Do we learn while we play games ? A Study on Tacit knowledge acquisition during Gameplay


The short answer is yes! But then, this is not new . What we also find in this study is that we learn stuff uncounsciously … but can’t really tell. This post briefly introduces results of a study I helped conduct a while ago regarding knowledge acquisition during game play. The full paper is available for download here.


Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), Virtual Worlds, modern FPS games  have a few things in common – they all have have high quality 3D rendered environments, provide immersive experiences and are well .. enjoyable. This enjoyment can be reflected in the enormous amount of time people spend playing these games. However, an important (and old) question arises – are these games useful for more serious endeavors such as learning or knowledge acquisition ? In this research study, the goal was to find out how much information players retain/recall, and also what type of information/knowledge they acquire. To this end, a few novice subjects were allowed to complete tasks within the famous MMOG World of Warcraft and were asked questions related to their participation.  Results show that gaming leads to knowledge acquisition, which is higher for fact-based knowledge than for complex, planning -type
knowledge. The results also indicate that subjects acquire more knowledge than they are able to recall.

Tacit Versus Explicit Knowledge Primer

Generally, knowledge can be divided into two main categories (amongst other classification methods) – explicit and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is the sum of all knowledge that we can easily transfer simply by verbalizing or documenting it. It can be articulated , codified and stored in certain media (e.g books, tapes, disks, etc). For example, the response to the question “what is the primary color of the denvycom blog” can be transmitted by the statement “The blog is colored red” or “The main color on the blog has a color code of #CC0033” . On the other hand, Tacit knowledge is a form of knowledge that cannot be easily verbalized or otherwise explicated, as reflected in the statement “knowing more than one can tell”. For example, the response to “how do I learn to swim” cannot be accurately codified into a set of exhaustive sentences.  Learning to swim requires basic theoretic knowledge of swimming, extended hours spent in the pool (context) and with a trainer(source of knowledge) etc. Tacit knowledge is important, and has been identified by researchers to be a primary source of competitive advantage.

Experiment Settings

Within this study, we gave subjects a few tasks to complete within the WoW game environment. After that, we generated a set of questions that would test how much recall they have regarding the tasks they performed. We tried to simulate simple or tacit kind of knowledge by asking questions on with various levels of complexity. 35 subjects, recruited through advertising and word-of-mouth, participated in the experiment. Subjects, all students at a major university, were rewarded for their participation through cash coupons worth US$7 each. Subjects were informed of normal experimental procedures, including preservation of their anonymity in data reporting, and their right to withdraw at any time. All subjects were (self-declared) novices in the use of WoW. Approximately 1/3 were women, 2/3 men. Subjects were randomly allocated to treatment groups.

The overall logic of the experiment required subjects to complete tasks within World of Warcraft, followed by answering skill questions about the tasks and the game in questionnaire format. Groups 1 and 2 differed in that the first group carried out the initial task “chauffeured”, watching an experimenter completing the exercise. During the chauffeured portion, the experimenter would complete Task 1, while voicing out actions such as “I am pressing the  left mouse button”, so as to express the factual experience in words, but without explaining deeper aspects of the
game, thus not revealing any significant knowledge.

All subjects were asked to complete the same tasks (Task 1 and Task 2). For Task 1, subjects assumed a Level 1 character and carried out quests at that level. Task 2 also required questing, but at a higher difficulty level (more complex quest). Subjects were closely monitored by experimenters, who measured the time taken to complete parts
of the exercise, such as returning from a task back to their home base. Post-experiment questions were mostly multiple choice and of the following nature: “How did you interact with a Quest-Giver Character to accept or complete a quest? (Select all that apply) [Answer options: By approaching it|By clicking on it|By running beside it|By jumping through it]”. For multiple choice questions, a score of 1 was given if the correct options were chosen
and 0.5 if some correct answers were chosen. 0.5 was also given if a mix of correct and wrong options was chosen. Other answers were simply marked 1.0 (right) or 0.0 (wrong).

Result Summary.


The table above shows knowledge recall values for participants. It shows values for simple knowledge recall, complex knowledge recall and t-test of difference statistics.

To an extent, results empirically show that aside from the entertainment value
derived from playing games, players are able to retain knowledge. This level of knowledge acquisition and recall varies with knowledge complexity. Not only are people able to succeed in complex quests, they also seem to recall quest related knowledge at a level of about 80% for simple, factual knowledge, and 55% for complex, conceptual and planning knowledge. Next, our results shows that while people play games they are able to acquire knowledge that falls within the tacit spectrum. This also demonstrates that gaming offers opportunity to practice skills that involve the ability to learn through experience, non-verbal cues and observing the effects of actions, without subjects always clearly realizing that they do. At a more granular level, we realize that an initial period of chauffeuring aids task completion but not explicit knowledge acquisition.

Full Paper Link and Citation.

You may cite the paper as follows

Wagner, C., & Dibia, V. (2013). Exploring the effectiveness of online role-play gaming in the acquisition of complex and tacit knowledge. Issues in Information Systems, 14(2), 367–374. Retrieved from

You can download the full paper here .


About Vykthur

Mobile and Web App Developer and Researcher. Passionate about learning, teaching, and recently - writing.
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  • Antonia Anni

    This is interesting to me as I’m currently developing a play + learning concept game, will be reading more this. Thanks.

    • Vykthur

      Hi Antonia,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad this article was of help to you. Play + Learning games are awesome! Feel free to share you progess soon! Best wishes!