Motivating through gamification

“Students take on the role of lawyers in a simulated legal case, so they have to take sides with a client who presents [legal] problems. We have two elements that stimulate motivation: on one hand there’s the logic of competition […] and then there’s cooperation…” Quote from interview with Educator – EI03.

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In the research literature, gamification is seen as the application of game design elements in non-game contexts, where the elements do not constitute a fully-fledged game (Deterding et al., 2011). Although the term has come into general use only quite recently, basics elements of gamification like accumulating points and earning badges have been employed for years in different contexts, such as commercial loyalty programs.

In recent years, gamification has gained momentum within the business, corporate management and wellness sectors, and has raised interest in the academic and educational domains as well.

Undoubtedly, the key aspect driving researchers to analyse gamification in education is its potential for boosting motivation and engagement.

In their literature review, Hamari, Koivisto, & Sarsa (2014) report positive overall results in terms of perceived motivation, engagement and enjoyment of learning tasks, but stress that negative outcomes may also be present, for example stress due to increased competitiveness among students, or distraction from learning objectives.

The discourse around motivation informs the literature on game-based learning globally, with almost general agreement about the positive motivational power of games. That said, there is considerable debate about the different types of motivation game elements foster, be it intrinsic (internal drive to perform an action) or extrinsic (drive triggered by external influences), as well as the impact each of these may have on learning (Deci et al., 2001).

This scenario deals with the issues of motivation and competition, portraying the potential benefits of carefully designed gamification. It’s inspired by an example of meaningful gamification reported in the research literature (Nicholson, 2012), in which conventional gamification elements like points are integrated with deeper game elements like narrative and challenges (Enders & Kapp, 2013). Here, extrinsic incentives trigger intrinsic motivation in some learners. It also highlights that whilst competition with peers can have a negative impact on learning, it can also stimulate motivation. Example of this include inter-team competition and the sense of  achievement generated when learners complete a challenge.

Meet Carla and Samira, law students

Carla and Samira are two friends studying law at university. They’ve just met up in the law faculty corridor and they’re having a chat about university life. Carla knows that Samira has taken civil law and she’s curious to know how her course is going. Carla herself took civil law the previous year and found it really hard going: it’s a demanding subject calling for hours and hours of study. In the end she had to repeat the final exam several times before she managed to pass. It was particularly tough because she found civil law boring and had no feeling for the concrete application of what she was studying. This year, though, Samira is attending the course with a new teacher who’s restructured the course. After the first month, the teacher introduced a sort of a game that simulates an entire legal case. The students are playing the role of lawyers and have to complete some tasks in the effort to win the case.

Now Carla wants to know more about the approach. When she was at high school, a teacher tried to introduce something similar but it was all about earning points to boost your position in the final ranking. This made her feel frustrated and stressed because she really doesn’t like being compared with her classmates. No way did earning points motivate her to study.

Samira tells Carla how different her experience is from that. The teacher set up a complete legal case, with a client who comes to a law firm for help. In this way, the students are fully immersed in a legal battle. They all work together in teams so that no one is left out. An assistant lecturer represents the opposition, and a real judge plays the role of the judge. So there’s no competition among the students themselves. The teams work on tasks that reflect the actual steps taken in legal cases and the students behave like real lawyers, studying the law and drafting all the necessary documents. In this way, they gain a real working knowledge of the civil law code. At the end of each task, each group presents its work in the form of a document, or is involved in a simulated judicial hearing. All the team outputs are assigned a grade and feedback is given. So each of the teams proceeds in the case but the final outcome depends on how they perform. The positive aspect is that all the groups can, in principle, win the case if they complete the tasks satisfactorily. Carla sees how completely different Samira’s experience is from her own, and appreciates the way the professor is approaching the subject. Nevertheless, she points out that, at the end, there’s still an exam on the civil law code to pass, and it won’t be all fun and games like the playful experience Samira is engaged in now. Samira agrees, but explains that the game gave her the opportunity to experience a concrete application of the code and so now she’s more motivated to study it, however daunting it may be. In the end, she reveals that actually she’s quite a competitive person and so the approach suits her well.

In a nutshell

The application of gamification in education is a fairly new approach that needs to be analysed further. Benefit would be gained from more rigorous studies investigating aspects like the mapping of the game elements in relation to individual learners and also to specific contexts, as well as short and long term outcomes. Researchers and policy makers should invest along these lines.

Gamification should be carefully designed so to make the most of gaming motivational power.

Gamification is a way to design a playful learning environment that can host a comprehensive learning path. Designing and implementing a gamified experience, possibly entailing blended (online and face-to-face) interactions, is a feasible undertaking for individual teachers, whereas digital game development requires a range of professional skills. Gamification also lends itself to progressive and manageable cycles of design, deployment and validation.

Competition can create stress and harm collaboration, therefore its integration in learning environments should be preceded by careful consideration of the specific application context. Ideally, it should also take different forms.

Competition can be a suitable game element to include in gamification, preferably in the form of  personal challenge to achieve a goal, or as part of a mixed collaborative/competitive strategy.

