Guide on Game Based Learning

In recent years, educators and researchers have been looking for new and innovative ways of instructing students. There have been many schools of thought regarding how best to teach and many different tools for teacher to use. However, one new tool that has taken some time to take root has been the game as a means of teaching.

This is partly because, for years, games were associated with entertainment and wasted time. Over the past few years though, there has been a steady growth in the use of game-based learning, which has led to a new and effective means of teaching in the classroom.

The Growth of Game Based Learning

According to the education group Educause, game-based learning is becoming much more popular now that people are more familiar with technology and familiar with how games can be used in the classroom. Today, game-based learning is occurring at the highest levels of education, including universities and schools of business.

Ryann Ellis, writing for the Association for Talent Development, noted that educational games are becoming increasingly popular as well. The association indicated that there were ten types of education-oriented games that were being popularized and that their use was increasing. Ellis pointed out that resistance to learning was declining in academia, particularly as new research indicated that game-based learning was effective at improving academic outcomes.

Education games were becoming increasingly popular thanks to parents who were increasingly looking for ways to educate their children. While game-based learning is best conducted in the classroom, where teachers can provide guidance and instruct students toward learning goals, parents want their children to learn outside of the classroom as well.

For this reason, the past decade saw an explosion in the development of education apps. People were also increasingly more interested in training themselves as well, leading to the growth of brain training games. Taken all together, this increase in demand had led to an increasing number of games meant to educate as well as entertain, many of which could be adapted to the classroom.

However, perhaps one of the biggest drivers of game-based learning has been the lower costs to educate people associated with new technology. In previous years, print based materials have required parents to constantly replace those materials with new ones as students worked their way through them. Modern technology can condense print materials to apps, provide access to extensive, informative resources, and eliminate the need to constantly replace materials with new ones.

Game Based Learning Versus Gamification

On the surface, it may seem as if game-based learning and gamification are the same thing. Both seem to indicate that games will be used to educate. However, the two concepts, while they can be similar, they are also distinct in several ways.

Gamification is a process in which game elements are added to education and other non-game situations. The gaming element is added into a situation. Gamification is rooted deeply in marketing, where gamification was developed in the form of rewards programs in which frequent shopping was rewarded.

Gamification has also been added into social media, as exemplified in Foursquare and the use of badges to reward people for visiting restaurants. These are examples of how scores were basically added into the habit of visiting certain restaurants and stores and rewarding people for those habits.

At the classroom level, gamification has been done by adding game elements to otherwise traditional instruction. Gamification often means adding a basic infrastructure in which traditional class lessons are completed with the added element of teams and scoring.

Rewards can also be added in this situation to motivate student completion of their in-class lessons. Gamification can be fairly powerful and provide some significant motivation for students, who feel more compelled to engage with their materials when they are in a competitive environment or when they have rewards to work toward.

Game based learning is a good bit different from gamification. With game-based learning, true games are used to provide the learning experience. When using game-based learning, teachers can either use games developed specifically for the classroom or adapt existing games.

Existing games that were originally designed for general entertainment purposes have been modified to meet the needs of classes. One example of this was in the game Neverwinter Nights, a fantasy game that was modified to present an image of the Revolutionary period of American history.

Not all games need to be adapted though, and many games are developed specifically for education purposes. Instructors who remember the early 1980s may be familiar with one of the most widely known education games in history, The Oregon Trail.

The success of this game has led to its widespread fame and the game is still rereleased in updated versions from time. So, when teachers are considering how to integrate game-based learning, they can either adapt existing games or integrate games that are designed with education purposes specifically in mind.

To really summarize the point, gamification adds game elements to a course. Game based learning, meanwhile, relies on games to deliver instruction. Both can be used to maximize academic outcomes, but each has a very specific place in education and function differently.

Learn more about gamification.

Examples of Game Based Learning

Educational gaming has come a long way in the last few years. Here is just a small sample of games that can be used to teach subjects as diverse as history, literature, and mathematics.


History is a subject in which games can easily be integrated, not the least of which is because history is so ripe for gaming in general. As previously noted, The Oregon Trail is still being updated every so often and rereleased. The game asks students to manage resources and travel across the country to settle in Oregon during the 19th century when settlers moved out into the western United States. Along the way, they travel to many destinations that were located along the trail and learn a little about the country’s geography and history.

A world history instructor taught his students about the Gallic Wars by combining traditional instruction with the game, Total War: Rome II. The instructor began by having his students watch a video about the war and read Caesar’s accounts of the fighting. Then, they played a game of Total War, taking control of Rome’s forces. The game was played as a class, with the game projected on the screen and decisions made through peer feedback. The teacher also asked students to identify differences between the game and historical records, using this as a chance to teach critical thinking skills.


For students of literature, one game that they might find appealing is Inkle’s 80 Days. Named TIME Magazine’s Game of the Year and recognized for Excellence in Narrative at the Independent Games Festival, 80 Days is based on the Jules Verne novel of nearly the same name, Around the World in 80 Days. Structurally, the game follows the basic beats of the novel as the protagonists, Phileas Fogg and Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.

However, the game takes some liberties with the story, and players can meet with characters from other Verne novels. An encounter with Michel Ardan, from the novel From the Earth to the Moon, will end the game with players traveling to the heavens. Another route will have the players meet Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and have them travel the ocean floors.

The game lets players choose destinations around the world to travel to and plan the supplies they need to take. Because of its globe hopping nature, the game doubles as a lesson in geography as well, but the true value of the game is the excellent writing that stays true to the novel’s roots while updating the format for a modern audience.


