Game-Based Learning Experiences

A colorful generic board game.

Game-based learning (GBL) is a learning experience, or set of learning experiences, delivered through gameplay or game-like activities with defined learning outcomes. GBL is often confused with gamification, which is the application of game elements to a non-gaming experience. GBL engages students cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, and socioculturally (Plass et al., 2015). Many factors should be considered when designing GBL, including narrative, player positioning, and interactive design (Dickey, 2005).

What is Game-Based Learning?

Video gaming is a popular medium of entertainment. In recent years, scholars have focused on the potential benefits of integrating games into education (Plass et al., 2015). Advocates such as James Paul Gee (2003) have long argued that good game design can inform and impact learning design in a myriad of ways. While there is a lingering inclination among some educators to dismiss gaming as an activity solely for children and adolescents, consider this: a 2018 report from the Entertainment Software Association indicates that a majority of Americans (60 percent) play video games on a daily basis. From this group, 70 percent are over the age of 18, and the average age of gamers is 33. Gaming is not merely a “kids’ pastime.” Given the frequency with which adults engage in gameplay, the use of gaming in education has the potential to powerfully impact not just grade school and high school students, but postsecondary students as well. It is worth exploring, then, how principles of game design might be leveraged to inform learning design.

Recent research on games, learning, and society suggests that digital games are increasingly accepted by researchers and educators as a potent medium for learning (Steinkuhler et al., 2012). This increasing acceptance has allowed for the emergence of game-based learning (GBL). Precisely defining GBL is not straightforward, particularly since the term game is itself notoriously difficult to define (Plass et al., 2015; Crookall, 2011). Plass et al. (2015) offer one definition: “[Game-based learning is] a type of gameplay that has defined learning outcomes.” This definition might be further bolstered by including a key difference between GBL and traditional learning—that a higher premium is placed on experience (Squire, 2008). Essentially, GBL incorporates carefully designed experiences as the vehicle for learning, with less reliance on straight content and traditional pedagogy. Game-based learning involves leveraging game mechanics and game elements to design a learning experience, one that engages the learner in many ways: cognitively, emotionally, behaviorally, and socioculturally (Plass et al. 2015). Examples of such experiences include simulations, role-playing games, and branching scenarios. GBL allows learner-players to try applying new skills or knowledge with little or no risk, fail without any real consequences, get immediate feedback, and try again as many times as needed until they succeed.

Learner Impact

  • Learners gain knowledge/perspective through highly engaging, carefully designed experiences.
  • Learners can try and fail at a task as many times as needed until they succeed.

Instructor Impact

  • Designing GBL takes a lot of up-front work, but the rewards are great.
  • Instructors can provide learners with a safe way to gain valuable experience and insight, and in some cases, empathy.

Examples of Game-Based Learning

Although teachers report a perceived lack of immersive GBL experiences that can be readily implemented in the classroom (Takeuchi & Vaala, 2014), several good examples do exist. Blind Protocol, an alternate reality game developed by educators John Fallon and Paul Darvasi (2017), is one such example. The game, a mock exercise in cyber warfare, unfolds across two different classrooms at different schools. The students in each class are unaware that the other has any involvement. The goal of the game is for one class to unmask the identity of the other class before their own identities are revealed. Throughout the game, students learn about issues in cybersecurity, online privacy, and how to maintain good “data hygiene.”

In branching scenarios, the learner-player navigates a story by making choices at different decision points to affect the story’s outcome. These scenarios can be short and simple, consisting of only one or two decision points, or quite complex, with several decision points and multiple endings. Connect with Haji Kamal, a 2010 simulation developed by Cathy Moore, casts the learner-player in the role of a military officer who must advise a young lieutenant as he attempts to make contact with an elusive tribal warlord in hopes of establishing a positive long-term relationship. The learner-player also receives input from a couple of non-player characters (NPCs) on how to advise the lieutenant as he navigates the encounter. There are several decision points and twelve different outcomes, only two of which are desirable.

Depression Quest, developed in 2013 by Zoe Quinn, is another example of a branching scenario; it builds awareness of how depression affects people. The learner-player takes on the role of a character who struggles with depression and explores how various actions (or non-actions) taken to manage depression can affect one’s work, social life, and relationships. As with Haji Kamal, Depression Quest features multiple endings, some of which are more desirable than others. Unlike Haji Kamal, however, Depression Quest does not include a clear win/lose condition; the fate and future of the learner-player’s character is left open. In this example, “winning” and “losing” are not as important as the message the game is trying to communicate.

