Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning

Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning offers us a new tool for the heart and soul of graduate education, a tool for experimentation, risk-taking, creativity, and using failure as a form of learning.  These are just the bits where we need the most help.

James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Regents’ Professor, Arizona State University

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Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning by Matthew Barr

This book explores the efficacy of game-based learning to develop university students’ skills and competencies. While writing on game-based learning has previously emphasised the use of games developed specifically for educational purposes, this book fills an important gap in the literature by focusing on commercial games including Portal 2, Borderlands 2, Lara Croft, Warcraft and Minecraft. Underpinned by robust empirical evidence, the author demonstrates that the current negative perception of video games is ill-informed, and in fact these games can be important tools to develop graduate skills related to employability. Speaking to very current concerns about the employability of higher education graduates and the skills that university is intended to develop, this book also explores the attitudes to game-based learning as expressed by instructors, students and game developers. 


A compelling read for any faculty member who is considering whether and how to use games in their teaching. This book provides practical recommendations and robust research evidence about how students can learn important transferable skills through gaming.

Professor Judy Robertson, Chair in Digital Learning, University of Edinburgh

This book provides a much needed foundation for games in learning, linking them explicitly to graduate attributes and pedagogic theory. Moving beyond potential and advocacy, Barr grounds the application in empirical research, while also clearly setting out the perspectives of educators and students. It provides a very insightful account of how games can be used effectively in higher education, and also the issues involved.

Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University, President of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT)

This work provides key insights to using games as pedagogical tools in graduate education, positioning games in the classroom, and understanding the views and opinions of graduate students in engaging with such efforts. It explores the themes of games as tools for inquiry and experiential learning in ways that are both grounded in relevant theory and wonderfully concrete for practicing educators. I have no doubt that this will prove to be an important work for those in the field.

Andrew Phelps, Professor, Human Interface Technologies Laboratory, University of Canterbury, and Professor and Director, American University Game Lab


Chapter 1: Video Games and Learning

Many commercial video games require players to collaborate and communicate with one another in order to progress. Players must also exercise a range of skills and competencies, including adaptability and resourcefulness, to overcome in-game challenges. As it happens, these are the very same abilities that employers seek when hiring graduates, the abilities that higher education is expected to develop in students. The significant potential for learning from video games has not gone unnoticed, of course. Respected academic and businessperson, John Seely Brown, has suggested that he would rather hire an experienced World of Warcraft player than an MBA from Harvard, for example. However, to date, the empirical evidence for the efficacy of using games to develop skills in higher education has been slight. This chapter provides an overview of the theories that underpin the notion of game-based learning, from established concepts of constructivism, experiential learning, and mastery, to the more contemporary learning principles that James Paul Gee has shown to be present in video games. As such, this chapter provides context for the subsequent discussion of an empirical study designed to put such theories to the test.

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World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth
A group of players take on World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth. Source:

Chapter 2: Graduate Attributes and Games

Graduate attributes are the skills and competencies that students are said to develop in higher education, over-and-above those related directly to their degree subject. They are typically aligned with the notion of life-long learning and, at university level, attributes such as critical thinking, communication skill, and adaptability are associated with graduates’ employability. This chapter describes how video games might relate to the development of graduate attributes, arguing that this is where the utility of games in higher education lies. However, if we are to make any claims about the development of graduate attributes at university, means of measuring gains in attribute attainment are required. Noting that such measurement is not straightforward, potential quantitative measures for a range of typical graduate attributes are discussed. However, attributes which are not readily quantified, such as those concerned with ethical and social awareness or reflective learning, are probably best explored by qualitative means. The chapter concludes by suggesting that, in the absence of quantitative measures, perhaps the most effective method of determining a person’s attribute attainment is simply to ask them.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 2
Bullymongs in Borderlands 2
Players combine forces to take on a pair of ‘Bullymongs’ in Borderlands 2. Source:

Chapter 3: Playing Games at University

It has been argued that video games might be used to develop in students the desirable skills and competencies sometimes referred to as graduate attributes. However, in order to assess this claim, empirical research that examines the relationship between playing video games at university and the attainment of such attributes is required. In this chapter, a randomised controlled study is described, wherein undergraduate students were randomly assigned to either an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group played specified video games under controlled conditions over a period of one semester, while control group participants did not. Control and intervention group attribute attainment was tested at the beginning and the end of the study, allowing comparisons to be made between the development of communication skill, resourcefulness, and adaptability in both groups. For each of these graduate attribute measures, the data indicated a significant increase in mean scores for participants in the intervention group over those in the control group, suggesting that playing selected video games under specific circumstances can improve graduate skills.

