What is game-based learning and how can it be promoted in schools? In this literature review especially written for teachers and practitioners, our Guest Editor Dr Mingfong Jan answers these questions and more.
If you had considered using digital games to help your students learn in 2003, most people would have thought you a maverick, though the idea wasn’t entirely inconceivable.
2003 was the year James Paul Gee published What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (Gee, 2003), a seminal work cited more than five thousand times in just a decade. At that time, the term “digital native” as coined by game researcher Marc Prensky (2001) was still foreign to the public.
Today, a decade after Gee’s publication, chances are people are no longer surprised if you use digital games in class. Instead, they’ll ask you what you’re using the games for. Your Head of Department will probably ask about pedagogies and assessments. What is this game about? What activities would accompany the game? How would you evaluate students’ learning? Amazed and amused responses are now replaced by concrete action plans and clarifications.
But to develop game-based learning as a plausible learning approach for students or as a niche area in schools, a clarification about what it means is still needed regardless of whether we are practitioners, researchers, policymakers or parents. The following review seeks to provide an insight into this question.
Rationale for Game-based Learning in Education
Games are used to help people learn for three major reasons: motivation, content mastery, as well as higher order thinking and social skills.
In the 1980s, MIT professor Thomas Malone (1981) maintained that games motivate players with elements of challenge, fantasy and curiosity. His study contributes to what makes games fun rather than what makes them educational.
Today, the “fun” element of games remains a major point of interest, attracting researchers and practitioners to use games in learning environments. However, it is often uncertain whether players are learning while they are having fun.
Content mastery refers to the acquisition of facts and information generated by experts. Most games designed for content mastery provide opportunities for drill and practice, a dominant learning model in the 20th century. Content mastery games are perhaps the most commonly used and sustainable games in schools due to their close alignment with learning practices in schools.
Higher order thinking and social skills refer to skills used to solve problems, analyze data, synthesize findings and collaborate with others. They are often seen as essential 21st century competencies.
Games that foster (instead of teach) higher order thinking and social skills are often intellectually demanding. They provide challenging contexts for players to experience and develop thinking and social skills. Game scholars like Gee, Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuehler, David Williamson Shaffer often refer to the learning component in game-based learning as games for higher order thinking and social skills (e.g., Schaffer, Squire, Halverson, & Gee, 2005; Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008).
Such a stance on game-based learning, however, is mostly missing for games taken up by schools.
Three Views on Game-based Learning
Much like the different reasons for using games for learning, the perspectives on what counts as game-based learning are equally diverse. These perspectives are critical because they pinpoint how game-based learning is conceptualized for learning in schools.
The dominant view conceives game-based learning as a learning approach driven by game technologies (e.g., Gee, 2003; Prensky, 2003). It asks how games, such as a commercial off-the-shelf game, can help young people learn. This view suggests that learning occurs predominantly as a result of game play.
Therefore, learning takes place when players can play a game at their own pace and style, even outside of school. Through self-initiated game play, players develop higher order thinking skills and even social skills without guidance from teachers
The second view perceives game-based learning as a learning approach driven not only by game technologies, but also by pedagogies. Learning does not take place only within a game, but also through the activities designed around a game. Many schools hold this view of game-based learning. Unlike the first view, students (instead of players) often learn to play with guidance from teachers – much like how students learn with textbooks.
The third view regards game-based learning as more of a pedagogical/learning innovation informed by game design principles. This view employs game mechanics and game-design thinking to design learning environments. Role-playing, achievement, competition and reward system are some of the game features often employed to “gamify” the learning contexts such as online communities (e.g., Kapp, 2012).
Game-based Learning in Schools
How are the three perspectives on game-based learning relevant to learning in general, as well as to learning in schools?
Viewing game-based learning as a learning approach driven by game technologies is more suitable for learning initiated by players themselves. When a player plays a complex problem-solving game, such as Civilization, they may develop deep understanding about how a complex system works on their own (Squire, 2004). They learn not only because they are motivated, but also because they can play at their own pace and style.
Viewing game-based learning as both a technological and pedagogical innovation seems like an ideal model for schools as most learning activities involve teacher guidance and the use of technologies. The reality, however, often suggests otherwise.
Games ideal for fostering 21st century competencies are often no longer the same games when they are used in the classroom. The rules of play are changed to fit the schooling context. Players, as students now, are often not allowed to play the game in their own playing styles. The learning processes and outcomes can dramatically change as a result.
Another challenge comes from using a game for what it is not designed for, especially for games with the potential to develop higher order thinking skills. They are often designed as interactive systems that don’t “carry” a lot of contents. Even when they do, those contents are essential information for problem solving, instead of canonical facts to be memorized (Gee, 2007; Shaffer, 2006).
While these games are ideal for developing higher order thinking skills, they are unsuitable for content mastery. Teachers usually face the challenge of trying to do both at the same time, given that time is always not on their side. The result is that both teaching objectives are often compromised.
Viewing game-based learning as a pedagogical innovation appears to be a more plausible approach, especially when costs, logistics and scalability are major concerns.
