What Game-Based Learning Can Do for Student Achievement

By Justin Eames

If I had written this article two years ago, it would have been very different. Back then, I would have made (or felt like I had to make) a compelling case for why we should even consider the idea of incorporating video games into classroom instruction. Back then, I would have expected most readers to incredulously click to the next article.

But today, Game-Based Learning (GBL) and Gamification are gaining some real traction in the teaching community. At the recent OETC conference, the organizers dedicated an entire wing of the convention center to the subject, and educators weren’t shy about their interest. When I presented on the subject at Common Ground 14, I had the dreaded “last-presentation-of-the-day” spot, but I was very pleased at the turnout and interest.

Before we go any further, let’s get one thing straight: Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning (GBL).

Gamification vs. Game-Based Learning

Gamification refers to the adoption of game-like principles when working outside of a gaming context. Perhaps my favorite example comes from gamifying guru Jane McGonigal and her excellent book Reality is Broken; in the book, she discusses Chore Wars, a site that lets family members assign point values and rewards for various household chores. (McGonigal reports that, between her and her husband, the bathroom has never been cleaner!)

Any time a teacher assigns points to a student, uses a leaderboard, or distributes badges, he or she is gamifying. For the classroom teacher interested in gamification, check out 3D GameLab, an online learning management system (LMS) that helps you gamify your classroom, or ClassBadges, which allows teachers to create and distribute unique badges to their students.

Here is a nice guide to gamifying the classroom, written for newbies (or “noobs,” in the language of the gamers).

Game-Based Learning, on the other hand, simply means including games in your instruction. For the sake of this discussion, when I say “games,” I mean “video games.”

Teachers have been using video games for as long as they have had computers. Personally, I spent countless hours fording rivers and hunting wildlife while playing Oregon Trail. Oregon Trail was one of the earliest, and perhaps best, examples of game based learning, as it took subject-specific content and relevant educational standards and offered an immersive game experience to the player. Rather than just reading about the experience of pioneers and the principles of Manifest Destiny, students were forced to take on those roles and experience the Trail for themselves.

Why GBL in the Classroom?

Now, while those who shared the Oregon Trail experience may scoff at this, let’s think for a moment about how and what we learned by playing that game.

As the game opens, players are saddled with an important choice—who are you? Are you a well-to-do banker? Or are you a poor farmer, scraping by and hoping to secure a better life for your family? As players progress through the game, they continue to face important choices. While no one would argue that the game truly lets you experience the hardships those settlers endured, it probably does a better job than a half-page of textbook.

Fast-forward to 2014. Games in development are of a caliber that my river-fording, ten-year-old self could never have imagined. The graphics alone are astonishing, and the experiences offered through gaming often align with core learning objectives. Teachers have long valued the strategy of presenting material in a variety of ways in order to reach different kinds of intelligences and learning styles, and games are a worthy addition to the instructional toolbox.

A wonderful example of a successful game is Gone Home. In the game, the player must explore a seemingly-deserted house, finding clues and unraveling details about the past year. And in the classroom, the spontaneous, student-driven discussions prompted by the game are pure teaching gold.

But the game’s applications go further than that. 

Take English Language Arts--students applied the reading strategies they had been honing all year to this new medium, with great success. While they played through the game, students kept logs of the clues and mind-maps that linked various pieces of evidence together. Before the story resolved, students made predictions about the impending resolution and, once the denouement arrived, students evaluated the ending or create one they enjoyed more.

And don’t even get me started on Minecraft. One great video from the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube recently asked the question, “Is Minecraft the Ultimate Educational Tool?” The answer is a resounding “it might just be!” To make K-12 integration even easier, the wonderful folks at Teacher Gaming created an educational version of Minecraft and provide a vibrant, dedicated online teacher community for support, which makes adopting Minecraft in schools so much easier.

Great Starter Games to Check Out

Not sure where to begin? Take a look at some of these great K-12 starter games:

  • Banished: This game is a city-building simulator in the vein of SimCity; however, in a medieval setting, your main adversary in the game are harsh winters.
  • Bridge Constructor: This is great for teaching the physics of forces and could easily be paired with assignments about the students’ own community.
  • Gone Home: Non-violent and fits in nicely with middle or high school ELA classes.
  • Kerbal Space Program: A charming space simulator in which students design and launch rockets.
  • MinecraftEDU: The ultimate sandbox game, flexible enough to be used in any classroom.
  • Myst: A first person puzzle game, Myst offers an experience similar to Gone Home. As a warning, Myst can be challenging, so the teacher should play through first in order to help give clues to students.
  • Oregon Trail: The game that started it all. The classic version is available for free, but there have been several new versions released throughout the years.
  • Portal II: A fun adventure game tells a hilarious story while providing endless brain-warping puzzles.
  • Roller Coaster Tycoon: Students design a theme park from the ground up; the game requires players to handle budgets, marketing, and staffing.
  • Sim City: Players must balance a host of demands as they grow their cities. The newest version offers multiplayer, so students can create cities together and trade resources.
  • Spore: The game is a wonderful complement to discussions of evolution, but requires definite pre-teaching.

Like its devotees, gaming has come a long way. And more than ever before, we understand that different students learn in different ways. Providing a multi-layered approach is essential for ensuring that everyone is learning. Happy gaming!



Get weekly updates on edtech products, companies and events that matter.
EdSurge Newsletters
Receive weekly emails on edtech products, companies, and events that matter.
Subscribe for Free