Abstract Details

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The Importance Of Effective Game Design Elements In Educational Games

This study outlines the invaluable and often overlooked contribution of the Game Designer to the creation of educational games. Games are a flexible media form that can offer learning potential through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic means. Accommodating students’ learning styles is widely recommended across all levels of education (Arbuthnott & Kratzig 2015). The potential for immersive and well-structured educational games is only now beginning to be realised. Studies are consistently seeing positive results on measures of student motivation and engagement when games are introduced into the school curricula on a worldwide scale (Poondej 2016, Ahmad et al. 2018). Using mainstream educational games within classrooms can help those students who otherwise struggle with traditional learning approaches or face socio-economic challenges (Dede 2018).

The aim of this study is to answer the research questions: Which game design aspects are most important for the creation of an effective educational game? What factors lead to player engagement? What motivates players to continue playing a game? We contend that the efficacy of an educational game depends on achieving a balance between engaging gameplay and well-paced learning objectives: a task that necessitates a focus on design. This belief stems from the important findings of Vlachopoulos and Makri (2017). Our focus on how to design educationally beneficial features so that the player is engaged and having fun will aid future developers of educational games.

This work employed a mixed method research design, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative data to explore the topic of well-designed educational games. A survey was designed to gather opinions directly from active players of educational games regarding the effectiveness of their design. Participants were recruited through online game forum websites. The survey was distributed non-randomly to a specific population of people of interest as most questions require the respondent to have invested significant amounts of time playing specific educational games. In total, 278 responses to the survey were recorded of which 259 were deemed useful to this study.

The survey asked a number of questions relating to the playing of six identified, well-designed video games. The games were selected for their playability, real-world educational potential, and having an active and sizable player base. The survey comprised three parts. The first part requested basic demographic information about the respondent; which of the chosen games they had experience with; and how long they had spent playing each game. The second section comprised eight questions with responses rated on a 5-point Likert scale. Specifically, the respondents were asked to rate the importance that various features had on their motivation to play the game. The final question was an open-ended question asking respondents to highlight any other features which they felt were particularly significant for motivating them to play an educational game.

The key findings of this study relate to the design elements participants identified as important for motivating them to continue playing. Seventy-six qualitative answers were coded based on six recurring general themes: Role-playing, Progression, Realism, Online, Replayability and Choice. Online in this context refers to the continuous support and updating of the game after the initial release.

The survey gathered information directly from players with experience in popular games having educational aspects highlighted by Sailer & Homner (2019), such as the inclusion of game fiction, a customisable avatar system, social interaction and challenge. The results showed a large variance in how individual players rated the importance of various mechanics for their motivation.

Contrary to the research conducted by Sailer & Homner, the elements of game fiction, avatar creation and social interaction were found to be of, at most, average importance to the surveyed players. Furthermore, participants found challenge to be a key factor. In support of this finding, challenge was identified by Amr (2012) as having the highest impact on a player’s learning capabilities. Challenge proved to be very important to active players for their motivation in this study. This is likely due to the appeal of many of the shortlisted games being their large skill ceiling, meaning due to the quantity of features and systems, players need to invest hundreds of hours before they can become fully familiar with every aspect of the game.

The findings from the qualitative question helped to establish the relevance of this study. Of the coded responses, the most frequent were roleplay, goal progression, and realism. The importance assigned to roleplay by the respondents reinforces some of the findings in the existing literature. Specifically, Maraffi et al. (2017) found positive results when measuring attention levels among a class collectively playing a role-playing game compared to standardised teaching methods.

Another aspect that was highlighted by the players as important for their motivation, which helps the problem of confining the player, is goal progression. This finding relates to the second subsection of John Keller’s (1987) ARCS Model, Relevance. Keller outlines the importance of goal orientation for the player as a method of incentivising the player to progress through the game. Ideally, the goal progression system should be obvious to the player, so as to allow maximum time spent pursuing achievements and progressing concurrently through the game and importantly, the educational content. Goal progression also offers potential designers a solution to the previously mentioned issue of confining the player. If the game focuses on objectives and guides the player throughout, with emphasis on what the player can do, it could potentially result in a preferable experience to a game with a lack of guidance causing the player to discover what they are unable to do. This coincides with Nebel et al’s (2016) findings of the positive correlation between goal-setting and entertained engagement.

The final significant finding of the qualitative question was the importance of realism. In this sense, realism refers to games containing elements that are reminiscent of the real world and, more importantly, behave in an expected way. A rocket-building game such as Kerbal Space Program would be less appealing to players if the game’s physics were completely abstract and bore no resemblance to the physical laws present in the real world. The desire for elements of realism among dedicated players is fortunate for the future of educational game design. The ARCS model identified the importance of relevance to the educational material, without which the learning capabilities of the educational game would be jeopardised. Short’s (2012) decision to use the game Minecraft to teach several scientific subjects is likely due in part to the game’s capacity for realistic elements that can be made to occur in an expected manner, despite its intentionally low graphical quality.

In conclusion, this study indicates that games have real potential to be an effective tool within learning environments. However, like any tool, games need to be utilised correctly. A poorly built game that is lacking well-paced educational content or hands-on supervision will result in a poor understanding of the educational content. The change from strictly textbook-based learning to digital platforms is slowly occurring within schools already. This study contends that games should not be seen as a distracting platform, but rather embraced as an immersive platform that can lead towards less stressful educational experiences and a wide-scale improvement in motivation amongst students.

Keywords: Motivation, Progression, Realism.


Ahmad, F et al. (2018). Investigating the impact of game-based learning in mathematics using tablets among primary school students. Foundation for Information Technology Educa-tion and Development.

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  • Vlachopoulos, D. & Makri, A. (2017). The effect of games and simulations on higher education: a systematic literature review. International Journal of Education Technology in Higher Ed-ucation 14(22).

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