Motivation and the use of educational games

Created by: Kaitlynn Allan

Computer games play an integral part of our social and cultural environment, and are particularly appealing to children and adolescents, for whom they constitute the most popular computer activity in the home (Papastergiou, 2008). Thus, educational games can be used as a learning tool and has potential for providing a highly motivating learning environment. A study of fourth and fifth grade students in Turkey showed that students demonstrated significantly higher intrinsic motivation to learn and lower extrinsic motivation in the game-based environment (Tuzan, Yilman-Soylu, Karakus, Inal, & Kizilkaya, 2009). Another recent study of secondary students in Malaysia found students reporting that game-based learning environments were motivating because it allowed them to control their own learning and piqued their curiosity (Ang & Rao, 2008). Games are believed to “enhance intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Games are used to make learning more enjoyable; learning becomes more than something we are required to do or need to do to obtain some reward, such as a good grade” (Alessi & Trollip, 2001, p. 271). This wiki will attempt to describe the true meaning of educational games as well as the motivating factors present in educational games. This page will further describe why motivation is a crucial factor when it comes to learning.

What are educational games?
Many programs present themselves as “educational games” but often lack the features associated with true educational games. Alessi and Trollip identified seven essential features when it comes to educational games. The seven features include:

· Goals. Every game has a goal that is either stated or inferred. The goal is the end to which each player strives.
· Rules. Rules define what actions are allowed within a game and what constraints are imposed. Rules are artifacts of our imagination even through they may sometimes try to simulate reality.
· Competition. Most of the time, games include some form of competition, either against a human opponent, against the computer, against oneself, against chance, or against time.
· Challenge. People play most games to be challenged. Challenge is what one has to overcome or succeed at to reach a goal.
· Fantasy. Games generally rely on fantasy for motivation. Fantasy can range from a close representation of reality to a more distant representation.
· Safety. Games often serve as a simulation of real-life activities and at the same time provide a safe way of participating in a more dangerous (or expensive) reality. The safety of a game encourages learners to explore alternative approaches.
· Entertainment. Probably the most appealing aspect of all games is the entertainment. Although entertainment is not necessary, it is the primary purpose of education games and can increase motivation and learning.

Educational Game Essentials
Students experience very multimedia-rich, adventurous games outside of school. In order to meet the expectations and to retain their interest, educational games need to strive for the same sort of features (Papastergiou, 2009, p. 11). Gee (2003) identified a number of characteristics associated with educational games (as cited in Jonassen, Howland, Marra, & Crimsmond, 2008) that are crucial for the classroom.

· Active, Critical Learning Principle. All aspects of the learning environment (including the ways in which the domain is designed and presented) are set up to encourage active and critical, not passive learning.
· “Psychosocial Moratorium” Principle. Learners can take risks in a space where real-world consequences are lowered.
· Practice Principle. Learners get lots of practice in a context where the practice is not boring.
· Probing Principle. Learning is a cycle of probing the world; reflecting in and on this action and, on this basis, forming a hypothesis; reprobing the world to test this hypothesis; and then accepting or rethinking the hypothesis.
· Multimodal Principle. Meaning and knowledge are built up through various modalities (e.g., images, texts, symbols, interactions, abstract design, and sound), not just words.
· Discovery Principle. Overt telling is kept to a well-thought-out minimum, allowing ample opportunity for the learner to experiment and make discoveries.

How is motivation defined?

Motivation originates from the word motivate and is the “inner or social stimulus for an action” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010). There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. According to Alessi and Trollip (2001), extrinsic motivation is “independent of the instruction, such as offering learners with rewards they consider desirable” (p. 26). Extrinsic motivators “diminish one’s interest in learning because the goal becomes the reward rather than learning” (p. 26). Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is “inherent in the instruction and makes the instruction intrinsically motivating if learners consider it to be fun” (Alessi & Trollip, 2001, p. 26). According to these definitions, educators should strive to enhance intrinsic motivation. According to Alessi and Trollip (2001), games are believed to "enhance intrinsic motivation" (Alessi & Trollip, 2001, p. 271).

