Game-Based Learning: From Teaching to Professional Development

By Anders Wallace

Game-Based Learning

Photo by Pexels

If you’ve heard of gamification, it’s likely this comes in a pejorative context that connotes manipulation. Maybe someone decides your trusty banking app needs to be more “gamified,” which just gives you a smartphone headache as you struggle to navigate what used to be a simple, intuitive interface.

One of the reasons most people turn to game-based learning (GBL) is that they want to enliven their classroom. This blog post discusses some reasons, benefits, and drawbacks for using game-based learning as part of your teaching practice. It also discusses some simple ways to get started, as well as some resources that can take you further should you find that your curiosity is piqued.

This post is based on a workshop held by the CUNY Games Network in Spring 2017 at the Graduate Center. CUNY Games is trying to build sustained engagement throughout the CUNY community for supporting games in teaching, learning and research. The organization exists to empower students throughout CUNY to acquire tools for game-based learning in academia. This post draws on the methodologies of Robert Duncan, Joe Bisz, and Kathleen Offenholley, whom I’d like to thank for their advice!

The CUNY Games Network is hosting the CUNY Games Conference 4.0 on January 22 & 23, 2018. Consider attending!

Why Games-Based Learning?

Games and play are related, but are not the same thing. Play usually refers to a joyful practice without an obvious purpose. Games involve play, but usually direct it towards goal-oriented problem solving by allowing players to make meaningful choices. The operative quality of user experience in both games and play is a feeling of having fun. Games-based learning is about learning a set of tools and general guidelines that allow you to improvise in the classroom, creating new teaching exercises around material you already know.

When people hear “games” they most often think of digital videogames. Realistically, though, some of the most effective games for learning are analog, table-top, or other non-digital types of games. Games are structures of interaction—of collaboration, dissemination, sharing, and synthesis—that are not just useless diversions. With a little forethought, games promote active learning and enhance student outcomes. Interest in games-based learning is part of a broader, well-established shift in American education away from passive, one-size-fits-all rote learning towards active, engaged, and responsive learning.

If you teach at CUNY, you may already be implementing some of the principles of active learning in your classroom. From the so-called flipped classroom to writing-centered curricula, a growing body of research suggests that any type of active learning in the classroom has huge benefits. For one, meta-analyses of studies of active learning outcomes in classrooms shows that it reduces overall failure rates among students. There have been a number of grant mechanisms to support game-based learning from the National Science Foundation. The U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research grants have heavily favored game development projects. And under President Obama, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy even appointed a game czar.

At CUNY, student-teacher ratios often over-burden faculty in ways that can leave students feeling anonymous inside classrooms. Moreover, students sometimes become bored by the linear, top-down nature of class lectures. When you’re out there alone facing thirty students, you don’t get the amount or quality of one-on-one time with students that could help them. Game-based learning gives students the opportunity to work together, allowing them to become peer mentors for each other. Students get to explore, try things, fail, and do it again and again and again from class to class. It makes students feel that it’s ok to make mistakes, which is often a challenge in classrooms where students may have widely varying levels of topic knowledge, self-confidence, and language skills.

Game-based learning also brings other benefits:

  • It allows teachers to pair teaching and assessment together.
  • Interactivity gives students immediate feedback, which empowers their learning process.
  • It provides many “teachable moments” for “just-in-time learning.”
  • It calibrates the difficulty of tasks to users’ performance, which facilitates sustained attention, engagement, and learning while minimizing boredom and frustration.
  • It motivates students’ attention and self-confidence in the sense of failure, which leads them to greater engagement and a sense of responsibility.
  • It allows students to get to know each other better, and feel more bonded as a group.
  • It also leads to unexpected insights, since you’re giving up a measure of control over what students might contribute (and, thus, over what solutions and challenges they may experience).
  • It teaches soft skills—like leadership, collaboration, teamwork, and openness to multiple perspectives—alongside your lesson content.
  • It gives students more chances to practice the lesson and ingrain the insights they’re acquiring in the classroom.
  • It makes more efficient use of class time compared to lecturing.

How Do I Get Started?

