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Game-Based Learning

3 Ways to Use Game-Based Learning

There are several strategies for gamifying your classwork, and they’re not mutually exclusive—you can combine them.
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What exactly is game-based learning, anyway? Is it a roomful of children playing video games? Is it students designing games? Or is it both of these?

Good games—as opposed to candy-coated, multiple-choice quiz games—provide immersive experiences for students. Like novels, films, plays, and other media, games can be high-quality materials a teacher uses to enable students to access the curriculum. In my research, classrooms with high-functioning game-based learning are not ones in which the teacher hands a game to students to play. Nor do the teachers gamify their rooms, turning them into a game. Instead, effective game-based classrooms involve each of these components. Students are provided with gameful learning experiences driven by play.

The following are three approaches to bringing game-based learning to your classroom. They’re not distinct from one another—try mixing two or all three.

Games as Shared Experience

While on an iCivics panel at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in 2015, Benjamin Stokes compared the experience of playing games to taking a class on a field trip. With a field trip, you first let students know what to expect and then give them freedom to explore an out-of-school location. Back in the classroom, you facilitate connections to the curriculum.

Games, like field trips, provide meaning for students. I put students in Minecraft and have them build structures. When night comes and creepers attack, only the students who stayed in fortified structures survive. After play, we discuss the difficulties of setting up a colony in a hostile environment, like Jamestown. Students understand the dangers of settling new worlds because they have experienced them.

Games as Text

Some games use player choice to tell a story. Examples include Firewatch, an open-world game about being a park ranger; Life Is Strange, an emotional tale of friendships and bullying at a private school; Her Story, a nonlinear, police procedural whodunit; and 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a political thriller set in the Iranian Revolution. Each game tells a story. 2017 will bring even more narrative-driven games, like Walden, a Game, based on Henry David Thoreau’s book, and Ever, Jane, a multiplayer game that takes place in the universe of Jane Austen. (As with all commercial media, research first to find out appropriateness for your learners.)

Many books and movies use the hero’s journey template to tell a story. Examples range from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games to Star Wars. Games also use the hero’s journey. Have your class play the award-winning Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, a fairy tale that relies on cooperative play; Never Alone, based on an Alaska Native folktale; or Journey, which puts players on the monomyth quest.

To assess learning when using a game as a text, use Office 365 or Google Docs. English literature teacher Paul Darvasi has his students play the point-and-click exploration game Gone Home, which is about a dysfunctional family. Set in 1995, the game uses literary devices like mood, tone, and theme. He has students take screenshots as evidence, and add them to a shared document. Collected screenshots later lead to projects like comparing reviews and then writing their own.

Games as Models

Games are particularly useful to model real-world systems. I have students play Werewolf and discuss different actions that mirror the events of the Salem witch trials, McCarthyism, and other witch hunts. I also have students play the board game Pandemic, as well as the mobile game Plague, Inc. These games illustrate how diseases travel the interconnected networks of the world. Students learn how the bubonic plague traveled along the Silk Road. The games model causes that have effects, which have subsequent effects—thus the game teaches the 21st-century skill of systems thinking.

To go further, give students an opportunity to mod the games you use as models. I have students play Mission US for a bit. Rather than depend on the game to create a sense of historical empathy in students, I ask them to create experiences using free interactive fiction tools, like Inklewriter or Twine, to make their own choice-based stories. Remaking a game to be about different content is engaging, and it gives students a sense of agency, affording an opportunity for deeper learning.

The Game Is Not the Teacher

When using games in your classroom, remember that the game is not the teacher—you are. The game is just an activity. When using games, try to avoid intervening when students are figuring something out. This affords students the opportunity to play with games as systems. And do not grade play; instead, assess the learning transfer that you facilitate from the game experience to the curriculum.

In what ways have you used games to deepen your students’ learning experiences? Please share in the comments below.

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Dave Dodgson's picture
Dave Dodgson
An ESL/ELL teacher and DGBL enthusiast at the British Council in Bahrain.

Thank you for sharing this post!

A lot of this chimes with my current thoughts on using digital games with language learners. When I started, I tried to superimpose 'traditional' learning activities onto games, doing things like have students describe their in-game avatars or compare game locations.