How do games encourage motivation?
Motivation is essential to learning and education games can "effectively motivate learners" (Alessi & Trollip, 2001, p. 271). In an empirical study that looked at the effects of a game environment on students’ achievement and motivation, Tuzan, Yilman-Soylu, Karakus, Inal, and Kizilkaya (2009) found that students demonstrated significantly higher intrinsic motivation and statistically significant lower extrinsic motivation in the game-based environment. To read more about this empirical study, please click on the following link: The effects of computer based games on motivation and achievement In another study that implemented educational gaming into the classroom, Papastergiou (2009) found that students were enthusiastic about using games and were absorbed and interested in the task. Many students exhibited high levels of engagement. One student said, "it's more enjoyable and active. You never get bored as in traditional teaching because you concentrate on a goal. This helps you retain elements in your memory and understand concepts that are difficult in order to advance in the game” (p. 10). In addition to empirical research findings, Malone’s Motivational Theory (1981) describes the four factors that influence motivation: challenge, curiosity, fantasy, and learner control- all of which are found in educational gaming (Alessi & Trollip, 2001, p. 25).
· Challenge. Malone suggests that the most important principle is that the level of challenge should be individualized and adjusted for learners. A game should not be too easy, nor too difficult. Setting challenging goals at the start of the lesson is beneficial. Having uncertain outcomes wherein the learner is not sure if they are attainable, increases challenge. Varying the challenge as the learner improves is also very important.
· Curiosity. Malone defined sensory curiosity and cognitive curiosity. Sensory curiosity is aroused by visual or auditory effects that are surprising or attract attention. Cognitive curiosity is aroused by information that conflicts with the learner’s existing knowledge, is contradictory, or is in some way incomplete. These types of curiosities encourage the learners to seek new information.
· Control. Three rules are relevant to learner control: contingency, choice, and power. The contingency rule states that the lesson does should be clearly a result of the learner’s actions and responses. The choice rule encourages procedures that permit the learner to determine sequence or lesson parameters, such as difficulty. The notion of power is that lessons in which learners' actions have "powerful effects" will be very motivating.
· Fantasy. Fantasy encourages learners to imagine themselves in imaginary contexts or events using vivid, realistic images.

To read more about Malone’s Motivational Theory, please visit the following website: Malone's Motivational Theory.

Why should this topic interest educators?

Learners are expected to become motivated by active participation in a situation and educational games are believed to be motivational and educationally effective. “It is more interesting to fly a simulated airplane, for example, than to read about flying it" (Alessi &Trollip, 2001, p.229). In one empirical study, Virvou, Katsionis, & Manos (2005) explored the educational effectiveness, appeal and scope of educational software games. Researchers reported that virtual reality games were very motivating while retaining or improving educational effectiveness. In a similar study, Ang and Rao (2008) surveyed 100 secondary students in Malaysia. Students reported that game-based learning was motivating because it allowed students to control their own learning and piqued their curiosity (p. 194). On the contrary, it is important not to assume that learners will be motivated just because instruction is on the computer. Learners with computer anxiety may experience "decreased motivation with interactive multimedia programs" (Alessi & Trollip, 2001, p. 422). It is important to assess motivation and this can be done through using multimedia programs that are "easy to use and contain appropriate safety nets" (Alessi & Trollip, 2001, p. 422).

Take a look at a documentary on educational gaming. McKinley Technology High School has embraced the new world of educational gaming, trying to transform public education.

Tips for implementing educational games into the classroom

Marzano (2007) reported that in classrooms with the overall strong effect of using games in the classroom, teachers did specific things. Marzano (2007) suggested that teachers should:

· Use inconsequential competition. In general, students like to compete as long as the stakes are not high. During a two-week unit of instruction, a teacher might organize students into teams of four students each. Teams might play games four or five times during that unit. Each time they play, the first three teams to complete the game receive points (for example, 3 points for the first team to finish, 2 points for the second team, and 1 point for the third team). At the end of the unit, and the three teams with the highest number of points get some inconsequential but fun reward, such as coupons to buy juice from the vending machines in the cafeteria. Throughout the year, the teacher should reorganize the teams so all students have the experience of winning and losing. However, teachers must not factor game points into students’ grades for the unit. The points and rewards are simply for fun.
· Target essential academic content. If games do not focus on academic content, they will have little or no effect on student achievement and waste valuable classroom time. The most efficient way to maintain an academic focus is to organize games around important terms and phrases. For example, during a unit on dance movers, a dance teacher might identify terms and phrases such as axial movement, line of gravity, movement phrase, and nonlocomotor movement.
· Debrief the game. The most common error that teachers make when using games is to add up team points and move on. The whole point of playing academic games in the classroom is to provide opportunities for students to examine important content in a lively and enjoyable venue. To stimulate analysis of important terms and phrases, a teacher can ask students which questions were difficult to answer and why. For example, suppose that during a game of Pictionary in a mathematics class, students had difficulty drawing an image to represent the Fibonacci sequence. At the conclusion of the game, the teacher would ask students about their difficulties with this item. The discussion would serve as a brief review of the defining characteristics of a Fibonacci sequence.
· Have students revise their notes. One generalization that applies to learning all types of content is that students must have opportunities to revise their understanding of the content as time goes by. When a game has ended and the class has discussed difficult terms and concepts related to the content, the teacher should give students time to revise their notes. A teacher might ask students to look over what they have previously written about this content in their notes and make any necessary changes. This might involve correcting misconceptions or adding new information that the students were unaware of. Classrooms can address even the most difficult content in a lighthearted, engaging way. Games are a powerful and useful tool to this end. Teacher-conducted research indicates that games can have a significant effect on student achievement when teachers use them purposefully and thoughtfully.

Take a look at how one teacher implemented an educational game into the Science curriculum!

Educational Game Websites
Funbrain is one of the largest and most popular educational game sites for children. The games focus on math, science, spelling and grammar.
This award-winning website offers free educational games for parents, teachers, and kids.
Founded in 1998 in order to provide student's with a fun and educational way to spend their free time, a teacher's classroom project has grown into a worldwide platform attracting several million visitors every single month.
This educational website was created by a teacher for her classroom because her students needed a fun way to practice math facts. This website offers a variety of math related games.
Cool Math was designed for kids ages 3 through12 with the focus being on everything up to pre-algebra. Cool Math also has seven 'sister' websites that are accessible through this site.


Alessi, S. M. & Trollip, S. R. (2001). Multimedia for learning: Methods and development. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Ang, C. S. & Rao, G. S. V. (2008). Computer game theories for designing motivating educational software: A survey study. International Journal on E-learning, 7, 181- 199.,+C.+S.+%26+Rao,+G.+S.+V.+(2008).+Computer+game+theories+for+designing+motivating+educational+software:+A+survey+study.&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESh5nMa0Yuz4pzT_dFImYx4yE4Ubar5Fi9aJSVr0DLfwmtKwkn84C5dTvRomYYMNJOLSuT0-5lzMwdf00-zbz2fzHp3Fy6WAijitqmaKCaw0w4DqJC2PbbjdVCf9J_XEImpFHpc3&sig=AHIEtbRWVlRAVxspXjwLvPUlv_9qjnDd7g

Jonassen, D., Howland, J., Marra, R. M., & Crismond, D. (2008). Meaningful learning with technology. Columbus, Oh: Pearson.

Kebritchi, M. (2010). Factors affecting teachers' adoption of educational computer games: A case study. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(2), 256-270.

Papastergiou, M. (2009). Digital game-based learning in high school computer science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation. Computers and Education, 52, 1-12.

Virvou, M., Katsionis, G., & Manos, K. (2005). Combining software games with education: Evaluation of its educational effectiveness. Educational Technology and Society, 8, 54- 65.

Marzano, R. J. (2007). Using games to enhance student achievement. Educational Leadership, 54, 71-72.

Motivation. (2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved April 13, 2010, from

Tuzan, H. Yilman-Soylu, M. Karakus, T. Inal, Y. & Kizilkaya, G. (2009). The effects of computer games on primary school students' acheivement and motivation in geography learning. Computers and Education, 52, 69- 77.

Kaitlynn Allan
Last updated: April 18, 2010