Games-Based Learning

Games-based Learning

Dr. Seth Lickteig

May 2023


Two kittens wrestle with each other, sneaking up on each other, and play-fighting while rolling around. A toddler plays with a toy car, emulating the sounds of an engine while driving it up and over the curves of a sofa. A group of children plays an imaginary game of house in the backyard, each responsible for a set of chores or activities.


Why do the young instinctively play? How can teachers incorporate these natural behaviors with games used in classrooms? In this section, we look at the theoretical foundations of games-based learning, derived directly from its immediate association with play. Next, we discuss the differences between games and play, identifying specific elements which compose a game. With a working understanding of what a game is, we move into the pedagogical concept of games-based learning. We will consider how play and games are natural platforms for learning.


Lastly, the increasingly popular structure of gamification will be discussed but does not actually incorporate the use of games.


Lastly, I will propose a taxonomy of games-based instruction which will hopefully leave you with some ideas of how classroom teachers can incorporate games at a deeper level than traditional settings have permitted.

What is play?

How to get into Play-Based Learning: Part 1 - What is Play?


When considering the learning potential of using games in classrooms, let's start our conversation with play. The American Psychological Association defines play as, “activities that appear to be freely sought and pursued solely for the sake of individual or group enjoyment.” Children actively seek play because it brings happiness. Play can be considered among the first learning behaviors humans develop. The APA notes that play is “...a cultural universal and typically regarded as an important mechanism in children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development.”

Elements of Play

What specifically about play makes it so powerful for learning? Let us consider elements of play and how they relate to games:


Play is safe; children can experiment with new ideas or test their knowledge in new environments without the fear of failure or injury. “The world is a big, unknown and sometimes scary place for young children. They need a safe place, a space where they can be comfortable learning about their surroundings. That place is the child’s world of play” (Nitecki & Chung, 2016).


Play is creative. Through play, children think critically about the problems they face and can generate creative solutions while maintaining safety. “Play is not simply the joyous rambling of children; it is central to all forms of creativity and communicates the highest ideals of communities” (Henricks, p. 118).


Play is engaging. While in a state of play, our attention is focused directly on the task at hand and with those playing along. In this way, play is also fun. Children jump at the opportunity to engage in play because it is a time for exploration, freedom, and enjoyment. Researchers have found play stimulates multiple, powerful good-feeling hormones including endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin (Edwards, 2016).


Play is social; we learn how to synthesize and share personal understanding with others. Play evolves from solitary play to parallel play and then further into cooperative and collaborative types of play. These social stages of play allow the child to learn how cultural and social norms when interacting with peers and adults. They form the very foundation by which educational processes in schools are built.


So in many ways, play is at the heart of learning and the human experience. Miguel Sicart (2014) concludes play is to “ in the world; playing is a form of understanding what surrounds us and a way of engaging with others. Play goes beyond games; it is a mode of being human.” The innate learning power of play should not be limited by age or environment. In fact, many games and forms of play are used in adult learning environments, including military, education, and medical training. Microteach experiences are simulations of what classroom teaching will look and feel like. They are purposefully delivered in safe environments, generally amongst peers, and emphasize the role of direct experience and reflection in learning.

Types of Play

As children mature, the manner in which they engage in play changes. Dr. Sara Smilansky (1990) identified four types of play children typically engage in, noting the general age or maturity level at which it first occurs. These types include:


      Functional play. Generally ages 18 months to 2 years. Children explore their surroundings using their senses and physical interaction.

      Conditional play. Occurs typically between ages 2 and 3. During this type of play, children create, assemble, or build products from other products. For example, using blocks to build a house or popsicle sticks to design a bridge.

      Dramatic play. Typically begins around the age of 3. This type of play incorporates the use of imagination and pretend. A classic example of dramatic play is playing house. This imaginative play simulates an understanding of adult roles and responsibilities while also exploring cultural and social norms. Dramatic play is defined as being person-oriented and not material or object-oriented.

