Relationship between games and learning

7 February 2012 1,921 views No Comment

Perhaps the relationship between game playing and effective learning can be thought of in terms of Vygotsky’s concept of Zone of Proximal Development (Schunk, 1999). Vygotsky wrote that children learn best when they are challenged by situations they are developmentally ready to handle, but do not yet have the skills to master. They develop these skills through interaction with others, exploring the environment, knowing what they are trying to accomplish, being able to modify the environment, and getting corrective feedback from the environment. These characteristics of a learning environment correlate with 5 of the characteristics that Whitton (2009) ascribes to gaming environments.

Games are similar to learning within the zone of proximal development because a player needs to have a certain basic familiarity with game playing, in terms of controls used for the game and specific genre of game. While I enjoy platform and maze games and have been playing versions of them for the past 25 years, I still had to take time to get used to playing Runescape. There is a different pace to the game, as well as a very different interface and way to interact with the game. This is parallel to a child being developmentally ready to handle a particular challenge; if they are not ready they will have difficulty gaining new skills. New gamers learn from in-game tutorials and from other players, just like a child learns from adults and older students. Similarly, while children explore the environment around them, try new things and see the results of their experimentation, gamers explore the game world and get feedback in the form of points, coins, weapons, or by losing something when they make a mistake. Games can provide an environment that is very appropriate for effective learning.

While Whitton does not consider safety, ie the idea that games do not have real-world consequences, fundamental to good learning, one thing that strikes me in all these articles and blog posts I read about gamification in education is the concept that so many of the examples used (angry birds, farmville) seem so attractive to players BECAUSE of the fact that they are so removed from real life. I think it is important to draw a distinction between the idea that games are fun, and therefore make learning more palatable for students, and the idea that games provide an environment that encourage better learning – whether or not it’s more fun for learners.


Schunk, D. H. (1999). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall.

Whitton, N. (2009). Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education (1st ed.). Routledge.

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