Games at home: inclusion & special needs

“I had a student on the autistic spectrum [who] really struggled … you put him in front of that video game and … he became the person everybody wanted to work with… he became the superhero in that classroom.”- Quote from interview participant. EE01


Considering the immensity and cultural relevance of videogames, the area of inclusion drew relatively little attention from the stakeholders that Gaming Horizons engaged. The exception is in education, an area in which inclusion is quite keenly felt.

A number of teachers see digital gaming as a chance to reach and engage learners with Special Education Needs (SEN). They also consider it a way towards integrating those students better, and thus make classes more inclusive, especially where there are marked differences in students’ cognitive skills. At the same time, interviewees cautioned that care is required to harness gaming successfully for inclusive purposes.  

When it comes to players and gamers with sensory impairments, the question of game accessibility becomes critical. This is “a big tent issue” affecting millions now and millions more as playing populations age. While digital games certainly pose a number of barriers, significant gains can be made for all – as some Gaming Horizons participants pointed out- from greater attention to the needs of the full user spectrum. More awareness of design-for-all principles could lessen barriers and in doing so improve everyone’s experience, just like with our streets and buildings. Indeed, advocates point to how type, telephony and email – the backbone of modern communications – emerged from the efforts of inventors to tackle special needs. Certainly, with video games and the various technology platforms they employ, the risk of exacerbating the digital divide is ever present. In this sense, accessibility is not just a matter of interactivity levels but about making sure everyone gets a reasonable chance to play.

Of course special needs is just one facet of inclusion in games, an issue that touches on many questions, like gender bias, stereotyped representation of identities, the accommodation of minorities etc. These are tackled more specifically in other scenarios.

Meet Keisha (aged 16), Marco (aged 13), and the grown-ups: Kerry and Keisha’s Dad

Keisha’s a gamer. When she was younger, other kids would say she was ‘nerdy’ like some of the boys, but she doesn’t get that much anymore. Just about everyone she knows plays some sort of game, if only on the bus or the train. Keisha herself mostly goes for fantasy MMOs – her current favourite is Aion. When she started getting into games, she wanted to find other girls like herself online. The hardcore gamers she came across on the forum boards and chats then could be pretty mean, especially to girls. But she didn’t let it get to her and anyway it’s not so big a problem now – and you can report anyone who gets really out of line.

A while back, Keisha and her dad relocated, moving in with her dad’s partner Kerry, who has a son called Marco. Marco’s three years younger than Keisha and he’s the only blind person Keisha’s ever known. The two of them are very different in character and tastes, but as it happens they both share a long-held passion for video games.

Marco has always loved mysteries and adventures. That’s what started him off playing story-based computer games, like A Dark Room, using Text To Speech (TTS) applications. Then he started playing Terraformers, an old hybrid audio and video game, and he was totally hooked. It’s remained one of his all-time favourites. He played it on a PC at home that’s connected to an audio system which reproduces 3D positional sound; the position and direction of the sounds, together with sound qualities and audio cues, form a sort of 3D audio gamespace that Marco navigates and interacts in.

When Keisha moved in, Marco got her to try a few audio games. She found them kind of intriguing but none of them really grabbed her enough to play them right through. Then Kerry got her this artistic sort of game called Beyond Eyes, which gives you an idea about what it’s like to be blind. It wasn’t much like anything Keisha had played before but she was really glad she’d had the chance to try it. And playing together with Dad was special too.

For a while now Marco’s been having a go at FPS and combat games like Quake and Bayonetta 2  using the 3D positional audio. Keisha’s amazed at how well he plays using sound only; she’s tried and found it really hard. She says maybe one day Marco might get as good as the youtubers he’s started following, like True Blind, Sightless Kombat and the others. Marco’s hoping that one day he’ll get to play games that go ultra mega popular, like World of Warcraft. His dad thinks he should try joining the AbleGamers Player Panel to become a game accessibility tester and Marco’s giving it some thought.

Kerry’s just bought a cool party game suite called 1-2 Switch for the new Nintendo Switch console they got. It’s a bit like Wii Sports but with some funny touch and sound based mini games that you don’t actually need to be sighted to play. Keisha and Marco have a real laugh playing together (well, against each other) and they’ve started thinking of ways you could use the touch and sound combination in other sorts of games. Keisha might even make a study project out of it.

In a nutshell

Due recognition of design-for-all principles, and sincere efforts to fulfil them, can reap concrete gains for everyone: for players who, for some reason, are underserved or excluded; for player-consumers desiring more immersive and diverse game experiences; for the game industry growing markets. Here, video games – considered by many as a pariah – could be seen instead as a standard-bearer.

Converting a perceived win-win to an actual won-won demands concerted – and orchestrated – efforts across the board, especially from policy makers and the game industry. Game on.



