Table of Contents


In this article, we argue that to study or apply games as learning environments, multiple perspectives have to be taken into account. We first define game-based learning and gamification and then discuss theoretical models that describe learning with games, arguing that playfulness is orthogonal to learning theory. We then review the design elements of games that facilitate learning by fostering learners’ cognitive, behavioral, affective, and sociocultural engagement with the subject matter. Finally, we discuss the basics of these design elements in cognitive, motivational, affective, and sociocultural foundations by reviewing key theories from education and psychology that are the most pertinent to game-based learning and by describing empirical research on learning with games that have been or should be conducted. We conclude that a combination of cognitive, motivational, affective, and sociocultural perspectives is necessary for both game design and game research to fully capture what games have to offer for learning.


What are the psychological foundations of game-based learning? We argue in this article that games are a complex genre of learning environments that cannot be understood by taking only one perspective of learning. In fact, as our review shows, many of the concepts that are important in the context of games, such as motivation, have aspects relating to different theoretical foundations—cognitive, affective, motivational, and sociocultural. We argue that for games to achieve their potential for learning, all these perspectives have to be taken into account, with specific emphasis depending upon the intention and design of the learning game.

The use of play in an educational context and for purposes of learning and development is by no means a new phenomenon. However, the growing acceptance of digital games as mainstream entertainment has raised the question of how to take advantage of the promise of digital games for educational purposes. Reports on youth’s consumption of digital games are compelling, with studies such as the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicating 99% of boys and 94% of girls playing digital games (Lenhart et al., 2008). Equally compelling report on how much time youth spend playing digital games, which ranges from approximately 7 to 10 hr per week (Lenhart et al., 2008), with more recent estimates putting this number even higher (Homer, Hayward, Frye, & Plass, 2012). Although there are gender differences in the number of time boys and girls play digital games (Homer et al., 2012), and in the types of games boys and girls prefer to play (Lenhart, Smith, Anderson, Duggan, & Perrin, 2015), studies have not found significant gender differences in learning or motivational outcomes in educational games (e.g., Annetta, Magnum, Holmes, Collazo, & Cheng, 2009; Papastergiou, 2009). Given this level of engagement that games generate for a broad range of individuals, and considering the kinds of individual and social activities they afford, advocates have argued that games are an ideal medium for learning (Gee, 2003, 2007; Prensky, 2003, 2005; Squire, 2011).

Meta-analyses of the impact of games on learning have resulted in conflicting findings depending on what criteria for inclusion and exclusion of articles were used, and which outcome variables were considered. These decisions were influenced by the authors’ theoretical approach to the use of digital games for learning. Among these approaches, two are particularly prominent: a cognitive perspective (Blumberg, 2011; Fletcher & Tobias, 2005; Mayer, 2005; Shute, Ventura, & Ke, 2014; Spence & Feng, 2009) and a sociocultural perspective (De Freitas, Rebolledo-Mendez, Liarokapis, Magoulas, & Poulovassilis, 2010; Shaffer, 2006; Squire, 2008, 2011; Steinkuehler, Squire, & Barab, 2012). Depending on which perspective is taken, games are considered either environment that are motivating but likely to require excessive amounts of information to be processed by the learner (cognitive perspective) or, conversely, approaches that provide the rich contextual information and interactions needed for learning in the 21st century (sociocultural perspective).

A discussion of games and learning, and an assessment of their impact, is complicated by the fact that games, as a generic term, is so broad as to be of little utility when it is discussed without further qualification. Games range across not only broad genres of field (humanities, sciences, engineering, etc.) and genres of contents (second-language learning, science, history, etc.) but also genres of games (casual game, first-person shooter, massively multiplayer online game [MMO], role-playing, etc.). Of course, each of the preceding genres crosses and links with the others.

A consequence of the fact that the concept of games covers all these genres is that one cannot assume that research results obtained by studying games from one genre can be applied readily to another genre. For example, badges introduced into an MMO may be useful to guide the learner to perform specific learning-related tasks, but when integrated into a casual game they may distract from learning.

In this article, we aim to provide a comprehensive theory-based approach to games and learning that incorporates multiple views of learning and of foundations of game design. To that end, we first discuss the definitions of game-based learning and the theoretical models that can describe learning with games. We then describe the design elements of games that facilitate learning. Last, we summarize how the design of these game elements is based on cognitive, motivational, affective, and sociocultural foundations.


In this article, we argued that the integrated viewpoints of cognitive, motivational, affective, and sociocultural perspectives are necessary for both game design and game research in order to fully capture what games have to offer for learning. Combined, these perspectives form an overarching, learning sciences perspective, which gives enhanced power for the potential of games in education, and for a way of looking at the design of learning games that would make them more effective than is the case at present. Such an integrated approach will allow us to move beyond simple learning goals such as preparation for future learning, to measurable learning within games and would allow us, for example, to incorporate playful learning principles as part of the design, rather than as an add-on to existing structures, that is, as gamification. Viewing game-based and playful learning as a series of learner engagements on different levels (cognitive, affective, behavioral, and sociocultural), and treating game design elements as strategies to achieve this engagement based on established cognitive, affective, motivational, and sociocultural foundations as outlined in this article, can contribute to a more systematic process of conceptualizing and designing games. We hope this will result in the development of games that have the impact proponents have been suggesting for over a decade.

About KSRA

The Kavian Scientific Research Association (KSRA) is a non-profit research organization to provide research / educational services in December 2013. The members of the community had formed a virtual group on the Viber social network. The core of the Kavian Scientific Association was formed with these members as founders. These individuals, led by Professor Siavosh Kaviani, decided to launch a scientific / research association with an emphasis on education.

KSRA research association, as a non-profit research firm, is committed to providing research services in the field of knowledge. The main beneficiaries of this association are public or private knowledge-based companies, students, researchers, researchers, professors, universities, and industrial and semi-industrial centers around the world.

Our main services Based on Education for all Spectrum people in the world. We want to make an integration between researches and educations. We believe education is the main right of Human beings. So our services should be concentrated on inclusive education.

The KSRA team partners with local under-served communities around the world to improve the access to and quality of knowledge based on education, amplify and augment learning programs where they exist, and create new opportunities for e-learning where traditional education systems are lacking or non-existent.

FULL Paper PDF file:

Foundations of Game-Based Learning



Jan L. Plass CREATE Lab New York University
Bruce D. Homer Program in Educational Psychology The Graduate Center, City University of New York
Charles K. Kinzer Department of Computing, Communication, and Technology in Education Teachers College, Columbia University




Foundations of Game-Based Learning

Publish in

EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST, 50(4), 258–283, 2015



PDF reference and original file: Click here


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Nasim Gazerani was born in 1983 in Arak. She holds a Master's degree in Software Engineering from UM University of Malaysia.

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Professor Siavosh Kaviani was born in 1961 in Tehran. He had a professorship. He holds a Ph.D. in Software Engineering from the QL University of Software Development Methodology and an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Chelsea.

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Somayeh Nosrati was born in 1982 in Tehran. She holds a Master's degree in artificial intelligence from Khatam University of Tehran.