Read – Criticism & Theory on Game-Based Learning

In 1970 Clark Abt called his book “Serious Games” and this was purportedly the very first mention of such a notion. His definition was that “these games have an explicit and carefully thought-out educational purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement. This does not mean that serious games are not, or should not be, entertaining” (Abt 1970).

In reality, the classification of serious games has yet to be set; however, game-based learning (GBL) can be a branch of serious games that deals with applications that have defined learning outcomes as vivid. The success of GBL strategies owes to active participation and interaction being at the centre of the experience, and signals that current educational methods are not engaging students enough. Experience with and affinity for games as learning tools is an increasingly universal characteristic among those entering higher education and the workforce (Learning frontiers 2013).

Web Search Interest

More and more people are concerned about “game-based learning. The following graph shows the web search interest for the words “game-based learning” during the last 5 years:









(Learning frontiers 2013)

Game-based Learning

As educators who are concerned about GBL in teaching, it is vital to understand and know how to use students’ desire for power because it is one of the main reasons why so many of them are enticed by games. From this attraction that bonds students with games, there are its benefits and disadvantages, depending on the types of game involved. As educators, it is crucial to create pedagogy that reduces the disadvantages to the maximum.


1) Intellectual Building

Games “[provide] continual challenges to utilize the zone of the proximal development” (Paul & Sian Ladley 2013).  Games are used to allow active learning where students can think critically and still experience the thrill that lets them want to learn more.

2) Motivation Enhancement

A game is a challenge in itself. Students will be more likely to repeat levels again and again (practice) because games such as gamification offer extrinsic motivation like scores and grades and the competition within it will serve as an intrinsic motivation for the more aggressive students. It can increase the motivation and attentiveness of the students and specifically, games can become a facilitator for self-directed study and research; when students enjoy a specific area in a game, they become more inclined to search it online, read a book about it, or watch a documentary on it (Rapini, Sarina 2012).

3) Competition

Like previously mentioned, competition is a key factor in games therefore it is an incentive for many students to learn. Competition is observed to make students have “higher engagement levels” and students can learn from their loss or win through reflection and critical thinking while also “[learning] good sportsmanship skills.”

4) Problem Solving

While “the real promise of games as educational and tools is in their ability to demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of issues” (Aristidis Protopsaltis 2011), students can hopefully take this challenge and in the process develop into avid learners who are motivated to solve the games and consequently learn from it.

5) Collaboration/Team Work

The mandatory collaboration in games will allow students of all ages to appreciate and learn from the experience of working together. The members of a game essentially make up a social media group where people can share their thoughts and support each other through this system.

6) Facilitation/Peer Sharing

The teamwork during games can benefit students as they will be able to increase their social skills through peer sharing. This can provide students with a greater sense of purpose as they know they are “part of a bigger group” that is also aimed towards learning. Games can also show what it is like to work together in “real-life group-centred facilitation” and how it should be done to succeed through making connections and controlling one’s teamwork.

7) Ingenuity Abilities Creating

Game-based learning is a platform for “renovation, improvisation, adaption, and adjustment.” So good learning allows a student to be a producer rather than a passive consumer of his own learning (Rapini, Sarina 2012).  Games are interactive; that is, “when the player does something, the game does something back that encourages the player to act again” (Gee 2008). Thus, their actions shape the game world around them, causing the player to reflect on their decisions and form hypotheses. Clark (2009) explains that traditional education treats students as passive recipients while games allow them to be active members in their own education which allows for more self-directed, creative, and engaging learning (Rapini, Sarian 2012).

8) Challenge Anticipation

Since the students of this generation are who will be responsible for our future, game-based learning provides them with the experience to learn determination through “[challenging] themselves”. For example, to encourage practice—and thus, development of good habits—the loading dock game must gradually increase the difficulty level of the in-game challenges. This keeps players engaged and encourages them to continually hone their skills” (Trybus, Jessica 2012).

9) Games are “Cool”

The digital generation are accustomed to using technology and games will give them less pressure and more fun than hard copy assignments especially, when games can also accommodate a variety of auditory, tactile or visual learning styles since games immerse students in sound, touch, and sight. (Rapini, Sarina 2012) In addition, the instant feedback of games will also allow them to learn more quickly and efficiently which will increase their confidence and morale. Even if they fail, it will be a pleasant kind of frustration.