Advocacy initiatives

About blind gamers

Games and Media

Games at home: guiding children in the world of games

“If you play games with your kids you get this beautifully shared experience with them […] like

playing backyard football […] it’s a great bonding experience” – Quote from an interview with a player –PE02

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The influence games can have on children is a sensitive issue, and there is continued and serious concern about games’ potential for encouraging antisocial behaviour. Regulations are in place for labelling violent, explicit, or sexual content (e.g. PEGI in the EU or the ESRB rating in the USA). The main addressees of these labelling systems are parents, who should be informed about the content of the games their children play. Those same parents have the power to disregard the label altogether, either as a reasoned decision or because they lack the context to understand the meaning of the labels.

At their worst, parents can be completely out of touch with the world of games, or even see gaming as a useful way for simply ‘distracting’ their children.

Our interviews, on the other hand, offered positive parenting examples. Several of the players we interviewed reported that they had started out playing with their parents. This was especially common for women, who often reported having been introduced to the world of gaming by their fathers. The shared activity of gaming was not only a way for parents to monitor the content their children interacted with, but also a moment of spending time together and bonding. By taking an active role in guiding their children to the world of games, these parents were able to highlight those features of video games that they found most appealing (such as artistic value or creative potential), while sheltering their children from those aspects of video games they found most threatening, such as violent or unethical content.

On the other hand, when recollecting their adolescence, our players sometimes reported feeling that video games could be a private space: a way for getting away from family life, experimenting with their identity and discovering what they liked. In this phase, involvement of parents shouldn’t be constant, and should focus on encouraging self-regulation and responsible use of games.

Meet Kate, a young player (aged 15) and Eleanor, her mother

Eleanor, now fifteen years old, has been playing video games with her mum since she was five. Her mother, Kate, has always been a gamer herself, although she spent far less time gaming after her pregnancy. When Kate decided to start playing games with Eleanor, she tried to find games they could both enjoy – Super Mario Galaxy was the first game they played together, a game that’s both light-hearted and challenging. Together, they also played more open-ended building games such as Minecraft and Terraria. Kate decided to let Eleanor play alone, as long as she did all her daily chores. Kate still framed gaming as a shared activity, though: at the end of the day, if Eleanor played on her own, Kate asked her to show her the progress or the creations she’s made, and they discussed them together. This shared hobby sometimes extended beyond the gaming time itself, as they often planned building projects or discussed strategies at dinner or while going to school.

When Eleanor was about ten, she started expressing interest in single player narratively-focused games. This proved trickier for Kate, since some of the games Eleanor wanted to play included, according to their PEGI rating, inappropriate content. Kate let the rating and game reviews guide her decisions regarding which games they could play together. So she decided that Eleanor could play Portal and Bastion, but she let a couple of years pass before letting her play Dishonored and the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Eleanor wasn’t always happy with her mother’s decisions, and they had long discussions about where the boundaries should be set. They also discussed the amount of time spent gaming, since sometimes Eleanor wanted to play until late at night. Kate strived to set rules that were both reasonable and flexible. She decided not to set a rigid time limit for gaming, allowing Eleanor to play longer during holidays and restricting her play only when other activities were impacted.

Now that Eleanor is fifteen, she’s starting to consider her mother’s attention as controlling, and she no longer welcomes it. She’s started to hide the full extent of time she spends playing, and longs to play some games completely on her own. She’s increasingly interested in some games her classmates are playing – games with more ‘mature’ themes, such as NieR: Automata and the Witcher 3. When they discussed this, Kate was initially hurt: does her child no longer enjoy her company? Has she been too strict?

So Kate decides to discuss the issue with the mother of one of Eleanor’s friends. She discovers that the experience of this mother with gaming has been completely different from her own: her son frequently plays competitive multiplayer games, and demands that the space and time are his, and his alone. Kate talks with the boy, and while she doesn’t feel comfortable at the thought of leaving Eleanor completely on her own, the way the boy talks about his feeling of freedom and independence when playing resonates with her own experience as a player.

She decides to strike a compromise with Eleanor: Eleanor will be allowed to choose some games to play on her own, as long as they aren’t too extreme in content. But on the other hand, Kate doesn’t want to lose their shared gaming completely, and asks Eleanor to continue playing together, if only for a more limited time. Eleanor accepts, seeing that her sense of independence is respected, and not wanting to lose the bonding that gaming has brought them all these years.

In a nutshell

Parents should be ready and willing to play with their children, take an active interest in the games they play and foster their self-regulation with games. For children, video games can be an activity to be shared with parents; but in adolescence, games are also a space for self-discovery that should be respected.

Policy makers and researchers should promote actions to raise awareness among parents and educators about games, and about the power and influence games have on child psychological and cultural development.


This video from the LSE, featuring Prof Sonia Livingstone, is an entry point into a long-running programme of research (most of which funded by the EU) on the opportunities and risks that new media pose for children. There are many insights in this studies that can help parents/guardians who are looking for guidance to introduce and moderate the use of games in the family:


Games and formal education: one size doesn’t fit all

“my boys always engage more with the commercial games. And they didn’t always like the Maths games or Science games, because it just didn’t feel like real games to them […]. But the girls, they did, and the puzzle problems on Nintendos and things, they liked them, my girls” – quote from an interview with an educator. EE02.