      Games with rules. Beginning around the age of 5, children begin to engage in play with rules, which we will define as games. These types of games include social games like hide and seek or board games. These types of games require children to limit their emotions and impulsiveness, demonstrating elements of self-control. Familiarity and experience with games with rules directly lend themselves to learning behavioral expectations of classroom settings.

What is a game?

Games engage learners in the same ways play does. So what separates a game from play? The most important factor of a game is the inclusion of rules to limit play. Other key distinguishing elements of games include mechanics, goals, player agency, and iterative experiences.


At its most basic root, a game is an organized system of play that is governed by rules. Unlike make-believe games in which parameters for play vary or shift, a game is played under a specific set of standards and expectations: rules. Rules establish limits and allowances for objects, states, and game actions during play. These rules are generally composed of complex systems, including a series of mathematical functions, logarithms, and principles (Goodman, 2011). Participants of the game, or players, agree to these rules and expectations prior to engaging in play.


For example, in the game of Monopoly, you must pay rent when you land on a space owned by another player. It is not the player’s choice or decision; it is required by the game rules. This game rule can be illustrated as a decision flow chart. The example below is from Shimu Wang and demonstrates how the game rules of Monopoly are coded via computer programming to create a Property Flow.



Game mechanics are the procedures that occur in response to player decisions. These are generally interwoven with the rules systems and deliver feedback to the player regarding the effectiveness and result of their decision. An example mechanic would be a Catch Up Mechanic, one designed to assist players who have fallen behind or hinder the player in the lead, thus resulting in keeping the game close. In Mario Kart, the items which are obtained from loot boxes vary depending on the player’s current ranking. If you are in first place, you’ll only receive green shells and banana peels. If the player is in last place, the receive more powerful items like the purple shell, star, or lightning bolt.


Another key distinguishing feature of games from play is the goal of play. Goals form the objectives or purposes of games; they establish the parameters for being successful. The reason primary goal of children during play is to have fun and develop a level of happiness. Unlike play which may continue for an unspecified amount of time, games generally end upon the completion of some element, usually a time limit or a player meeting a goal objective. Like rules, the closure outcome is determined prior to the start of play. Examples of goals include beating the final boss or setting a new high score.


Player agency or volition refers to choices presented during gameplay. Unlike play which is spontaneous, games are structured around these decision points. Often, one decision leads players to branches of new choices. The sense of agency empowers the player to feel their decisions matter and influence the probability of success.


By their design, most games are meant to be played multiple times. This results in iterative experiences, that is, similar but unique loops of play. Unfortunately, in most games-based settings, the game is only played once by students. This limits the depth of their understanding of game systems because they are unable to explore other routes, choices, or decision paths.

Learning of Games


Games are generally composed of two different elements: story and mechanical. When studying games, scholars consider both when considering the meaning of games to humans. Narratology emphasizes the narrative elements found in games, viewing them as expressive products similar to literature, movies, art, and music. A narrativist therefore would find meaning in games through literary description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. In this regard, a game can be studied as a form of media like books and movies in classrooms. Alternatively, ludology highlights the rules, mechanics, and systems found in games. In this regard, ludology is generally defined as the study of games and gaming ().


When comparing the two viewpoints, Juul (1998) concludes:


I would like to repeat that I believe that: 1) The player can tell stories of a game session. 2) Many computer games contain narrative elements, and in many cases the player may play to see a cut-scene or realise a narrative sequence. 3) Games and narratives share some structural traits. Nevertheless, my point is that: 1) Games and stories actually do not translate to each other in the way that novels and movies do. 2) There is an inherent conflict between the now of the interaction and the past or "prior" of the narrative. You can't have narration and interactivity at the same time; there is no such thing as a continuously interactive story. 3) The relations between reader/story and player/game are completely different - the player inhabits a twilight zone where he/she is both an empirical subject outside the game and undertakes a role inside the game.


Using other media as starting points, we may learn many things about the construction of fictive worlds, characters ... but relying too heavily on existing theories will make us forget what makes games games: Such as rules, goals, player activity, the projection of the player's actions into the game world, the way the game defines the possible actions of the player. It is the unique parts that we need to study now.

