Game-Based Learning

Game-Based Learning Units for the Everyday Teacher

A game-based unit includes structures, themes and mechanisms for trial and error.

September 26, 2011

Game-based learning (GBL) is getting a lot press. It is an innovative practice that is working to engage kids in learning important 21st century skills and content. Dr. Judy Willis in a previous post wrote about the neurological benefits and rationale around using games for learning. She also gives tips about using the game model in the classroom. James Paul Gee has long been a champion for game-based learning in speeches, blogs, and books. Quest to Learn, located in New York City, infuses technology with game-based learning, where entire units utilize missions, boss levels, and the like for learning important standards. Here is the next step: taking these great rationales and examples and making it work for the everyday teacher.

Myths About Game-Based Learning

First, let's clarify a couple things. One common myth about GBL is that it requires high-level technology. Another is that it is simply using games, whether physical or on the web, in the classroom. These ideas are not entirely true. Yes, GBL can be more rockstar when using technology, but it is not a requirement. No, GBL is not simply using games in the classroom. It is about making a rigorous unit of study a robust game, not just one day, where multiple games and challenges are used to explore concepts and learning targets in depth.

Gee refers to teachers as "learning designers," and I couldn't agree more. Teachers are the designers of all the components of the learning environment for students, from the management to the assessment. So here is the question for each educator: How do I design engaging game-based units in my classroom to assess important learning targets?

Inspired by the work I've seen, here is an overview of components and structure for the everyday teacher to implement game-based learning

Overall Structure: Individual Quests and Boss Levels

A game-based learning unit should consist of both smaller quests and more robust boss levels. A quest can be done either individually or collaboratively in groups. These would be your lesson plans where you challenge students to complete tasks that will prepare them for the boss level later in the unit. They may be trying to figure out where to invade an area with their army, or they may be figuring out how they will be able to create an army unit for a battle, who will be in it, what roles will be needed, and how many of each. They may be doing a science lab to figure out who's hand was on the murder weapon. They may be calculating times from interviews that suspects gave in order to see which suspect is most likely to have committed the crime. Again, these are engaging, game activities to have students learn and/or practice using content. Goals for quests can range from searching for resources to destroying something. The learning targets or standards for these quests are usually more individual and targeted, perhaps only a couple targeted standards. These standards for the quest however can be across one-two disciplines, or just in a single discipline. Objectives for the quests should be varied in order to keeps kids engaged in different purposes for learning.

Boss levels are more rigorous missions that require students to synthesize the content and skills learned in the quests. Students work with the teacher to create a capstone project or product that shows all they have learned from the previous quests. Boss Level problems or challenges can either be defined by the teacher or co-defined by the teacher and the student. Perhaps they are creating a crime lab with all the steps and tools needed. Perhaps they are creating a plan for a new emperor of the Roman empire to conquer the world. These boss levels assess and target multiple standards, usually across multiple disciplines, and they are all the standards that were practices in the quests before.

Overall Theme

You may have already noticed that all the quests are related under a thematic idea of question. Whether you call it a guiding or essential question, the intent is to frame the work in a theme. Perhaps they are trying to answer the question: How can we make plans to help the Roman Empire conquer the east? Or: What do police detectives do to solve crimes? Often scenario-based, it creates a challenge for students in a game-based fashion.

Need to Know

Game-Based Learning demands a "need to know" the content. In order to complete quests and boss levels, students will need to learn content and skills to do them. Instead of pre-teaching, the instructor teaches the material or facilitates the learning of material as students are engaged in the quests. The overall theme and mission is presented to the students, along with the quests and boss levels in order to create engagement to accomplish. During the boss level, revision or addition skills may also need to be taught, but again, there is a need to learn those skills and content.

Trial and Error, Timely Feedback and then Success

These challenges in the quests and boss levels demand that students take risks, learn from mistakes and reattempt. Throughout this process, teachers arm them with additional skills needed to be successful. Because students are engaged in multiple trials, teachers give immediate, useful feedback to students. This process of allowing for mistakes goes contrary to much traditional instruction, but gamers know (and yes, I am proud to be one) that the payoff feels great, and accomplishment feels more like genuine accomplishment rather than simply "getting it done." The quests and boss levels that students accomplish end up having real value that students are proud of.


Teachers give experience points, badges and other incentives to keep affirming and rewarding students. Mozilla is in the process of creating a badge tool around 21st century skills, and it is an exciting preview to the potential of badges. I don't know about you, but I do like getting badges and rewards on Foursquare and Empire Avenue. This is all very similar to other video games, where student characters are rewarded better equipment, accolades, and characteristics. Students might get the "Perseverance Rank 1," "Helping a Teammate," or the "Computer Search Term Guru" badge. They might get experience points to use to purchase "virtual equipment" for their avatar. These points aren't actually used in their content grade per say. In fact, students do need grade points to feel rewarded. Students in a GBL unit get rewarded for demonstrated 21st century and other skills through a variety of methods to celebrate all kinds of success and to keep students engaged.


Part of gaming is role-playing. It's exciting for students to take on a persona related to the unit. Are they Spartan warriors? Are they detectives? Are they space explorers for NASA? Students like to pretend, even secondary students. Students like to create. Part of getting them engaged in the persona and unit is allowing them to build on their avatar. They aren't simply creating a character in one day. They build a back story and continue to tell it. They improve their skills with incentives and experience points and/or badges awarded. Just like a role-playing video game, students become someone else, and they learn skills and content through this avatar.

In this blog we went over the overall structures and elements of a GBL unit. In the next blog, we will look at actually planning out GBL unit, using Wiggins and McTighe Backwards Design model. We will see how GBL modifies and build upon this proven model of curriculum and instruction.

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