Drawing from the experiences of the educators and players we interviewed, we envisage a very creative and informed use of games for learning at school, with a wide range of games used by educators and a similarly wide range of uses. Game choice – as with all choices in the learning design process – should be driven by learning objectives, contextual constraints, and educator experience, and ought to take student preference into consideration.   For example, in some cases teachers may choose short entertainment games that can be played episodically to stimulate discussion. In others, they may prefer to propose longer playful activities requiring authentic problem solving performed by participants in an online environment.  In yet others, teachers might choose a serious game because it helps to achieve specific objectives. In any case, teachers will need to be aware of the risks of making gaming compulsory or using games in which the playful/gameful dimension is a mere cosmetic layer added to instructional interactions.

Most importantly, teachers will need to embed game-based activities into a broader pedagogical design, where game choice is not the only choice to be made in view of desired outcomes. Other aspects to be considered concern how to manage competition (exploiting its engagement potential while avoiding stress), respecting students’ preferences for different types of games but also using games to overcome personal barriers and counter social stereotypes, as well as dealing with digital divide issues. Last but not least, teachers will be aware that the motivating power of games is a double-edged sword, sometimes fostering motivation to win rather than motivation to learn, unless the two are effectively integrated.

Meet Robert, a secondary school teacher, and his students Mary and Paul (aged 16)

Robert is a secondary school science and technology teacher. He is a strong supporter of game-based learning, since he believes that games can successfully support inquiry learning in STEM and positively engage his 16-year-old students. Robert’s teaching with games is informed and fuelled both by his personal experience as a player and by his professional training. This grounding allows him to consider a variety of different games for use with his students and several ways to use them.

When implementing purposeful gaming in his classroom, Robert usually couples it with other learning activities, and spreads gameplay over multiple sessions rather than limiting it to a single block. Sometimes he includes metagames and purposely-designed assessments.

What Robert always does is seek to calibrate gaming activities to his students’ knowledge, needs, abilities and – last but not least – preferences. He’s noticed that there are significant differences between his students’ preferred game types, preferred mode of gameplay (alone or in groups), and of course, abilities. In contrast with some of his colleagues, Robert’s particularly alert to the problem of the digital divide when it comes to gaming. For example, the students with limited access to different consoles and devices at home tend to take longer to get acquainted with the controls.

Robert’s school has access to a substantial repository of quality digital games to choose from, and this makes it easier for him to select the right game for different students and for different objectives. . This repository can be accessed through an online catalogue listing achievable learning objectives for each game and comments from other users, both students and teachers, and it can be accessed from home too. In this way, students can do their homework by playing in a similar fashion to the ‘flipped classroom’ approach. Each student is free to choose from the set of games Robert proposes, without feeling forced to play or getting bored by games they don’t particularly like.

Mary and Paul (aged 16) are two junior students in Robert’s science class. Although Paul is a player (or perhaps precisely because he is) he really doesn’t like serious games. He feels they’re mostly sugar-coated school exercises. That’s why he and some of the other guys in the class prefer to play more creative games (Minecraft and Portal are his favourites) and maker-oriented activities with design kits like Arduino. Mary isn’t much of a player and is more enthusiastic than Paul about playing applied games (especially puzzles) because she sees them as a playful alternative to the usual homework activities. She also likes creating wearable computing gadgets, which is something that many girls in Robert’s class tend to like. For a while now, Robert has been wondering how to get the girls more interested in the Arduino kits in order to broaden their skills in STEM.

At school, however, Robert usually gets them all to play the same game, otherwise handling the class would be too complicated. In cases like these, he gets them to form teams and play as a group. In this way they develop collaboration skills, and it also avoids the better performing players predominating.

In a nutshell

One game certainly does not fit all. Students have individual preferences and teachers should try to respect these as far as practicable. However, schools are generally not designed, equipped or run to cater for variation.  One way to tackle this is by moving towards more open classrooms, where one or more teachers can follow different teams of students doing different activities. To facilitate teachers’ game choice, individual schools or school networks could create repositories of games offering a rich game choice.

Students’ acceptance of game-based learning can be improved by avoiding mandatory play activities or games where the playful/gameful dimension is a mere cosmetic layer added to instructional interactions. It is also important to take into account students’ individual differences when designing game-based learning activities. Particular attention should be paid to social and gender differences in order to avoid demotivation and frustration.

The European Commission could play a key part by supporting teacher education and professional development initiatives devoted to game-based learning. In this case, priorities should be placed on fostering virtual communities of teachers for the exchange of know-how and experience, and on supporting the establishment of repositories, in order to broaden access to effective games and lesson plans.