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Lab environment used in the experimental study
Lab environment used in the experimental study

Chapter 4: The Student Perspective

This chapter explores the attitudes and experiences of students involved in a game-based learning intervention designed to measure the effects of playing selected video games on the attainment of certain skills, known as graduate attributes. Interviews with participants provide a deeper understanding of how the three attributes in question (communication skill, adaptability, and resourcefulness) were developed, but also offer insight into how other attributes, not easily measured by quantitative means, might have been exercised. The interviews began with an open question: do you think the games played might have helped develop any skills or competencies? The remainder of the interview was structured around the host university’s stated graduate attributes, with each considered in turn. Most participants were positive about video games’ capacity to develop a range of graduate attributes, with potential increases in confidence, communication skill, and critical thinking ability featuring prominently in discussion. Participants were also positive about the potential for games to provide experience of collaborating with others, and to enhance their ethical and social awareness. There were some notes of scepticism, however, particularly around the transferability of skills beyond games.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 4
Minecraft co-op
Players cooperate on some construction work in Minecraft. Source:

Chapter 5: Reflections on Game-based Learning

The previous chapter presented interviews with participants in a study designed to explore whether playing selected video games might help develop in students a range of useful skills and competencies, also known as graduate attributes. In this chapter, the implications of the interview data are considered. Each attribute is examined in turn and the chapter concludes with a brief overview of the skills and experience that students suggest they developed in addition to the stated graduate attributes. Ancillary benefits such as stress relief are also discussed. These empirical observations support ideas presented by scholars such as James Paul Gee and suggest further connections between game-based learning and established theory. It is important to note, however, that these interview data refer to the circumstances under which specific games were played: the participants make multiple references to the effects of being asked to play games with people other than their existing friends. Several of the attributes discussed here appear to be influenced by the fact that students played with strangers from differing cultural backgrounds and with varying gaming experience. Regardless, these interviews reveal the factors that may be at play in a game-based intervention intended to develop graduate attributes.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 5
Capture the Flag game in Team Fortress 2
BLU versus RED combat during a Capture the Flag game in Team Fortress 2. Source:

Chapter 6: The Educator Perspective

This book has largely focused on a particular application of game-based learning in higher education, concerning the use of commercial video games to develop graduate skills or attributes. However, games are used in numerous ways across higher education. This chapter draws on interviews with educators to provide examples of the novel ways in which games and gamification are being used to teach or otherwise develop university students. Educators’ experiences were almost uniformly positive, although concern was raised about excluding a small proportion of the class, for whom games are unappealing. In most cases, game-based learning activities were tied to subject material, but educators understood that video games may also exercise a range of valuable skills and competencies. Interviewees here referred to ancillary outcomes including the development of their students’ communication and collaboration skills, critical thinking ability, and capacity to empathise and reflect. Of course, the transmission of disciplinary knowledge and understanding is not divorced from the development of such abilities and being able to think critically and reflect upon the learning experience is often crucial to a student’s mastery of their subject. Video games, however, seem particularly well-suited to nurturing such skills in our students.

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Co-op in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
Players must work together to traverse the obstacles presented in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Source:

Chapter 7: The Games Industry Perspective

When considering the use of video games in education, it is common to focus on the students and educators involved. Less well documented is how those responsible for producing video games view the educational potential of the medium. Do game developers think their games have the capacity to develop useful skills in players? Do they believe games present players with opportunities to learn something about the world? Might developers consciously include such opportunities in their games? To explore these questions, industry personnel responsible for the commercial titles used in the previously described study were interviewed, revealing that developers do see educational potential in the games they create. The potential they identify aligns with much of the research on game-based learning, including the study on which this book is based, and the theories put forth by James Paul Gee. Developers identified a range of skills that games may exercise, including critical thinking and collaboration, and highlighted the affordances of games that facilitate learning, such as the provision of a safe space in which to fail and develop confidence. It is equally apparent, however, that commercial game developers are reluctant to make claims about any such potential that cannot be verified.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 7
Papers, Please
Players must analyse evidence presented in Papers, Please and respond accordingly. Source:

Chapter 8: Gaming for Graduates

In this chapter, the key messages from the preceding chapters are summarised, the limitations of the work considered, and recommendations for future work made. The study presented here has shown that playing selected video games could develop certain graduate attributes: the skills and competencies that students are said to attain at university. Interviews with students, educators, and game developers have demonstrated links between games and established theories of learning, echoing ideas espoused by James Paul Gee. Here, these theories have been applied to the development of skills that graduates will be expected to demonstrate in the workplace. It is proposed that games should be integrated into higher education curricula where appropriate: if integrated thoughtfully, games can provide students with opportunities to develop their understanding of taught material, while simultaneously exercising a range of desirable skills. Universities should, therefore, afford video games at least the same status as sports and other such worthy pursuits. Furthermore, while the provision of ‘bolt-on’ graduate attribute training has not always proven successful, we should consider offering more formal game-based opportunities for attribute development. Finally, we must challenge the negative portrayal of video games: otherwise, they can never fulfil their considerable potential in education.