Does games based learning work?

One of the questions educators ask me about games is “Does games based learning work?”. It’s a reasonable question, but it’s not the what people mean. Firstly, I can’t begin to answer without also asking them in return “Is play a serious activity?”. Most people seem believe it is, and can cite numerous examples from their own lives. What they are really asking is “How could games based learning work in my context”. This is almost impossible to definitively answer, but we can find numerous arguments to say that it might already be working – we just need to be more conscious of where and when.


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by dan taylor

Children engage in learning processes in several different contexts. The context most often studied is the classroom, during formal school learning. Children are, however, also engaged in learning outside of school during informal interactions and play. A further revision to the question is “How do games teach children” when they are not at school. This is less studied, as it’s much harder to study.

Game players can take up a game or put it down at will, but the first-year writing course is rarely voluntary. This highlights the work/play distinctions to be maintained and this historic separation creates barriers to introducing games into a curriculum. Although productive play can be educational, this association causes skepticism. As many don’t play games, even more  don’t read about them either in relation to education, though they probably have heard the term ‘native’ and ‘immigrant’ in association with non-game technologies

Many educators have not grown up around video games, and games certainly have not consulted educators in their evolution. Commercial games seldom provide specific educational value towards prescribed ‘content’ – but like make other technologies require adaptation. Rather than see games as a potential provider of more entertaining content, think of them as part and parcel of digital literacy and culture. In this way, there is no reason why the objectives of a course could not be the objectives of a game—and that textual objectives achieved in both spaces could not also have “real world” significance.

Does it work? Yes, but this isn’t to mean it will work for everyone, so in that regard have no more need to defend themselves than anything else.

5 thoughts on “Does games based learning work?

  1. Great post, Dean!

    I agree, game-based learning does work but I think lots of so-called “educational games” don’t. Too often they are neither games nor educational!

    Where game-based learning really seems to be effective is where is part of a more structured experience – the scaffolding of a great teacher often enables players to transfer in-game learning to the real world.

    I’ve written some more thought about what games are good for here: http://playwithlearning.com/2011/12/12/what-games-are-good-for/

    Thanks again for the post!

    • Indeed, that’s a good point. Games being made of fiction, interaction and rules, everything social and digital is a form of play/game perhaps.

  2. Another great post Dean.

    There is certainly a place for GBL in educational settings. I have witnessed, and participated in first hand, game based learning at it’s best and to see students learning authentic curriculum through video games, either your everyday variety of serious games, is an excellent addition to a class setting. However… you are right when you mention it will not work for everyone!

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