10) Alternative Learning Style

Bringing the feeling of joy, and playfulness to the game is imperative. As an experienced teacher, Jay Lemke has gradually become convinced that playfulness and irreverence, a contra-normative stance, may in fact be essential to the type of learning that lasts and allows us to think outside the box according to her two-year project research in game-based learning” (Lemke, 2013). Chang et al. (2009) also indicate game-based learning is an evident and popular direction, which keeps the educational purpose and improves the ability of the player that is utilized to real life. This is an innovative learning approach to compare to the traditional narrow learning method.

11) Professional Training Supports

Game playing is in a risk-free and controlled environment that allows an easy transition for students through its “virtual reality training…into the real world”. The “drama, storyline, humour and characters” associated with games, “create a compelling experience… [that help] students [develop] memory hooks” and so “if undertaken appropriately, game-based learning [can be a] vehicle for embedding new knowledge or skills that can immediately be applied in the workplace” (Trybus, Jessica 2012).

12) Personalizing Learning

Students in the traditional classroom may feel that the material is either too hard or too easy, yet they cannot try on different learning styles or use another problem solving method without the risk of failing or receiving a bad grade (Squire 2011, McGonigal 2011). Unlike many traditional passive training programs where the pace is only based on a “group basis”, the pace of well-tailored games can fit to match each individual’s needs. This contrasts with past programs where “slower students often struggle”. Games also allow players to customize their difficulty levels or styles of play (Rapini, Sarina 2012).

Game-based Learning vs Traditional Training

The effectiveness of hand-on learning isn’t new – for example, the apprenticeship system traces a rich history from ancient times to the present day. But well-designed game-based learning has several advantages over traditional experiential learning methods. It is cost-effective and low-risk (unlike, for example, safety training using live machinery). Perhaps even more important, there are significant learning advantages. Learners can re-enact a precise set of circumstances multiple times, exploring the consequences of different actions. In addition, well-developed games permit learning experiences that aren’t possible in real life – for example, “designing a dolphin to find out how body size and fin position affect how far it can swim, or deliberately causing the biggest possible virtual explosion to understand why gas line disasters happen.

Comparison Chart – Traditional Training, Hands-On, and Game-Based Learning

Traditional Training (lectures, online tutorials)

Hands-on Training


Game-based Learning





Low physical risk / liability



Standardized assessments allowing student-to-student comparisons



Highly engaging



Learning pace tailored to individual student



Immediate feedback in response to student mistakes



Student an easily transfer learning to real-world environment



Learner is actively engaged





1) Distracting      Some researches indicate online learning disrupts deep reading practices (Journalist’s Resource 2013). Students nowadays may seem to be able to multitask; however, “they can’t really do it” “Research shows that the students’ memories were disorganized, they fixated on irrelevant data, could not follow specific directions that required paying attention and wrote poorly” (Learning Games 2011).This similar situation may apply to GBL as well depending on the structure of its design.

2) Prompts Violence & Aggression         Although a certain amount of competition allows students to be more engaged and willing to learn, too much competition will automatically prime aggressive thoughts. In addition, the researchers also concluded that players who had prior experience playing violent video games responded with an increased level of aggression when they encountered confrontation (Bushman & Anderson, 2002).  While repeated exposure to violent games can be a risk factor for violent behavior, Gentile & Anderson (2003) state that the way of repetition has long been considered an effective teaching method in reinforcing learning patterns (Palo Alto Medical Foundation 2013).

3) No Games, No Focuses     Once games are fully integrated into the system, the difficult part is to achieve a balance between normal assignments, in-class instructions, and games. WhileYale University school of Medicine researchers suggest in 2013, the new trend of interactive educational games is to integrate learning and fun”, this method could possibly “lead to over-reliance” Once students do not have the privilege of using games to learn, they could potentially experience a loss of focus.

4) Addiction       Every win in a game triggers the reward centre of people, and this reward centre can be so pleasurable that it may lead to addiction. Students could possible “lose themselves in fantasy adventures” after long term “immersion.” Any non digital activity may seem dull in comparison and life outside of games “boring”.

