Game-Based Learning in the Classroom: 3 Essential Questions

By iThrive Games
May 14, 2018

Because games teach in ways that are unique, they bring many interesting affordances to the classroom. Games give learners a chance to immerse themselves in new information, apply that information in problem solving, and take new perspectives. They offer exposure to new content, and ways to practice tasks. Students can fail safely in games, and they can experiment with different types of solutions. Games allow students to work in self-directed, independent ways, and also on collaborative teams. There are some great strategies for finding games, involving your learners in selecting games, and helping students reflect on their gameplay, in a previous post on the iThrive Games blog by Barbara Chamberlin: Meaningfully and Realistically Using Games in Your Classroom.

We've seen games used in different ways in classrooms. The simplest way to use them is as a time filler on the computer in the back of the room for students who finish work early. If you just need a way for students to fill their spare time, using games is easy. Point your learner to the computer, give them some suggested sites (such as BrainPOP's GameUp or Games for Change), and game on!

[Related: iThrive's Curated Games Catalog features titles that may support teens' social and emotional skills including kindness, curiosity, empathy, and growth mindset.]

While the time-filling game model is fine as a starting point, we love seeing games integrated as more engaging, collaborative, and long-term immersive experiences. Ideally, gameplay is used to help students learn, not just to help them practice. Game-based learning offers the most to students when it is consistent with the other educational practices of the classroom. As instructional designers, teachers use several different tools to teach, but the tools should align with how learning happens. As with all educational technology, the most important decisions have little to do with the medium and everything to do with the what is being learned. More specifically, we need to think from the learner's perspective.

The 3 essential questions for incorporating game-based learning in the classroom. Image source: Authors.

Game-based learning can be guided in the classroom with three key questions (Note: These questions are based on the three-part framework we have created for the development of educational games. This process also adapts beautifully for developing a game-based learning model for using games in classrooms):

  • What change do I need to see in my student?
  • What kinds of activities will help create that change?
  • How can games facilitate those activities?

What Change do I Need to See in My Student?

It's easy to think about what we need to teach someone, rather than focusing on what they need to learn. Of course, learning is only one kind of transformation. Our students may just need to learn content, but it is more likely we also want them to change their behavior, increase their skills, or connect emotionally to something they are learning. It's likely we need them to change in more than one way. There are five key types of change we might want to promote in students:

  • Knowledge: What they know
  • Skill: What they can do
  • Behavior: How they act
  • Emotion: How they feel
  • Physiology: How they are

As educational designers, it helps us to think about what happens in the classroom as multiple types of change, rather than just knowledge gain. For example, for a unit on civics, we might want students to...

  • learn facts about the way our government works (knowledge change)
  • identify ways in which they can make changes in local, state, or national government (skill change)
  • try to influence government for the kind of change they want to create in the world (behavior change)

For a health unit, we might want them to...

  • understand caloric balance and different types of nutrients (knowledge change)
  • prioritize daily physical exercise (emotion change)
  • increase their cardiovascular capability (physiology change)

These types of change are based on where are students are now, and how we want them to be after our lesson. What knowledge and attitudes do they already have? What misconceptions do they have? How will they be transformed? If we can answer those things, the next step is to think about what they need to do to make that change.

Kids learn content from games, but they also learn by the way they play games. When they play collaboratively, they benefit from social learning strategies. Image source: Authors.

What Kinds of Activities Create that Change?

We each like to learn differently. We watch, listen, read, and absorb information. We practice, memorize, and rehearse different facts or phrases or activities. Change can come from a range of different activities, but the important thing to remember is that all change ultimately comes from doing. For this reason, thinking about which types of doing will most help your learner is very important. For example, in a project-based lesson about different states of matter, students might...

  • absorb information
  • discuss what they learn
  • form hypotheses
  • test those hypotheses
  • reflect
  • re-hypothesize

Each of those activities brings about some amount of change in a student, but all of them work together to create more significant and lasting change.
Students engaged in learning technical writing may...

  • familiarize themselves with different rules for grammar and punctuation
  • practice applying those rules in different types of writing

Learners on a field trip may...

  • experience wonder and surprise while learning about animals
  • be challenged to rethink something they feel should be true but isn't

Creating lists of all the different types of activities that learners go through can be challenging, but it helps to just think of the verbs. Given the content, process, or change you want for your learners, how do you believe they are most likely to achieve that change? What kinds of things do they have to do to go through that change? Again, it is likely to be not just one, but several different kinds of activities.

How Can Games Help with Those Activities?

The third logical step is to use games to facilitate those activities that bring about change. We look forward to one day finding a clearinghouse with thousands of games that address all of the different kinds of learning our students do...but we just aren't there yet. The good news is that wonderful games are already available and new ones are being released every year. The kinds of games that engage students in deeper learning experiences can take a considerable amount of time to build. Quick, quiz-like games are fairly easy to make — and accordingly, to find — but may not offer richer learning beyond helping students memorize facts.

The challenge for teachers is to find the games that best encourage the activities that will impact learners the most in a way that matches their educational approach. Quiz and reward games teach students how to memorize facts, but they don't help students do, explore, question and apply the content. In implementing games in your classroom, there must be a match between your content and the way in which you want your students to learn.

In Night of the Living Debt, players succeed (and fail) at raising their credit score. Image source

For example, several different types of games offer content regarding financial literacy. Night of the Living Debt, an iPad game we developed at NMSU's Learning Games Lab, is designed to help students understand how a credit score works. The content behind the game is fairly basic: it includes what types of activities impact your credit score (paying off a credit card, being late with payments, taking out certain kinds of loans), as well as what types of things are impacted by your credit score (loan rates, housing opportunities). What is unique about learning this content through gameplay is the way in which the learning occurs. In the game, students are allowed to experiment with different activities, getting immediate feedback regarding their credit score. They are allowed to fail and try again. The developers believe that this kind of learning is more likely to impact players' future behavior, than if they were simply exposed to the content by reading a list of credit score influences, or if they were quizzed on what types of activities affect credit score. How the students learn in the game is as important as what they learn.

If you can articulate these ideal ways to learn, your next step is to find a game that teaches with similar approaches, and supplement the game with additional activities. You might find a game that introduces content, but then you might add lab activities that allow students to apply that content in new ways. On the other hand, you might have students learn content on their own through their books, then use open-ended gameplay to help them apply it in ways that are difficult to do in a classroom.

Good educational games address content and introduce players to different ways to learn. When a good educational game matches your educational approach, you have a seamless and effective way to use game-based learning to its greatest advantage.

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About the Authors

Barbara Chamberlin, PhD, oversees research and development at the Learning Games Lab at New Mexico State University, a non-profit educational production studio. She has a passion for user testing, math and science education, and hands-on learning. Her current projects include apps for pre-school students on physical education and healthy eating, chemistry learning tools for college students, and pre-Algebra games for middle school students. Learn more about her work at

Jesse Schell is the CEO of Schell Games, a team of one hundred people who strive to make the world's greatest educational and entertainment games, including Yale Medical's PlayForward: Elm City Stories, Water Bears VR, SuperChem VR, the Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood games, and Happy Atoms. Schell Games also creates pure entertainment content, such as the award-winning VR game, I Expect You To Die, and the comedy space game Orion Trail. Jesse also serves as Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University. Jesse has worked on a wide variety of innovative game and simulation projects for both entertainment and education, but he is best known for his award-winning book, "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses," and his predictions about the future of gaming technology. He is a previous chair of the International Game Developers Association, and former Creative Director of the Disney Virtual Reality Studio.