Review: Narrative games for learning: Testing the discovery and narrative hypotheses

Adams, D. M., Mayer, R. E., MacNamara, A., Koenig, A., & Wainess, R. (2012). Narrative games for learning: Testing the discovery and narrative hypotheses. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(1), 235–249.

Abstract: Strong claims are made for the potential educational effectiveness of narrative-based adventure games, but evidence about how to construct effective educational games is needed (Clark, Yates, Early, & Moulton, 2010; O'Neil & Perez, 2008). College students played a computer-based narrative discovery learning game called Crystal Island (Spires et al., 2010), in which they learned about pathogens (in Experiment 1), or one called Cache 17 (Koenig, 2008), in which they learned how electromechanical devices work (in Experiment 2). In media comparison tests, participants who learned by playing the game performed worse than students who learned from a matched slideshow presentation on retention (d = 1.37), transfer (d = 0.57), and difficulty rating (d = 0.93) in Experiment 1 and on posttest score (d = 0.31) and learning time (d = 2.89) in Experiment 2. In value-added tests, taking away the narrative theme concerning a detective story in the Cache 17 game did not significantly affect students' posttest score (d = −0.16) or learning time (d = −0.22) in Experiment 2. Overall, these results provide no evidence that computer-based narrative games offer a superior venue for academic learning under short time spans of under 2 hr. Findings contradict the discovery hypothesis that students learn better when they do hands-on activities in engaging scenarios during learning and the narrative hypothesis that students learn better when games have a strong narrative theme, although there is no evidence concerning longer periods of game play.


Discovery Hypothesis states that students learn content more deeply when they interact with they interact with the learning content versus simply being told the content as they would during a slideshow presentation. 

Narrative Hypothesis states that students learn better from computer-based games that have strong narrative themes than from games without them. 

This study shows evidence that neither hypothesis is true and that instead games that allow students to interact with the learning environment and have strong narrative stories do not fare as well as simply giving students information through a PowerPoint. 

They claim it could be for a few reasons...

  • Cognitive Overload theory, which states that learners are only able to process a limited amount of material at any one time. 
  • Distraction hypothesis, which states that game material that is not directly related to learning goals distract the learner.
  • Students who played the games were given minimal guidance; they played without teacher supervision and were left to figure out what was important on their own.

In other words, they say there is simply too much extraneous processing going on and because of all of that, the students who received the information using a slideshow...

  • did better on the retention test.
  • thought it was less difficult to learn the material
  • thought they had to put in less effort to learn the material
  • were able to transfer what they learned to other scenarios better

This seemed a tad baffling to me. Surely, students who played a game would find some enjoyment from it, but then I realized that wasn't what the authors were after here. 

So, then I went to check out the games themselves. I mean, maybe the games were lame. I could not find Cache 17, but I did find Crystal Island, and the game does look pretty cool. The graphics are even decent - much better than many educational games out there.

These results do seem to agree with a few other studies when kids receive pre/post tests. Maybe, using games do not mesh well with traditional tests, but if you are teaching in a traditional way (using a slideshow), then using a traditional assessment may garner better results. 

Also, maybe the authors are missing the point. A game can be for learning, but it also for enjoyment. It is meant to make learning more engaging, and that wasn't measured or observed in this study. 

All students regardless of group were given 75 minutes to complete their experience.

So, let me state the obvious: Students who were asked to participate in a study and then play through a learning game may not have been given ample instructions about what to do. I'll put it this way: If you hand me a PowerPoint, I know precisely what I will need to do during the post-test. I may not get that same precise experience with a game without having more explicit instruction or much more time with the game...which, I see toward the results section, was the point of their study. 

The new Assassin's Creed Discovery Tour was just released. It includes some remarkable educational content regarding Egypt. My 10-year old daughter was playing it last night. During the tour, players have the choice to stay on the prescribed tour or run around and check stuff out - listen to conversations, swim, or even climb to the top of pyramids. There is lots to do in this open world. She did leave the tour to run around, and then, later, came back to the tour. She played the game for two full hours and was amazingly engaged with it from my perspective. She will undoubtedly want to play the game again soon. 

This was not part of a class. She was given zero instructions on what to do or what to look for. 

I guess my point is that something should be said for Educational Experience. True, the students in this study said they had to put more effort into learning the material and that is was more difficult - but compared to a PowerPoint slideshow, of course it would be! But, would the students prefer a PowerPoint? Would the kids who played the game be able to interact with material in a real-world application better than the slideshow group? Why did the end-game need to be a post test? 

I suppose if I am in a hurry and need to take a test in an hour an a half, then, yes, spoon feed the information as quickly as possible. We live in a fast-food culture, so sometimes teachers do feel the need to jam as much information into the students' heads as possible in the shortest amount of time. 

Maybe if the kids had 24 hours to play with the game, results would be much different. 

Anyway, for me, I'll take anything over a slideshow.