5) Doubt of Benefits       Games are still in its “early stages” of development, therefore as much as the benefits are apparent, it is difficult to predict the long term “learning outcomes due to the lack of empirical data to back and support [games-based learning].” The efforts that “parents, teachers and educators” still put in may not be worth it (Rapini, Sarina 2012).

6) Time Wasted         Perhaps due to culturally-biased views, or simply personal differences, many people find that game-playing is always “frivolous…[and just]…a luxury to indulge after work…[and no] serious learning is done” (Lemke, 2013). Moreover, games have a negative stigma attached to them and are classified as a violent and mindless activity. Parents may see them as a waste of time (Rapini, Sarina 2012).

7) Competition         Competition may just act oppositely to what is originally expected because students may lose motivation to actually learn the material when they are so “focused on winning.” Losing in a game can perhaps not trigger motivation to learn and repeat the levels and only serve to “lower self-esteem.”

8) Confusion of the real world with virtual world         In this day and age, people can be completely disconnected with the physical world because there really is no need to venture out into the reality. People can literally buy anything they want through an identity they choose in our world. If people are educated by the virtual world about the real world, there may be a growing disconnection with the real world because students cannot physically experience what it is actually like (Virtual v.s. Reality, 2010).

Theories and analysis embedded in game-based learning

Although game-based learning is “shown to be more effective than traditional teaching…[in terms of]…learning achievement and motivation…there is no theoretical basis in [its] teaching assessment” (Su & Cheng, 2011). So if we are eager to create a new order and relationship between education and games then we need to have more critical analyses embedded into educational theories which can help set up the standard to where we want to evaluate the efforts and effects of game-based learning. The empirical research evidence will finally lead to a healthy, positive and filtered GBL development which provides students, teachers, designers and entrepreneurs with a win-win situation.

Educational Theories


Constructivism is the concept of “learning by doing” and this can be implemented in this digital era through game-based learning where individual students can learn themselves how to solve problems and make decisions through games. The interactive tasks are also customizable. A Chinese proverb says: “Tell me, and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.” With game-based learning tools, engaged students and workers can embrace learning rather than view it as a disruptive burden (Rapini, Sarina 2012).

Social Constructivism

“Learning is a social activity and it is through dialogue” (Vygotsky, 1978). And according to Alan Amory, “we don’t learn from games, we learn through them.” Computer games are effective learning tools when they can incorporate “social interactions and dialogue among learners and between learners and teachers” and “performance [of students] can [consequently] be improved” (Thato Foko, 2008). Underpinned social constructivism, GBL provides group members’ opportunities to integrate their prior experiences in different contexts mixed with each individual’s knowledge.


Elements of the game can be rewards because they can condition students to have a certain learning response that will help retain information. This is based on how “behavior is a function of its consequences” according to B.F. Skinner’s behavioural theory. These games that are based on this theory are called” edutainment” which tend to be based on tests. This type of game helps in building extreme focus and memory retention (Ladley, Paul & Ladley, Sian 2013).


Through cognitivism, the learners became the centre of attention and acquire knowledge through a variety of different modalities (e.g. text, pictures, sounds). These enable the player to identify and analyse problems and apply past learning (Aristidis Protopsaltis 2011). Learning based off of cognitivism is to “[connect] symbols in a meaningful and memorable way” and they “acquire knowledge through a variety of different modalities (e.g. text, pictures, sounds)” that can then be applied to “identify and analyse problems” (Aristidis Protopsaltis 2011). Klopfer et al 2009 also mentioned “the promise of games is that we can harness the spirit of play to build new cognitive structures and ideas of substance” (Rapini, Sarina 2012).

Situated (experience- based) Learning

Situated learning within games is to use “information in context through a creation of a setting close to reality” so that students can easily “[transfer] the material into the real world” (Aristidis Protopsaltis, 2011). Learners will experience immediate “in-game consequences” (Trybus, Jessica 2012) that can highlight the “game’s learning goals” more clearly for them.  The model emphasizes to build authentic experience in games which will take place in the real world environment such as apprenticeship. Generally speaking, the military, hospital and other training institutions often use such simulations.

