Review: Improving academic learning from computer-based narrative games

Pilegard, C., & Mayer, R. E. (2016). Improving academic learning from computer-based narrative games. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 4445, 12–20.

Abstract: Although many strong claims are made for the power of computer games to promote academic learning, the narrative content of a game may reduce the learner's tendency to reflect on its academic content. The present study examines adding a low-cost instructional feature intended to promote appropriate cognitive processing of the academic content during play. College students played a computer adventure game in which they guided a character through a bunker in search of lost artwork, building electromechanical devices to open stuck doors along the way. In Experiment 1, students who filled out worksheets about wet-cell batteries before and during the game outperformed students who played the game without worksheets on a written explanation of how wet-cell batteries work (d = 0.92), multiple-choice comprehension questions about wet-cell batteries (d = 0.67), and open-ended transfer problems about wet-cell batteries (d = 0.74). In Experiment 2, participants who completed only the in-game worksheet outperformed the control group on a written explanation of wet-cell batteries (d = 0.59) and transfer problems (d = 0.67), whereas participants who completed only the pre-game worksheet did not outperform the control group on any measure. These findings point to the learning benefits of adding instructional features suggested by cognitive theories of learning.


A Narrative game is a game that has a cover story that poses goals for the player.

I liked this study. It suggests that students who play educational games should also be given supplemental materials to guide them through the learning goals. 

Based on the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning  and Cognitive Load Theory, using worksheets helps with processing all the information and helps filter the extraneous information found in educational video games.

These results make a lot of sense to me because the authors recognize the value of the educational game they used (Cache 17) and also recognized that students may need some direction as they experience the game. 

It is a lot like receiving a guided reading worksheet when you read a book or an observation journal when conducting a science experiment. When I was a high school teacher, I had my students play through the game Gone Home to study narrative structure in the mystery genre. After I began networking with other gaming-teachers, I found that Paul Darvasi over on his site has also used narrative-based games including Gone Home in his classroom, too! 

He has some great resources on his website on how to incorporate Gone Home into your class as well as lot about games and learning. Teachers should not simply hand a controller to the students and leave them be. You need to be very much involved with the students as they play through. For instance, on Paul's site, he explains that as his students explored an area of the game, Gone Home, they were asked to stop playing in order to process by completing various activities. Through those activities, the students recognized what what important from that particular game area, and it made the whole experience more educational. 

Good stuff. 

Lastly, if you haven't played Gone Home. I highly recommend it.