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Home / Resources / A closer look at why games help us learn

A closer look at why games help us learn


The question: “Do learning games work?” has been keeping researchers busy for years. As with any innovation, it takes a while to gather proven results.

Well, the results are now coming in thick and fast – and they show that yes, learning games are having a significant, measurable impact in the workplace.

The really exciting part? This is just the start – we’ve yet to see their full potential. As games theorist Tom Chatfield predicted several years ago, because of how games reward the brain, they have the ability to revolutionise workplace learning. The use of learning games can only increase, as more and more evidence emerges of their effectiveness.

There’s another reason why learning games will grow – games are already part and parcel of modern life.  Some 70% of executives play casual games on a regular basis, while the youngest members of the workforce – Generation Z – are likely to have 10,000 game hours under their belts by the time they start work.

And then we have the impact of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, where new technologies are driving rapid change. The way we work and learn is changing forever, and immersive technologies are central to these changes.

Where and why games work well

Thanks to the real-life success stories that have been documented, we are getting a clear picture of where game-based learning can be particularly effective. This includes some of the biggest business challenges today, such as giving new recruits an understanding of the business (GSK), improving customer service (AXA), instilling corporate values (Coca Cola) and embedding an organisation-wide compliance culture (NHS).

There are several reasons why games are proving so successful:

Knowledge acquisition 

Studies tell us that games are often better for this than traditional learning. Professor Thomas Connolly led research into 129 previous papers that had reported evidence of outcomes of using games. His report stated: “The most frequently occurring outcomes and impacts were knowledge acquisition/content understanding and affective and motivational outcomes.” The immersive aspect of games further assists knowledge acquisition by increasing the focus and engendering a ‘state of flow’ in the player.

Remembering information

One of the reasons for the improved outcomes reported in the Connolly research is that the narrative in a game encourages learners to replay it until they’ve mastered it.  This repeated practice is why games are good for learning and remembering facts.


Games are experiential, which allows the learner to make decisions in an environment that mirrors the workplace setting – and a wrong decision doesn’t spell disaster. Rather, it’s an integral part of the learning process.


Critically, games are linked to an increased engagement and desire to learn – important in all areas of training, but particularly so in ‘dry’ topics such as compliance.  Indeed, a game’s engagement is what makes the learning memorable.

And if you still need more proof, research by Professor Karl Kapp showed that learners were more motivated to do the learning, where the learning involved playing a game.

Kapp also points to research by US professor, Dr Traci Sitzmann, which looked at 65 different studies. The research found significantly higher levels of declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, retention and self-efficacy among learners who used simulation games.

Meanwhile, a controlled trial of medical students learning a specific procedure in their third year of training in Germany concluded: “Our study not only shows that students who received game-based E-learning training had a significantly higher cognitive learning outcome when compared with the students who learned the same material with a script, but had more fun, would like to learn more in this style and are more secure in regard of their knowledge of the topic.”

So, games do teach. But a word of warning: Not all games are ‘born’ equal. An effective learning game has to be designed correctly, with both playability and practicality. 

"Thanks to the real-life success stories that have been documented, we are getting a clear picture of where game-based learning can be particularly effective."

Playing the compliance game

For all of the above reasons, a learning game is particularly well suited for compliance topics such as GDPR.  Our team at Sponge have created GDPR – Sorted! using established theory so that learners can achieve the desired outcome, which is a grounding in GDPR. It’s an applied game, which means it combines game design and learning theories. These include:

Behaviourism – inspired by motivational psychology that sees all games in terms of ‘challenge, anticipation and reward’.

Distributed practice – Multiple short sessions repeated over spaced periods of time to boost processing and recall of information.

Experiential learning – The learner is actively engaged in the experience. Decision-making, reflective practice and feedback are all part of the experience.

A final point to consider is that people enjoy games. Why not tap into that?

Deborah Baird is a Games Producer and Project Manager at Sponge. Her latest project is a new game on GDPR compliance.