George Lucas Educational Foundation
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You want students to learn. Shall we play a game?


But what is a game?

Game: a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.

Is Game-Based Learning the Same as Gamification?

Not exactly. Gamification is "applying typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity." Great classrooms often use both.

Every day in my classroom, I'm using the essentials: gamification elements, reward systems, and game-based learning. I've already covered 5 Ways to Design Effective Rewards for Game-Based Learning. Let's learn how to pick the games.

Understanding Games

Powerful games in the classroom often include:

  • Multiple levels or challenges
  • A compelling or intriguing storyline
  • A personalized, unique experience for each learner
  • Rewards such as unlocking certain capabilities based upon achievements
  • Additional rewards and feedback from the teacher or classroom.

Tools to Analyze Game-Based Learning

As you choose games, you'll want to mix up the games you use. These tools will help you analyze which works for you.

Computer Games vs. Simulations

Computer games are often fantasy based. Simulations are a form of computer game that simulates something happening in real life. Both are useful.

A simulation might have students dissect a body online, while a computer game that teaches the same thing would be Whack a Bone. Both can teach the bones and parts of the body. Dissection is more realistic than the game to "whack" the proper bone.

Single- vs. Multi-Player

In a single-player game, each student plays as an individual. There may be a leaderboard at the end, but they aren’t playing against or with other players inside the game.

Multi-player games include other players as either competitors or teammates.

For example, the AIC Conflict Simulation from the University of Michigan is a multi-player simulation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Students play the role of world leaders, and their mentors are grad students at the University of Michigan. Every single game is unique. The learning experience is powerful.

A single-player game, PeaceMaker, also simulates the Arab-Israeli conflict -- however, it's just the student against the computer. There are no unique elements determined by other players in the game, just the software.

Single-player games can be easier to play and coach, but I've gravitated toward at least one multi-player simulation per school year per course. Multi-player simulation environments require higher-order thinking. Students are analyzing, creating, and having to deeply understand their topic.

One of my favorite methods to amp up single-player games is creating teams. For example, using the typing speeds of my students, I create teams with the same average typing speed. These evenly-matched teams play their favorite typing game, Baron von Typefast. We add up all the scores, and the winning team receives a medal (as I play Olympic music). I've seen my eighth graders wear these all day long!

One-Time vs. Persistent Games

One-time games make fun bell ringers. Every time a student logs in, he or she starts over. A persistent game is a permanent game environment where the student achieves over multiple playing sessions.

Right now, my ninth graders are participating in the H&R Block Budget Challenge. In this persistent game, they have to create a budget, pay bills, and save money on the salary of a person who is just six months out of college. It goes along with the real calendar and will last from October through December. (Students can win real cash scholarships, which makes it even more intense.) If you coach a persistent game well, the game itself becomes the reward.

While students are playing the simulation game, I am still teaching with one-time games. This week I used a Tax Bingo game where students fill a bingo card by getting answers from their classmates. (Think of it as a massive think-pair-share.)

Real-Life vs. Electronic Gaming

You can game in the physical classroom. Some gamers call this RL (real life) or IRL (in real life). For example, I invented an accounting game to use with a physical Monopoly board. As my students entered debits and credits, they produced financial documents. While electronic games are fast and easy, the physical classroom is a powerful place to use game-based learning.

Thematic Games with a Storyline

Some teachers like Michael Matera are using game-based learning every day. Every student is in a "house" or "clan," and these groups compete for points all year long. (See Gamification in Education for more about this model.)

Preparation vs. On-the-Fly Game Play

Some formative assessment tools or games like Kahoot! require some preparation ahead of time. Socrative, another formative assessment tool with built-in games, has some "on-the-fly" tools that let teachers ask for answers without preparation.

Feedback vs. No Feedback

Teachers need data on gaps in knowledge. Many of today's educational "games" have no feedback for parents or teachers. Look for games with good teacher feedback systems.

Where Do I Find the Games?

If you want to find great games, I recommend the Gamifi-ed wiki that my ninth graders compiled with the Master's program students from the University of Alaska Southeast. (As an aside, we found a major disconnect between recommendations by app stores and the games that are actually the best for learning.)