  • Taylor, A. S. A. (2015, September). The active instructor: Benefits and barriers to instructor-led serious gaming. In proceedings of VS-Games, 2015 7th International Conference on Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications (pp. 1-8). IEEE.
  • Tsekleves, E., Cosmas, J., & Aggoun, A. (2016). Benefits, barriers and guideline recommendations for the implementation of serious games in education for stakeholders and policymakers. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(1), 164–183.
  • Wouters, P., & Van Oostendorp, H. (2013). A meta-analytic review of the role of instructional support in game-based learning. Computers & Education, 60(1), 412-425
  • Minecraft
  • Portal
  • Arduino
  • Gravity simulator

Games and formal education: a difficult marriage

“[The limitations on games in formal education?]  Undoubtedly, timetabling is one. And it’s an issue that’s been debated for years, because it creates many problems. […] Our timetable, our morning, is divided into slots separated by the ring of the bell bringing the lesson to a close. Generally, the use of technology clashes with this idea of whatever’s happening, the lesson is over now”. – Quote from an interview with an interview with an educator. EI01


Integrating games in formal education is not easy. Firstly, not all teachers are familiar with games or game-based learning and not all students see this ‘marriage’ favourably, especially when asked to play serious games, which often do not have the engaging power of entertainment games. Secondly, gaming is by definition a free exploratory activity, while formal education has its rules, its constraints, and sometimes the use of games isn’t compatible with these restrictions. More in general, playing at school is almost an oxymoron: the nature of play is such that it cannot be done ‘under teacher supervision’, that is, with a teacher who chooses where, when, and what to play. How can these tensions be tackled? Can such a marriage actually work? And if so, should games be adapted to the existing school system, or should school change to better embrace the flexibility required by gaming and by other types of technology supported activities?

It is probably no coincidence that nine out of our twelve educator-interviewees were players themselves or had been in the past. Nor is it surprising that their teaching with games largely appeared to be informed and fuelled by their experience as players. There is a wide variety of ways the potential of games can be harnessed for educational purposes: from the most obvious – though not risk free – use of serious games developed expressly to achieve specific learning objectives, to the use of popular entertainment or artistic games to stimulate reflection and discussion on ethical or philosophical questions (e.g. That Dragon, Cancer; Fragments of Him; Dear Esther). Our research also suggests that the time is not yet ripe for the creation of a school context which is fully supportive of teachers’ efforts to adopt game based learning approaches. School managers, teachers and parents are generically in favour of game based learning due to its recent popularity. However, there is also an underlying scepticism, especially among parents and teachers, that play can support learning as well as, and often better, than other teaching practices.

Meet Jan, a middle school maths teacher and Irina, who teaches geography and history in upper secondary school

Jan teaches maths in the third year of a lower secondary school. His pupils will face the national exam this year, so he feels very committed to making sure they will be able to pass their first important summative test. The class consists of 25 children, most of whom are around 13 years old, with big differences as to commitment and learning outcomes. Jan believes the better performing students could be of much help to the others, but this is not happening spontaneously because several students are new to the class and the atmosphere is not collaborative enough.

For this reason, he has designed a gamified path connecting the main topics of the math curriculum, and for most of these topics he has found or invented a game supporting its learning. Recently,

Recently, the headmaster has been encouraging Jan get the other teachers involved and scale it up to school level. Recently, the headmaster has been encouraging Jan to get the other teachers involved and scale it up to school level. A discussion among them has convinced them that gamification intended as ‘pointification’ (adding points and badges for motivational purposes but without deeper integration with the content) is not what they want. They are afraid that too much competition can create more problems than advantages. Anxiety is not the kind of feeling they want to prevail inside their classes. Jan’s colleagues enriched the path with new activities and games, and their creative input has proved very useful. This is turning out to be quite a lot of workload, but it also has some big advantages. Firstly, the switch they made to inter-class competition makes the atmosphere inside each class more cohesive, as it leads classmates to support one another. Secondly, the typical scepticism of parents now clashes with a whole team of teachers very much convinced of the approach, which helps a lot.

Jan’s wife, Irina, is a teacher too. She works in an upper secondary school, where she teaches history and geography. They often discuss the ways games can be harnessed for learning. Irina has only recently begun introducing games in her classes, but her school principal is sceptical and has been less supportive than Jan’s was, making it much more challenging to get the resources and institutional backing she needs. She therefore has to count on her own resources and time only. Luckily, as a gamer, she knows a lot of games. She’s found one, called Rise of Nations, that’s ideal for introducing her students to complex geopolitical topics. She’s confident that playing the  game will help give them a firmer grasp of geopolitics than they  would otherwise get through the rote learning of notions.

The demands of the school timetable mean that she can only manage a single one-hour game session per week in class. So Irina has encouraged the students to carry on playing outside school hours and then discuss their thoughts and impressions about the game content in class.

In a nutshell

Teacher education and professional development in support of game based education should be promoted and should focus on specific game based learning design principles, including criteria for game choice as one of the decisions teachers take while designing for learning. Although most of the responsibility for pedagogical design will be on teachers’ shoulders, they should not be left unsupported. To deal with the limitations imposed by formal education contexts, teachers need active support from all stakeholders: school leaders, their fellow teachers, researchers, students and parents. 

Investments in teachers’ professional development and in research in learning design principles for game based learning are needed. As recent learning design research has pointed out, participatory approaches to learning design are to be privileged, centred as they are on communities of practice. These allow  teachers to access and share success stories and failures, with the aim of overcoming problems and devising innovative solutions, and increasing awareness of both the potential and the pitfalls of using games for learning.

