Digital games can be powerful learning environments because they encourage active learning and participation within “affinity groups” (Gee, 2004). However, the use of games in formal educational environments is not always successful (O’Neil et al., 2005). There is a need to update existing theories of motivation and engagement in order to take recent game-related developments into account. Understanding the links between why people play games, what keeps them engaged in this process, and what they learn as a result could have a significant impact on how people value and use games for learning. This paper examines key research that relates to motivation, engagement, and informal learning through digital games, in order to highlight the need for empirical studies which examine the activities that occur in and around everyday gaming practice.
Games: Formal And Informal Learning
Academic interest in gaming and learning seems to stem from the fact that digital games are considered to be effective motivational tools and learning environments (Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2004; Mitchell & Savill-Smith, 2004; de Freitas, 2006). Games can promote “active” and “critical learning” both within the game and the “affinity groups” of players that surround specific titles and genres (Gee, 2004). However, the literature often fails to explore the potential links between what motivates players to play a game (motivation), what keeps them engaged in the game (engagement) and the learning that occurs as a result of game-play and participation in gaming practices (informal learning). This is important because when games are used within formal educational environments, the links can break down. For instance, de Castell and Jenson (2003) argue that educational games have “not been hugely successful at taking up and exploiting the resources digital technologies make available for learning” (p. 656) since there is often only a tenuous connection between the game-play and the learning tasks within the game. Furthermore, learners do not all agree that they find games intrinsically motivating within an educational context (Whitton, 2007) and it has also been found that when commercial games are used to support learning in educational environments, the games used do not always appeal to all students (Squire, 2005).