Refining “Game-based Learning”

In case you hadn’t noticed, education is full of jargon and rife with an alphabet soup of programs, policies, and practice.  It’s often challenging for me as a professional in education technology to keep my terminology defined.  What’s the difference between CIPA and COPPA?  When you say PBL, do you mean problem-based learning or project-based learning?  Of course, my own area of passion in education, the use of games and game principles for learning is faced with a similar, murky sea of words and ideas.  Recent discussions, between David Warlick, Mathias Poulsen, and myself via Twitter during ISTE 12, forced me to consider the issues.  For me, it’s time to refine the definition of “game-based learning.”

It’s exciting to watch the idea of game-based learning gaining market share in the discussion on educational change, especially, since I’ve been pushing it for a few years now.  There is, however, some confusion among educators, and even in my own mind, about how we define the different terms associated with the use of games and game principles in the classroom.  What’s the difference between using games to teach and gamifying the classroom?  Let’s take a look at some of the big ideas:

Playful Learning

One of the best things that game-based learning is bringing back to the education reform discussion is the value of play and a playful approach to learning.  This is nothing new (see Vygotsky, Piaget, and others), of course, but it’s an idea that has seen hard times in an era of standardization and high-stakes testing.  The value, here, is in encouraging learners to “play” with ideas.  In doing so, the idea of failure is either not possible or is an accepted part of the process.  Using this sort of approach also provides learners with opportunities to test ideas and hypotheses to solve ill-defined problems.  Some key thinkers in this area that you should review include:  Papert, Brian Sutton-Smith,  and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  Though an integral part of game-based learning, it’s a only a component of the bigger picture.

Using Games To Teach

First off, notice I’m saying “using games to teach” not “using video games to teach.”  I think this in an important first distinction.  While most of my work has been in the application of video games to instructional goals, I think that focusing solely  on video games is too limiting.  There are some incredible games out there that are not electronic at all.  Secondly, I think it’s important for educators to distinguish between simulations and games.  Simulations provide experiences through which participants experience concepts and are certainly valuable for learning, however, they lack many of the elements that games bring to the learning process.  So, how do we define “game,” then?  According to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, “a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”  Others include variations on the definition, but the fundamentals of rules, challenge, and interaction are foundational.

I see the idea of “using games to teach” as the use of a pre-designed game to help learners reach an instructional goal.  In the world of video games, this breaks down into two areas that I feel are distinct:  the use of “educational” games (think Math Blaster) and the use of commercial, off-the-shelf games for education (think using Civilization V to teach World History).  The quotes around educational are intentional.  All good games are educational even if they weren’t designed with the classroom in mind.  My personal passion is exploring the use of games not designed for the classroom to help learners understand concepts.

Serious Games

Serious games is another term that you’ll often hear in discussions on game-based learning.  According to Wikipedia a serious game is, “a game designed for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment.”  That definition can encompass a broad range of games including “educational games,” games designed for training, games designed to solve real-world problems, etc.  I believe that the Games for Change movement would also fit as a subset of serious games.  Consider the game Re-Mission, designed to help cancer patients not only learn about the disease but also fight it.


Gamification is applying the principles of games and game design to a non-game-related system.  This concept is quickly gaining momentum in the corporate world, spurred on by increased access to social media and mobile technology among consumers.  Take a look at FourSquare, for example.  When gamifying a business, consumers unlock badges and awards for being frequent patrons and earn points for participating in events and activities much as they would by completing activities in a game like Call of Duty or World of Warcaft.  When applied to the classroom, the discussion focuses on ideas such as replacing traditional grades with experience points and levels, player groups, and redesigning lessons to be more akin to the quests (see quest-based learning) that players might experience in a game.  It’s important for educators to distinguish, here, that this idea can be applied to any subject area and doesn’t necessarily involve the use of a pre-designed game.  A video by the folks at Extra Credits does a decent job of summarizing the idea –  This is also another opportunity for me to plug 3DGameLab, an online system that makes this process manageable for classroom teachers.

