Common wisdom says that the post-MTV generation needs constant and elevated levels of stimulation. But this generation can more appropriately be called the digital generation. Children today develop skills and capabilities compatible with constant exposure to computers and computer games, digital TV, DVDs, and iPods. For several years now, the technology-based learning and multimedia industry have invested many R+D hours and resources in video, rich media and game-based activities. Innovative education researchers have also realised the learning potential of computer games.

Whereas previously a game was used as a way of enticing students into a learning space, now the real learning potential of these games are being seriously explored. E-learning companies and ICT researchers once concentrated on the power of the technology itself but what really interests researchers of educational games is the interaction between the player and the context of technology. Researchers at the Centre for Society, Technology and Media (http://www.stem.dcu.ieSTeM) in DCU and research/group.php?id=4Media Lab Europe in the Digital Hub are looking into the very nature of play and the Centre for Research in IT in Education in TCD recently showcased their work – see link). Game researchers are exploring the dynamics of complex player-game relationships. They are finding that there needs to be new definitions of learning in the digital age, as there are greater transformations in both player and the game environment than ever before during the act of play.

Multimedia educators and researchers build upon the work of Howard Gardner, who proposed in his theory of multiple intelligences that learners see the world in different ways when they engage in an educational activity. Each person has an individual scale of talent across these intelligences, some scoring higher on verbal ability, others on mathematical, or visual intelligences. Using various platforms and formats allows a greater number of students to choose the medium they want to use. Rich media computer games provide the necessary range across all these intelligences.

One challenge for the commercial sector is to maximise the power of play for certain types of content that suit this delivery. "There is a wide range of content that can be used successfully in game-based education," says Tony Kelly from Intel, whose R+D group worked on games concepts for the educational website, the British precursor to "But it works best for adaptive learning systems, where students must figure things out while the game changes to suit their level of understanding. It doesn’t suit rote-learning." Kelly maintains that many in the educational software industry use the fact that people often learn despite themselves, in what is referred to by the new phrase du jour as ‘learning by stealth.’ "The trick is that the educational component is tied up in the story," Kelly says, and he picks out Hungry Red Planet, a nutritional game by Health Media Lab for special mention as a great example, as well the old favourite Civilisation.

James Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy has referred to ‘stealth’ learning as "an activity where the learners are so caught up in their goals that they don’t realise they are learning, or how much they are learning, or where they actively seek new learning." The implication is that children learn by having fun and not realising the learning objectives. For example, in Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, the player learns history and geography in the process of being a detective searching for a missing person.

Stealth learning gets bad press, however. Among the charges are that it is a delusion which goes against accepted educational goals like reflexivity, and taking responsibility for learning. Shouldn’t learners be aware that they’re learning even when they’re having fun?

Peter Mee, CEO of Meedja Ltd., is unclear as to how exactly you could "con" someone into learning. "It’s a matter of perspective. If something is packaged and marketed as e-learning or training, I don’t see how it could be learning by stealth. Yes, gaming techniques may be used but this simply makes the material more palatable to the end user."

Another challenge for commercial development is that educational software tends to have a very modest production and marketing budget by comparison with the games industry. Meedja is currently developing an interactive 3D movie studio for 7-14 year olds with open architecture, based on the concept of "digital play". It provides many of the tools available in a real movie or TV studio such as adjustable cameras, lighting, scenery, and props and players can make their own animated 3D movies. On a question of market scale, Meedja can’t compete with movies and games. "The educational sector in Ireland is not large enough to support serious software development in this area", says Mee. "Teachers at primary and secondary level often bemoan the lack of Irish produced software for their sector but the reality is that it’s not commercially viable to produce quality software tailored to the Irish curriculum." Another aproach is pursued by DCU’s prospective/deginfo.php?classname=GEMMSc in Education and Training Management which trains teachers to program their own software to use in classrooms, including games.

There appears be common ground here though between the goals of entertainment and education. Intelligently designed games where learning is an integral part of the game has been part of computer games for a long time (such as Civilisation, mentioned above). Anyone who saw Ernest Adams give his lecture to the inauguration of the Irish chapter of the Game Developers Association(IGDA) last January will also remember how passionately he argued for more thought to be placed into game concept design. On the other side, as researchers understand more about the social and cognitive gains of playing games, there is more of an onus on teachers and educators to use games as part of their overall lesson plan, rather than wait for a magic bullet software or platform application that can be used as a centre point to every subject.

The bottom line is schoolroom technology like edutainment and electronic whiteboards are an important motivational tool and, lets face it, anything that injects more fun into maths or science is no bad thing. Collaborative ICT projects like terminalfour/SIPManager?descID=84Wired for Learning and the prospective/deginfo.php?classname=GEMMSc in Education and Training Management shown great student interest. But motivation is just one small part of the learning experience and there shouldn’t be an assumption that everyone dislikes the learning process. Broadly speaking, everyone likes to learn. It’s the subject and the way the subject is presented that turns students off. Education researchers must now focus on the multi-layered and fascinating new ways that ‘the digital generation’ acquire knowledge, ways that we haven’t thought about until now and, what’s more, ways of having fun doing it.

Padraig Murphy is currently doing doctoral research on science and technology education as part of the BioSciences and Society Group at DCU. Previously he was content development manager for an e-learning company.

Further information:


Gros, B. 2003. The impact of digital games in education. First Monday. [Online]
Available from:

Gee, J. 2003. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave: Macmillan

Jenkins, H. 2004. Look, listen, walk. Available from:

Lev Vygotsky:

US sites:

MIT Games-to-teach programme:

Marc Prensky website: writing/default.aspwriting/default.asp

Social Impact Games:

Irish sites:

Meedja Ltd. URL:


Media Lab Europe: research/group.php?id=4research/group.php?id=4

Centre for Science, Technology and Media (SteM)

MSc in Education and Training prospective/deginfo.php?classname=GEMprospective/deginfo.php?classname=GEM

Schools Integration Project and Wired for Learning