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The place of computer games in education – Potential and possible repercussions

 By Lee Yong TAY[1]

Computer games in educational setting
Over the past decade, computer games have become areas of research interest in education.  The main attraction in conducting research in this is that educators could adopt the concepts and ideas in game design to engage learners, especially school going students.  It is hoped that learners could be captivated in the same way that computer and online games have done.  Many students spend considerable amount of time and, at times, money understanding and exploring these games.  All these seem rather effortless and even natural from the gamers’ point of view.  All over the world, educators would be more than delighted if they could also engage their students in the same way the games engage them and help them to achieve in school.  Such excitement and engagement among students playing computer games bear considerable potential for education (Gee, 2004).

Literature review
Literature on the use of computer games in education seems to suggest that computer games could be used to better enhance and facilitate learning amongst students (Jenkins, Klopfer, Squire, & Tan, 2003).  Computer games create environments that stimulate learners to become absorbed in a fantasy world which can help motivate and engage them in activities (Malone & Lepper, 1987).   There are also various studies that look into how computer games design can be applied in the learning of content areas in the classrooms (Amory, Naicker, Vincent, & Adams, 1999; Dickey, 2005; Gee, 2003).

Some initial concerns
Initially, there were concerns with the introduction of computer games into the school setting.  There were some worries that computer games could only be used to motivate and engage male but alienate female students (Ellis, Heppell, Kirriemuir, Krotoski & McFarlane, 2006).  However Bryce and Rutter (2005), Carr (2005), and Cassell and Jenkins (2000) counter proposed that female students’ engagement with computer games depends on how the games were being designed and that gender alone was not a reliable predictor of gaming habits.  

Dickey (2006) further suggests that the influx of girl gamers and the emergence of female-oriented game design can be used to inform educators about the design of interactive learning environments.  

Issues & challenges – technical, structural & cultural

More importantly, Egenfeldt-Nielsen (2004), Muehrer, Jenson, Friedberg and Husain (2012), Lim (2008) and Tuzun (2007) caution and highlight possible implementation issues and challenges of introducing computer games into the school setting.  These issues and challenges could be technical (e.g., lack of technical resources); structural – (e.g., lack of professional learning opportunities); and cultural – (e.g., teachers’ perceptions of teaching and technologies (Lim, 2008).  Although the use of computer games into schools has been around for some, many of the issues and challenges mentioned by the above authors still persist.  

To elaborate, technical consideration remains one of the many challenges, many studies have confirmed that there is still relatively little use of technologies for teaching and learning as accessibility still presents a major challenge to most schools. A recent study by Muehrer, Jenson, Friedberg and Husain (2012) notes that the most overwhelming obstacle to successful gaming sessions at every site is the unavailability of technology, be it due to slow Internet connection or faulty computers. Limited access leads to limited use, resulting in limited impact (Tay, Nair and Lim 2010).  The availability of technological set ups are essential and a necessary condition to the successful introduction of computer games and ICT integration in schools.  

For structural issues and challenges, it is necessary to provide relevant professional development opportunities to teachers so that they could have a better understanding and skills to use the computer games for teaching and learning.  Researchers have listed “teachers’ beliefs and practices” as one of the key factors affecting successful integration of technology into the classrooms (Ertmer, 2005).  While basic teaching skills and knowledge remain important, in the new gaming learning environment appropriate pedagogy should also be ensured.  All these would require various forms of professional development efforts to bring teachers’ pedagogical practices to match this educational innovation.  A good teacher is probably worth more than a computer with a lousy teacher. It is important to note that technologies are only tools; it is unlikely that technology in itself can improve ineffective teaching practices.

More importantly, the cultural issues need also to be considered.  Games and play, and especially computer games, may not be well accepted in school settings where teaching and learning are often seen as “serious” matter and should not be associated with game play.  School administrators and teachers need time and also a change in perspective to be able to embrace the use of computer games to engage students in their learning.  Teachers have very often being identified as one of the most significant resources in the integration of technology into schools but they could also be one of the main barriers (Watson & Tinsley, 1995).  The teacher’s attitude, knowledge, and skills in the use of games for the purpose of teaching and learning have a considerable impact on the outcomes to be achieved.   

Students’ readiness and engagement with content or game elements
In addition to what has been mentioned above, there are two more points that deserve some considerations – students’ readiness and level/degree of engagement in a computer game-based learning environment.  

