Game-based Learning: How it works

Whether you’re interested in studying game-based learning as a teacher or a game developer, your first step should be understanding why and how games empower learning. 


Well, at the onset of games in education, plenty of folks who didn’t understand games OR education started making edutainment games. These half cocked attempts set back the games-based learning field for years. What’s worse, they did very little to actually educate. 

So, let’s get started with the basics: why are games good learning tools?

Home: go back to the top page of the games for learning wiki blog

The Arguments for Game-based Learning


At the top of most teachers’ lists for why game-based learning works is probably going to be the most obvious answer: they can be engaging. In a world with millions of messages being rocketed into kids’ brains, education has to fight to stand out.

Games are both familiar and exciting for a lot of students. 

That alone, though, doesn’t make any old game a good learning tool. Too many times teachers fall into the trap of thinking a game is a learning tool without exactly what it’s teaching. Sure, the students are having fun playing Catan. But, are they actually learning what you want them to or just learning how to play the game?

How scholars talk about engagement differs. Cognitive scholars use measurements like flow, an indication of how “into the game” you are. Human-computer interaction specialists can sometimes rely on biometrics that measure things like heart rate or eye movement. 

No matter how we talk about engagement, it’s important to remember that being engaging doesn’t automatically make a game a good learning tool!

Learn more about engagement here.

Experiential Learning

A lot of people, both industry and academia, will tell you that the conversation about games and learning changed when people started talking about experiential learning in games.

What is experiential learning and how do games provide it?

The simple explanation is that we learn differently when we experience something. Theorist might refer to this as situated cognition or authentic experience. But, the argument boils down to the fact that learning by doing is almost always more effective than learning by being taught.

Games are a truly interactive medium (it can’t play itself, really). This means, as Kurt Squire argues, we can intentionally design experiences. 

Those experiences can be abstract, like an empathy game where you learn what it feels like to deal with depression. They can also be skill based, such as simulating working on an old car. Or, they can be narrative, meaning you roleplay a character.

Inquiry and Problem-based Learning

Education researchers and teachers alike have come out in support of problem-based and inquiry-based learning. In this style of teaching, rather than just telling a student what you want them to know, you let students drive the learning by solving problems and answering questions themselves. 

A great example of problem-based learning would be giving a group of engineering students a project of building a robot that can handle rough terrain. Then, you let them solve it as they choose.

Games are natural platforms for this kind of learning. Games, especially videogames, require players to solve problems and learn skills.  From Squire and Kopfer’s Environmental Detectives to ARIS, the natural problem-solution process of playing games is being used to educate.

Playful Learning Machines

Finally, game are playful learning machines by their nature. Players have to learn a new system, master a set of skills, and use those skills to solve problems. Beyond that, games can do three things that learners need: give a player new information, assess their learning, and provide immediate feedback.

Think about this in the context of a classic like Super Mario Brothers. The game gives you some new information, jumping on a goomba will kill it. It then assesses you by providing a goomba. Finally, if you successfully jump on it, the goomba dies. Feedback.

These elements are critical to learning, as they allow a learner to adjust their concepts and improve their model-based reasoning about a topic.

Game-based Learning Design Frameworks

There are a significant number of game design frameworks for game-based learning. Our goal here at NASAGA is to eventually map them all, but that will take a very long time. 

Check out the game design framework page for details.

Below, we briefly describe some of the more prominent frameworks. Each is described in detail in its own page.

Objects to Think With

Holbert and Wilensky proposed this model in 2019 as a way of using constructivism to guide game design. In this approach, the game uses authentic representations of content and players get very little guidance, using the representation as a tool for experimentation.

Not many games have been made with this fairly new framework. Holbert and Wilensky’s example game, Particles!, used an in-game atomic modeling system to make blocks with different elemental qualities (heavy, bouncy, sticky, etc). They could then use the blocks to navigate jumping puzzles in the level.

Transformational Play

In 2010 and 2012 Sasha Barab led a team releasing a series of articles exploring transformational play. This complicated design framework empowers agency learners by showing how their choices (informed or otherwise) interact with the narrative of the game. The framework has been heavily tested in Quest Atlantis.

Interest-based Design

This framework is based on Hidi and Renninger’s 4 phases of interest and emphasizes social support. Saba Kawas led the team using the framework. The four primary principles of the framework are 1) engage children in relevant activities, 2) support children’s focused attention, 3) encourage children to engage in social interactions, and 4) provide opportunity for continued engagement.

Though not necessarily only for games (the original use was in mobile technologies and apps), this framework is very applicable to mobile game design.

Intrinsically Integrated Games

 Kafai (1996) put forth that in order for games to teach knowledge playing the game must require use of that knowledge. The idea is that games must use the core knowledge as part of the mechanics of play. Zombie Divider by Habgood and Ainsworth (2011) used this model to build their mechanics. In their game players needed to constantly use division to power weapons and defeat enemies.

About the Author

Clayton Whittle is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, focusing on games for social impact research. He serves on the board of NASAGA and handles the blog.

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2 thoughts on “Game-based Learning: How it works

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