What is Game-Based Learning?

female teacher using game based learning techniques in classroom

Educators are always seeking new strategies for student engagement. Game-based learning is an exciting way to immerse students in academic learning experiences.

Educators who are still using textbooks and lectures may need to ask, “What is game-based learning?” and “How do I get started?” Other educators, especially those who are currently enrolled in teaching degree programs, may already know all about game-based learning. No matter where you are in your educational path, this guide will help you learn what you need to know to integrate academic gameplay into your classroom.

What Game-Based Learning Looks Like

While modern game-based learning may be heavily influenced by video games, the concept of using games to teach originated in the Middle Ages.1 The game of chess was used to teach strategic thinking and other games were invented to teach military strategy. Indeed, kindergarten was developed in the mid-1800s due to Friedrich Froebel’s theories on learning through play.2

Today's game-based learning asks students to work toward a goal by choosing actions and experiencing whatever outcomes those decisions lead to. When students make educated and informed decisions, the positive outcome moves them forward in the game. When they make guesses or uninformed decisions, they reap the consequences and must continue to practice to improve their results. Constantly thinking about advancing in the game allows students to be active rather than passive learners.

In modern video games, players learn through repetition and failure. When goals are accomplished through trial, error and learning, players advance to new levels in the game. Most players start a video game slowly by learning the skills they need to navigate the world more accurately. The skills that they develop add up over time and allow them to master difficult levels later in the game. Video games are generally designed to keep players interested through sufficient challenges while still being easy enough to allow players to complete levels and make progress.

In the classroom, game-based learning follows the same approach. Students advance through levels based on learning and demonstrating evidence of progress. Flight simulators are a well-known example of game-based learning in which future pilots work toward very specific goals. With hours of practice in flight simulator training, pilots are actively immersed in the learning necessary to accomplish their training goals.

How Is Game-Based Learning Different?

As the world evolves, teachers are learning to integrate digital learning tools in the classroom. Additionally, most teaching degree programs help educators keep up with the rapidly changing technological advances in education. This means that educators are thoughtfully seeking out new, interactive educational content, like game-based learning.

Games generally require some type of interaction, whether with content, teammates or resources. This makes them engaging and allows students to develop their thought processes on the topic in play. Traditional games, like board games or card games, are not typically designed to build academic skills. However, adding a learning objective to the game transforms the experience into game-based learning. For example, a teacher might create a game using a deck of cards to practice mental addition skills rather than having students play Go Fish.

The adaptive nature of games allows them to be ever-changing and intrinsically include differentiation. This makes game-based learning different from traditional textbook learning. When a textbook is released, it already contains all the information related to a topic. It was written based on the pedagogical theories of the time and then printed. Textbooks must go through an adoption process, which means that by the time they reach the classroom, they may be several years out of date. Since games can be adapted to students’ skill levels, they are more current. Digital learning games usually include student monitoring tools that allow teachers to update content as needed for their students.

Gamification is another popular classroom trend related to video games. While they sound the same, game-based learning and gamification are different methods. Gamification is the practice of applying game mechanics to learning and training experiences. This includes adding badging systems, leaderboards or incentives to learning experiences. Game-based learning integrates gamified mechanics into the learning, rather than laying the mechanics over the existing foundation. A game-based learning example is SIFMA Foundation's Stock Market Game™ used in an economics class: Students learn about the stock market through playing the game. A gamified economics class, on the other hand, might include giving out badges after reading magazine articles about certain stocks. The mechanics of badging are added to a traditional assignment.

Why Game-Based Learning?

Game-based learning brings the strategies, rules and social experiences of playing a game into the classroom. The game-based learning model allows teachers to target certain activities that will benefit the real-world application of concepts. This can lead to more immersive and collaborative learning opportunities.

Some other reasons teachers might adopt game-based learning are:

  • Friendly or low-risk competition
  • Development of interpersonal, intrapersonal and other soft skills
  • Student-centered experiences
  • Engagement and motivation
  • Growth in digital literacy and fluency
  • Opportunities for strategic thinking and problem-solving

Game-Based Learning Examples

Game-based learning helps students change the way they approach learning and can make school and academics much more engaging and meaningful. Teachers can build unique experiences for students. For those teachers with less game-creation experience but a deep interest in what games can bring to the classroom, plenty of ready-to-use games are available. Here are some game-based learning examples:

1. Simulations

Simulations ask students to play an active role in their learning. Students assume roles within the simulation to experience an event or process in a real way to understand it better. A simulation can also help students transfer knowledge to new situations.

