Author: Dr. Gregg Collins | Date: July 18, 2023

How Games Drive Learning


I was fascinated by how effective Duke Nukem was as a pedagogical tool. My brother-in-law acquired a complex skill set in a short time, and had fun (perhaps a little too much fun) doing it. The contrast to most formal education was sadly obvious. I reflected that if there were some way to teach other subject matter in a Duke Nukem like game, it could be a hugely useful approach to education.

It turned out I was far from alone in having this particular epiphany. Gamification has increasingly become a hot topic in the learning industry. The idea of teaching through games seems like a no-brainer. But let’s be honest — educational computer games have been around for almost as long as there have been computer games, and so far they haven’t exactly revolutionized education. In fact, while there have been great successes, the bulk of the educational games that have been created so far have been junk.

Why is that? Seymour Papert, educational theorist and co-founder of the MIT media lab, considered the problem in his article, “Does Easy Do It? Children, Games and Learning”:

"Most of what goes under the name ‘edutainment’ reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s response to famous beauty who speculated on the marvelous child they could have together ‘…with your brains and my looks.’ He retorted, ‘but what if the child had my looks and your brains?’

Shavian reversals — offspring that keep the bad features of each parent and lose the good ones — are visible in most software products that claim to come from a mating of education and entertainment. The kind of product [I mean] has the form of a game: the player gets into situations that require an appropriate action in order to get on to the next situation along the road to the final goal. So far, this sounds like ‘-tainment.’ The ‘edu’ part comes from the fact that the actions are schoolish exercises such as those little addition or multiplication sums that schools are so fond of boring kids with.”

In most education games, the “situations” in the game involve helicopters, races, construction activities and other game-like activities, while the “actions” consist of the learner answering trivia questions about whatever the learning domain happens to be. Such “games” are little more than quizzes in disguise.

It is possible to do better. To do so, we need to start by identifying what features of games are critical to creating the superior learning experience we hope to emulate


There are six essential elements that make games effective learning experiences: mission, context, challenge, choice, consequences and competition. Or, to summarize, Education=MC5



The start of a computer game is often like the opening of a movie, with dramatic action and high production values. It is there for one reason: to give players a sense of mission. By the end of the introduction, the player is deeply committed to saving the galaxy, unraveling an Italian renaissance conspiracy, becoming the crime kingpin of Liberty City, or whatever the game happens to be about.

Games are typically organized into a series of levels, so that leveling up — graduating to the next level —becomes a marker of progress toward achieving the mission, and local successes are rewarded with points, merit badges and other symbols of achievement.

Why all this effort to establish a mission? Because in a game, the motivation to acquire new skills rests solely in the fact these skills are required for the mission. There is no learning for learning’s sake. This is one of the key reasons why game players are more motivated to learn, and more persistent at learning, than most learners in traditional educational programs.


High-end games feature amazingly complex, detailed environments that may extend to entire simulated cities, complete with people, cars, shops, factories, infrastructure and even an idiosyncratic local “physics.”

The richness of the game environment is largely driven by the need to create a world in which
players can learn by doing. There is no teaching by telling or rote memorization in games. Players learn skills by trying them and seeing what happens. There must be enough richness in the context to allow the learner to carry out a complex skill, and to experience a realistic response to their actions.


Games confront learners with a succession of carefully designed challenges — winning a gun battle or finding a hidden treasure. Players acquire new skills by facing and overcoming these challenges. Game designers engineer the nature and timing of these challenges extremely carefully. Challenges must get progressively harder — otherwise the game will get boring — but must not require too great a leap, or the player may get stuck.


The challenges in a game are designed to force players to make decisions about how to best carry out their mission in response to an obstacle. The skill building in a game consists largely of learning how to make these decisions better (although there is typically a physical component as well, such as learning how to aim).

A good game environment must give players a reasonably diverse set of choices for responding to each challenge. The game must, in particular, offer plenty of opportunities to make bad choices, which must be plausible enough that a player might actually select them. This is crucial because, in any good game, you learn through your mistakes.


Mistakes have consequences, and in most games a great deal of effort goes into engineering these consequences. These are often spectacular scenes involving death and destruction, in some cases on a galactic scale. Dramatic consequences are of course a big part of the entertainment value of a game, but they are also a big part of the pedagogical value, for two reasons. First, it is through analyzing the consequences of a bad choice that the learner infers how to do better. To facilitate this, consequences need to be explicit — that is, they need to reveal something about why the choice didn’t work. Second, emotional impact serves as a memory marker, meaning that more dramatic consequences will be better remembered, and the lessons they teach will therefore be better learned.


