalising learning experiences in order to keep learners motivated and in their ‘flow channel’. The relation between motivation and learning is neither causal nor reciprocal. A recent literature review (Zhonggen, 2019) on serious games over the last decade shows that enjoyment and motivation were not found to be influencing factors for learning outcomes, although this often is thought to be the case. Actually, it works the other way round: enjoyment and motivation are reported as resulting factors from effective learning through gameplay!

This blog draws from the article, ‘Serious game in introductory psychology for professional awareness: Optimal learner control and authenticity‘ by Hans G. K. Hummel, Rob J. Nadolski, Jannes Eshuis, Aad Slootmaker and Jeroen Storm, published on an open-access basis in the British Journal of Educational Technology.


Arnab, S., Lim, T., Carvalho, M. B., Bellotti, F., De Freitas, S., Louchart, S., Suttie, N., Berta, R., & De Gloria, A. (2015). Mapping learning and game mechanics for serious games analysis. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), 391–411.

Carvalho, M. B., Bellotti, F., Berta, R., De Gloria, A., Islas, C., Baalsrud Hauge, J., Hu, J., & Rauterberg, M. (2015). An activity theory-based model for serious games analysis and conceptual design. Computers & Education, 87, 166–181. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2015.03.023

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, A. (2020, March 27). The difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Educause Review. Retrieved from

Hummel, H. G. K., Nadolski, R. J., Eshuis, J., Slootmaker, A., & Storm, J. (2020). Serious game in introductory psychology for professional awareness: Optimal learner control and authenticity. Advance online publication. British Journal of Educational Technology.

Nadolski, R. J., Hummel, H. G. K., Van den Brink, H. J., Hoefakker, R. E., Slootmaker, A., & Storm, J. (2008). EMERGO: A methodology and toolkit for developing serious games in higher education. Simulation & Gaming, 39(3), 338–355.

Shaffer, D. W. (2007). How computer games help children learn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Slootmaker, A., Hummel, H. G. K., & Koper (2017). Evaluating the usability of authoring environments. Simulation & Gaming, 48(4), 553–578.

Zhonggen, Y. (2019). A meta-analysis of use of serious games in education over a decade. International Journal of Computer Games Technology. doi: 10.1155/2019/4797032