What is Games-based Learning?

Games-based learning (GBL) is a pedagogical structure that blends the use of games in an educational setting. More simply put, games-based learning is the inclusion of games in learning environments. Studies exploring GBL have found boosting student motivation (Law, 2015; Saxton, 2015), problem-solving (Spires, Rowe, Mott, & Lester, 2011), increased written and oral communication skills (Bodnar & Clark, 2017), and improved literacy scores (Schmitt, Hurwitz, Duel, & Nichols Linebarger, 2008). Liu and Chen (2013) found games-based learning is more effective than traditional methodology, enhances learner motivation, and creates an environment of active and authentic participation. Games-based learning provides students with a situated, embodied learning experience that allows learners to navigate through complex concepts in a social setting (Lave & Wenger, 1991). In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee (2007) identifies 36 ways learning occurs in video games. Many of the methods align with sound learning theories and are things good classroom teachers do when devising activities for learning.

Types of Games

Games can encompass a variety of different types. These types can be broadly grouped as either analog or digital. Trammell, Waldron, and Torner (2014) described analog games as “those products that are not always mediated through computer technologies, but which nevertheless exemplify contemporary cultural forms.” Simply, an analog game is one which does not require a computer or electronic device for play. Analog games include board games, card games, dice games, tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), and live-action roleplaying games (LARPs). A digital game takes place in discrete (separate) and finite (limited) spaces. A digital game typically can only act within the limits set by its programming, whereas analog games are broader and not limited by mechanical systems. The ongoing evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) is quickly shifting the ability of digital systems to generate and write their own code, expanding these perceived limits.



Before we delve directly into Games-based Learning, we should address a popular trend in schools and society to gamify non-gaming systems. Gamification is the process of using game-like structures to improve engagement and motivation with a product or service. Examples of gamification include:


      The use of non-tangible rewards for repeated activity, like daily login rewards on an app.

      Punch cards or buy X get 1 free promotions, especially when partnered with marketing to boost results.

      Point systems like frequent flier miles or fuel points.

      Badging systems or other microcredentials which allow users to show off an accomplishment.

      Achievements, such as leaderboards, allowing users a feeling of prestige amongst peers.


Hal Koss (2022) identifies Five Ps of common gamification elements: Purpose, Progress, Pressure, Position, and Play. Purpose gives the player a particular drive to continue, often through the use of a narrative story. Progress gives the viewer feedback on their dedication to the task, with things like points and levels. Pressure creates a sense of failure should the viewer fail to accomplish the task. Games include things like cooldown timers, streaks, and rare collectibles to drive engagement. Position allows the player to showcase their performance to peers through ranking systems, trophies, badges, and leaderboards. Play rewards the viewer with some innate sense of happiness or enjoyment, usually through branching choices, exploration, and player customization.

Gamification in Schools


Introduction to Classcraft


Classroom teachers have borrowed ideas and systems from games to change the way students “see” school. It is important to note that gamification does not actually use a game to enhance learning. It changes the way students perceive the goals and objectives of school. Instead of rewarding students with a grade or a sticker chart, they instead receive experience points to use for customizing their avatar (as in the Classcraft example above). Homework isn’t a worksheet, it’s a quest that you and your group must collaborate on to be successful. The review activity is not just flashcards, but now a boss monster that must be defeated before you can save the village. The change in tone and presentation aligns with materials and systems that students engage with outside of the classroom. They are familiar with achievements, quests, and avatar customization because of the games they play outside of school. Gamification allows teachers to tap into that potential and engagement, while not actually playing a game in the classroom.

Games-based Learning


Games-based learning is not a new concept. As board games were popularized in the post-World War II United States, teachers noted their potential for engagement and exploration. In 1963, Avalon Hill began producing board games specifically for the classroom. The company and its competitors created a plethora of games from a variety of disciplines and grade levels.

