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Have you heard that games are motivating, fun and allow learner control?

To be clear, we are not saying games are not motivating, not fun or do not allow learner control. We are saying whether this is truly great – which could be – or not. When you hear someone talking these claims of GBL, ask yourself whether this is the full picture or not.

When someone convince you to apply game-based learning (GBL), have you heard that games are motivating, games are fun and games allow learners control over learning? Be careful because these claims could be appealing but arguable selling points of GBL.

Games are motivating?

Possibly. Because previous meta-analyses in GBL found inconclusive results for this motivational benefits (e.g., Sitzmann, 2011; Vogel et al., 2006; Wouters et al., 2013). Often, students like learning with games than learning without games such as reading textbooks, watching videos or completing assignments.

But, motivation to games does not guarantee more learning. When students show interest in the game, two possible things could happen. On one hand, they may think that it is an easier way to learn but invest less mental effort and time (Salomon, 1984), leading to less learning (Clark & Feldon, 2014). On the other hand, motivation or interest in GBL may stimulate players to dedicate more time and effort, leading to more learning. Quite a different path!

Other researchers argue that “Motivation is an outcome, not a cause” (Merrill, 2017). Games have motivational power per se might be wrong. It is not the game that motivates learners, but rather, the instruction. Then how to promote motivation when learning with games? One possible answer is effective, efficient, and engaging instructions (for more information, see Merrill, 2012) – the aim of instructional design. As long as we offer the needed instructions during GBL, hopefully, more time and effort ends with more motivation to keep going and learning.

Games are fun?

We wish. People are a natural in playing and having fun. Play could be a natural way of learning. It seems promising to learn by playing games.

The first question you may ask is: What is fun? Well, it depends. As an objective feeling, the definition of fun varies across individuals. Some find the game fun, but others not. Fun is not “easy”. In general, players feel the game is fun because they are optimally challenged: the game is neither too easy nor too difficult. This optimal challenge enables zone of proximal development in learning (Vygotsky, 1980). In reality, many games for learning are not well-developed with this desired level of challenge. Let alone fun to play and learn.

But there’s more: the term GBL is confusing. It inherently holds a conflict between the pleasure of play and the purpose of learning (Westera, 2015). Play takes place in leisure activities (Westera, 2015), whereas learning takes effort (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). When you ask students to play for learning, it is unclear yet whether this is good for learning or for play.

You may ask: how to solve this conflict? Well, instructional designers in GBL are still working on finding the key.

Games allow learner control over learning?

Sounds great. Learners choose the pacing, sequencing and selecting of information when learning with games. According to self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000), more choices or freedom seems to offer them a sense of autonomy, which means more motivation.

But high autonomy does not mean high competence (Patall, Cooper & Robinson, 2008). In most studies, no positive effects of learner control on learning and motivation were found. In few studies, even the effects were found, this effect may due to the novelty effect (i.e., when a new technology is introduced, learners’ interest increases in the beginning but decreases over time, with no improvement in learning) or may depend on external instructional support rather than learner control (Moos & Marroquin, 2010).

Also, the advantages of learner control may only work for learners with enough prior domain knowledge or learners with additional instructional support (Scheiter, 2014). Choices (especially among a large number of alternatives) require meaningful self-reflection on their competence and match it with information to-be-chosen, which means more mental effort and high self-regulated learning skills. However, learners are always bad at judging their own competence (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020). They may not fully understand the difficulty behind choosing information (Moos & Marroquin, 2010) and tend to choose the instructions that they learn least (Clark, 1982). Hence, their perceived learning outcomes from self-reports (i.e., the learning performance they thought they were reached) and actual learning outcomes from tests are totally different stories – the former is always larger than the latter!

Even worse, learners with low prior domain knowledge may have little to guide their choices and tend to select the irrelevant information that does not contribute to learning (Scheiter, 2014). In this case, teachers should offer additional instructional support to help them. The guided instructions (e.g., more teacher control) have been shown more effective than minimally guided instructions (e.g., more learner control; Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). Well, think twice before you give learner control!


To be clear, we are not saying games are not motivating, not fun or do not allow learner control. We are saying whether this is truly great – which could be – or not. When you hear someone talking these claims of GBL, ask yourself whether this is the full picture or not.

GBL, success or failure?  Instructional design is the king. Although GBL get these questionable arguments, they are promising in aspects that could not be achieved by other media (check our previous blogs for more information).

Research are to be continued and stay tuned!



Clark, R. E. (1982). Antagonism Between Achievement and Enjoyment in ATI Studies. Educational Psychologist, 17(2), 92–101.

Clark, R. E., & Feldon, D. F. (2014). Ten common but questionable principles of multimedia learning. In R. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2nd ed., pp. 151–173).

Deci, R. M., & Ryan, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78.

Kirschner, P. A., & Hendrick, C. (2020). How Learning Happens (1st ed.). London: Routledge.

Merrill, D. M. (2012). First principles of instruction. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Merrill, D. M. (2017). Using the first principles of instruction to make instruction effective, Efficient, and Engaging. Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology.

Moos, D. C., & Marroquin, E. (2010). Multimedia, hypermedia, and hypertext: Motivation considered and reconsidered. Computers in Human Behavior26(3), 265-276.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: a meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological bulletin134(2), 270.

Salomon, G. (1984). Television is “easy” and print is “tough”: The differential investment of mental effort in learning as a function of perceptions and attributions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(4), 647–658.

Scheiter, K. (2014). The learner control principle in multimedia learning.

Sitzmann, T. (2011). A meta-analytic examination of the instructional effectiveness of computer-based simulation games. Personnel Psychology, 64(2), 489–528.

Vogel, J. J., Vogel, D. S., Cannon-Bowers, J., Bowers, C. A., Muse, K., & Wright, M. (2006). Computer gaming and interactive simulations for learning: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 34(3), 229–243.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard university press.

Westera, W. (2015). Games are motivating, aren’t they? Disputing the arguments for digital game-based learning. International Journal of Serious Games2(2), 3-17.

Wouters, P., van Nimwegen, C., van Oostendorp, H., & van der Spek, E. D. (2013). A meta-analysis of the cognitive and motivational effects of serious games. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), 249–265.

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