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 and test 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 explore 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 explore 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.
The question of how the things learnt during the game can be transferred into reality reveals the Achilles’ heel of digital gaming. Challenges in video games are generally fictional and have no relevance to everyday life, they are illusions. Fighting dragons, racing cars or shifting Tetris puzzle pieces into place allows players to acquire knowledge and skills that are meaningless and not directly applicable in everyday life.
A second limitation is the aspect of simplification. Games reduce complex systems to their core aspects and are merely a programmed representation of the real world. Yet the world in which we live is more complex and cannot be boiled down to the simple logic of the game. This gives rise to the next problem, namely that learners often lose sight of the system that is being simulated in the game.
The fourth limitation follows on from the question of context. As a rule, players are not able of their own accord to establish any direct relation between what they have learnt in the game and real life. They acquire huge amounts of information in play and retain this information long-term, yet in school they are unable to remember even the simplest historical dates. Many players and teachers overlook the correlation between learning accomplishments in play and those in the real-life context.
Games open the door to transformational learning experiences, but the players have to go through the door themselves. This is where the importance of the teacher’s role when games are used – something that is underestimated to this day – becomes all too clear. The learners require constructive support if they are to take anything relevant to their own learning process with them from the productive game settings.