Flow theory

When students are said to be in a “flow state” it is “[described as] an optimum experience that is encountered when a variety of factors are met, and is characterized by high focus, engagement, motivation, and immersion.” According to Csikszentmihalyi (1990), this aids in learning during a game when students experience “increased focus, intrinsic motivation, a lack of concern for the self, an altered sense of time, and effortless involvement” (Davin Pavlas 2010).



According to Federation of American Scientists 2006, the surge in technology led to the creation of high-quality entertainment games, which made low-budget educational games pale in comparison, and shortly after, the educational game industry collapsed. This failure has lingered on as “few companies are willing to make the investments needed to develop such games since there is yet no demonstrated market” (Rapini, Sarina 2012). However, games are now being revisited as educational tools by several leading organizations, such as MIT’s Education Arcade and Games-to Teachproject, Woodrow Wilson Foundations’ Serious Games Initiative, University of Wisconsin’s Games, Learning Society, the Federation of American Scientists, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education. (Rapini, Sarina 2012).


Abt, C. (1970). Serious Games. New York: The Viking Press.

Anderson, C & Bushman, B (2002).  HUMAN AGGRESSION. Department of Psychology, Iowa State University. Retrieved from

Alvarez J., Rampnoux O (2007). Serious Game: Just a question of posture? In Artificial & Ambient Intelligence, 420 to 423. Newcastle, UK, p. Retrieved Oct.2 2013 from

Daniel Livingstone (2011). Game Based Learning: Theory, Practice, Technology. University of the West of Scotland. Retrieved Sep. 29, 2013 from

Davin Pavlas (2010). A Model of Flow and Play in Game-based Learning: The Impact of Game Characteristics, Player Traits, and Player States. Retrieved sep.29 2013 from

Game-Based Learning Talk (2011). Retrieved Oct 01, 2013 from

Innovating Learning (2008). Retrieved Sep.29 2013 from

Journalist’s Resource (2013). Retrieved from

Ladely, Paul & Ladley, Sian (2013). Game based learning blog. Retrieved Sep. 30 2013 from

Learning Frontiers (2013). Retrieved Oct.04 2013 from

Learning Games (2011). Retrieved Oct.02, 2013 from

Lemke, Jay (2013). Games and Learning: Diversifying Opportunity or Standardizing Advantage. University of California–San Diego. Retrieved from

Palo Alto Medical foundation in Sutter Health (2013). Retrieved Oct.02. 2013 from

Protopsaltis, Aristidis (2011).  Learning Theories and Serious Games.   Serious Games Institute. Retrieved Oct. 04, 2013 from

Rapini, Sarian.(2012). Retrieved Oct 05,2013 from

Reed, Matt (2010). Virtual vs Reality. Retrieved Sep.29 2013 from

Su,Chung-Ho &Cheng,Ching-Hsue (2012).  3D GAME-BASED LEARNING SYSTEM FOR IMPROVING LEARNING ACHIEVEMENT IN SOFTWARE ENGINEERING CURRICULUM. TOJET: The Turkish Online Journal of Educational technology-April 2013, volume 12 Issue 2.

Thato Foko(2008). Social Constructivism in Games Based Learning in the South African Context (ED-MEDIA 2008).Centre for Information Technology in Higher Education, South Africa; Alan Amory, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Retrieved Oct 08, 2013 from

Trybus,Jessica (2012). Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it Works, and Where it’s Going. New media institute. Retrieved Sep.27 2013 from–what-it-is-why-it-works-and-where-its-going.html

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society:  The development of higher psychological processes.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.


ParticipateQ&A with Margaret Lee

In ETEC 522, we are all experienced educators and so if any of you have had experience with using game-based learning, please feel free to contribute any reflective ideas, thoughts or comments that have to do with the benefits and disadvantages of it in the comments section below. All week Margaret will be answering questions and replying to comments regarding the theory and criticism of GBL.

Let’s work together to help build a GBL world which can provide for students and at the same time ensure its survival in the market.

