Plass, J. L., Homer, B. D., & Kinzer, C. K. (2015). Foundations of game-based learning. Educational Psychologist, 50(4), 258-283.


In discussing the application of games as learning environments, Plass, Homer, and Kinzer (2015) outlined design elements of games that are conducive to learning and examined their theoretical foundations. By reviewing key educational and psychological theories and relevant empirical research, the authors concluded that to realize the full potential of games in learning,  it is necessary to consider game design and research through cognitive, affective, motivational, and sociocultural perspectives.

Key points

  • “In the context of learning, good games aim to be within a player’s zone of proximal development” (p. 260).
  • The model of game-based learning consists of three key elements, challenge, response, and feedback.
  • Learning environments, enabled by digital games, could be designed to engage learners on several levels, including affective, behavioral, cognitive, and sociocultural levels. These four levels of engagement could be elicited by design elements such as game mechanics, visual aesthetic design, narrative design, incentive system, and musical score.
  • The underlying theoretical foundations of effective game design elements consist of cognitive, motivational, affective, and sociocultural foundations.
  • Future research should investigate game design patterns that solve commonly occurring problems.

Design principles and explanations

  • Game-based learning environment should match a player’s/learner’s zone of proximal development.
  • The design elements of learning games include game mechanics, visual aesthetic design, narrative design, incentive system, musical score, and the content and skills to be taught (See Figure 2). The content of an educational game should determine the other major game design elements.
  • Learning game designers should take into account the cognitive, motivational, affective, and sociocultural foundations to inform the design of learning game elements.
  • Cognitive foundation:
    •  Learning goals should match tasks in the game.
    •  Learning games should provide relevant context and promote repeated practice and conscious abstraction as well as application of knowledge.
    • Dynamic evaluation should exist to determine when to add, change, and fade scaffolding.
  • Motivational foundation: Pay attention to learners’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, specific goals, learners’ situational and individual interest.
  • Affective foundation: “Designers should consciously incorporate affective aspects into the design of games for learning” (p. 270).
  • Sociocultural foundation: In-game communication structures should promote meaningful communication that facilitates the creation of collective knowledge and achievement of shared goals.

Example Work

  • Barzilai and Blau (2014) investigated the impact of adding external scaffolding on players’ formal learning outcomes and perceived learning in the Shakshouka Restaurant game. The authors found that the players who received the external scaffolding before playing the game did better in the problem-solving assessment than players who received the scaffolding after playing the game as well as players who did not receive scaffolding.

Discussion Questions

  • How should specific theories be operationalized through specific design elements to optimize the game-based learning environment? (Plass et. al., 2015).
  • How could game designers keep a balance in considering the four theoretical foundations when designing educational games?
  • Which theoretical foundation do you think is the most crucial one in designing learning games? Why?

Additional Resources

Barzilai,S., & Blau, I. (2014). Scaffolding game-based learning: Impact on learning achievements, perceived learning, and game experiences. Computers & Education, 70, 65-79.

Mayer, R. E. (2015). On the Need for Research Evidence to Guide the Design of Computer Games for Learning. Educational Psychologist, 50(4), 349-353.


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