Games and Learning




Considerations and possibilities associated with using games in formal learning settings

Principal Metaphors

For the most part, proponents of Games and Learning are not explicit about the theories of learning that orient their research or advice. However, themes and usages are usually strongly aligned with Non-Trivial Constructivisms:
  • Knowledge is … sum of already-established construals/constructions
  • Knowing is … personal sense derived from individual experience
  • Learner is … a meaning-maker (individual)
  • Learning is … construing or construction
  • Teaching is … supporting sense-making




Games and Learning encompasses research into the use of games in learning environments. At present, for many researchers, the phrase refers only to video games, but academic interest in Games and Learning is broader and reaches back much further. Subtopics include creation of social and cultural worlds, communities of game play, and use of game-generated data. Currently the most prominent themes revolve around design principles to support student engagement, Meaningful Learning, learner self-concept, Self-Efficacy, integrative thinking, brain development, productive use of failure, social interaction, and collaborative knowledge production. (Compare Constructionist Gaming and Gamification.) Some of the more prominent categories and discourses associated with Games and Learning include:
  • Educational Games – a broad category that, in principle, includes all games with educational value – but that, in practice, is applied most often to games designed to support learning of specific disciplinary knowledge
  • Games for Change (G4C) – both a category and a movement, focused on the development and use of digital games for social change
  • Game-Based Learning – using games to attain pre-selected learning outcomes. Proponents of Game-Based Learning embrace all types of games, but the timing of the movement suggests a particular interest in video games.
  • Reacting Games (Mark Carnes, 1990s) – role-play games that are set in the past, revolving around important historical texts, and based on reading writing, and speaking
  • Serious Games (Applied Games) – digital games with a primary purpose of study, experimentation, or simulation – typically aimed at combining educational impact with fun and competition
  • Teaching Games – an umbrella category that reaches across all games used to encourage learning, whether focused on specific concepts/skills or used for motivational purposes. Directly associated discourses include:
    • Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) (Peter Werner, David Bunker, Rod Thorpe; 2000s) – an approach to teaching game play that begins with the “why” of the play before focusing on skill development
Discourses associated with the study of Games and Learning include:
  • Game Theory (John von Neumann, 1950s) – principally, the study of the strategic interactions of game players, viewed as agents making rational decisions. Most Game Theory research is based on complex modeling (see Complex Systems Research). Subdiscourses include:
    • Cooperative Game Theory (Coalitional Game Theory) – the study of how coalitions form and evolve in games and other social settings when the rules governing collaborative action are explicit and enforced
    • Evolutionary Game Theory– the use of Game Theory biology and/or ecology to study evolving populations
    • Iterated Game Theory – the branch of Game Theory that looks at games with multiple rounds that afford players opportunities to revise their strategies on the basis of interactions (and the outcomes of those interactions) in previous rounds
    • Learning Game Theory (John Maynard Smith, 1970s) – a branch of Game Theory that is focused on how and why players’ strategies evolve, based on engagements of large numbers of players over multiple competitions
    • Network Game Theory – a blend of Game Theory and Network Theory (see Complex Systems Research) in which, as might be expected, is used to generate models the focus on networks of coordination and cooperation of dynamic populations
    • Non-Cooperative Game Theory – the study of social interactions and collective dynamics that are not governed by rules (or overseen by an authority who can impose rules) on cooperative behavior – that is, the study of games and other settings in which participants cannot rely on stable social conventions and must thus act independently and, perhaps, competitively
    • Spatial Game Theory (Evolutionary Spatial Game Theory) – a grid-based dynamic model of the co-evolutions of two or more species


There is a minor tension among some educational researchers that the phrase Games and Learning, which has a long history in the educational literature, has been hijacked by a small group of researchers with a narrow interest in video games. A quick review of the current literature suggests that the field has accepted this narrowing of focus, and for quite pragmatic reasons. One of the great advantages of using video games is that the technology can be used to provide detailed, real-time information on student activity – engagement, extent of practice, patterns of errors, and so on. The extent and precision of those data, in turn, make it easy to demonstrate the utility and power of Games and Learning. At the same time, shortcomings can be highlighted, and those include possible negative impacts on live social engagement and still-limited evidence to link game-play to achievement and understanding.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

James Paul Gee

Status as a Theory of Learning

Games and Learning is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

For the most part, Games and Learning is focused on matters associated with influencing learning – that is, teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Because the discourse around Games and Learning is not centrally attentive to or explicit about the complex dynamics of learning, it does not meet all our criteria to be classified as scientific. The domain does, however, have a substantial and growing evidence base.


  • Cooperative Game Theory (Coalitional Game Theory)
  • Educational Games
  • Evolutionary Game Theory
  • Games for Change
  • Game-Based Learning
  • Game Theory
  • Iterated Game Theory
  • Learning Game Theory
  • Network Game Theory
  • Non-Cooperative Game Theory
  • Reacting Games
  • Serious Games (Applied Games)
  • Spatial Game Theory (Evolutionary Spatial Game Theory)
  • Teaching Games
  • Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Games and Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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