George Lucas Educational Foundation
Game-Based Learning

A Guide to Game-Based Learning

A quick look at game modalities can help you approach game-based learning via single- or multiplayer, one-time or persistent, game or simulation . . .

October 13, 2014
Photo credit: Institute of Play

You want students to learn. Shall we play a game?


But what is a game?

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!

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Game-Based Learning
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Technology Integration

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use

George Lucas Educational Foundation

Edutopia is a free source of information, inspiration, and practical strategies for learning and teaching in preK-12 education. We are published by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.