To give a general overview of the topic, I'd like to share some of the key points of a literature review on the topic. The review was published a few years ago (2007), but still points to some interesting research. It's called Educational Video Game Design: A Review of the Literature and is by Mary Jo Dondlinger. It focuses on the design aspects of educational games, rather than just what players learn from them.
The first order of business is to sort out the difference between edutainment and educational games. I often wondered why there were so many terms for what seemed to be the same thing. As it turns out, the research world sees these two as being different. Edutainment refers to something pretty linear, whereas "educational video games require strategizing, hypothesis testing, or problem-solving, usually with higher order thinking rather than rote memorization or simple comprehension."
Effective Game Design
The elements of effective video game design described in the review include motivation, narrative context, goals and rules, and interactivity. These are some of the key points from this section:
- Some say that motivation comes from narrative context, and others think it's the goals and rewards that give it. Either way, it is agreed that successful educational games incorporate both intrinsic and extrinsic goals.
- Adventure and strategy games tend to be the highest rated type of educational game as determined by student surveys.
- “Strategies of design that lead to engagement may include role-playing, narrative arcs, challenges, and interactive choices within the game as well as interaction with other players.” [source]
- Learning tasks should be tightly coupled with the main narrative context - don't make them secondary.
In terms of learning theories applied to educational games, the literature seems to focus on contructivism, constructionism, and situated cognition.
Constructivism is a learning theory that suggests knowledge and meaning is constructed from the learner's experiences.
In an article describing the multi-user virtual world, SciCtr, Corbit (2005) underscored the merits of a constructivist approach for analyzing game-like environments. In SciCtr, students create virtual science worlds, such as rainforests or deserts, that other learners can visit and explore. According to Corbit, these worlds, the paths to navigate through them, and content embedded in them, are constructed by the developer/learner through meticulous research and thoughtful design.Constructionism is inspired by constructivism, but not quite the same thing. It says that learning is most effective when the learner can build some sort of tangible object in the real world. While this seems at odds with video games, it is easy to imagine the many things that are constructed in them. My own first thought is The Incredible Machine, one of the few games I played (rather than watch someone else play) as a kid. Examples in the review include creating instead of playing video games as well as having architecture students model their designs in a game-ready engine.
Finally, situated cognition is a theory I'm more familiar with because of its close tie to augmented reality. As Wikipedia says, "knowing is inseparable from doing" since "all knowledge is situated in activity bound to social, cultural and physical contexts." One of my favourite examples of this is Environmental Detectives, a location-based (and, according to some definitions, augmented reality) training game situated in a real-life setting that is explicitly tied to the game content. "According to ... scholars, the authentic, situated context affords greater content mastery and transfer of knowledge than a traditional classroom learning."
What can actually be learned from playing an educational video game? These are the key outcomes listed in the review:
- 21st century skills: video games apparently help develop attention, spatial concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, collaborative work, creativity, and information and communications technology (ICT) skills
- Deduction and hypothesis testing
- Complex concepts and abstract thinking
- Visual and spatial processing