For my own sanity, I’ll be lumping the ideas of using games to teach and gamification under the bigger umbrella of “game-based learning.”  Of course, I’ll still have to ask others using the term what them mean when they say it.  If you’re interested in learning more, follow the #GBL tag on Twitter.  If you’re looking to engage with other educators in the trenches who are wrestling exploring these issues, take a look at Jennifer Lagarde‘s Level Up Book Club (#levelupbc on Twitter)

(Edited 7/2/12 – Added Serious Games)


The Gamification of Education

Here’s a fantastic infographic by Knewton that shares some great concepts behind applying game design techniques to instructional design. I also might add that 3DGameLab does this beautifully and makes these ideas accessible to classroom teachers (click for a larger view):

Gamification of Education 

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media



Teachers Playing World of Warcraft

There is a certain thrill for me watching adult learners exploring a totally alien environment.  Maybe it’s the mad scientist in me?  I’m having those very sorts of opportunities in August as Peggy Sheehy and I lead teachers from around the world through quest-based learning experiences in 3DGameLab.  Our group’s quests revolve around the concept of using World of Warcraft (or similar MMO’s) in the classroom.  Our first week has simply been a chance to orient folks to World of Warcraft.  Simply put, we just want them to play the game, immersing themselves in the fantasy world of Azeroth.

As we move into week two, we’re asking our participants to look at the game through the lens of education and instructional design.  World of Warcraft is an incredibly complex game.  This first week has reminded me of just how much I take for granted:  the jargon, game culture, and of course the technical side of things.  We have a range of prior knowledge among our participants from those who have multiple level 85 characters, the highest level in the game, to those who have never experienced any virtual world, much less a game-based virtual world.

One of the first quests for our explorer-teachers this week is to examine how the game’s designers essentially are instructional designers.  The game has to teach you how to play the game.  This requires a great deal of thought, planning, and testing on the part of the designers.   Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, have become masters of this, as their subscriber numbers (around 12 million) indicate.

We asked our teachers both newcomers and veterans alike to reflect on their first experiences in the game and to consider what lessons we might apply to our classroom instruction.  The first responses coming in are very telling:

After a couple of unhappy days, something happened that turned it around for me. People started helping me – not only that, but on two different days, very advanced players went on quests with me. What a totally different experience it was! I loved playing. It was so much fun, and I was learning a tremendous amount by following their lead and asking questions. It’s lonely to struggle by yourself, and many times I thought that this must be how students feel when they get stuck and are not allowed to work with anyone else.

This response really highlights the value of the social component, something that good games typically foster but too often our classrooms discourage.  Another teacher shared this observation:

Each quest would expand the area you could investigate. Each quest would introduce you to more and more challenging obstacles to overcome. Some quests taught you how to fish, earn money with a trade, and use different talents. You were not tossed in the middle of the pool with all your skills in place, you had to learn them one or two at a time. New skills built upon previous knowledge.

This mastery-based approach is not common in our schools, primarily because time for learning is a set constant.  The mentality is, “if you don’t get it, sorry, we have to move on.”  Keeping your experiences within your “regime of competence” is a concept also reflected by this educator:

WoW is good at starting you off small – just a few spells, easily defeated baddies, and quests that let you go practice your skills without aggroing mobs. The game is also good at keeping you within your skill realm. You won’t find any level 30 foes in the level 1 areas so you’re usually pretty safe from biting off more than you can chew.

On the concept of feedback to the player (what we might call assessment), one of our educators shared this observation:

I could see that I was making progress, and that was motivating. Also the frequent advancing in levels at the beginning stages. I was so happy when my level went up! I’ve rarely seen this technique done in education, but it could certainly be borrowed.

I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness and reflection of these educators I had to go ahead and share it.  There are many more educators who’ll be sharing their reflections on exploring World of Warcraft this week.

Are you a gaming educator?  What parallels can you make between game design and good instructional design?

Coming This Summer: 3D Game Lab

Teachers! Looking for a great way to incorporate game-like elements into your curriculum? Lisa Dawley is hosting a completely online professional development program and access to the 3D Game Lab!  I’m proud to say that I’ll be contributing to this program in August.  It’s going to rock!  The official website and information about signing up can be found here –  Check out the video and the flyer below.