13 Responses to Theory

  1. jetz66

    I have seen the power of game-based learning my classes. In thinking about the advantages listed above, competition has been a driving factor for some of my students. I have used the website to practice or introduce mathematical concepts. One thing that has been interesting is the fact that teachers can set up accounts for students and student high scores are tracked. Over the course of a few weeks last year, a group of students (5-8) were competing with each other to get the highest score in a game that had students shooting meteors (numbers) with base factors (2,3,5, etc.) which would break them down into their base factors. These students would work so hard in and out of school that it became a point of interest to see the leader boards during class, and students would talk about it in class and at recess, even students who weren’t competing got involved. It was very fun to watch!

  2. agfarooq

    For me the 3 main areas I have encountered resistance when introducing or proposing games are addiction, doubt of benefit and time wasted. Even when I introduce a game to my high school students, they want to why and is it for a grade. I don’t think students a used to being able to play in game in school to help their learning. Jane McGonigal video is very inspirational although a little out there 🙂

    • psweeze

      I just finished John Seely Brown’s audiobook, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. I was surprised that the majority of the book was numerous examples of gamified learning. Here is a quote from the conclusion, “The almost unlimited resources provided by the information network serve as a set of nutrients constantly selected and incorporated into the bounded environment of the petri dish which provides the impetus for experimentation, play and learning. Accordingly the culture that emerges is a new culture of leaning. Is a culture of collective inquiry that harnesses the resources of the network and transforms them into nutrients within the petri dish environment. Turning it into a place of play and experimentation.”
      Before I listened to this book I definitely had my doubts. Specifically around reliance on these systems, as well as assessment. Although the make for amazing learning environments, is there really effective ways to assess within the games?

      • leemail

        As a teacher, some of the theories and ideas I’ve encountered during my MET journey have been so intriguing, yet unworkable in our current system. I’ve found that there are three elements of teaching which coexist in organized education, though at times they may be detrimental to one another.

        Student learning is one element. We talk about constructivism and making things meaningful and meeting individual needs.

        This is mixed with the element of assessment. A measure of a student’s progress, not necessarily as feedback to a student, but as a reference point for comparison to “normalcy”.

        The last element is a standardized curriculum. A list of items which has been deemed necessary to be known by a certain age.

        Your comments about the “new culture of learning” followed by the questions regarding assessment highlight a time when perhaps these elements are not working together. When a standardized curriculum exists, play and experimentation are limited in their boundaries. We can play only in the direction which has been allocated to our grade/course. Outside of that is unassessable and therefore apparently valueless. As to the question of assessing within a game, I believe it can be done. But it makes me wonder how many “amazing learning environments” are being bypassed because of concerns of how to make it fit with curriculum and assessment.

    • jldr

      This may not be as ‘out there’ as it seems!

  3. David Jackson

    The whole idea of introducing gaming into mainstream education is intriguing to me, but at present I see it more as an opportunity for enrichment and reinforcement than mainstream teaching of prescribed content. Too much emphasis on technology and gaming can be counter-productive. Schooling is a socialization process as well as a preparation for the world of work. An experienced teacher works this social context for benefit and classroom tone and cohesion. Many First Nations elders are noticing the weakening of their oral traditions of story-telling because face-to-face socialization is being replaced by online social relationships. We should not underestimate the value of face to face group interaction.
    I see the value of educational games as component tools within a varied tool-set in a blended learning environment, to be used selectively as remedial content or enrichment content. Mainstream use of gaming in education, in my opinion, would be unsound pedagogy, while occasional use or supplemental use needs to wait for evaluation and cataloguing with suggestions for use, to be of practical benefit to average teachers planning to meet learning outcomes.

  4. David Jackson

    I have had success in my ESL classes introducing HTML . It had some qualities of a game due to the fact that HTML input has immediate rewards for the student who can observe associated changes in the browser. Student became very interested, which offered me a context for oral language exchanges in answering and explaining. They also wanted access to reference sources that they could read.

