Game-Based Learning

Get Your Game On: How to Build Curriculum Units Using the Video Game Model

October 17, 2011

In the last post I wrote, I explained many of the important elements in a game-based learning unit. GBL continues to get national press. Game design company Valve is working on digital learning in partnership with the White House. Mashable just touted in a post that "Education needs to get its game on." I couldn't agree more!

I promised to give some tips on how to make one of the units in your teacher bag of tricks into a game-based unit. Before I move forward with that, I need to clarify a couple terms: game-based learning and "gamification." Gamification is the process of applying game design principles into another field. Game-based learning is the process of using games to teach content, critical thinking, and other important outcomes. When you make a game-based learning unit, you are doing both. The entire unit, as well as the individual missions and boss levels, are gamified. They contain important principles of game design. In addition, the individual mission, quests or boss levels can be games themselves. So to summarize, what you are doing when you are creating a game-based learning unit you are not only apply overall principles of game design, but you are also using individual games.

In order to help you create your own unit, I'm going to be using an already proven effective unit by Quest to Learn from their website. So how do you start?

Begin with the End In Mind

No surprises here. You must use the Understanding By Design principles to effectively plan the GBL unit. Think about the enduring understands, learning targets, standards etc, that you want students to target and achieve by the end of the unit. GBL Units are often interdisciplinary, and target standards from a variety of subjects. For this unit the standards targeted and content knowledge are:

Social Studies

  • Interpret, analyze and evaluate different forms of evidence and determine which pieces are most convincing.
  • Apply evidence to support a theory of action (war, neutrality, or diplomacy), and understand how the choice of action affects systems.


  • Write and deliver a persuasive oral report in the format of a policy brief.
  • Use the writing process to develop and revise their writing.
  • Read, respond to, critique and discuss a variety of fiction and nonfiction texts.

Digital Media

  • Select an appropriate tool for research and presentation.


  • Specific historic events that help us understand why Athens and Sparta developed uniquely different cultures within the same area during the same time period (e.g., Messenian Wars, Peisistratos grants rights to the poor, Thermopylae, Salamis, etc.).
  • The advantages and disadvantages of all the 3 resolution strategies (War, Diplomacy, Neutrality).
  • How to synthesize key information about the daily life, social and political organization, culture, religious beliefs, economic systems, use of land and resources, development of science and technology of Ancient Greece.

In addition, making sure to create a driving question that summarizes the game and its purpose or include essential questions. They list essential questions such as "How do the actions of one society impact other societies?" and "How can a system function within a larger system?" For a DQ I would suggest "How can we convince the Spartan Council of Elders the best course of action to take?" or something related to the objective and purpose. This leads to the next step.

Brainstorm a Rigorous Scenario

This could be your "boss level." Your boss level needs to require students to synthesize the content they will learn from the other quests without the unit. In this case, the students will be presenting to a council of elders about war strategies that will be beneficial to Sparta. They will work in teams to critically think and collaborate as they gather evidence, consider different points of view, and ultimately come up with the best possible answer in a fictitious scenario. You will see major similarities here to PBL, but the difference here is that there is a focus on a scenario rather than an authentic current situation. This scenario is the major summative assessment, and as you can see will show that the standards and content have been learned. As you come up with this scenario, you may add or remove standards to meet the needs of the "boss level." This scenario is also the whole frame of the unit, where all quests fit within the structure and theme.

Design Quests

Consider these quests your individual lessons and learning activities, some that you already have, some that you may need to create, some that you may need to steal! (Remember, it's ok to steal.) Look at the skills, content and standards to craft quests to arm students with what they will need to be successful for the boss level. In these quests, you may have some modeling, direct instruction and other teacher driven activities, but make sure think outside the box in terms of what the goal of the quest could be. Yes, the major objective is to accomplish learning, but what is the more game-based learning goal? In one of their core documents about their work with Quest to Learn, the Institute of Play articulates the plethora of quests you could create as a teacher. These include:

  • Collect Quest Goal is to collect/harvest x resources.
  • Puzzle Quest Goal is to solve a problem (might also be called a Code Cracker Quest).
  • Share Quest Goal is to share x resources.
  • Drama Quest Goal is to enact a system or behavior.
  • Conquest Goal is to capture a territory or resource.
  • Spy or Scout Quest Goal is to observe and gather information and report back.
  • Research Quest Research a question and return with the answer. This research might take any number of forms, from questioning friends and teachers for viewpoints to reading and more.

From this you can see how easy these quests can align to the activities and learning tasks you probably already have as a teacher. Now you just need to modify them to fit within the overall challenge and scenario of the GBL unit.

Don't Forget!

The quests, boss levels and content explained in this blog here must also include the core tenants of Game Based Learning from my last blog. Students need to be able to tinker and fail, and then get back up again. Students should be given incentives like badges and rewards for their avatar. Students should role play as characters in the scenario of the unit. When you create an engaging and fun game, it will create a "need to know" the content and allow for the inquiry process. Now get your game on and gamify the learning for your students!

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  • English Language Arts
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