Practical barriers in using educational computer games Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

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Practical barriers in using educational computer games

Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

IT-University Copenhagen

Glentevej 67
DK-2400 NV Copenhagen
+45 40 10 79 69


This paper outlines the barriers for using computer games in an educational setting by drawing on a study of a 2-month history course with the historical strategy game Europa Universalis II.

The paper draws on the limited earlier literature on the subject to identify classic areas of difficulty. Some of these are time schedule, physical setting, class expectations, teacher background, genre knowledge, technical problems, experience with group work, teacher preparation, perception of games, class size, priority issue.

It is concluded that these factors add up to a tremendous workload on teachers that wish to engage with educational computer games and demands that the teacher posses a variety of skills.


Learning, education, barriers, games, computer games, educational, school, teacher, students, history, teaching, Europa Universalis,


The discussion of the educational potential of computer games have raged for more than 30 years, and even longer if we look at non-electronic games. This discussion has been present in the public debate but also with varying degrees of intensity in the research community (Loftus & Loftus, 1983; Greenfield, 1984; Leemkuil, Jong & Ootes, 2000).

This paper will try to approach the use of computer games on a more specific level, describing some of the concrete problems that became apparent in an empirical study carried out over a 2-month period.

Research has to a large extent ignored the more practical and self-evident problems inherit in the use of computer games in educational settings. The discussion has to a large extent been on a high level, where computer games have been approach with very general questions like: Can we learn from computer games? Of course this problem is way to broad. We should instead ask if we could learn in alternative ways, more effectively, and under what circumstances. To achieve this we need to look at the more specific barriers that you experience in an educational setting.


The case that is referred during this paper is an empirical study of history teaching course that lasted 7 weeks. The study consisted of introducing a historical strategy games in history teaching in conjunction with traditional teaching and student group work. The game used was the quite complex commercial historical strategy game Europa Universalis II (Paradox Entertainment, 2001), which all students received a copy of. The study involved two teachers and 86 students aged 16-18 years with an even split on gender. The researcher functioned as technical assistant during most of the 7 weeks due to the teachers’ lack of knowledge about computer games.

The empirical study is described in details elsewhere (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2003).


When researchers and teachers approach computer games there are lots of practical questions that initially cause concern (see Dorn, 1989; Saegesser, 1984) and which were also apparent in my case. In an educational setting the day is split in small segments with each subject having its own allocated time slot. To learn a game, get it started, and get into it you need more than one hour. It is very hard to introduce a game, and then continue the introduction two days later. Most of the students had little recollection of the first introduction and started more or less from scratch with the game tutorials in the next hour. This were not limited to the first steps with the game but continued to be a problem over the weeks. The students played the game on Tuesdays and then were supposed to discuss it Thursdays, however this was not feasible. The game experience was too far away for reflection.
The physical frame also caused problems as the school was not adapted to group work, the computers didn’t work, and there were too few of them. This was despite a month long preparation, where the computer game had been installed and tested. For the first weeks the first 15 minutes were tight up with login problems, bad cd-rom drives, rewired computers, video driver problems, and other technical issues. These problems could be viewed as temporary if we contribute them to the current limited knowledge and usage of information technology in the educational system. It could also be pinched on this specific school. However, the data found on this school is consistent with earlier research on information technology in schools, and this leads me to conclude that the schools problems are representative. The lack of information technology equipment is also a common problem in research and it doesn’t seem to be about to go away. To see the lack of equipment as a temporary problem is dangerous thinking as this may continue to be the situation for many years onwards (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, 2001).

Furthermore, the lack of computers was just one problem. The most severe problem was really that the computer support were to weak, and that students vandalised the computers by for example rewiring monitor, mouse, and keyboard to other computers in they were suppose to. It should therefore not be underestimated that the technical problems will always be an important challenge.


The preparation for this history course was a little different as the researcher took an active part in developing the content. This later proofed to be a problem as the teachers didn’t really get into the computer games, and acquired the necessary knowledge to integrate computer game, group work, and teacher talks.

The success of this teaching course was from the start hampered by the lack of deep knowledge of the game. It was not that the teachers didn’t play the game because they played for several hours. But they didn’t get deep enough into the game to help the students later on. The male teacher did have some experience with strategy game and were more capable of adapting but still he wasn’t really able to fit the game, group work, and teacher talk into a coherent whole. I will return in more detail to this problem.

The preparation phase was also impeded by a general lack of time on the teacher’s account for preparing classes, and problems with installing the computer games, and allocating computer rooms. This is a classic problem in pilot projects but with information technology and computer games it is particularly a problem. The limited number of computers later proved to become a problem that was not solved by simply putting 2-4 students in front of the same computers. The students did not find this set-up to be ideal due to computer games emphasis on an active student role.


Initially I feared that the computer game would be too hard to learn. The game was as complex as strategy games come but this was also the strength of the game. This made is possible to have a richer representation of the historical universe and give the students more options for exploring history dynamics. In the end the game turned out to be too complex for this kind of teaching.
With the tutorial the first problems with the nature of computer games arose: First, there were a large different in how fast the students learned the game. Clearly the students with game experience learned the game much faster, and especially those with prior experience with strategy genre. Not surprisingly most of these were boys. Some students finished the tutorials within the first hour, whereas other 3-4 weeks later still were struggling with basic concepts from the tutorial. This seemed due to a lack of playing at home, where they were expected to play the computer game.