  5. Shaimaa

    I would also like to add to the competition point: not only can it be counterproductive and make students focus on winning instead of learning, but in general it raises the competitiveness spirit among students which is not something wanted or appreciated in all cultures. I understand that competition is very important in Western Cultures and its importance is increasing as well in what we can call Eastern Culture, yet still it is not appreciated or viewed as something important. So depending on it in GBL or using games that increase competition among students would not be welcome in all cultures or at least could harm values in these cultures. And in general, I believe we have too much competition around us in the world that we need to focus more on collaboration and how it can achieve better results. I once attended a Business Decision training and it was all based on a card game (something like Monopoly). We were four teams and supposedly we were competition to get the higher score. The one of the players decided to turn it into a collaboration game and proved to use that we all can win more if we collaborated together. This was a life lesson for me. So I think we need to design games that emphasize collaboration rather than competition.

  6. candelaria

    I see games as a nice opportunity to give the classroom a diversity in teaching methods, but the effort it takes to sign out a computer lab/mobile lab and to bring the students the equipment and the instruction it takes to introduce the game makes this more difficult. In addition, the amount of time it takes to look for a game that can support or build on the concept that you are teaching in the class is time consuming, especially for the higher levels. You would be looking for multiple mini games which are most likely using the lower level thinking skills of drill and practice to get a concept across rather than the higher level thinking skills. Furthermore, these mini games do not usually have a collaborative element or even tips to help students understand the concept so weaker students usually result to guess and check. However, I do find that it is really interesting now that individuals can create their own games using programs like MindcraftEDU or Scratch or Kodu. Perhaps this would allow teachers to create a game specific for their course that they can use as these applications get more advanced.

  7. alemon

    I would love to see students talking with the enthusiasm of educational game based experiences like they do entertainment game based experiences. This has to be the ultimate goal of educational game based developers. Students could have access to individualized learning materials that seamlessly connect interests and strengths to digital learning materials.

    I’m also interested in looking into fully immersive experiences with futuristic devices such as the oculus. Devices such as these that provide virtual or augmented reality experiences could provide educational game based experiences as well. If more and more people continue to gain access to technology, accessing game based experiences outside of school will likely be a more common as well.

    Parents, policy makers and students will be only be convinced if the needs of each group are met through game based learning. Future experiences will have to be engaging and fun, while producing measurable evidence of learning and accountability as well. The learning outcomes must be clear and content must be present. At the same time, if educational content is not embedded seamlessly enough, students may be turned off and avoid engaging with the materials as deeply as they could.

  8. tclee1

    Hey everyone, thanks for the terrific insights and ideas. Just like you all said, game based learning (GBL) is still something that is a work-in-progress. But it shouldn’t be a surprise for such a concept to emerge in the technological world we live in today. To be candid, as a teacher, I have never used GBL in my classrooms so I was just as lost as some of my colleagues when I first heard about it, which prompted me to do research to get a better understanding of what GBL actually is. Surprisingly, there were many features of GBL that were quite impressive and they made me believe that it in fact can effectively and efficiently convey various curricula to students if used correctly. Simply imagine how we can integrate games, which students find fun, and curriculum, which students tend to lack interest in, to make them more engaged and motivated during class. This would be the perfect win-win situation for both sides.
    Nonetheless, this does not mean that it can completely replace face-to-face teaching. As social interaction is mandatory for success in real life, there are aspects in f2f teaching that are irreplaceable. In my opinion, f2f teaching will always be the mainstream but the entrance of GBL should act as a complement to f2f to make teaching even more productive. Thus, we strongly advocate the use of game-based learning if it’s used in the right manner (with clear, efficient, effective and measurable assessments) and taught by teachers who understand how to utilize this new concept. Like David J said, GBL provides “more [of] an opportunity for enrichment and reinforcement than mainstream teaching of prescribed content.” Why not utilize this diversity in our educational world?

  9. Do you have a reference for your comparison chart?

  10. bmehregani

    I am not too surprised that game-based learning has dropped significantly in 2013. After all, entertainment games are much more exciting, and the rewards for moving up a level are much greater. On another note, after reviewing the comparison chart, I think marrying hands-on training and game-based learning is a balanced approached to overall learning even though game-based learning alone appears to be more beneficial. I also think that marrying constructivism and social constructivism is a balanced approached to overall learning. Altogether, the students are at the center of their learning, taking ownership of their work and their socialization within an educational setting based on cooperation, collaboration, and knowledge building and sharing. In all, I think that the partnership of game-based learning and hands-on learning (or training) can produce an enriching learning experience for students. After all, I see that already, but without computers.

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