Many games feature overt competition — either one-on-one, or in the form of high-score lists. Overt competition — and slightly more subtly, explicit indications of achievement like points and merit badges that game players can brag about — is a strong motivation for players to build new skills.

Any game with all six features allows players to learn skills in the same way they would in the real world — learning by trial and error. In fact, there’s an important sense that games can provide a better learning environment than real life. A game, like a simulation, allows trial and error learning from events that would be fatal in real life. A game can pack challenges more densely and in a more carefully planned sequence than in real life, and can deliver more explicit and vivid consequences. That is the real promise of games in education — a learning experience like real life, only better.


Learning designers who try to build games face challenges that don’t normally trouble game designers. There are two particularly critical challenges.

The first challenge is that by playing a game, players learn — to state the obvious — how to play that game. A game doesn’t automatically teach anything that can be applied outside the game context. Duke Nukem players don’t acquire any obvious real-world skills (although, to be fair, they might shine if we ever experience an alien invasion). So if you want to teach, say, accounting, you can’t do what by making a game about fighting aliens. Your game has to be about accounting.

It’s with this realization that a lot of would be learning game designers lose their momentum. It helps to ask, “What would a game designer do?”

If forced to create an accounting game — admittedly not a likely scenario — the first thing a game designer would likely do is to look for the natural drama of accounting domain. You might think, “What drama?” But check the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times and you’ll find plenty of stories about companies going out of business, people losing their jobs, partners and even family members falling out, million or billions of dollars lost and people going to jail. What’s more dramatic than that?

Out of such material, a game designer would create a dramatic backstory — perhaps a company in danger of going out of business due to financial irregularities — and frame a series of accounting challenges fraught with dramatic financial, legal and personal consequences at every step. There would be crime and punishment, loyalty and betrayal, fortunes won and lost and many other elements of human drama. And while it might not be Halo III, I bet it would be a pretty interesting game.

Sadly, a learning designer would be likely to proceed in more or less the opposite direction. In training, we typically suck the drama out of a domain. We stick to abstract principles and abstracted examples. If catastrophic outcomes must be mentioned, they are generally discussed in somber tones, as if to discourage morbid interest. That’s why we normally think of accounting training as boring. Game designers understand something essential about learning, namely the importance of emotional impact. On this front, learning designers need to think more like game designers.

The second major challenge stems, again, from the culture of training and education, where the implicit goal is almost always to make training as easy as possible for the learner. Here’s a thought experiment: imagine proposing to a curriculum committee or corporate training group a learning activity in which learners are guaranteed to spend the first couple of hours failing, often spectacularly, with only a limited understanding of what is expected of them. You’d be lucky if you weren’t thrown out of the room. But that’s just what happens in a typical game.

Games are hard. If they aren’t hard, they aren’t fun. As Papert says, “Learning is essentially
hard; it happens best when one is deeply engaged in … challenging activities. The game-designer community has understood (to its great profit) that this is not a cause for worry. The preoccupation … with “making it easy” is self-defeating.


The culture of the learning community abhors failure, and tries to shield learners from it. But failure drives learning. Game designers understand that. Learning designers struggle with it. We must overcome this in order to create effective educational games.


Games present a wonderful opportunity to make education more effective and fun. But experience shows that it’s all too easy to create educational games that seem to combine the worst, rather than the best, elements of gaming and education. To do better, we need to understand and incorporate the elements
that make games pedagogically effective in the first place: mission, context, challenge, choice, consequences and completion, and remember two lessons that game designers understand — that drama enhances learning, and that learning is hard. Remember, what would a game designer do?

Author’s Bio:

Dr. Gregg Collins is the Head of Instructional Design for NIIT's Corporate Learning Group. A Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence from Yale University, Dr. Collins played a key role in the seminal research carried out at ILS and was one of the authors of Northwestern's graduate program in Instructional Design. He was a co-founder of Cognitive Arts Corporation, which was incorporated in 1995 to commercialize ILS. Dr. Collins became Head of instructional design for Cognitive Arts in 1996, and subsequently for NIIT when it acquired Cognitive Arts in 2002. Learning programs created under Dr. Collins's leadership have won numerous international awards, and Cognitive Arts has consistently been recognized as a pioneer and leader in the effective use of instructional design and technology to support pedagogy. ​