Second, a lot of students, especially the less knowledgeable about strategy games, didn’t find the tutorials necessary. Contrary to the teachers advice they quickly jumped into the scenarios in the game, and where quite overwhelmed. This was not like the games they were used to, where they could quickly overview the possibilities. They wasted a lot of time, and experienced a lot of frustration and though they would never master the game.

Third, the first scenario was constructed in a way that went contrary to normal game experience. The first scenario should show the students that mindless war wouldn’t work and of course they throw themselves into fierce battles instead of careful diplomacy, trade, and development of their nation. Therefore they all lost with a big bang. This made them very frustrated and unsure of the game. Normally a game is constructed so the difficulty slowly increases to match the players increasing skills (Rollings & Adams, 2003). In this case, however the player (students) did not experience a slow increase in difficulty but a very steep learning curve.

All of these experiences support the usage of tutorials but also stress that you should be most careful with, how you change the usage of computer games in an educational setting so the game dynamics and the learning dynamics don’t work against each other. A defeat in the computer game will if it comes to early and to overwhelming not spark curiosity in the students but rather make him give up. The underlying problem in this case was the wish to make the students go through a somewhat similar process. This were naïve and probably also counter intuitive to the game media and the idea of differentiation between students. However for the teachers this was the natural way to go, and also fitted best with the weekly teacher talks that should match the game scenario. If they students were in completely different places in the game, and had experienced completely different things, then how should the teacher be able to make a meaningful and relevant talk.


The teacher has also been identified as a significant resource when information technology is integrated in schools. But they have also been considered one of the main barriers. Dorn (1989) state that the attitude of the teacher towards games influences the outcome, and the teacher’s knowledge and skill in using the game is also an important factor.

The two teachers that participated in this study were different on several parameters, and this proved to have significant bearing on the approach to the course. Below the most important parameters are listed:

Teacher A

Teacher B







IT experience



Game experience






Teaching style

Overall, general

Detailed, thorough

Ambitions for students



Teacher A were on a technical level much better equipped to approach the game and integrate it in the teaching. He relatively quickly learned the game and found it interesting to play the game for long stretches of time. The other teacher after 5 weeks said that “Ah – I am finally beginning to see, how this game can be used for teaching history”. This was when she was familiar enough with the game.

Teacher B was significantly more worried about whether the students received the historical material on detailed enough level. Her ambitions were higher and her approach more sceptical. This was not in a negative way but rather a healthy approach to a new teaching form. She was very much caught up in a prioritisation problem, where she constantly felt that she had too little time to teach the necessary history to the students. She also had several problems with over viewing the class as she had 28 students compared to 19 in the other. This was clearly hard to manage when the students played the game. Some students became somewhat stuck in the game, and here the degree of familiarity with computer games became apparent. One of the things that students clearly found very worthwhile was the interaction with the teacher around the computer game. The students would encounter a problem and discuss it with the teacher that with explain background and challenge their assumptions for example the reasons behind religious unrest in southern France during the start of the 17th century. Here the students interest and motivation where driven by a concrete experience in the computer game.

The teaching style for the two teachers differed in how well a fit they were with the computer game. The more general and overall approach were closer to the game, and therefore to some degree better supported what was happening in the game. On the other hand the more detailed approach was a good supplement to the game that presented the bigger picture. According to the students the integration of background information (textbook and teacher talk) where not integrated well enough. According to some it might as well have been a separate subject. This was probably due to teacher’s lack of knowledge about the game but also a built-in problem of the study. The study was trying to see computer games in a school, on the schools premises. This was clearly not a success. The teacher’s talk and the textbook should be designed in conjunction with the computer game. It should also more clearly be a goal to use examples from the computer game to explain principles and to show, how the actions in the computer games ties in with historical thinking. One example could be to play the troubled years of England in the start of the 17th century, where internal unrest makes England invisible on the European mainland.


This article has concentrated on some of the obstacles in connection with using a commercial strategy game in history teaching. A lot of problems were encountered that one should be aware of when considering computer games for teaching.

Using computer games in an educational setting is hard work, and you as a teacher need to know the game quite well. Furthermore you need to learn at least a large percentage of the students a new game genre, and this is if not a new language then close to.

You need to rethink your teaching style, and how to put together the material you have taught for years in class with group work, and a computer game that in places simplify, and in other places lead to wrong conclusion.

So one may ask is it worth it? Probably not in the short run but I believe that the computer games have something else to offer than other teaching forms in the long run: Namely, a dynamic and rich presentation of a given subject area that you as a student have a chance to engage and challenge through interaction. This is ultimately the way that you need to teach material if it is to have a real impact on students, and not just become superficial knowledge limited to a school context.


  • Dorn, D. S. 1989. Simulation Games: One More Tool On the Pedagogical Shelf. Teaching Sociology Vol. 17:1-18.

  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2001). Digitale udfordringer – informationsteknologi i en skole under forandring. Gyldendal Uddannelse.

  • Egenfeldt-Nielsen, S. (2003). The Educational Potential of Commercial Computer Games in Teaching History.

  • Greenfield, Patricia (1984). Mind and Media. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Leemkuil, Henry, Jong, Ton de & Ootes, Susanne (2000). Review of educational use of games and simulations. Twente: University of Twente.

  • Loftus, Geoffrey & Loftus, Elizabeth (1983). Mind at Play: The Psychology of Video Games. New York; Basic Books.

  • Rollings, A. & Adams, E. (2003). On Game Design. New Riders.

  • Saegesser, Francois (1981). Simulation-Gaming in the Classroom. Some Obstacles and Advantages. Simulation & Games, Vol. 12, No. 3: 281-294.

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