Examples include:


      Preschool games like Imagination and What Time Is It?,

      War games like 1776, Alexander the Great, and Luftwaffe,

      Math games like TUF and Quizmo,

      Reading games like The Rolling Reader and The Main Idea,

      and Science games like The Game of Inventions and Science Fair Electronic Project Kit.

Concerns of GBL

The use of games in classrooms has seen a lot of research and discussion over the past fifty years. Their use, however, has not increased or improved. Though a growing percentage of adults are gamers themselves outside of the classroom (Entertainment Software Association, 2015), there exists an unfamiliarity with teaching methods incorporating games-based learning. Games-based methodology is a pedagogical structure classroom teachers are inexperienced with, from both a teacher and student perspective. Games are not widely used in schools across the United States, so even approaching the idea can be daunting. Even though games have been proven to improve student learning, most adults still view games as “play” and not “work”. As such, you’ll need to achieve buy-in and approval from administrators, peers, and parents. Teachers can accomplish this by ensuring the game directly aligns with and benefits student learning, state standards, and higher-order skill practice. Before implementing a game into your classroom, there are some important considerations to be made to ensure their delivery is fluid and effective.


Another glaring weakness is in the fidelity of their implementation. Teachers have historically used games in a singular instance during the course of learning a concept or topic. In this manner, games are used much like a movie or text would be employed, to emphasize or highlight the content being addressed. For example, the classic game Oregon Trail is used generally at the end of a unit on Westward Expansion, to “show” students the difficulties and struggles of the journey. The game itself provides little recourse if your characters are unlucky and come down with dysentery. So while our students realize the dangers, they don’t learn how those dangers were minimalized. Since they only play the game once, they don’t get an opportunity to make different decisions or try a different path. After the game is done, the teacher quickly moves back to traditional lessons, leaving our students with a failed opportunity to make a meaningful connection between their games-based experience and the content matter.


Games-based learning is usually used in two different frames: as a reward or during free time. Seizing on the engagement potential of games, teachers have utilized games as a carrot on a stick for students, generally holding it as the final reward for completing a series of learning tasks or doing well on an assessment. Alternatively, teachers have allowed students to play games only after the “real” learning objectives and activities have been accomplished. These two perspectives of games set the tone for students, administrators, and parents, that games are extracurricular. That they cannot be used as the vehicle for actual learning. This tone permeates beyond schools. The general public views games as “fun” and something a person should do during their leisure time. With these perceptions, incorporating games-based learning in classrooms, even in modern settings, can be challenging. As a teacher looking to use games,

GBL in Action

While there are many concerns about the implementation and use of games in classrooms, good planning can alleviate these doubts and ensure high-quality learning for all students during play. I would encourage you to consider the following three phases during the lesson-planning process. Included are in-class examples I used with 8th-grade students playing Oregon Trail as part of a unit on Manifest Destiny. You can find a browser-based version of the classic video game here.

Before Play

Game Selection

In reading this section, you may have been formulating ideas for using games in your future classrooms. Perhaps it is one that you personally enjoy, played while growing up, or saw in other educational materials. Before implementing any game, the teacher must take time to honestly reflect on the feasibility and learning potential of the game. “Real learning comes from the social and interactional systems within which a powerful technology like video games is placed, not from the game itself” (Gee, 2007, p. 216). As with other effective teaching models, teachers must take essential steps to structure games-based learning environments to maximize learning.

Connection to Content and/or Skills

We should not be playing games just to fill time or engage our students, learning needs to be at the heart of the experience. Just as teachers spent considerable time writing learning objectives for a traditional lesson, so too should we during a games-based lesson. Explicitly identify what content and skills students will be learning by playing the game. Make these objectives clear and measurable prior to teaching. Doing so sets expectations for students during play; they know exactly why they are playing and what learning goal is expected to be accomplished by the end of gameplay.


How does the game you’ve identified align with the disciplinary content being addressed in class? How exactly does the game address the mathematical concepts required by state standards? Does a student’s knowledge of the content impact their choices?