It is the design principles that make a game a good game and therefore, a good learning experience for a player. Though it is largely unexplored, there is rich potential in employing game design principles to turn the classroom itself into a game for higher order thinking and soft skills.
A Textbook Learning Culture
Mainstream education systems have been designed to maximize the efficiency for content mastery – a much needed 20th century literacy. Professional development, compartmentalization of subjects, curricular plans, classroom configurations, didactic teaching approaches and summative assessments have all been calibrated and streamlined to achieve this goal.
The textbook is the indispensable technology and foundation of a content-mastery teaching and learning paradigm. A textbook-based learning model is deeply intertwined with how teachers teach and what students learn. It enculturates key stakeholders – students, parents, teachers and policymakers – to believe that content mastery equates to learning.
A textbook learning culture is thus reproduced and reinforced as the dominant lens for learning. Through this lens, we define the norms for knowing, teaching, learning, assessment, schooling and the use of innovative technologies, such as games.
The Emergence of Disruptive Technologies
We can no longer take for granted that the textbook-based model of schooling will continue to be dominant. Quality contents are now freely available in the form of videos, blogs, encyclopaedias, and interactive media. Students now have plenty of choices for contents that suit their personal needs and learning styles. They can even become a content-area expert in YouTube and Wikipedia. This was unimaginable just two decades ago.
But such contents become outdated fairly quickly. It is not an overstatement to say that the education landscape built upon a prolonged content-mastery model is eroding quickly. In this “flat” new world (Friedman, 2006), one’s ability is not only defined by what you know, but also by your ability to construct new knowledge, solve problems, collaborate with others, organize activities and manage communities (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, & Gee, 2005).
Game-based learning emerges from the realization that content mastery is insufficient, though still important, in the flat new world. It does not mean that game-based learning cannot be or should not be used to teach contents if there is a good fit. It does not negate the fact that games are fun and can be used to motivate some learners. However, using games simply for content mastery and motivation underestimates its rich potential for fostering 21st century competencies.
21st Century Competencies and the Design of Contexts
The aim of fostering 21st century competencies provides a meaningful direction for game-based learning in schools. The challenges are, how do we design good games and how do we gamify the classrooms?
Instead of providing contents, games may be designed to provide rich and meaningful contexts for developing higher order thinking and social skills (Thomas & Brown, 2011).
For example, a game may pose a challenge (such as investigating the mysterious death of a game character by a lake) that requires the players to collect and interpret data, identify evidence, and develop hypotheses collaboratively in order to solve the mystery (Squire & Jan, 2007).
This context enables an authentic process through which players may develop tacit understanding about a watershed through data collection. Like scientists, students come up with their own hypotheses through scientific inquiry and develop heuristics about collaborative problem solving at the same time.
In a conventional classroom, students would have learned ready-made knowledge about the rainforest generated by experts and delivered via direct instruction. Collaborative problem solving would have been bypassed. It is an extremely efficient way to learn because it takes much less time to cover the contents in that manner than to use the game-based learning approach. Students can perhaps perform better in a multiple-choice questions exam than those who learn through games. The difference is, learning how to solve problems collaboratively and actively can better prepare the players for the flat new world.
Role of Teachers
In talking about a learning paradigm shift from content mastery to 21st century competencies, we cannot bypass a fundamental question: What are the roles of teachers?
In a content mastery model, teachers usually play the role of a content expert who delivers the contents. In a learning-through-designed-context model, content delivery is much less important, although it still has a role to play.
There is a need for the teacher to understand how learners develop higher order thinking skills and soft skills in a designed context (e.g., Barab et al., 2009; Squire, 2006). In this case, teachers are actually designing learners’ experience as they go about designing an authentic learning context. They are more like game designers than content experts or teachers. This is an area that requires much more substantial research – to understand what teachers need to know to become a classroom game designer and how we may help teachers to develop such expertise.
Barab, S. A., Scott, B., Siyahhan, S., Goldstone, R., Ingram-Goble, A., Zuiker, S. J., & Warren, S. (2009). Transformational play as a curricular scaffold: Using videogames to support science education. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18, 305–320.
Friedman, T. L. (2006). The world is flat: The globalized world in the twenty-first century. London, UK: Penguin.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gee, J. P. (2007). Good video games and good learning. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Kapp, K. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Malone, T. (1981). What makes computer games fun? Byte, 6(12), 258–277
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the horizon, 9(5), 1–6.
Prensky, M. (2003). Digital game-based learning. Computers in Entertainment, 1(1), 21–21.
Shaffer, D. W. (2006). How computer games help children learn. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Schaffer, D., Squire, K., Halverson, R., & Gee, J. (2005). Video Games and the Future of Learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(2), 105–111.
Squire, K. (2004). Replaying history: Learning world history through playing Civilization III. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Indiana University Bloomington, USA.
Squire, K. (2006). From content to context: Videogames as designed experience. Educational researcher, 35(8), 19–29.
Squire, K. & Jan, M. (2007). Mad City Mystery: Developing scientific argumentation skills with a place-based augmented reality game on handheld computers. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(1), 5–29.
Steinkuehler, C., & Duncan, S. (2008). Scientific habits of mind in virtual worlds. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17, 530–543.
Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.