Designing Game-Based Learning

The aim of designing GBL in a course should be to create an experience for the learner-player that is immersive and, ideally, realistic. Dickey (2005) provides several considerations to address when designing a game-like experience. In part, these considerations coalesce around the idea of developing a narrative, which may include such elements as defining the conflict of the experience, creating a backstory/world-building, or defining the role that the learner-player takes. Player positioning is another aspect Dickey identifies. The designer must consider how the learner-player progresses through the experience, what point of view they take (i.e., first-person, third-person observer, etc.), and how information is revealed. Lastly, the interactive design of the experience must be considered. The designer must carefully consider how factors such as time, environment, characters, and choice will play into the experience.

Game-Based Learning Versus Gamification

A common misconception is that GBL is the same thing as gamification. While GBL and gamification do share some common traits, they are distinct concepts. Gamification involves the application of gaming mechanics to a non-gaming context (Deterding et al., 2011). Common examples of gamification include points, levels, leaderboards, badges, missions, and awards (Viola, 2011). Gamification is often used as a type of extrinsic motivator, typically aimed at increasing student engagement in an otherwise mundane activity. For instance, a history lesson on the Vietnam War might be gamified by offering rewards for memorizing places and dates. Such rewards could include bonus points, gold stars, or a “free pass” type of reward that allows students to skip the quiz on the lesson. In contrast, the same history lesson might look quite different in a GBL setting. One could transform this lesson into a gameplay experience by placing students into different teams representing various actors from the Vietnam War, providing each team with a set of objectives and parameters, and letting the students negotiate their way to their goal as best as they can. Plass et al. (2015) note that the chief difference between GBL and gamification lies in the nature of the learning task. In GBL, the task is “playful” in and of itself. In gamification, game elements are added to an existing task that might be otherwise less engaging.

Putting GBL Into Practice

Although developing a GBL experience can be a complex endeavor, the good news is that you can start small if you are trying it for the first time. One way to do this is to create a simple branching scenario with one or two decision points.

Start by identifying a role for the learner-player. Think of a job or position closely tied to the course content that a student in the class could feasibly embody. For example, if you’re teaching a class on literacy, one possible role would be as a reading literacy specialist. Then determine a story or situation related to this role. Consider what kind of knowledge or training someone in this role would need to have to navigate the scenario successfully. Map out what kind(s) of decision(s) someone in this role would have to make, and what the direct consequences of each action might be.

Consider the following questions:

  • In what kind of situation might someone in this role find themself?
  • What kinds of decisions might someone in this role need to face?
    • What kinds of decisions are the right decisions?
    • What kinds of decisions are the wrong decisions?
    • What are the consequences of these decisions?
  • With whom will someone in this role interact?
  • What would someone in this role be realistically required to say or do?

How would someone in this role be realistically expected to act? What should someone in this role already know to be successful?
Game-based learning is an innovative pedagogical strategy that offers new and exciting ways to interact with course content. Consider how the integration of GBL can help students meet course objectives, assimilate key concepts, and engage in critical and creative thinking. Careful planning before incorporating GBL into your course will ensure a meaningful student experience.


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Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O'Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011) Gamification. using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. In Proceedings of CHI Extended Abstracts, 2425-2428.

Dickey, M.D. (2005). Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(2), 67-83.

Entertainment Software Association. (2018). Essential facts about the computer and video game industry. Retrieved from

Fallon, J. & Darvasi, P. (2017). Privacy, pedagogy, and protocols: A preliminary report on a cross-border alternate reality game to teach digital citizenship. In Steinkuhler, C. (ed.), GLS 12 Conference Proceedings (pp. 271-277). ETC Press.

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Quinn, Z. (2013). Depression Quest [Web browser-based game]. Retrieved from

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Squire, K. (2008). Video game-based learning: An emerging paradigm for instruction. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 21(2), 7-36.

Steinkuehler, C., Squire, K., & Barab, S. (eds.). (2012). Games, learning, and society: Learning and meaning in the digital age. Cambridge Press.

Takeuchi, L. M., & Vaala, S. (2014). Level up learning: A national survey on teaching with digital games. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.

Viola, F. (2011). Gamification: Video games in everyday life. Arduino Viola.