Additionally, sites like Common Sense Media and Free Technology for Teachers are always featuring new games and simulations.

Game-Based Learning

Games have always been in the classroom, but improvements in technology have launched us forward. Not all games are alike, so be smart -- but GAME ON!

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Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Vicki,
Thank you for sharing this excellent guide - you've explained the terms that teachers will come across in such an easy and straightforward way.

I just wanted to add that I've found open-ended games- the ones that require students to do more than complete a single goal, or allow students to achieve the goal in a lot of different ways, or even have no goal at all, but allow students to pursue their own interests - can be incredibly powerful tools for drawing students into deep learning.

Lim Chuwei's picture

This seems to be quite dangerous, until we have some quality games to help our students grasp meaningful stuff. And since we hardly have such games right now, we should better concentrate more on enhancing our traditional means of teaching and learning.

Niharika Bollapragada's picture

Firstly the thought of associating learning through gaming is very interesting as it attracts lot of students to cheerfully participate in these activities and also learn new things while not get bored throughout the learning process. Also, among the various tools that are being presented for game based learning I think multi-player gaming is very useful as it involves some collaboration among students during the game which in-turn supports learning through collaboration. Persistent gaming is also very interesting as students keep passing through various levels of the games which kind of get students spend longer times with them, while at the same time helping them with learning new things.The game which came into my mind as I was going through the article is the one called 2048 which in a way lets students learn some multiplications and simple math while a player keeps passing various levels through the game.

kbrown's picture

Vicki, thank you so much for both of these articles. I found them to be very interesting and informative. I teach in a county that has decided to give all students in grades 4-12 an individual iPad. Being someone who is still fairly new to teaching and still working on developing my own style, added with moving to a new school, grade level, and content area, incorporating the iPad initiative has been quite an experience. I appreciate the way you have clarified the terms that have made some of this difficult. Your rewards were very creative and I would love to incorporate more than one of them in to my classroom. Lastly, thank you so much for all of the resources you have provided that will be of tremendous help to me throughout this new adventure in technology I am currently on!

MattS's picture

Vicki, thank you for the articles on game based learning. As a teacher for students with emotional impairments I'm always looking for ideas to engage my students in the subjects I teach. I'm especially interested in incorporating more technology into my lessons. I will definitely look into some of your suggestions and try them out.

Rohit Shambhuni's picture

Niharika, I agree with your view of having multi-player gaming in online learning. One application I could think of is, QuizUp. This game is incredibly addictive, covers a diverse set of topics and is a great example of a mobile app that could supplement online learning. The concept of competing against another user itself is very interesting and would draw a large number of users. Also, it supports both the Android and iOS plaforms.

So, designing these kinds of apps would definitely aid online learning of an individual.

Sumanth Dwarakinath's picture

Integration of learning in a gaming environment is a good approach to capture the student's attention to perform some learning activity. By making the learning process through achieving milestones in the game, not only are you making the student engrossed in thinking about the subject, you are in turn retaining the focus and the attention level of the student on that subject for a long time through incorporating your concepts in a game. This is a big challenge to instructors who fail to retain the student's attention for significant amount of time. By making a level of the game that involves learning a crucial topic harder, you make the student play that level more number of times so that the repetitiveness of questions and different hints will actually help him get that concept perfectly.

Anil Kuncham's picture

The concept of multi player gaming will be great fit for collaborative learning. When multiple players try to solve a puzzle using the collaborative tools provided knowledge centric learning happens. Each student will become a help giver and a help seeker. In multi player environment student will get to learn better and correct his concepts learning from others. The score should be distributed for correctness and helping others to learn. And real time gaming would be more apt because that strongly supports collaboration among students. If a student gets to react on something in a later point in time, they loose track of things and tend to loose the spirit of gaming. So collaborative learning will happen in multp player and real time mode of gaming.

Gregg Sinner's picture
Gregg Sinner, Senior School Change Coach

Greetings from snowy New England! Is anyone using game-based assessments for credit toward graduation in middle/high schools? Am currently working with schools in implementing inquiry-based learning and competency-based assessments.

Thank you very much!
Gregg Sinner, PhD
Chair, Performance Assessment Review Board, NENPP Project
Senior School Change Coach
Center for Secondary School Redesign

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