What is Game-Based Learning?

Game-based learning has gained considerable traction since 2003, when James Gee began to describe the impact of game play on cognitive development. Since then, research — and interest in — the potential of gaming on learning has exploded, as has the diversity of games themselves, with the emergence of serious games as a genre, the proliferation of gaming platforms, and the evolution of games on mobile devices. Developers and researchers are working in every area of game-based learning, including games that are goal-oriented; social game environments; non-digital games that are easy to construct and play; games developed expressly for education; and commercial games that lend themselves to refining team and group skills. Role-playing, collaborative problem solving, and other forms of simulated experiences constitute topics for further research, but are recognized for having broad applicability across a wide range of disciplines.

Proponents of game-based learning in higher education point to its role in supporting collaboration, problem-solving, and communication, the 21st century competencies needed by American students outlined by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in late 2010 in the National Education Technology Plan. Advocates also underscore the productive role of play, which allows for experimentation, the exploration of identities, and even failure. Gaming also contributes to the development of a particular disposition well-suited to an information-based culture and rapid change.

Gaming is an expansive category, ranging from simple paper-and-pencil games such as word searches all the way up to complex, massively multiplayer online (MMO) and role-playing games. Educational games can be broadly grouped into three categories: games that are not digital; games that are digital, but that are not collaborative; and collaborative digital games. The first category includes many games already common in classrooms as supplemental learning tools. Digital games include games designed for computers, for console systems like the Nintendo Wii, and online games accessed either through a special game client (like IBM’s Power Up) or through a web interface (like Whyville).

Research into games for educational purposes reveals some interesting trends. Early studies of consumer games helped to identify the aspects of games that make them especially engaging and appealing to players of various ages and of both genders: the feeling of working toward a goal; the possibility of attaining spectacular successes; the ability to problem-solve, collaborate with others, and socialize; an interesting story line; and other characteristics. These qualities are replicable, though they can be difficult to design well, and they can transfer to games featuring educational content.

More recently, the Serious Games movement responded to the desire to unite significant content with play. The games within this genre layer social issues or problems with game play, helping players gain a new perspective through active engagement. While some criticize these games as being too serious, and therefore lacking the fun aspects that can increase engagement, research shows that players readily connect with learning material when doing so will help them achieve personally meaningful goals.

A few years further out, but increasingly interesting, is the creation of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games designed for learning. Like their entertainment- or training-focused counterparts (World of Warcraft, Everquest, Lord of the Rings Online, America’s Army, and others), games of this type bring many players together to work on activities that require collaborative problem-solving. Games like these are complex, and include solo as well as group content and goals that are collaborative as well as some that are competitive. They are often goal-oriented in ways that tie to a storyline or theme, but the highest levels of interaction and play require outside learning and discovery. What makes MMO games especially compelling and effective is the variety of sub-games or paths of engagement that are available to players — there are social aspects, large and small goals to work towards, often an interesting back story that sets the context, and more. Players dedicate enormous amounts of time on task pursuing the goals of these games. The problem that needs to be solved, and which is being tackled on many fronts today, is that of embedding educational content in such a way that it becomes a natural part of playing the game.

One area in which there is currently a great deal of development is social games, especially those that can be taken along and played anywhere at all using a mobile device. With social games, players are never far from a game environment, whether it be a mobile in a pocket, a desktop or laptop computer, or a networked gaming console. With this kind of ubiquity, games are becoming a pervasive part of everyday life, and our notions of what constitutes a game are changing as fast as the games themselves.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • Would love to see games/titles of software that have have: Kill the Comma, Nuke the Independent Clause, Call of Description (COD), World of WarMath, etc. Our current games in the field of education need stronger interaction, moving beyond the ‘click the correct answer’. (- michael.lambert michael.lambert Feb 18, 2011)
  • Game strategies can be applied to other pedagogical activities. For example, we use game strategies to teach kids how to build a Science Fair project, by breaking the activities into levels of challenges, rewarding them more frequently, giving them the sense of accomplishment at each step of the way. - cristiana.mattos cristiana.mattos Feb 21, 2011
  • Educational gaming embedded within academic content provides an engaging environment for learners to apply higher level thinking skills such as problem solving and analysis to their learning. - kari.stubbs kari.stubbs Feb 24, 2011
  • In the school district I work for, game-based learning is making its way into classrooms. In fact, games are often offered as part of any new textbook program. - marisa.hartling marisa.hartling Feb 27, 2011

