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Using Digital Games for a Purpose


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Digital games have been eyed critically by the public ever since their emergence and even more so in the educational environment. While the media savvy fraction argues that there is enormous potential for using digital games in teaching and learning processes, others criticize the commercialized games industry and their stereotypical and violent depictions, as well as addictive traits that in extreme cases have very unhealthy effects on adolescents.

In order to develop a deeper understanding of the possibilities and limits of digital games in education we need to start asking some key questions and debate them with media educators and game researchers alike. These questions include:

  • What new possibilities do digital games offer for the initiation of learning processes?
  • How operational are they with regard to the needs and challenges of the intended target groups?
  • Which educational promises can digital games keep when we move from theory into practice?

The challenge of the game allows players to fail in an enjoyable way while encouraging them to learn and improve.

 Potential benefits of games for education

Every game begins with a challenge that motivates the gamer to put their knowledge and skills to the test. Games are designed such that the game adapts to the abilities of the individual player and increases the level of difficulty at the right pace. By learning from their mistakes, players improve with every task they tackle. The challenge of the game allows players to fail in an enjoyable way while encouraging them to learn and improve.

A second potential benefit is the possibility to explore one’s own abilities within the realm of play. Because the decisions taken during the game have no consequences in real life, players can experiment and try things out. They experience the virtual consequences of their own actions in a kind of simulation. There is hardly any potential for this in reality, as “game over” in real life tends to have very genuine consequences.


The third potential benefit is the chance to try on roles and identities. In a game the players slip into fictitious guises, pretend and can thus adopt new perspectives. Each new perspective opens up novel challenges and stimulates learning processes that only become possible thanks to the identity assumed in the game.

All these potential benefits are exploited by being applied during the game. Application and immediate feedback allow players to put what they have learnt directly into practice in the game. The players find out whether their abilities are sufficient to meet the requirements. Their own progress in the game gives them the reassurance of having achieved and learnt something.

All the mentioned potentials can come into play when playing digital games, whether they are commercial off-the-shelf games or educational games. The educational games domain comprises games that

  • explicitly focus on learning content (‘learning games’),
  • games that discuss a serious topic (‘serious games’) and
  • games that express a personal, creative and critical perspective (‘art games’).


Furthermore, commercial games can be used in an educational context (‘serious play’) and game elements can be used in non-game-environments (‘gamification’). All these game types offer advantages and disadvantages in an educational setting. When choosing games and game formats, it is crucial to be mindful of the players’ context as well as the environment the game will be played in.

The role of educators when using games

When using digital games in educational settings, the role of the educator is of extreme significance, as studies show. They are the ones picking the games, introducing them in an educational setting, accompanying the players through the play phases and debriefing the experience. Even if the play experience was good for the people, it doesn’t assure that they will be able to apply what they have learned in real life. In games, there is this concept of the ‘magic circle’ (coined by Huizinga 1956), which players join at the beginning of a game and leave it again at the end. Players behave differently in games than they would in real situations.
The rules of the game are only valid while playing and are only agreed upon until the game ends which also means that the scenarios players find themselves in are not transferable to the world after the magic circle is closed. This is where the educators role is most crucial – helping youth understand what they have just learned and how they can apply it in the everyday.

Facilitating a powerful learning experience is critical to success when it comes to learning with digital games. However, educators also need to know that there are aspects of the context that are beyond their control. Conducting extensive biographical interviews with gamers we found that players personally relate to particular experiences in the game due to what is going on in their lives. Games do not trigger transformation or learning unless players experience playing as meaningful. For educators in youth work this provides a valuable opportunity to learn more about their clients, while learning about what games they play.

One reason why digital games are not used more often in educational settings is because educators often feel helpless with the medium of digital games. Students as digital natives are often more well-versed in the knowledge of games, their technical use as well as their gameplay. Games however came to stay and it is recommended to enter a dialogue with young people that are passionate about them. Young people may be the experts in handling games as well as other digital media but they do need help to see them critically.

Digital games as door openers into the lifeworld of youth

Even if digital games are not the crazy learning machines that some have hoped for, they are in fact played by millions of people worldwide and represent an ever-expanding part of popular culture today. In the world of digital natives, interactivity and virtual spaces are part of their everyday life. Game Designer and researcher Gonzalo Frasca writes in his text ‘Videogames of the Opressed’ (2004) that the power of games is not finding concrete solutions to challenges. But that games act as a door opener and a stimulating impulse for discussions on important topics. We believe this is a useful perspective for all people that come across digital games as part of their work.

by Konstantin Mitgutsch & Lena Robinson (2018)

Konstantin Mitgutsch is a game researcher, lecturer and coach

Lena Robinson is an experience designer, anthropologist and social worker

Photos:  Portrait Konstantin © Victoria Koller, Portrait Lena © Matthias Brandstetter,


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