Arts and entertainment games research

‘[Interviewer] You say you’ve tried to get your games to academics to test, how has that worked out?  Has it actually happened?

[Developer] No, it has not.  […]  Maybe it’s a money issue, maybe it’s the time, […].  I think the resources are probably pretty limited for people’ – Quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28828.

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During Gaming Horizons’research, it emerged that opportunities for applied and fundamental research into serious/applied games differed sharply from those for arts/entertainment games. Games research was most commonly situated in instrumentalist contexts, focusing mostly on direct and measurable impact on learning or antisocial behaviour, and rarely in the context of their creative, expressive, or artistic possibilities. From an industrial perspective, there was no sense of established collaboration with researchers, nor any sense that a change was impending in this relationship. The work of academic researchers appears to be entirely out of touch with the arts and entertainment games sector. The analysis of EU funding policies showed a strong emphasis on viewing the video game industry as an engineering sector, with research entirely focused on tools development and generally directed towards the serious/applied sector. Interviewees strongly criticised both the relevance and effectiveness of this research funding strategy to support the political, economic, and cultural needs of the EU. Researchers (and any developers that wish to work with them) are currently heavily restricted to working in the framing of the serious/applied sector, despite the widespread doubts about this sector’s effectiveness shown by the Gaming Horizons interviewees.

Meet Silvia, a game developer, and Juana, a researcher

Silvia’s studio has some immediate questions they need to examine in the context of the whole experience that they are trying to create. Trying out the systems in another game might give them a clue, but an educational game is aiming for a different player experience so the results wouldn’t be easy to apply to Silvia’s work. The length of time for results would be a big problem for them too: Silvia’s studio wants to get results in a matter of months, not years. If Juana could be funded to work directly with the studio and on their immediate problems then she would be able to help, but at the moment nothing can be done.

Unfortunately, after this disappointment, Silvia is unlikely to bother asking again and she is left feeling like researchers have nothing to offer her industry.

In a nutshell

Current funding for research into the arts and entertainment video game industry is entirely inadequate to the needs of the artists and developers.

  • Removing arbitrary delineations between serious/applied games funding and arts/entertainment funding would allow more interchange of knowledge and creative approaches to the use of gaming technologies.
  • Showing recognition in research funding calls for the cultural impact of games (beyond only technological and economic impacts) will open avenues of both applied and fundamental research into video game development.
  • Fundamental aspects of video game development beyond ‘tech’ (i.e. visual arts, animation, audio, production, storytelling methods and technologies, etc.) need to be explicitly supported to enhance the creative range and strength of the industry. This is a necessary long-term investment to supporting the future competitiveness of European games development when compared with other global regions.
  • Applied collaborations of research with industry partners need to be done on game-production timescales, not academic/administrative ones, and so funding calls must reflect the fast-changing and unpredictable nature of creative industry requirements – year long application and review processes are entirely inadequate for the needs of the video game industry.

Gambling and dark design

“The problem is a lot of the [free-to-play] games do use the gambling style mechanics to generate an addiction to try and maximise the revenue from those players. So done well with the right game, I don’t think free-to-play is a problem at all. But like anything it can be used irresponsibly.” –  quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28783.

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While academic research demonstrated a bias towards studies of violence, developer and player stakeholders in particular were more concerned about the manipulative application of psychological principles linked to dopamine triggers in the brain. These were referred to broadly as ‘dark design patterns’ and commonly tied to paid activities, such as compulsive buying of in-game goods or creating gambling-related reward systems. These systems frequently exist in legal grey-areas. For example, under British law the purchase of ‘loot crates’ (random collections of in-game items that may significantly improve the player’s performance) is not considered gambling because the player cannot ‘cash out’ their winnings (i.e. sell the in-game items), but other countries have varying legal perspectives on this. Regardless of perspective, many competitive games rely on small loot-crate-esque purchases to bring in the only source of revenue that the developers get, so changing the legal status of loot crates may have a profound impact on many game developers; however, the methods of stimulating purchases can be done in a variety of ways, on a scale from fair to manipulative. When implemented unfairly, these systems can result in heavy financial burdens for vulnerable players. The loot crate idea, and other systems like them, are not a priori manipulative, but the presentation and surrounding systems may make them socially problematic. Careful evaluation and tracking of such systems is likely to be a much more urgent concern for the future ethical status of video games than scare-mongering stories about violence.

Meet Karen and Davide, players of an online multiplayer warfare game

Karen and Davide have been playing online together for a few years. They both have two jobs to try and make ends meet, so playing a free game online in the evenings is a cheap way of relaxing. Characters in the game can be slowly made stronger, but there’s a random chance of getting a big boost to your character if you pay for a loot crate. Most of the crates have only minor improvements in them, but occasionally a bigger benefit will be in there and many players want to accelerate their characters’ growth to win more fights.

