Game Based Learning: Is It Effective Classroom Instruction?

Game based learning is one method among many that will enhance the classroom learning environment by increasing motivation, increasing opportunities to develop a decision making process that forces analyzing and implementing solutions, and will allow these skills to transfer to other aspects of life. Game based teaching and learning can be quite effective if understood what it is and how it can be implemented to enhance instruction and learning. Games are not the end-all be-all answer to the problems in education, but they can dramatically change the classroom if infused into the classroom culture properly.

It can be a little unclear trying to pinpoint what is meant by game based teaching/ game based learning. There is confusion between game based learning, gamification, and games. Games are something that we all understand. It does not matter how complex or simple a game can be in order for it to be a game. According to (McGonigal 2011), games have four key ingredients.(McGonigal 2011)

  1. Goal – a game has to have a desired outcome that everyone is working to accomplish.
  2. Rules – in order to achieve the goal there has to be some parameters put into place that eliminate or make it difficult to achieve the goal.
  3. Feedback system – this is a process where the player knows where they are in the system to achieve the goal.
  4. Voluntary participation – basically this means that everyone involved in the game understands the rules, has a clear sense of the goal, and how to receive feedback.

Gamification is something else that is worth discussing. Many people confuse gamification and game based learning. Gamification in its simplest form can be described as a way to “add game elements to a non game situation.”(Blogger 2015). In many classrooms this is done by gaming the classroom through the use of offering badges, leveling up, and earning various items as they progress through the work. Classcraft would be one of the best examples of gamifying a classroom.

Game based learning is not gamification. Game based learning is using games to enhance the learning in the classroom. The idea is nothing new. It has been around for decades dating back to even before the education game changer Oregon Trail was implemented almost everywhere in the 80’s.

Game based learning takes the four elements that create a game and combines them with the expectations and goals of the classroom. When we discuss games for learning it is essential that educators see a benefit to the use of the game. If educators can grasp that a particular game can motivate students to learn, is fairly simple to implement, and can prove learning targets, standards, and district goals can be met, then a game has great potential to actually being used in the classroom. One fundamental difference between gaming for fun vs. gaming for educational purposes is that educators “start with learning goals, and gaming media choices will be made based on the games potential to meet those goals.”(Dikkers 2015)

The first key element to game based learning is hooking students. There are many arguments being made that students now are digital consiuers and gaming machines. There is great debate over whether this is good or bad. No matter where you stand on this debate the key piece is that games continue to play a huge role in our lives. For students, game play has shifted to digital games. The shift is with adults also as we continue to find ourselves glued to our phones and tablets. Schools and educators are making the shift as well. In a recent study it was found that 74% of educators in the K-8 setting used digital games as part of their instruction.(“Joan Ganz Cooney Center – Level Up Learning: A National Survey on Teaching with Digital Games” 2015) Whether the games were deemed effective is another topic altogether. However, the reason digital games are being used is to help motivate students. Another study was conducted on whether or not digital games motivated students to learn. The study discovered that 65.5% found games to be motivating, 28% claimed it would not matter either way, and 8% found them to be demotivating.(“[No Title]” 2015) This study proves that games can be motivating, but they are not the ultimate solution. Any educator knows that developing relationships, treating students like they matter, providing them a voice, and showing you care are vital to any teaching method to work. If educators can show how a game based learning activity can impact their lives and make a difference, then you can increase the number of students who will buy in. No game will solve all the problems, but it can be one element that does help.

If we can agree that game based learning can have an impact on motivation if implemented properly, then we can move on to the next element that is very important. Game based learning can help students learn to develop their problem solving skills and develop solutions. For example, let’s take Minecraft as an example to showcase that game based learning can increase problem solving skills, solutions, and transfer to other aspects of life.

