Games for Experiential Learning: A Primer for Researchers and Educators

One of the most powerful affordances that researchers and educators find in games is their ability to act as experiential learning tools. Scholars Dieleman and Husingh (2004), Kurt Squire (), and many others have highlighted the ways games can function as learning experiences. 

But, what do we mean by experiential learning? Why is experiential learning important? More to the point, why do so many researchers point to videogames as a resource for developing experiential learning experiences?

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What Is Experiential Learning

Without diving too deep into the theory and language around learning sciences, what is experiential learning? 

The basic theory is that most people will learn better through experience than instruction.

Want to learn how to fix a car? You’re better off working on the car than reading a repair manual. Want to teach students about geology? You’ll have better luck by having them analyze rocks than just telling them about geology.

Simply put, people learn by doing.

Demirbas and Demirkan (2007) sum up the process pretty tightly in this graph, which separates experiential learning into 4 phases of a cycle:

  1. Concrete experience: actual hands-on doing of something
    1. Fixing a car
  2. Reflective observation: thinking about what you did
    1. Remembering fixing the car and how you did it / why some things worked and some didn’t
  3. Abstract conceptualization: thinking about the theories of what you did 
    1. Asking yourself how you could apply what you learned to fixing a different car
  4. Active experimentation: applying what you’ve learned in a new experience
    1. Trying a new way to fix the car or fixing a different problem with the same approach

Kolb, 1984

Types of experiences

Theoretically, you can learn from basically any experience. However, experiential learning researchers have focused on problem-based and inquiry-based experiences. This means that experiences that ask you to solve a problem or answer an open ended question are usually the most effective learning experiences.

Learn about the other learning affordances of videogames here.

So, How are Games Experiential Learning?

Games are experiences. More than that, they are active experiences. The player has to do something or the game doesn’t progress. 

Beyond that, there are two primary ways that games can act as experiential learning tools:

Check out our teacher’s resource for using games as experiential learning.

Authentic experience

Probably the most obvious is the possibility of what scholars call authentic experience. Authentic experience usually refers to the ability of a game to offer players an authentic situation in which to learn and use skills.  

How this authentic experience is conceptualized differs from scholar to scholar. Probably the two strongest arguments are for mobile games and intrinsically integrated games.

Researchers have argued that mobile games are a great source of authentic experience, because the phone can be taken anywhere. Geo-locative games like Aris or Environmental Detectives challenge players to go places and experience things in the real world, using the game as a vehicle for exploration.

Intrinsically integrated games, on the other hand, create authentic experience by melding the content with the game mechanics. Games like Mechanic Simulator require players actually find and replace parts on a 3d model of a car, creating a simplified by reasonably authentic experience of performing the actual repair.

Some scholars (Cheng et al., 2019) believe that the main limitation of games as authentic experience is that they lack collaborative knowledge construction. In more direct terms, a game has set rules and hard-coded knowledge, while an authentic situation usually involves people deciding on what “authentic practice” looks like on the fly.

Roleplay / Narrative

Games can also empower experiential learning in that they ask players to imagine themselves within an experience. 

Narrative experiences ask the players to engage in a level of roleplay, taking on the identity of the character they are playing. As Ruggiero (2013) points out, this kind of roleplay can lead to an emotional connection to an experience.

That connection is often used in designing serious games for social impact. However, it is also valuable as a teaching tool. 

Roleplay and story offer excellent tools for exploring different times and places in history, for seeing how what you’ve learned can be impactful, and for applying knowledge in a situation with some meaningful context rather than just words on a page.

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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Cheng, S. C., Hwang, G. J., & Chen, C. H. (2019). From reflective observation to active learning: A mobile experiential learning approach for environmental science education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(5), 2251-2270.

Demirbas, O. O., & Demirkan, H. (2007). Learning styles of design students and the relationship of academic performance and gender in design education. Learning and instruction, 17(3), 345-359.

Dieleman, H. and Huisingh, D. (2006) “Games by which to learn and teach about sustainable development: exploring the relevance of games and experiential learning for sustainability”. Journal of Cleaner Production, vol.14, no.9-11, pp.837-847.

Klopfer, E., & Squire, K. (2004). Getting your socks wet: augmented reality environmental science. Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Learning Sciences, 614–622. Retrieved from http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1149126.1149238

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

1 thought on “Games for Experiential Learning: A Primer for Researchers and Educators

  1. Pingback: Narrative Learning with Games : NASAGA Blog and Wiki

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