While some players may have enough money to spare to invest in virtual in-game goods, not everyone does. Some games are purposely balanced to entice players to buy a random loot crate in the hope that the reward will enhance their overall enjoyment of the game. However, each purchase is a gamble that might pay off, and if it doesn’t players can feel like it is worth spending more to have another chance of success. Various social mechanisms, variable-ratio schedule reward systems, game design choices, balancing of league competitions, and other techniques can be applied to push players to spend their money. These psychological techniques are linked to both gambling and addiction, and may affect players differently. Without sufficient current research, it is hard to say whether vulnerable players may particularly be negatively impacted, or if there are appropriate precautions that game developers could take to maintain their livelihoods without the risk of damaging or exploiting their players.

In a nutshell

The ethical spotlight in video game research is often pointed at violent games, but other aspects of game design would benefit from ethical study. Dark design patterns that exploit or manipulate players need to be closely examined with a balanced review that can guide developers away from using them either intentionally or accidentally.

Studies into past and present systems of monetisation and compulsion-inducing gameplay should be conducted. Great care needs to be taken to recognise the complexity of game systems and balancing: loot crates and many similar aspects of game design are not automatically unethical, and neither are free-to-play games, but aspects of their content and context may lead them to be exploitative or manipulative. Such studies will need to be conducted with the assistance of industry professionals who can assess and the multiple subtle ways in which such systems are implemented across the whole game experience, not only as an isolated systems. Such an isolation would result in flawed or binary moral/immoral judgement that does not match the nuance with which such systems can be integrated into games; such an outcome would not benefit the industry, nor would it contribute to potential guidelines.


Representations of race, and ethnicity: supporting inclusion in the social landscape

“[After making all the characters in a popular sports video game black] people value being represented.  I think that’s a very powerful thing to be the default and so I think the reaction was one of empowerment for people who were the default for the first time, and there was one of curiosity for people who weren’t the default for the first time.  Like, uh, why would you make this choice not to make me the default?” – quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28788

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With video games becoming increasingly an everyday presence in the lives of all ages of Europeans, especially people below the age of 30, they can play an important role in signifying a group’s inclusion and integration within society. The few studies of race and ethnicity in games have shown an unrepresentative dominance of white people as lead characters, with other ethnicities (if present) typically included as minor enemy characters. The research of these statistics is scarce, which does not assist in getting a full and current picture of both the present state of this issue or trends in development (i.e. whether this has begun to change in recent years, if there are types of games or developers that are performing better than others, what influences developers to include a diverse cast, etc.); the impact on players of such varied social contexts is both challenging to study and important to approach. Developers that were interviewed for Gaming Horizons acknowledged the importance of this topic (alongside other issues of inclusion), but players made few comments on race or ethnicity specifically, suggesting that racial and ethnic inclusion is an industry concern that has currently not reached the player-base to the same extent. Further research is necessary in this area to understand it more fully.

Meet Luuk, a social arts funding officer, and Naija, an artist and second-generation immigrant who makes video games

Naija would love to make a game inspired by the traditions of her Nigerian grandparents. She knows that it is a financial risk to make something different from mainstream Western or Eastern mythologies, but thinks this source material could inspire something unique. Arts funding would really help her get the project off the ground and would give it credibility to help her explore other funding options too. She is an artist and her work is inspired by being a European whose life is framed by a place where she has never lived: she hopes that it will inspire players and developers to learn about Nigerian culture. Luuk has money to distribute, but he doesn’t see the evidence that games will inspire others. He comes from a traditional arts background and secretly feels very uncomfortable with looking at video games as a medium with cultural worth.

Without many precedents or research into the social impact of artistic games, Niaja has to try and convince Luuk by herself that games can be both expressive and inspire curiosity in players’s actual lives.

In a nutshell

There is great potential for video games to assist in the visibility of racial and ethnic minorities in European culture, encouraging variety and inclusion as well as potentially increasing the expressive range and themes of the medium.

Three approaches would contribute to progress in this area:

  • further research to understand the current, past, and possible future states of race and ethnicity in video games, particularly in a European cultural context;
  • training and workshops aimed at minority groups specifically intended to give participants game development skills;
  • targeted arts funding for creative video games that specifies inclusivity (either in theme, individual/team, or both) as a metric of consideration.


Games and inclusion: gender, minorities, and society

“[In] Dragon Age there’s a transexual character, which is something really important because if a transsex person […] sees themselves represented in a positive way, it can give them hope.”– quote from an interview with a player. PI06.

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For all ages, video games are an expressive medium that is increasingly diversifying both the identities of the protagonists and the events and interactions presented in them. Issues addressed by video games include gender identity, treatment of cultural and ethnic minorities, refugees and war survivors, grief, love, sexual health, domestic violence, religion and faith, socialism, capitalism and neoliberalism, and, in a notable example from 2017, a playable interpretation of the work of the philosopher of Alan Watts (Everything). Such games can be used in a classroom context, but they are also commercial and non-commercial entertainment products that are already being played by millions of Europeans. The expansion is not restricted to content, but also includes a wide range of people that are becoming involved with, or more visible in, the development and communities of video games.

