Game Based Learning: Definition and Examples

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson, we explore game-based learning and its benefits to learners. A little competition can be a good thing when it engages children and encourages them to study harder. A short quiz follows.

Game-Based Learning

If you grew up in the 1980s, you probably have fond memories of a game called The Oregon Trail. By modern standards the game is a dinosaur. Its original release featured crude pixel-based monotone graphics and the sounds were put out by a tinny speaker deep in the recesses of the computer. While this may seem horrible by modern standards, to the child of the 80s this was totally radical (yes, we did talk like that). Thanks to Oregon Trail, I still remember that the eponymous trail started in Independence, Missouri and ended in my homeland of the Willamette Valley, Oregon. I learned all about how the pioneers of the day traveled, making sure I had enough oxen, food, supplies, and replacement parts for my wagon. I know of the difficult decisions the pioneers had to make and the sadness of losing family members to cholera and snakebites. While my family members might have been fictional and named after cartoon ninja turtles, these lessons have stuck with me for decades. Such is the power of game-based learning.

Games even helped children to learn in olden times!
Children playing

Game-Based Learning Elements

Enough nostalgia, let's get down to brass tacks. Game-based learning can be defined as lessons which are competitive, interactive, and allow the learner to have fun while gaining knowledge. The best game-based learning has three main elements. The first element is competition. This need not be against another student or the teacher. In Oregon Trail, the competition was against the game itself as well as trying to gain the highest score. The competitive elements help to provide motivation for students who might not find that motivation in normal learning methodologies.

This leads to the element of engagement. When a child is playing a game that engages their curiosity and imagination, they don't even notice the learning elements. When I was a wee lad, I didn't notice that I was learning that buffalo could only be found on the Great Plains section of the game because that was their habitat, but it stuck with me. A child doesn't need to know they are learning to learn.

The final element is immediate rewards. This is vital to keep the learner invested and coming back for more as well as helping the learning process. These rewards might be as simple as letting them know they are correct, giving them points, or even descriptive feedback expanding their knowledge.

Game-based learning can offer many advantages when done properly. Well-designed games can be a cost-effective means to allow students to interact with multiple learning scenarios that are tailored to meet the pace at which they learn. Scoring on these games can be standardized to allow comparisons between students, and feedback can be instantaneous. Game-based learning can also be more transferable to real-world scenarios than the traditional lecture, though I doubt I'll be taking any trips by prairie schooner anytime soon.


Games used for learning can take many, many forms. The most common modern tool is the video game, such as the aforementioned Oregon Trail or modern games students can play on their phones like Wuzzit Trouble. Technology hasn't entirely usurped the classics; however, with board and card games still being produced to stimulate the mind, like Sequence and Quiddler. Finally, there are those other types of games which are harder to describe - scavenger hunts, classroom Jeopardy, and spelling bees come to mind.

Let's use an example of each type to demonstrate their advantages and how they can be utilized in the classroom.

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