Michele D. Dickey on How Engagement Strategies in Popular Computer and Video Games Can Inform Instructional Strategy

NOTE: This is the most relevant and illuminating article I’ve encountered thus far while working on an annotated bibliography for my KAM about using video games as constructivist learning environments. She cites many of the writers I have written about, including Jenkins, Jonassen, Prensky, and Squire. Naturally, I also intend to answer Dickey’s call for more research.

Dickey (2005) discussed ways in which “the strategies of design which lead to engagement” (p. 67) in video games might by put to use by instructional designers. The article opens with a brief review of literature followed by a discussion of her theoretical framework, which is explicitly drawing on “both constrictivist and cognitive research” (p. 70).

Dickey then began her discussion of games and engagement with an exploration of player positioning, or Point of View (POV), which lead to an investigation of the use of narrative or story telling as an engaging element of games. This covered such devices as plot-based narrative, character-based narrative, backstory, and cut scenes, which can serve as “information dumps” (p. 74) for the player. As she considered the relevance these strategies held for instructional design she described a compelling vision of how non-linear narrative might be incorporated into learning activities.

The discussion of narrative lead to a discussion of setting and characters. Dickey pointed out that “the use of role playing is not novel to instructional design” (p. 76) and discussed ways in which the “refined techniques and strategies for developing complex characters” (p. 76) developed by game designers might be of value to instructional designers. With game designers, “importance is placed on the creation of compelling characters with which players not only empathize, but whose roles they are also willing to assume” (p. 76), and Dickey shared several specific techniques for accomplishing this which might be adapted for educational purposes.

The final discussion revolved around the interactive elements of actions, feedback, and affordances. Game designers simply call these hooks, “anything that requires the player to make a decision that relates to the game, and thus keeps them playing” (Howland, 2002, 78, as cited in Dickey, 2005, p. 77). Such hooks “may also provide instructional designers with methods for creating engaging learning environments” (p. 77).

Dickey also offers two helpful tables for instructional designers interested in incorporating game design elements into instruction. Table 1 is a comparison of engaged learning and game design elements. Table 2 provides several design questions for integrating game design strategies to support learning activities (p. 79).

Throughout the article, Dickey gives special attention to the importance of multiplayer games. The pinnacle of her literature review was a discussion of massively multi-player online games (MMOGs). These resurfaced in her discussion of narrative as she pointed out that “with the evolution of MMOGs, players now have the opportunity to create their own narrative experiences both within the gameplay environment and with interactions external to the gamespace” (p. 73), and again in her discussion of setting when she mentioned the elaborate setting of the popular MMOG EverQuest. Of course character generation is also an important element in most MMOGs which are also Role Playing Games.

Dickey concluded the article with a call for more research, both in the design of constructivist learning environments and in “the opportunities new interactive media may provide in fostering learning” (p. 80).


Dickey, M. D. (2005). Engaging by design: how engagement strategies in popular video games can inform instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development. 53 (2) 67-83. Association for Educational Communications & Technology.