By the end of a playthrough of Oregon Trail, the student will be able to identify five different geographic landmarks settlers used while making their trip.


What higher-level thinking skills will students practice while playing the game? Are they analyzing the structure of the game? Making connections between the game and other media? Comparing the game setting with that of the real world? Perhaps they are collecting data during play and then synthesizing how it resulted in success or failure. What creative products can students produce to show their learning?


By the end of a playthrough of Oregon Trail, the student will be able to create a journal with three narrative entries describing what life was like for settlers making the trip.

Setup and Access

One of the major limiting factors of games-based learning in schools has been a lack of resources and time. Video games require students to have access to computers or devices. Board games require multiple copies to be used in classrooms of twenty to thirty students. Any game requires the teaching of rules to the entire group.

During Play

When implementing a game for instructional purposes, it is important to provide students with some tangible tasks while playing. Teachers unfamiliar with games-based learning will often turn their students loose, assigning the game, and then turning over control and responsibility completely to the students for the remainder of the class period. This leads to student distraction and misdirection. During play activities should align back to the learning objectives outlined to students before play; they serve to keep students on task and on target for completion by the end of play. Below is a table of goods students tracked while moving along the trail, with specific connections to the economic concept of supply and demand.


After Play

When the game comes to an end, it’s vital to provide students with the opportunity to talk and share their experiences on play. As with constructivist learning philosophy, the reflection of and on the experience is vital for long-term learning. During this time, the teacher readdresses the learning objectives and evaluates students on their mastery of each.


There are a variety of formats a teacher can employ to satisfy this reflection, though I would highlight the need for it to be collaborative and social in nature. One student’s understanding and experience of the game may vary from another player’s. Just as people want to talk about the end of a movie when the credits roll, so too do players who finish a game. Did you discover the secret passage under the stairs? How did you beat the second boss? What did you think about the antagonist? How would you play the game differently if you played it a second time?


When getting started, I would suggest an open or small group discussion. Post questions for students to respond to and ask them to write down their major takeaways. Help students make those explicit connections to the content and skills in their reflection, so they can see how they learned during game play.

What’s Next? A Games-based Taxonomy

What else can we learn through playing games? What about the potential of players to learn of the game, not simply about the content presented in a game? If games are composed of complex systems and processes, would they not provide a platform for deeper understanding and critical thought? What if our curriculum was built around the exploration of games? I propose the creation of a Games-based Taxonomy composed of three levels of student engagement with games. Note that gamification is outside the taxonomy as it does not employ games as part of the learning, just modifies how the learning is approached.



We have already explored ideas of games-based learning, which form the foundation of the taxonomy. With repeated play, students inquire into game systems, discovering information that improves their success rates and overall understanding of how the game works. This is what I define as games-based inquiry, the purposeful, pedagogical exploration of understanding how games work. Depending on the style type of game, this learning can also be described as identifying a strategy or metagaming. Boluk and LeMieux (2017) define metagaming as a “signifier for everything occurring before, after, between, and during games as well as everything located in, on, and beyond games, the metagame anchors the game in time and space”.  At the deepest level, students engage in the creative processes of game design. With knowledge and familiarity with the systems used in the game, students now create their own elements within those rules and limits. An example would be designing their own Pokemon after learning how the game is structured and balanced. In game design, students demonstrate deep mastery and understanding of complex systems.

References // Resources

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Nitecki, E. & Chung, M.-H. (2016). Play as place: A safe space for young children to learn about the world. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4(1).


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Schmitt, K. L., Hurwitz, L. B., Duel, L. S., & Nichols Linebarger, D. L. (2008). Learning through play: The impact of web-based games on early literacy development. Computers in Human Behavior, 24(6), 2475-2476. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.03.008


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Spires, H. A., Rowe, J. P., Mott, B. W., & Lester, J. C. (2011). Problem solving and game-based learning: Effects of middle grade students' hypothesis testing strategies on learning outcomes. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 44(4), 453-472. doi:10.2190/EC.44.4.e

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