Minecraft is one of the most popular games of all time and more importantly has changed how we think of games. Minecraft operates on the ideas that “a blank slate is compelling for many young minds” and that a “person’s mind is limitless or forever voyaging.” (Dikkers 2015) Minecraft serves as a perfect tool to develop creativity and computational thinking. Computational Thinking (CT) is a problem solving process that includes a number of characteristics and dispositions. CT is essential to the development of computer applications, but it can also be used to support problem solving across all disciplines, including math, science, and the humanities. Students who learn CT across the curriculum can begin to see a relationship between subjects as well as between school and life outside of the classroom.(“Google for Education:” 2015)

Minecraft operates on the premise of building with blocks. The players starts with a blank slate and without a manual or tutorial most people get it. It is a blank canvas similar to using a pencil on paper to create whatever your mind can develop. It is that blank slate where the player can bring to life their ideas. Minecraft can be used in a variety of ways. First, Minecraft can be used for creativity. A player can be given unlimited use of all the tools in the game to build whatever their heart desires. The player simply builds with blocks, creates new items with crafts, can do coding with redstone and command blocks, and basically anything they want to do can be done with enough learning and design. Second, Minecraft can be used for survival mode. In this case the player must start with nothing and figure out how to survive zombie attacks, hunger, weather, and the basics of being alive. There is a great deal of problem solving in this style of play. The power of Minecraft is that you can adjust the settings to literally make it whatever you want.

When it comes to problem solving, computational thinking, and meeting the needs of the classroom, Minecraft has proven ways to do all of these things. Erik Miller, a teacher, has created a world in Minecraft called World of Humanities which places students back in ancient civilizations. It is a beautifully constructed world that has so much to offer. It allows students to really grasp the key moments in history. Depending on where you start and where you go there are a variety of tasks to accomplish. This world supplements the learning in classroom, it does not replace the learning or the educator.

There are many versions of design challenges for students to solve in creative mode. One idea that has many different versions is students building a famous structure to scale. This could be something from any time period or even their own school. Students must research and understand what needs to be built, they must prototype on paper or other CAD software, break into teams, and collaboratively build the intended outcome. There are hundreds of examples on how Minecraft can teach problem solving skills. These examples shared are just two ideas.

The power of game based learning lies in the fact that not only can a teacher teach content, but they can also incorporate 21st century skills easily. If we stick with the Minecraft example, almost every single 21st century skill in the Common Core could be reached. Through collaborative play, building, problem solving, communication, and networking students must work to develop the necessary skills that will prove vital to their future. Education is slowly understanding that it is not the content that matters as much anymore(this thing called the Internet provides content in seconds), but the ability to use the necessary content to solve real world problems. Games like Minecraft help students work on these essential skills in ways that it does not feel like school. By working through these massive multiplayer environments students are working on their college and career ready assets to be productive in other aspects of their lives.

In closing game based learning can be a very powerful and effective method for helping students learn. It is not the solution that will solve all problems because nothing will ever do that. However, it is one key teaching strategy that can build a classroom to being quite powerful. Games are not going to be the answer because kids like games. Games are popular and therefore can help engage more students by connecting to what they are interested in as an individual. Students will enter the games from various backgrounds in games. It is important to provide the support and extensions needed to meet the needs of each learner. A game like Minecraft is so vast and open that it can  easily be modified and adjusted to meet the needs of any learner and educator. Educational games cannot lose sight of the learning targets and goals. This can easily happen for the sake of fun. It is not the job of schools to be fun and entertaining, but it is their responsibility to engage, create social opportunities, and help meet the needs of each learner. If students don’t feel connected, then the learning will be lost. Games can be one avenue to promote engagement, develop social skills through collaborative play, and integrate what they enjoy in their free time in school. As educators we must continue to strive to meet students where they are instead of forcing them to meet us where we are. Game based learning could be one effective way of doing just that.


Blogger, Inservice Guest. 2015. “The Difference between Gamification and Game-Based Learning.” ASCD Inservice. Accessed June 24.

Dikkers, Seann. 2015. TeacherCraft: How Teachers Learn to Use MineCraft in Their Classrooms.

“Google for Education:” 2015. Google. Accessed June 22.

“Joan Ganz Cooney Center – Level Up Learning: A National Survey on Teaching with Digital Games.” 2015. Accessed June 24.

McGonigal, Jane. 2011. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Random House.

“[No Title].” 2015. Accessed June 24.


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