Game-Based Learning

Game-based learning is pretty much what it says on the tin: it’s the use of a game to teach specific skills or concepts. For instance, most of us are familiar with online typing games that help people assess and improve their keyboarding skills. There are plenty of educational games that are directly designed to teach concepts such as the many offerings at Game Classroom or The Beer Game, which teaches college-level supply chain management concepts. However, there are also many “regular” games that teach valid educational concepts, such as Minecraft, Scrabble, Oregon Trail, Plague Inc., and Suburbia.

Why use a game for learning? Learning through play is a powerful tool for children and adults alike. Games provide far more engagement for students than traditional classroom lectures or book study. Games provide motivation, competition, and immediate reward and feedback. Simple types of learning games teachers might use in class include flash card games or a trivia games. Very good, complex games provide immersive storytelling, opportunities for positive social interaction, and outlets for creativity. Game-based learning can also provide scenario simulation and role-playing that prepares students to apply concepts and skills in the real world.

Edutainment games such as Reader Rabbit have been popular for years. GamesBeat says that the game-based learning market will swell to $2.3 billion dollars in 2017, in large part because schools have become far more accepting of using learning apps on tablets and other mobile devices.

The key element of any type of game-based learning is that it has specific, measurable learning outcomes. Games must be designed to integrate opportunities for players to learn concepts or skills and successfully demonstrate that they know how to apply them. For instance, an educator who has decided to incorporate Plague Inc. or Pandemic in a public heath course might write this outcome: “After playing the game, students will be able to list and describe common disease transmission vectors and explain how local environments affect these modes of transmission.”

An educator who is looking for a learning game, or who is considering creating one, should ask him- or herself the following questions:

  • What is/are the desired learning outcome(s)?
    • How do I succinctly describe that outcome so that students, parents, and administrators can see the value of the game?
    • How do I reinforce student learning?
    • How do I measure/assess student learning?
  • Given my objectives, what form should the game take?
    • For instance, should this be a matching game? A role-playing game? A simulation?
    • Should the game be playable online, or in class, or both?
  • How will I integrate this into the existing curriculum?
  • Will there be any institutional resistance to the game?
    • What is it, and why is it there?
    • How can I overcome it?
  • How can I effectively purchase or produce this game?
    • Do I have the resources to create, modify, or purchase the game?
      • If I need help, how do I enlist that help?
    • Are there less expensive alternatives that could work?
    • If this game requires students to purchase something, can students afford it?
    • If this game requires an annual fee or ongoing maintenance, am I sure that my institution will be able to support it in the future?
  • Is this game sufficiently engaging?
    • If I am building the game myself, how can I keep it entertaining?

All of these questions may have simple or complex answers. It could be that a teacher is in an institution that has fully embraced games as learning tools and is keen on gamification, and there will be no resistance and plenty of support for anything the teacher can justify … but other educators are not so fortunate.

Answering the question of what form the game should take can be particularly complicated, and the Taxonomy Alignment for Gaming by Angel Green can be particularly helpful. While you can find the PDF poster here, this is an essential breakdown of the pyramid from basic to advanced:

  • Recall and Memorization Games: These are fast-paced, recall-based games centered on right/wrong answers, such as flash card and matching games.
  • Judgement Games: These are also based on right/wrong answers, but are a bit more advanced and require players to explain, compare or identify concepts.
  • Consequence Games: These games are based on cause and effect and involve problem-solving and decision-making and may not have simple answers.
  • Strategy Games: These games involve more advanced puzzles and challenges and require players to analyze problems and compare options to find solutions.
  • Exploration Games: These games may be nonlinear, branching and have multiple outcomes based on player decisions; role-playing games frequently fall in this category.
  • Simulation Games: These games provide immersive, simulated worlds and are frequently multiplayer and collaborative, such as Minecraft. These games heavily engage players’ creativity, design and building skills.

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  1. What’s Gamification? – Lucy A. Snyder

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