Game-based Learning: Bringing Instruction to Life

–Dr. Rebecca M. Reese–

In the preceding edition, I explained Game Theory and some of the underlying theories which support this method of learning. Game-based learning offers a variety of means to increase motivation and learning events within informal and formal activities. Before we move on, it is important to clarify a couple of terms: game-based learning and gamification. Game-based learning (GBL) is the process of using games to teach content, critical thinking, and other outcomes. Gamification is the process of applying elements of game play and game principles outside a gaming context.

Characterizing Good Game-based Learning Environments

When you create a game-based learning (GBL) unit or module, you are not only applying the overall principles of game design, but also individual games within the content. To effectively plan GBL, you must begin with a result in mind. In other words, think about the learning objectives and competencies that you want learners to achieve by the end of the unit or module. Next, identify essential questions which allows the learners to summarize the content (e.g. How can a system function within a larger system? How do the actions of one society impact other societies?). These questions and actions form the major summative assessments, which are indicators that the objectives and content of the course have been learned. The final step is to design the activity. This could be as simple as developing a webquest. The quests becomes the individual lessons or learning activities which informs or instructs the learner about the content.

Linked to the general principles of how we learn are more specific principles that describe how we learn in the context of effective game environments. James Paul Gee, in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003), identified 36 learning principles that well-designed games embody. Following are four:

Subset Principle: Learning, even at its start, takes place in a (simplified) subset of the real domain. For example, the setting for the loading dock game should represent an actual loading dock so that players can easily map their in-game behavior to on-the-job performance. However, it must be a simplified version that omits unimportant details, so that players can focus on aspects of the simulation that are relevant to the learning objective – things like crosswalks and pedestrians.

  • Active, Critical Learning Principle: The learning environment must encourage active and critical, not passive, learning. In the loading dock example, this means players do not merely watch correct and incorrect examples of loading dock behavior followed by a quiz – they actually think, act, experience consequences and pursue goals in a variable game environment.
  • Probing Principle: Learning is a cycle of probing the world (doing something); reflecting on this action and, on this basis, forming a hypothesis; re-probing the world to test the hypothesis; and then accepting or rethinking the hypothesis. For example, an effective loading dock game must present a functional environment in which players may choose from and evaluate many different actions. The goal is to find the right course of action via experimentation – making choices and experiencing the consequences.
  • Practice Principle: Learners get lots of practice in a context where the practice is not boring (i.e. in a virtual world that is compelling to learners on their own terms and where the learners experience ongoing success). For example, to encourage practice – and thus, development of good habits – the loading dock game must gradually increase the difficulty level of the in-game challenges. This keeps players engaged and encourages them to continually hone their skills.

Why Game-based Learning?

Digital learning tools are becoming increasingly accessible and easy to use (see below, Website Resources). Numerous studies on the use and effects of GBL in education/training support the idea that GBL: increases motivation, presents active learning opportunities, affords learners the opportunity to learn from mistakes, and offers more immediate feedback about performance. With research validation on effectiveness of GBL vs. traditional, passive learning approaches, many organizations and institutions have adopted this newer method or pedagogy for learning. There are two factors driving this adoption

 The Changing Workforce

People habitually divide their attention among several things at once. Competition for the fractured attentions of trainees, learners and audiences in general is tougher than it’s ever been. For example, in a study by the Pew Research Center (2014) 72% of survey participants (N=865) said they check email during business meetings. In addition, 47% of those working 40 hours a week reported consistent internet use aw work. In this technology driven environment, unidirectional training and communication approaches such as lectures, manuals, workbooks, videos, and online, click-through reading material can quickly “lose” their preoccupied target audiences.

The chronic problem of how to win learners’ attention in order to teach has become important. Digital games that are well-designed/developed, complete with realistic settings and compelling narratives, are comparable to adventure novels like Robinson Crusoe of previous generations. When used for learning, well-designed games are able to lessen distractions and engage learners in a way that few other methods can. As a result, more and more organizations are seeing how funding highly engaging game-based approaches will increase ROI.

Technological Advances

Formerly, game-based learning environments were prohibitively expensive for most organizations and individuals. Traditional game- and simulation-based learning applications typically entailed mainframes, special interface equipment, and a years-long design, development and implementation process. Only a few areas – particularly, aviation and the military – were capable of justifying the costs associated with game development. More recently, health care organizations and medical schools have developed games and simulations, and practice on these tools is now encouraged or even required. For example, the FDA now requires virtual reality training for placement of some stent operations, and many medical schools have established centers dedicated to simulation training. These virtual ‘procedures’ provide practitioners with the opportunity for a ‘hands-on’ style experience.

Today, game-based learning is accessible in education and other industries, for three key reasons:

  • The success of game- and simulation-based learning in other industries provides a powerful proof-of-concept, and an endorsement of learning effectiveness.
  • The development of stable, flexible game engines and toolkits are driving down the cost of development and reducing the need for 100% custom, from-scratch application development.
  • A growing number of research studies have amassed a significant amount of knowledge regarding what works and what doesn’t.

GBL and gamification often overlap and both want the same thing: learner engagement. They require learners to critically think about the content as well as employ 21st century skills. Regardless of which method you use, GBL or gamification, a paradigm shift for you as educator, from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’ must occur. When you create an engaging game, it will create a ‘need to know’ attitude with learners. For more information about GBL and gamification, see the video resources below. For ideas on modifying your course(s) or activities to include GBL or gamification, please contact the Center for Learning Technologies. We’re here to help!


Video Resources:

Gaming for understanding – video, approx. 9:20 minutes, transcript available

What defines Gamification and Game-based learning? – video, approx. 2:20 minutes, CC

Power of Game-based learning (Big Thinker Series) – video, approx. 7:10 minutes, CC

Website Resources:

iCivics: This site offers different activities related to civics, and encourages learners to actively participate.

Bridge Constructor: This is great for teaching the physics of forces and could easily be paired with assignments about the students’ own community.

3dGameLab: This is a quest-based learning platform where learners can complete quests and earn rewards/badges all in a MMORPG environment.

ClassBadges: A free online tool where learners can be awarded badges for academic accomplishments.

PsychNet-UK: Great list of psychology related games for all age groups.

BBC Science – Human Body and Mind: Collection of games and interactive activities to explore the human body and mind.


Bourgonjon, J., Vandermeersche, G., De Wever, B., Soetaert, R., & Valcke, M. (2015). Players’ perspectives on the positive impact of video games: A qualitative content analysis of online forum discussions. New Media & Society.

Gee, J. P. (2014). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Macmillan.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. Penguin.

Prensky, M. (2001) Fun, play, and games: What makes games engaging. Digital Game-based Learning, 5, pp 1-5.

Sheldon, L. (2011). The multiplayer classroom: Designing coursework as a game. Cengage Learning.



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