Games Science for Learning

Using games science to conceptualise, contextualise, and operationalise strategy for enhancing learning engagement, experience and outcomes.

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Games Science for learning is the exploitation of game elements in teaching and learning contexts, taking the essence of what it is that makes games so appealing, decoding the mechanics that makes them work, and

then applying these mechanics in activities that motivate and sustain student engagement in a learning process. The application of games science includes serious gaming and gamification.

Headline Summary

The purpose of this strand is to explore techniques in, and the science of, motivating and sustaining engagement within a learning process, with an aim to enhance and personalise learning experiences and improve learning outcomes. The focus on a gamified approach is inspired by the increasing use of games concept, techniques and technology, to inject more fun into everyday contexts and conceptualise serious activities to respond to the motivational model of learners.

Our approach is framed within a pedagogy-driven and user-centred design methodology that maps motivational affordances, psychological outcomes, behavioural outcomes and 21st century learning needs. We will exploit existing techniques, tools and technologies, including games, mobile, pervasive and analytics, that enable personalised, contextualised, and highly engaging learning experiences. This strand is also responding to the evolving needs and expectations of learners driven by the blending of physical and digital learning spaces and the merging of formal and informal learning contexts.


This strand is inspired by the increasing application of games techniques and technology in non-entertainment settings that is injecting more fun in everyday contexts. Serious gaming refers to the use of digital game technology with an objective other than entertainment. Gamification on the other hand, does not refer to digital games, but digital technologies that can be exploited as an enabling tool.

Gamification has gained traction in commercial applications, where it is being used to foster community building and brand loyalty, such as NIKE+ and Starbucks loyalty rewards[1]. As underlined in a recent study on gamification (Hamari et al., 2014[2]), there are existing case studies that demonstrate potential impact in a wide range of subjects (science, creativity, foreign language, transversal skills, etc.). Yu-Kai (2013)[3] has also summarised existing gamification for learning initiatives on his “gamified” blog site. However, there are currently no established methodologies and processes for designing, applying, and measuring gamification in a generalised framework, which can be applied in a variety of circumstances especially with a focus on learning.

There is thus an opportunity to explore gameful design beyond the commonly used reward system (personified in points, badges and leader boards). Even though it is a great mechanic to encourage participation in an otherwise laborious activity, its reliance on achievement mechanics and competition could actually cause demotivation, especially where teams are to collaborate and work together. Successful gamification however, seems to rely on a concrete acknowledgement of the motivational model of the user, taking into view concepts such as situational relevance, pedagogical implications and situated motivational affordance. This therefore calls for a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together motivational and educational psychology, pedagogy, game design, user experience and learner modelling.

DMLL Perspectives

Gamified learning for the DMLL means a “gameful” approach to learning, framed within a pedagogy-driven and user-centred design methodology that maps motivational affordances, psychological outcomes, behavioural outcomes and 21st century learning needs. DMLL approach will go beyond points, badges and leader boards, and we will exploit enabling techniques, tools and technologies including games, mobile, pervasive and analytics towards the engagement of learners, enhancement of teaching and learning experience, and improvement of learning outcomes.

DMLL Key Themes

The key themes are motivated by the need to promote consistency with respect to the methodologies used in gamification design, motivational aspects other than competition and the blurring of the boundaries between physical and digital learning spaces.

1. Design of gamified learning

At the DMLL, we focus on developing guidelines for integrating relevant components in the design of game-based approaches, based on existing best practices that would be a useful addition to the existing design literatures and frameworks. We aim to explore a trans-disciplinary model for game-based intervention design, that crosses disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach. This infused methodological model should act as a validated guide to inform a development process, which can be used by researchers, designers and developers.

Design of gamified learning practices should be holistic. Driven by a fixed view on what technology we want to implement could lead to a solution that is not effective and sustainable. Thinking technology first and pedagogy later may form a stifled perspective of what learners and educators actually need. Could a more holistic and modular approach help the co-designing of a teaching and learning solution? I like to think so.

At the DMLL, a layering approach (Fig. 1) has been drafted to delve into learning needs and dynamics that will inform learning design and the relevant enabling technologies, forming part of the solution. This layering approach has been used as a discussion tool for a multi-disciplinary team. The layering illustrates a more modular and bottom up approach (layer 1 — layer 4) in looking at teaching and learning challenges/needs and formulating game-based intervention design and the relevant technologies that would enable the teaching and learning process. The holistic model also serves as a way for us to research each layer in a more agile way, meaning studies of the requirements in each layer can collectively inform decisions made in a design and development process, towards implementing technology-assisted and gamified teaching and learning.

Fig. 1. A holistic and modular approach in looking at requirements for gamified learning

Designing pervasive and gamified language learning: This approach has been used to structure the needs for a pervasive solution for language learning at Coventry University (see Before thinking about what the solution should be and what technologies could enable the process, it is important to pin down the learning objectives, learners and educators needs, specific units/module breakdown, pedagogy (problem based learning, experiential, situated, etc.?) and measurable outcomes. In Layer 1, a lesson plan taking into account all these variables is key to defining and understanding learning dynamics in layer 2. In terms of pervasive learning, where and what activities, mode of assessments, etc. Layers 1 and 2 help inform the specification of a lesson plan(s) with clear milestones that link to specific activities, location, assessment, etc. The milestones could be the specific objectives to be achieved for each unit of a module. Milestones can be associated to landmarks, where learning activities will be carried out, e.g. the Godiva Statue in Coventry can be a landmark where students can learn about ‘introducing oneself and one’s family’. Specific assessment approaches can be designed — e.g. recording of a student’s introducing him/herself in a foreign language, writing simple text, conversing with Godiva, etc. See fig. 2 for a snapshot of the initial brainstorming with the stakeholders. Once the lesson plan is complete, a gamified approach (layer 3) can be designed to wrap around it, taking into account learner and educator’s needs, the activities and assessment (to inform feedback cycle). The mechanics, narratives and aesthetics can be specified. The learning dynamics, the learning objects that are key to supporting assessment, and the gamified design will help a design team to identify relevant technologies (layer 4) that enable and scaffold the learning process. A snapshot of a draft brainstorming session is as illustrated by fig. 2.