Topics like history and literature lend themselves fairly easily to game-based learning, but it can be harder to find games in STEM topics. However, it’s not impossible. Edutopia listed a few apps that can be integrated into the classroom to help students learn math more effectively, for example. However, some of these apps cost money, and teachers are already constrained by limited school budgets. So, it’s best to focus on those apps that are for free.

Sushi Monster, for example, is targeted at younger learners and includes colorful visuals and interesting characters. While engaging with this whimsical world, students are asked to master different areas of elementary math. The app challenges students in escalating levels of difficulty.

It may be comforting for teachers to know that the app was designed to help meet Common Core standards. Math vs Zombies takes a similar approach, creating a colorful, cartoonish world in which young learners solve math challenges to change zombies back into their human forms.

Before high school teachers despair that there aren’t games for older levels, they should know that there’s one incredible example of a game focused on calculus education known as Variant Limits. The game places students into a 3D world on an imaginary planet facing a catastrophe.

To save the planet, students must solve calculus problems that escalate in difficulty until the world is saved. The game has all the production values of many modern games and yet still places an emphasis on education, with 79% of students reporting an increase in their understanding of calculus.

Features of Game-Based Learning

There are several important reasons why teachers should consider moving to a game-based instructional method, at least for portions of their lessons. First, game-based methods are flexible and can be used either among individual students or among the entire classroom. Inkle’s 80 Days, for instance, is probably best used individually, while the group-based decision making used in Total War made that game well suited for the entire classroom.

Another advantage of game-based instruction is that these games take unique turns every playthrough. As such, they can be reused over several sessions to produce distinctly different outcomes. It remains to the teacher to tailor the game so that instructional outcomes are maximized, but the game as a tool itself is powerful enough to be used time and again.

Of course, the most important feature of game-based learning is the impact such an approach has on engagement among students. Games can produce an emotional connection to the material, which raises the level of engagement that students feel in their classes. Higher engagement can increase the likeliness that students retain what they learn. When students are more highly engaged, they become more motivated to learn and retain content knowledge.

Game based learning tends to be a more active approach to learning, since it gets students involved hands-on with their materials. Small nuances to game-based learning can improve the outcomes as well. Introducing a competitive element can increase engagement and motivation as well, improving outcomes.

The ability to add a competitive element is highly contextual and depends on the type of game being played. To use 80 Days again, there’s no real competition except to see who can make the fastest trip around the world.

This involves comparing records of journeys and doesn’t have a direct, head to head competitive element. A game like Civilization, on the other hand, involves direct competition between players and may be better suited for adding a competitive element.

It’s also important to acknowledge the advantage that games have due to their novelty. Over the course of their academic lives, students become accustomed to certain approaches to teaching that are employed in classrooms. Lectures are among the most common means of teaching, even if such approaches make students passive learners. However, becoming used to certain teaching methods may make students apathetic toward the efforts of their teachers because of how familiar students are with the process.

The old statement that “familiarity breeds contempt” may apply to students who are too accustomed to the traditional methods of instruction. Novel, new approaches may help reach these difficult students thanks to the fresh approach toward instruction.

Outcomes of Game Based Learning

All this talk about the advantages and features of game-based learning wouldn’t mean much if game-based learning did have some strong outcomes. Fortunately, research has shown that game-based learning can have multiple positive outcomes for students.

According to a report released by three researchers, Vandercruysse, Vandeaetere, and Calrebout, game-based learning is correlated with improved attitudes toward subjects that students often dislike, such as math. Students also showed a general enjoyment of games, including educational games.

Encouraging enjoyment of a subject is important because it keeps students engaged with learning materials, which researchers also found. In one example, students learned about history using a mobile city game. The students also showed strong engagement with the material.

A similar effect was found in other courses as well. Gaming was also useful because it could be used to educate students about personal matters and health. The researchers found that games could help students learn about difficult health subjects, such as diabetes, and encouraged students to communicate with adults about health issues and gave them a strong sense of control over their own health.

Among the strongest demonstrations of the effect of game-based learning was the impact to cognitive learning. Research showed that students who played educational games demonstrated better knowledge outcomes on a subject versus students who learned in a traditional manner.

For instance, game-based learning led to increased retention of science knowledge among students. In another case, students were able to retain vocabulary learning more strongly, showing the broad impact game-based learning might have. It could be used to effectively teach a wide array of subjects across the educational spectrum.

Of course, there are a lot of factors that can impact learning outcomes among students that might influence the outcome of these results. Students may at times be impacted by their own lack of mastery with a technology.

On the other hand, a game’s overall design might fail in its presentation, which may create lower engagement among students. However, the general findings from a review of the literature indicated that game-based learning could have very strong, positive outcomes among students. As such, game-based learning has the potential to radically change teaching approaches.


It’s not always easy to find games that fit your classroom, but the search is often worth it. Research has shown that game-based learning can actually have several positive outcomes, with students feeling more engaged and active with their materials.

Educational games have also come a long way over the last decade and now deliver an amazing, educational yet entertaining experience. Games can be simple, fun apps that any student can use on their phones or be complex gaming experiences like 80 Days or Variant Limits.

The games available to educators today are much more engaging and effective tools than those that were available even just a few years ago, and they can be a potent tool for helping students learn even difficult subjects.

Read Also:
Teaching Methods and Strategies: The Complete Guide
Blended Learning Guide
Collaborative Learning Guide
Flipped Classroom Guide
Gamification in Education Guide
Holistic Education Guide
Maker Education Guide
Personalized Learning Guide
Place-Based Education Guide
Project-Based Learning Guide
Scaffolding in Education Guide
Social-Emotional Learning Guide

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