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • The game must be relevant to the subject being taught. If learning features are added to an otherwise strictly entertaining game students feel like they've gotten a bait-and-switch. A bad example might be a dungeon-quest type game that requires solving a multiplication problem each time you need to open a door. Much better to make the mathmatics relevant. Even better to simulate a real-world application of the subject. For example, calculating the cargo capacity of a simulated airplane or planning the supplies needed to host a party. - brandt.redd brandt.redd Feb 18, 2011
  • I prefer the term "Gamification of Education" over Game-Based Learning. See the link I included below to Sarah Smith-Robbins' article for details on what she and I mean." - brandt.redd brandt.redd Feb 18, 2011
  • Research and Development (R and D) (- michael.lambert michael.lambert Feb 18, 2011)
  • Examples of games and examples of their application both embedded within the traditional K12 setting, but also in virtual schools, homeschooling, and informal learning that occurs outside of the school day. - kari.stubbs kari.stubbs Feb 24, 2011
  • Learning through the gaming environment opens up a space not available directly to traditional classroom teaching. It needs, however, to address 2 important issues - (a) efficiency compared with traditional approaches in the acquisition of knowledge (the pen & paper test sort); and (b) the extent to which soft skills (21st Century competencies) can be developed. Game-based learning is unlikely to be as 'efficient' as traditional approaches for academically strong learners, but this can be more than compensated by the development of soft skills, assuming the pedagogy associated with the game is well designed & executed. - horncheah horncheah Feb 26, 2011
  • Inherent in learning is assessment; the challenge for game-based learning is how does it attend to the assessment for and of learning needs of any curriculum? - julie.hoo julie.hoo Feb 28, 2011

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

  • Sarah Smith-Robbins wrote on Educause Review (http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume46/ThisGameSucksHowtoImprovetheGa/222665) that our education system is a game with goals (completing a grade, graduation), points (grades), quests, leveling up and so forth. Unfortunately, the game is poorly designed and not very rewarding or entertaining. Jane McGonigal (http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world.html) author of Reality is Broken (http://news.cnet.com/8301-13772_3-20029551-52.html) points out that failures in the education game are unnecessarily catastrophic. Her example: "Why must the exam be limited to a specific time and day regardless of the health or convenience of the student? And why does failure at that exam result in the catastrophe of a bad grade on a permanent record with no reasonable remedy?" There is no good pedagogical reason for such catastrophic consequences and the game of learning would be more entertaining, enjoyable and motivating if some of these flaws were fixed. I believe that some of this poor "game" design is the result of resource constraints. Too expensive to re-administer exams, too few teachers to customize the learning experience for each student. Etc. However, educational technology changes the cost equation of these activities. Thus, the promise of education technology isn't in the learning moment itself but in the institutional change that it enables. - brandt.redd brandt.redd Feb 18, 2011
  • www.physicsgames.net and www.fas.org/immuneattack are possibilities. With the addition of widgets, the potential is enormous. We need more R and D in this area. With the many mobile gadgets students have and the engagement games bring to the table, I would hope to see wondering the malls, sitting at the table engaged in this type of learning, not just texting. (- michael.lambert michael.lambert Feb 18, 2011)
  • This is a good strategy for teaching values, using the same motivating strategies, but the goal is to understand both sides of a conflict, for example. http://www.peacemakergame.com/game.php - cristiana.mattos cristiana.mattos Feb 21, 2011
  • higher order thinking - problem solving, application, synthesis, analysis, innovation, etc. - kari.stubbs kari.stubbs Feb 24, 2011
  • Another angle--a new way of doing journalism: videogames. Have a look at this book- -//Newsgames: Journalism at Play// And see this article written in The Atlantic titled:

    Book Excerpt: Can Videogames Be Journalism? (- michael.lambert michael.lambert Mar 12, 2011)

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

Please share information about related projects in our Horizon K-12 Project form.