Teachers in many different subject areas use simulations, though it is important to note that many anti-bias educators are moving away from simulations in history due to sensitivity issues.3 Simulations in math and economics may help students develop better problem-solving in difficult subject areas. The Pedagogy in Action Center shares several economics simulations that can be completed in various time frames.

2. Hybrid Inquiry Projects

Some game-based learning allows teachers to integrate the best of inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning by posing a problem to students and asking them to complete tasks as they find a solution.

These projects might include a series of in-class tasks, such as meeting with small groups to complete a worksheet, reading a chapter in a textbook or building a model of something related to the topic. They might also include online activities, such as premade games, quizzes, readings and videos. As the students complete each task, they earn a certain number of points and begin to level up. Each piece of the project advances their knowledge and understanding of the topic and gets them closer to solving the big challenge.

There is an online Gaming Through Government challenge that exemplifies how a teacher can construct a game-based learning experience using many different resources.4

3. Digital Game-Based Learning Examples

Minecraft for Education is a popular digital tool that makes gamed-based learning easy for teachers.5 The program comes with specific assessments and lessons that are pre-aligned to standards-based objectives and outcomes. There is coursework that supports STEM, history, soft skills, language arts and many other subjects.

In Minecraft, students can collaborate to build projects together and solve problems. Teachers can join the classroom workspace as non-players to provide guidance and give more information about how to solve a problem. Minecraft allows students to gather evidence of their learning and problem-solving and store it in a portfolio.

Kahoot is another digital tool that aids in game-based learning in the classroom. It makes a game out of assessment or review.6 Teachers share questions and the Kahoot program tracks the points students earn as they play against each other.

How to Bring Game-Based Learning Opportunities to the Classroom

Given the numerous programs, apps and resources related to game-based learning, it has never been easier to incorporate this pedagogical method into the classroom. Here are a few steps to decide how to bring game-based learning into your classroom.

1. Determine the Purpose

Do you want to use game-based learning to help students reinforce what they already know, to enrich and go beyond core material or to intervene with students who are struggling? If your purpose is to reinforce what students are learning, a game that includes teamwork or multiple players might be the right choice. An enrichment gaming experience might include multimedia materials to demonstrate the concept in new ways. An intervention might require a game that has built-in adaptivity.

2. Align to Standards or Learning Goals

Game-based learning is not meant to be a distraction from student learning objectives. Be sure that any games you adopt or create help students make progress toward specific learning goals. You can do this by testing out the game as a player. Scrutinize the content and usability. As a teacher, you may be able to set certain topics or levels for students. You may also be able to add new content, depending on the application.

3. Inform Stakeholders

Make sure to get approval for game-based learning from school administration and IT staff and ensure that the technology you have in the classroom can support the game. In addition, be sure to inform parents and guardians about the use of the game, so they understand how it supports learning goals.

4. Schedule Consistent Time to Play

Game-based learning is the method through which students acquire new knowledge. It should be the main part of the lesson, not added as an afterthought. Make sure to build in enough time to play the game each day so students may go through the trial-and-error learning process to develop their skills and construct new knowledge around the topic.

Assess Student Progress

Many digital game-based learning tools include in-game reporting that allows teachers to monitor progress and intervene as necessary. In addition, teachers should include reflection and self-reporting as students progress through the game. Students should acknowledge their progress and learning as they move through new levels.

If you are ready to build interactive, engaging lessons for students, consider earning a teaching degree from Grand Canyon University. Any Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science in Education degree will prepare you to bring hands-on learning into the classroom. Learn more about Grand Canyon University’s College of Education and the variety of education degrees offered.


Retrieved from:

1JSTOR, Exploring Medieval European Society with Chess: An Engaging Activity for the World History Classroom, in August 2021.

2MSU Extension, Why is kindergarten called kindergarten?, in August 2021.

3Learning for Justice, Classroom Simulations: Proceed with Caution, in August 2021.

4Weebly, Gaming Through Government, in October 2021.

5Microsoft, Minecraft for Education, in October 2021.

6Kahoot, Kahoot.com, in October 2021. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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