Getting started with game-based learning can seem intimidating. Luckily, there are many ways to go! It pays to brainstorm and prototype your plans for a game—however simple—in advance.

For example, your game might involve rolling dice; shuffling and drawing from a deck of cards; or solving content through a puzzle. Consider dividing your course content into a series of interactions or games. This allows the lessons to unfold for students as a series of engaging surprises. When students can access your content from multiple points of entry and with different degrees of interactivity—as in a game—this allows them to piece together the meaning of lessons for themselves.

Broadly speaking, there are five easy ways—five “mechanics”, in the GBL lingo—to insert a little bit of interaction into your exercises to make them more gamed-up. Think of this in terms of two variables: the pace of your exercise, and the goal. The pace of your exercise can either be rapid or random. And the goal of your exercise should be to provide some kind of reward, foster some kind of rivalry, or impart some kind of roles.

Exercises with a rapid pace generally simplify details for the student. They involve setting time-limits for the task (for example, which group of students gets the most correct answers within a limited window of time?), and breaking your presentation into short, quick chunks.

Exercises with a random pace allow students to recreate the meaning of lessons for themselves. This might involve rolling dice; shuffling and drawing cards; or solving content through a puzzle.

Thinking about the goals of your game, rivalry is usually the easiest one to understand. You’ll want to give students some goal to compete with each other for—other than the amorphous goal of trying to get a good grade (or, for that matter, being able to intuit that a lesson is vaguely helping them with some skill that they’re learning in college). You can put students on a team, so students cooperate with their teammates to win a challenge. Another way to look at rivalry-based games is to set up a yardstick that students can give each other to measure their personal progress. Often just gauging the speed and manner in which students are assigned to finish their exercise offers a valuable kind of feedback to you as instructor.

Another type of game can be geared around the goal of rewards. Rewards give students a goal that they feel accomplishment from achieving. This goal could be extra credit, points, badges, reward charts, or other forms of feedback that feels personally meaningful for students. One way of implementing this is to give students an assignment and then go around the room, giving students 5-10 seconds of feedback each on how they’re doing. This gives students the sense that you’re appraising anything and everything they’re doing—even if you don’t actually see it—simply because you’re giving them quick feedback.

The last goal type is giving roles. Roles are basically themes or goals that students identify with. Students get to take on a real-life or fictional character, and play-act as their character in order to reason their way through a challenge, a problem, or a debate. You could break down teams so every member is doing something different, and each has different knowledge than others, so they must therefore combine their knowledge in order to make progress. Or, you can impose some kind of broader thematic goal for students to achieve.

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to create a game from scratch! Instead, consider simply modifying an existing game. You can re-use popular game models—such as Jeopardy, Poker, or Trivial Pursuit—and frame these core game mechanics around a lesson that you want to teach. Designing your own game can even take the form of assigning students to investigate, collect, assemble, or perform physical activities like passing, scoring, relay-running, or taking a difficult shot to hit the target.

You can also assign your students to design their own games (a field called “game-design based learning”), or modify existing ones. For example, how would you use the gameplay mechanics of Trivial Pursuit to teach note-taking? When addressed to a particular topic, game-design based learning can be a very powerful tool through which students learn more about their discipline and begin to feel a sense of content mastery.

Some Challenges

Games certainly aren’t the best choice for all teaching situations. What are some challenges to implementing GBL?

Consider that it can potentially be a distraction from organized learning. It could also take more preparation time on the teacher’s part, at least in the short-term (such as coming up with a game from scratch). Furthermore, GBL can potentially place artificial constraints on learning, especially when what could be productively discussed outside of the constraints of the game is not included in the game. Remember that the size of student groups matters; if you make them too small or too large, they’re prone to fall apart. Finally, sometimes the process of synthesis and integration—a collective debriefing after the game when outcomes are translated back into the context of disciplinary learning—can be a challenge, especially if the game was overly complex or too simple for students to feel engaged.

If and when you use game-based learning, it’s best to find ways of implementing exercises that lean on your interests and what you’ve already been doing in the classroom. This makes implementing GBL smoother and more sustainable for you, and allows you to troubleshoots any soft spots more easily.

Additional Resources