Fig. 2. Outcomes from the brainstorming sessions using the holistic model as a tool

Preliminary lesson learnt includes the positive impact of the participatory approach, where learners and tutors collaborate as co-designers of the learning strategy and that the holistic model is acting as a tool to focus and structure the design process that is merging real needs with the potential of enabling technologies. Further work includes developing and piloting a prototype based on the design with a cohort of language students. A key hypothesis that will be tested is that active learning afforded by pervasive gamification enhances learning experience and outcomes, where randomised control trials will be conducted as part of the further work of this pilot.

2. Motivational Model and Gamification

Achievement mechanics and competition has been key to existing gamification design approaches. It is however important to recognise the motivational model of a learner. Motivated by the fact that collaborative and social learning has demonstrated the nurturing of soft skills, which are an important component of 21st century skills, we aim to research on the motivational and learning impact of collaboration and how would such a social mechanic translate in gamification. A pilot study based on the StarQuest Gamification Platform[4] is currently being carried out in collaboration with our industrial partner (Playgen Ltd.). See .

3. Gamification and Pervasive Learning

Linking to the work on gamified learning design and the holistic approach, we are exploring the crossings of pervasive technologies and gamification driven by the blending of physical and digital learning spaces. We aim to experiment on a hybrid learning ‘space’ that is reducing the barriers of time and physical space in teaching and learning; a solution that fosters contextualised play-learn.

Reconceptualising physical and digital spaces as playful learning environments populated with contextualised resources will open up opportunities for promoting a more active and applied approach to learning. The following diagram (fig. 3) illustrates the idea of extending the classroom context into a hybrid space and other informal spaces.

Fig. 3. Pervasive learning blending formal and informal spaces

How can we facilitate active and contextualised learning? What learning mechanics are supported by pervasive game mechanics? What is the correlation with intrinsic motivation and self-reinforcement when learning is applied outside of the classroom setting?

Current initiatives include experimenting on the potential for context-aware educational resources to be supported and delivered within the gamified activities, which provide the mechanism for proactive discovery and learning. Active pedagogy through physical and contextual immersion of learners is being explored by projects such as Imparrapp, an initiative to support active language learning using mixed reality techniques ( This project will produce an adaptable platform that will support other disciplines. Other projects such as the BLE Beacon trial at the library will explore the impact of “in situ” information delivery in navigation around and use of library resources (see ).

Engagement and Collaboration

Gamification workshop: As part of the strategy to engage staff across the university with the concept of gamification, we are exploiting existing gamification design toolkits, such as GameOn’s Gamification Model Canvas and Playgen’s AddingPlay[5] cards, which will help facilitate the generation of playful ideas. As part of a study on the gamification design, we will also explore frameworks such as Octalysis[6] and Badgeville’s game design[7]. Even though they are not pedagogy-driven and trans-disciplinary to be holistic enough as a single framework, these toolkits will help foster paradigm shifts in the design of teaching and learning strategy and open up opportunities for staff across the university to experiment. Workshops on gamification design are being organised at the DMLL as part of the ‘Game Changer’ programme that is aiming to promote game design thinking for problem solving at Coventry University.

External thought leaders in gamification: such as Kam Star[8], Amy-Kim Jo[9], Sebastian Deterding[10], Yu-Kai Chou[11] and Andrzej Marczewski[12] can become associates and collaborators in the area.

Synergy: Coventry University, through the Serious Games Institute (SGI) is playing a key role in pioneering the use of digital games in various domains. There is a synergy between this strand and the research being carried out at the SGI. Existing case studies can be used to analyse the impact of game mechanics for supporting learning, which will inform the development of the trans-disciplinary design model for game-based approaches, including gamification for learning.

Showcase: Findings from existing projects, such as the StarQuest pilot, Imparrapp design and Beacon trial can be disseminated across the university to showcase best practices and lessons learnt, supported by the individuals who are already involved in the initiatives.

Immediate and Potential Doctorate Research Domain

Pervasive gamification for contextualised learning: The research will explore the crossings of pervasive technologies and gamification driven by the blending of physical and digital learning spaces and the merging of formal and informal learning contexts. How will a pedagogy-driven hybrid learning ‘space’ reduce the barriers of time and physical space in teaching and learning? The candidate will experiment on context-aware resource generation, indoor and outdoor mobile communications (including BLE Beacon technology), learning analytics and gamification techniques in order to research the impact of pervasiveness in gaming towards contextualising learning and the acquisition of skills within the context of Higher Education.

Games Science and Beyond

Games Science is a discipline under which, game-based approaches, such as serious games and gamification can be framed. The science of gameful design and approaches in turning ordinary tasks into highly engaging, pervasive, contextualised and personalised experiences is inspired by pedagogical, motivational and psychological theories. It is important to develop this area as a discipline and the mechanics for this include developing a portfolio of evidence-based studies and experiments, high impact and REF-able journal publications and a book dedicated to Games Science.

About the author: Sylvester Arnab is a senior research fellow and co-director of research for the Disruptive Media Learning Lab at Coventry University, England.

About the Lab: The DMLL is a semi-autonomous cross-University experimental unit whose remit is specifically to drive innovation of teaching, learning and practice forward (in the ‘Google model’: to break and remake existing ways of doing higher education) so that the University can re-model its own practices. For more information, please visit