Muehrer, Jenson, Friedberg and Husain (2012) raised the highly relevant issue of the level of readiness of the students in a technologically enriched learning environment and in this case a computer gaming environment.  One would assume and expect the new generation of digital native learners not having any issues using technologies.  But according to a report on students’ online digital technologies and performance by OECD (2009) nearly 17% of 15 year-olds who have grown up in this technological era do not have the skills to move easily through the digital environment – students could still encounter problems using technologies for studies, applying for jobs, filling out online forms for various purposes in the future.  

Student engagement is one important topic that deserves more discussions and explorations.  Learner engagement is critical to learning success but in order to understand engagement we also need to understand the role of emotions in learning.  Fredricks, Blumenfeld and Paris (2004) take a psychological approach and describe three aspects of engagement – behavioural, emotional, and cognitive, and recommend that engagement be studied as a multifaceted construct.  Although there are issues that make it difficult to draw firm conclusions, “there is evidence from a variety of studies to suggest that engagement positively influences achievement” (Fredricks, Blumenfeld and Paris 2004, p. 71).  The results of the study presented by Muehrer, Jenson, Friedberg and Husain (2012) indicated that students were more interested in game-playing and progressing through the levels than in developing an in-depth understanding of the science concepts embedded in the games. These findings are congruent to an earlier study where students were attracted to the playing of games and not the academic content to be learned (see Tay and Lim 2008).  Lepper and Chabay (1985) in a classic study on the use of games for teaching and learning, pointed out that the extra game-like elements could be seen as likely to be distracting and to impair learning or make learning less optimal.  In short, students might be engaged with the game elements rather than the content to be learned.  Although computer games enhance and allow for greater levels of student engagement, these gaming elements could also be distractors to students’ learning of academic content. A balance between these perspectives is necessary to be more effective when computer games are used in school settings.  

Conclusion and further considerations
The introduction of computer games into schools and educational institutions seems to be more complicated than what we have imagined initially.  Adequate technological infrastructures (e.g., availability of Internet access, computing devices, technical support) are necessary conditions to support the use of computer games in the classrooms.  Relevant professional development is also crucial so that teachers could better embrace the use and integration of computer games in their lessons.   The acceptance of the use of computer games as a teaching or learning tool or media for teaching and learning by teachers and its institutions, that is, to be able to accept game play (and more specifically computer games) as an approach or pedagogy for serious school related work and studies.  In addition, readiness of not only the teachers but also the students need some attention as it is very often misconstrued that students growing up as digital natives are ever ready to take on any forms of learning with the use of technology.  Lastly and also probably the more appropriate question which requires further in-depth deliberations would be how computer games could engage our students either behaviourally, cognitively or emotionally in the way that facilitate their learning of school related content and work.


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Dickey, M. (2005).  Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design.  Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(2), 67-83.

Dickey, M. D. (2006).  Girl gamers: The controversy of girl games and the relevance of female-oriented game design for instructional design.  British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(5), 785-793.

Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2004).  Practical barriers in using educational computer games.  On the Horizon, 12(1), 18-21.

Ellis, H., Heppell, S., Kirriemuir, J., Krotoski, A. & McFarlane, A. (2006).  Unlimited learning: Computer games in the learning landscape.  London: Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA).  Retrieved August 30, 2007, from

Ertmer, P. A. (2005). Teacher pedagogical beliefs: The final frontier in our quest for technology integration? Educational Technology, Research and Development, 53(4), 25-39. 

Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004).  School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence.  Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109.

Tay and Lim 2008

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Tay L. Y. & Lim C. P. (2008). Engaging academically at risk primary school students in an ICT mediated after school program. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24(5), 521-539.

Tay, L. Y., Nair, S. & Lim, C. P. (2010).  Supporting one-to-one computer-mediated learning environments in a Singapore primary school, in L.Y. Tay, C. P. Lim, & S. K. Myint (Eds.). A School’s Journey into the Future: Research by Practitioners for Practitioners (pp. 39-67).  Singapore: Pearson.  

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Authors’ Biography
Lee Yong TAY is the Head of Department for Research and ICT in a primary school under the Future Schools at Singapore project (FutureSchools@Singapore) – a collaborative project by the local Ministry of Education and Infocomm Authority.  He is currently a core member of the Teacher-Researcher Network of the Academy of Singapore Teachers.  He obtained his PhD from Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. His research interests include – integration of ICT into the curriculum, use of ICT for higher-order thinking, use of computer games for teaching and learning, and the sustainability and scalability of ICT in school setting.

[1]    Beacon Primary School, Singapore

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