Playing it smart

How and why Game-Based Learning delivers academic results
By: | Issue: May, 2016
March 29, 2016

From testing problem-solving skills in the survivalist block-building adventure Minecraft to reinforcing science concepts in SimCityEDU, educators are integrating games in the classroom at an increasingly rapid rate. Game-Based Learning occurs when students play a game with defined learning outcomes.

In this special section, District Administration analyzes exactly what qualifies as Game-Based Learning, and identifies the broad categories most games fall under. For example, games that allow students to act out the role of a person from history are designated as interactive fiction games. The self-paced, building-block aspect of Minecraft makes it a sandbox type of game.

Our report also delves into the science behind Game-Based Learning: Why does the experiential part of games help students understand ideas? Why do successes feel better and failures feel less painful in a game environment than on paper tests?

Games on the market today apply to specific curriculum in STEAM, ELA and other classes. With such a wealth of games from which to choose, administrators need to know how to find the right games for their schools—and how to get educators on board with using those games effectively. DA offers practical advice on this and more for district leaders interested in the power of Game-Based Learning for rich learning.

Games reach, teach students in immersive ways

Whether it’s amassing property and related rights while playing Monopoly, or measuring area and perimeter to create a community in Minecraft, students are experiencing—and mastering—curriculum through increasingly popular Game-Based Learning.

Simply stated, Game-Based Learning occurs when students actually play a game, whether it’s on a computer with exciting visuals and sound, or on a board with a spinner and tokens. GBL, as it’s known, is different from Gamification of Education, which uses game elements such as points, stickers or a leaderboard to encourage students to progress in a given area.

Game-Based Learning is becoming more popular as teachers recognize its benefits and become more comfortable with its logistics, says Lucas Gillispie, director of Academic and Digital Learning at Surry County Schools in North Carolina, and a blogger at

“We don’t have a problem using books and film in the classroom; I think games are that next big medium pushing into the classroom, and it’s an interactive medium” Gillispie says. “I’ve seen burned-out teachers use games and fall back in love with the profession.”

While Game-Based Learning is evolving every day, games typically fall into categories according to the platform on which they are played: mobile, console, website, computer, paper and pencil, and analog (board games, cards). Within those categories are many genres that span everything from trading cards—think Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering—to high-tech, such as World of Warcraft, in which players inhabit digital worlds where they must manage resources, create tools and outsmart creatures who would possibly do them harm.

“The best games balance challenge with capabilities” Gillispie says. “If I can create a learning environment where the challenge increases as the student’s skill set increases, while keeping them engaged, then I’ve hit the sweet spot. Good games do that really well.”

Professional educator organizations as well as gamer groups help implement, troubleshoot and even finance GBL in the classroom. And a number of Game Jams, Hackathons and other events support the move toward involving more teachers in the world of gaming. “The term ‘gamer’ is so off-putting, but the gaming industry is way beyond the basement dweller” Gillispie says.

According to a 2015 ThinkZone study, more than half of the 800 teachers and 350 administrators surveyed believe games can be used to teach complex and challenging ideas and topics. ThinkZone, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, is a portal for research-based apps, games and interactive tools designed for deep learning across core subjects.

About 15 percent of educators are using games daily, while another 36 percent use games weekly, according to the study. ThinkZone, according to the report, sees games as “the epitome of the way we want students to learn: games are highly motivating, they embed just-in-time learning with student engagement, and they build in assessment without having to stop learning to take tests.”

“We want kids to collaborate, problem-solve, be creative” says Mitch Weisburgh, a founding member of ThinkZone and founding member of Games4Ed, which works to expand the use of GBL in education. “They’re doing that all the time with games. They’re failing consistently and coming back and persevering until they solve the problem. Even though there is some competition, they’re asking friends for advice on how they mastered an area.”

Games also describe a larger metaphor for students, says Sherry Jones, game design and psychology subject matter expert and instructor at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Colorado. “We talk about how games are rules systems, and without rules you don’t have a game” says Jones. “The analogy is that everything in the world is gamelike. If you don’t follow the rules, you lose.”

GBL’s secret sauce not so secret after all

Game-Based Learning works because it’s captivating, provides immediate feedback and spurs players to keep trying until they succeed, according to experts.

More than anything, games are about the experience, says Jones. “By experiencing a situation, people relate to a concept and understand an issue better” she says. “When a kid reads a story, they flip pages and don’t have to understand what they’re reading. With a video game, you can’t do that. Guessing will only get you so far.”

Playing games also taps into one’s desire to “feel” content and to test theories, says Michelle Riconscente, president of Designs for Learning, a research and evaluation firm specializing in assessment and educational technology, in California. “You can’t test some things in a classroom because there could be serious consequences” she says. “The culture of games, however, is that you keep messing up until you make it through.”

This interaction also enriches a student’s mental models—perceptions of how the world works, she says.

Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow”—when challenge and skill are balanced, and immersion, concentration and learning follow.

Kae Novak, chair of ISTE’s Games and Simulations Network, cites flow, fun and fiero as the trifecta for GBL success. “Fiero is that dynamic point when a student finishes a quest with an exuberance that shouts—literally or figuratively—’Nailed it!” she says.

And the self-efficacy theory suggests the most effective experiences include an attainable goal that, when reached, boosts confidence—even if success isn’t instant. “Games have graceful failure built in” says Bruce Homer, associate professor of educational psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. “For a kid to fail in a game doesn’t diminish their self-esteem or demotivate them. Whereas on a test, if you get something wrong, that’s it.”

Students play their way through history, math

Kids enjoy the darndest things. Just ask Trish Cloud, a teacher whose fourth- graders have happily headed west via The Oregon Trail, a game that has certainly advanced since the 1980s version many young adults remember from their own school days.

“My kids had a hoot, especially when a snake swallowed one of them” Cloud recalls with a laugh. “They blogged about their experiences moving across the country. Some were depressed, writing, ‘My husband died; my child died.’ But they enjoyed doing it.”

Developers are capitalizing on this interest,

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