The Effects of Autonomy on Emotions and Learning in Game-Based Learning Environments

Abstract:  The current study examined the impact of agency on college students’ emotions and learning during gameplay with CRYSTAL ISLAND, a game-based learning environment designed to foster microbiology learning. 96 undergraduate students (59% female) from a large North American university participated in the study. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three experimental conditions (i.e., full agency, partial agency, no agency), based on the level of control granted during gameplay, and were asked to uncover the source, identity, and best treatment for a mysterious illness. Results revealed participants in the partial agency condition achieved the highest (pre- to post-test) proportional learning gain (PLG), even when controlling for session duration. Additionally, there was a positive correlation between evidence scores of four emotions (anger, fear, confusion, and frustration) and PLG within the partial agency condition—meaning the higher the evidence of the above emotions, the higher the PLG. Further, a stepwise multiple regression showed anger as the sole predictor of PLG. Results from this study have important implications for understanding the role of autonomy and emotions during learning and problem solving with GBLEs designed to foster scientific thinking in STEM. The current study suggests that although GBLEs offer significant learning benefits, they also induce several emotions that can facilitate or inhibit learning gains, requiring further examination.


  • Human Agency
  • Emotions
  • Learning
  • Game-based learning environments
  • Science

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