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Exploring Game-Based Learning

For the last two weeks, I have worked with on a team of fellow doctoral students on a game to explore the themes of turbulence, equity, justice, and empathy. We began by playing Rockville, a game that began with us developing our own avatars and ultimately competing for a fictional scholarship. This simple element led to a deeper sense of identification with the character. For me, the character of Julio felt real (perhaps because he reminded me of so many of my former students).

Afterward, we met in teams of 4-5 to design our own game that would teach the concepts and ideas within our course. Note that this wasn’t a trivia review game so much as an immersive experience where participants would learn the concepts through the gameplay. In our case, we also wanted to see them experience a new perspective and gain empathy (a critical idea in design thinking). It helped that we had a member on our team who had both experiential and academic knowledge on equity and diversity, so she brought up critical questions that helped us explore potential biases.

We began with a user-focused exploration and then moved into ideation fairly quickly and chose Sabotage Island as our concept:

Sabotage Island begins with the premise that two teams are stranded and need to figure out how to get home. Along the way, they compete against one another to acquire the tools needed to build the item that would help them reach the transistor and call for help. Here’s a snapshot of the game board that I created:

I was nervous on Friday morning when we had to test out our game with our classmates. Suddenly, I felt the tension between teaching concepts and creating suspense in gameplay. What if it failed to work? What if it didn’t actually teach the concepts we were hoping to teach? What if it was boring and people decided to quit?

In the end, the game worked well and the debrief was powerful. We’re actually planning to modify elements of the game and use it with undergraduate students.


What is Game-Based Learning?

Game-based learning is an immersive experience, where students master learning targets through gameplay. Unlike a review game, game-based learning introduces new ideas and concepts through a virtual environment. These games might be online but they can also be physical and hands-on. The key thing here is that the learning happens through the game rather than before the game. Often, these games take on the form of a simulation that might involve world-building and character development.

When I taught social studies, we often used game-based simulations to process complex ideas. Students engaged in a communist, capitalist, and socialist version of Monopoly and students took surveys to see whether they attributed wealth or poverty to luck or good decision-making. Ultimately, they took on roles as characters in a society that had to design a mixed economy. We played a modified version of Risk in order to understand how the alliance system, imperialism, and nationalism would contribute toward World War I (and how a single “small event” could launch a war). Here, we also looked at war poetry comparing the Great War to cricket matches and contrasted that to the sheer destruction of World War I. We turned the class into a factory and created an urban planning game to learn about industrialization.

Greg Costikyan breaks gameplay down into the following components:

  • Interaction: the game changes with the players actions (and often with the players’ interdependent actions)
  • Goal: there is a purpose to the game (and often this includes a winner or loser)
  • Struggle: every game has an element of a struggle, even if it’s a non-competitive game (think Minecraft or Sim City, where the struggle is often creative)
  • Structure: games have rules, procedures, and systems
  • Endogenous Meaning: here the game structure creates its own meaning

Game-based learning incorporates these five components in a way that leads to content mastery.


The Power of Game-Based Learning

When I was a kid, we used to play Oregon Trail and I pretty much always died of dysentery:


However, game-based learning has grown immensely in the previous three decades. We’ve seen an explosion of games ranging from computer simulations and virtual worlds to hands-on games built around localized play. So, why would a teacher choose to embrace game-based learning when designing a unit or even a course?

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The following are seven benefits of game-based learning:

  1. Game-based learning boosts engagement. They go beyond what Phillip Schlecty calls “strategic compliance” (high attention but low commitment) and into a place where they have full buy-in. Students get the opportunity to make decisions, pursue a goal, and check their own progress.
  2. The information sticks. Here, students experience higher retention of the content. Often, the games become mental models that students go back to in order to make sense out of what they have learned. Also, the debrief experience connects an often emotional, memorable experience with the content in a way that leads to a deeper, more permanent understanding.
  3. Immersive games can help students make connections between concepts and ideas. They see learning as interconnected. Often, we teach content in silos, with clear objectives and direct instruction. However, with game-based learning, students discover the content in a way that is connective rather than linear.
  4. Game-based learning bridges the abstract and the concrete. They are fully immersive. Participants maneuver within their environment to make sense of the information. It’s a way to teach concepts and systems that might seem opaque and distant in a way that is visual and experiential. It was hard for my students to wrap their minds around economic systems or imperialism, but a simulation game helped them make the connection. In some cases, they take on specialized roles and build empathy by taking on the role of characters. When we played Rockville, I cared deeply about the character I had created because our professor asked us to play the role of that character.
  5. Information is more accessible. With game-based learning, students at all levels can participate in the process. There’s a low barrier of entry. Too often, we expect students to have tons of content knowledge or a strong mastery of reading and writing. But with a game, students get the chance to discover the content on more of an even playing field.
  6. Students engage in critical thinking. Students are making decisions that require the analysis and synthesis. Later, they can use the simulation to answer critical thinking questions.
  7. Games can help lead to a love of learning. Games are fun. And when students engage in game-based learning they begin to fall in love with the subject and the content and the ideas. They realize that it is intrinsically rewarding to geek out on learning. And that takes them one step closer to being lifelong learners.

Note that simulations work best when dealing with abstract ideas and complex systems. A predator and prey version of tag can help students think about the food chain, but a simulation showing how stanzas work will tank. A poverty simulation can help students make sense out of the human side of geopolitics. However, a How to Solve Linear Equations game might not work. Although some of the best games focus on human systems, you can create immersive systems that aren’t quite as humanistic. I once saw a game called Integer Wars that helped students determine what to do with positive and negative integers. It was simple but it had the best elements of game-play, including a challenge, suspense, and incremental success.


What makes a game work?

There’s an excellent book out on game design by Richard Rouse III, where he explores why people play games. These include the challenge, the chance to socialize (or conversely, to have a dynamic solitary experience), bragging rights, emotional experience, and the chance to explore, fantasize, and interact.

I’d argue that games are essentially participatory storytelling, with the added unpredictability of who, if anyone, will actually win. The best games have the components that make up a great story:

  • Conflict: Okay, maybe not conflict, per se. But there should be a clear goal. You should be struggling. It might be a competition against others (not unlike having protagonists or antagonists) or it might be more of a man vs. machine conflict (like Tetris).
  • World-building. This isn’t necessarily true in things like card games but for larger simulations, the world-building piece should make a difference. It should feel immersive from the moment you begin. The onboarding process should be quick and easy to understand, with the users discovering the rules as they begin.
  • Rising Action: Some of the best games have incremental success. Either the challenges get harder or the stakes go higher. This helps develop the sense of suspense.
  • Surprises: Often, this involves an element of chance. There was a great role reversal that happened in the game we played (Awesome University) and it changed the outcome entirely. This sense of surprise helps maintain the suspense. Even in a game like Minecraft, there’s an element of surprise and discovery
  • Logical Consistency: Not only should the world have consistent rules but they should reflect a season of reasonableness. People don’t want to be stuck in a loop (like the Atari E.T. game). Just like a good novel or movie, they want to feel a sense of progression.

I’d also note that there are things players expect from a game that they might not expect from a story:

  • A Sense of Fairness. Players expect fairness when playing a game. Note that we are currently working on our Sabotage Island to help redefine the inequities we included in our simulation.
  • Agency: Players want to feel like they have power and control over what is happening. They want to be active (a key idea Rouse brings up in his book).
  • Dynamic: The key difference between a puzzle and a game is that users can interact with a game. There should be no third wall.


John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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