However, I have recently gone beyond that looking at the idea of shared experiences and games as text. My last two teaching jobs have been in countries with very hot climates and I have used "The Long Dark" to allow my students to experience survival in the arctic wilderness before using the game as inspiration for their own texts as they write journal entries and collaborate to produce lists of survival tips (in both cases, we have had a running theme of survival stories). They really get a lot out of being able to 'live' the experience which they expected to then relate to in their assignments.

Thanks again for sharing.

Arthur Wohlwill's picture

I have recently developed a game that is applicable to many subjects. In this game, one student is given a short article to read. The student then describes the article to a group of three or four other students. The first student then leaves the room and the remaining students are given some questions to answer about the article. Each group of students competes as a team to see who gets the highest score. This can be quite a challenge, but the teams seem to enjoy the challenge.

TGeorge1181's picture

This is cool because I have just done a project that talks about game-based learning. Online games increases student engagement while giving them access to the curriculum in a variety of ways. I like the idea that "The Game is NOT the teacher" because there are a lot of teachers that rely on this concept but I also like the fact that you mentioned that teachers should not intervene when students are trying to figure something out.

Shaun McMillan's picture
Shaun McMillan
Professional Web Designer, Bible Study Lecturer, College Art Instructor, high school teacher, and Game Design teacher.

I designed ALLIANCE, a political science megagame together with my students modeled after John Hunter's world peace game. Up to 72 students role play as world leaders of 20 nation teams and are given 4 hours or multiple class periods to solve a series of overlapping geopolitical crises. They all play simultaneously over the course of 8 game days. They learn so much so fast that it sometimes takes 30 minutes just to debrief one student on what happened during their game and how their strategies worked out, even if I was there. I'm also a graphic designer so I am releasing a reproduction so that other teachers can try it out and add their own simulated crises. If any teachers want to try it visit

It's really important that we utilize a variety of game based learning strategies, but we shouldn't just gamify or play games. The act of making and modifying games is actually one of the most most rewarding challenges students can engage in. As I tell my students, making puzzles is the greatest puzzle of all.

Rob Hagen's picture

Games are particularly useful to model real-world systems. I couldn't agree more. Especially when you mentioned "Pandemic" as one of the examples.

As a matter of fact, the mechanics that popular board game in particular inspired me once to design a game that proved very helpful in addressing issues like team building, communication and role awareness. The main features:
1) 4 teams (1 to 4 players each) are challenged to develop strategies on each of the 4 sets of 12 themes that are displayed on corners of the game board. At the start of the game it may seem that the teams are opponents, but actually there is no reason for them not to co-operate with other teams in order to achieve the final goal: 4 strategies.
2) During the game colored cubes ("problems") are, almost randomly, added to all 48 themes (displayed as interconnected small circles). If the total number of cubes for any theme exceeds 3, "trouble" occurs, giving rise to a chain reaction of even more "problems".
3) At each turn teams must choose their approach carefully. Lots of "problems" may require immediate interventions, while strategies may be more effective in the long run. Every team has one unique quality, a property that supports a more effective way to achieve either short or long term goals.
4) If teams manage to develop 4 strategies, they win the game. If "trouble" happens too many times, all of the teams lose the game.

One of the attractive parts of this game is that it can be adapted to any situation. Those marks on the board that I call "themes", can be replaced by "projects", "locations" or "enterprises" if that offers you a closer resemblance to real concepts in your work environment.

Similarly, you can also change Pandemic's world map into an overview of your company with its four business units. And you can allocate team qualities to existing jobs.

Options to evaluate this game are numerous, providing valuable feedback at team, interpersonal and personal level.

Desiderio Villalobos's picture

I have been interested in learning how to implement games into my classroom and I think you draw a valid point that I hadn't considered to this point. Most, if not all games can be used as teaching tools. Of course, some games will be more effective than others, but I think this because games are, at least in part, based in reality where to objective is to solve a problem. Relating this "problem" to curriculum may prove to be an effective engagement strategy. Most importantly though is your last point; we should not use games to teach, but as tools to be more effective in our teaching.

Pravin N's picture

Game-based learning is a teaching approach where the learners explore the relevant aspect of games in a learning context designed by teachers.
Benefits of Game-Based Learning:
1. It helps in motivating and influencing the learners in a positive way.
2. It helps in providing context and engaging the learners.
3. It helps in rememorizing the concepts in a fun way.
4. It reinforces and consolidates the knowledge in a friendly environment.

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