However, this increased visibility is not occurring without challenges and, like in society more broadly, there has been populist opposition to progressive inclusivity. Such opposition has included threats or murder, rape, assault, financial and legal implications, and even ‘swatting’ (the making of fake reports to the police of gunshots at their target’s house, with the hope to provoking an armed law-enforcement ‘SWAT’ response). As seen in many parts of society, moving beyond the past and present systemic prejudices against women and minorities is making bumpy progress, but the determination to do this successfully was supported by every game developer stakeholder interviewed during  the Gaming Horizons research and aligns with the goal of increasing RRI presence in EU funding policies beyond only ethics compliance.

Meet Pierre, a gamer who is heterosexual, and his friend David, a gamer who is gay.

Pierre feels like there’s too much fuss over minority groups saying that they are not visible in cultural artefacts, like video games and television. He thinks there’s nothing wrong with the way games reflect society, and he sees a lot of characters in games that he can relate to: white, male, cisgender, and heterosexual, and he’s never really thought about how it would feel for others to see themselves so rarely. Rather than engage with the lack of representation, Pierre makes jokes about others who are asking for equality. David is Pierre’s friend, but he would like to see different communities represented in games.

Although David laughs at Pierre’s joke, ‘dragons don’t exist?’, David secretly wishes that Pierre would take him seriously, but as a member of a minority group he knows that objecting puts him in danger: at the least he would change the nature of their friendship, but at worst he could be attacked verbally or physically. David has friends who have been attacked for being gay and he’s nervous about being too forthright about wanting equal treatment.

In a nutshell

Encouraging entertainment and artistic games developers to use women and minorities in their games will help build visibility for these communities as participants in everyday life and society. The wide reach of video games into European society allows them to function as a key asset in improving cultural understanding, relationships, and community. It is also likely to stimulate creativity in the industry, presenting new gameplay scenarios and inspiring new interactions.

Three approaches would contribute to progress in this area:

  • further research to understand the current, past, and possible future states of women and minority gender and sexualities in video games, particularly in a European cultural context;
  • training and workshops aimed at minority groups specifically intended to give participants game development skills;
  • targeted arts funding for creative video games that specifies inclusivity (either in theme, individual/team, or both) as a metric of consideration.


Games conferences and new media as academic publishing

“I feel like we can move faster at conferences than you can with writing and reading papers and books.” –  quote from an interview with a developer. LSD28824.

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Instead of using traditional academic resources, games industry conferences were framed as ‘nexus points’ of knowledge sharing within the game development community. However, industry conferences are not always amenable to academic contributions because of perceived/actual problems of accessibility of academic language, data presentation, timeliness, or the lack of immediate practical implications from the research.

In addition to industry conferences for knowledge sharing, developers have responded positively to webinars, online videos, and blog-posts on industry websites such as or  In the Gaming Horizons project, the ten webinars on a variety of research topics (such as cultural sensitivity, educational contexts for game usage, and the importance of realism in video games) have been seen by over 6000 viewers on the Facebook Live system. This demonstrates a reach significantly larger than most academic research activities and traditional dissemination methods. These views came through actively involving professional game developers and publishing directly to developer communities rather than to academia.

While researchers need to be more adaptive in how they distribute their work, governments and universities need to acknowledge that their systems and standards of measurement may be outdated. Researchers are typically judged on the impact of their work, and conference presentations and new media are typically rated as being of lower impact than a journal publication, regardless of the readership. Developers have a highly practical mindset, they desire knowledge that will assist them in improving the games that they are making, and so changes in researcher assessment, and publication style, content, and dissemination methods are necessary to bring the academic publishing closer to the needs of the industry.

Meet Yana, a games conference organiser and Ebba, a video game researcher.

Ebba has been working hard to find new ways of signifying potential interactions in video games, but she hasn’t had backing from her university to fully demonstrate this working in a game, only journal publications. Yana is interested in getting speakers for her conference with proven, applicable results – academic theory isn’t enough to impress her practically-minded attendees.

There are many challenges regarding making academic research appealing to industry professionals. Academic research needs to remember that interests of practical applicability and approachability are foremost for many professionals. If the mode of expression and the content can be framed correctly, many of the Gaming Horizons developer stakeholders were positive about the prospect of getting researchers involved in their work but didn’t currently feel that there was communication in a way that was meaningful to them.

Governments and their academic bodies will also need to give adequate recognition and status to applied research. While the split in ‘fundamental’ versus ‘applied’ research is also seen as a split between ‘real’ and ‘low quality’ research, academics who are desiring a strong career will be pushed away from creating research with the practical implications that professionals demand.

Likewise, national and EU funding bodies will need to support researchers working towards practical outcomes for games developers, and recognise in funding calls that industry conferences and new media outputs (for example YouTube demonstrations and tutorials) are much more desirable and potentially impactful than journal publications. Conference attendance for delivering research results and other new media dissemination methods must be supported financially.

In a nutshell

If academic research is to enter a discourse with professional contexts, it will need to adopt the methods and media that the industry uses.

This approach must also be supported by governmental and academic institutions understanding that industry conferences and other media are more impactful than traditional models (such as journal publications) in this domain.