Game-Based Learning: Here’s Why Video Games Can Be Used to Reach Educational Goals

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  • May 31, 2022

Speaking of video games, it is not uncommon to come across people convinced that they represent just a source of entertainment and distraction. But is this really the case? Or is there more to it? Let’s find out together!

What is Game-Based Learning?

When we talk about Game-Based Learning we refer to a type of learning that relies on the use of games or video games. It is a real didactic strategy that uses the dynamics of games to teach specific content or achieve a certain learning result, such as developing soft skills.

As highlighted by Brandon K. Ashinoff in his article “The potential of video games as a pedagogical tool”, if we think about it, video games are fully-fledged learning machines. This is because all video games usually start with a tutorial that accompanies the player in learning the game mechanics, and later on, throughout the game, the teaching method changes to an experience-based process as the actions required to complete tasks become more and more elaborate. By doing this, the game teaches the player how to evaluate the situation and determine the best course of action on his own.

This dynamic is useful not only to teach players about the game itself but also to convey educational information, as demonstrated by a study conducted by Kurt Squire. As he explains in his article “Changing the Game: What Happens When Video Games Enter the Classroom?”, he conducted a study on a secondary school history class in which he had students play Civilization III, a historical simulation game, with the purpose of having the students learn about history from playing the game. In Civilization III, the player is asked to manage a civilization (i.e. the Romans, the Aztecs, etc.) and progress through history, taking care of warfare, diplomacy, science, and the economy of the empire.  In this game, things must be developed in chronological order, so the alphabet comes before mathematics and mathematics before economics, for example. As Squire observed, this mechanic helped the students involved in his study to memorize better the date of the invention of things.

Explicit educational purpose vs. Implicit educational purpose

Games with an explicit educational purpose are also called “serious games” and are characterized by a “learning by doing” approach, therefore by an experiential type of learning in which the information remains impressed as experienced firsthand by the player. In short, the opposite of passive learning.

Some of the topics that can be covered in these games are history, mathematics, and languages, but also more specific topics such as bullying, immigration, and war to promote awareness and educate about inclusion, diversity, and tolerance.

At the same time, though, serious games are not the only ones that can have an educational function; there are many commercial games that integrate learning elements through gameplay in a stealthy and implicit way. The purpose of these games is not to convey notions but rather to help the development of certain soft skills, such as creativity or problem-solving.

To better understand the difference between these two types of games, here’s a list of some examples!

Explicit Educational Purpose Games

  1. The Oregon Trail

This game was developed in the ‘70s by Bill Heinemann, Don Rawitsch, and Paul Dillenberger to teach students about about the life of a pioneer on the Oregon Trail in the 19th century. The role of the player is that of a wagon leader who needs to guide his group of settlers from Missouri to Oregon. At the beginning of the game, the player has to pick a job that comes with unique benefits and purchase supplies to face the trip, such as clothes, bullets for hunting, oxen to pull the wagon, and food. Various complications arise during the journey, such as rivers to cross, food supplies running out and group members falling ill. Through these situations, players learn about planning ahead and making choices knowing they will have an impact in the future.

What players learn: historical events, problem-solving skills, pondering before making a decision.

2. Bury me, my Love

Bury me, my Love is a text-adventure game co-developed by Arte France, Figs, and Pixel Hunt. In this game, players follow the story of Nour, who is fleeing Syria and trying to reach Europe, by impersonating her husband Majd, who is remaining behind in Syria to take care of his old mother and grandfather that cannot flee. Through a messaging app, players can talk to Nour and advise her so that she can reach her destination safely. They will be asked to make important choices that will change the unfolding of Nour’s journey, and communications will take place in pseudo-real-time, trying to mimic reality. Time, money, and itinerary represent a variable that might change the outcome of the journey.

What players learn: decision-making, problem-solving skills, awareness of migration issues

3. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? is an educational video game about geography that dates back to the 80s, from which originated an investigating franchise. In this game, the player had to follow, theft after theft, Carmen Sandiego, a skilled thief of international fame, trying to catch her and her fellow thieves fleeing across the world.

By interviewing witnesses in different cities and gathering clues, players learn about geography and history as they advance in the game.

What players learn: geographical curiosities, capitals of countries, locations of historic events

Implicit Educational Purpose Games

  1. Minecraft

A bit in-between the two typologies of games discussed so far is Minecraft, originally born without a specific educational purpose, which later on arrived with Minecraft Education Edition.

Minecraft is a 3D world-building game, belonging to the sandbox category, that lets players explore a virtual world in which they can gather resources, build structures, craft tools, and combat other players. In this game, possibilities are endless, there are no rules. Players can play using different modes: creative, survival, adventure, spectator, and multiplayer (a popular mode especially among young players).

The game has sold millions of copies on a dozen platforms. What makes Minecraft so enjoyable is the fact that it’s a virtual parallel world where adventure and fantasy coexist and the user’s creativity is the real protagonist, thanks to the possibility of creating infinite content.

What players learn: teamwork, creativity, problem-solving and analytical skills

2. Scribblenauts Series

Scribblenauts is a franchise of puzzle sandbox games developed by 5th Cell and published by WB Games. As Maxwell, the protagonist of the series, players are faced with various challenges that can be solved by typing the name of the needed object in a magical notebook, which makes it appear in-game. Everything you can think of, you can create.  It’s a game in which creativity is strongly encouraged and as a result, players expand both spelling and vocabulary skills.

What players learn: problem-solving skills, improved imagination, and vocabulary, associative skills

3. Little Big Planet Series

This adventure platform game originally came out for PlayStation 3 in 2008. Little Big Planet as a series follows the story of Sackboy and his friends, tiny doll-like creatures, as they try to get through the levels by solving puzzles and exploring new landscapes. What sets this game apart is the possibility to completely customize your gaming experience, by designing your character, homes, outfits, and even levels. That’s right, players can create their own levels and share them with their friends!

What players learn: problem-solving skills, design, logic, spatial orientation skills

Some of the cognitive benefits of video games

In conclusion, as highlighted in the article “The Benefits of Playing Video Games” by Granic et al., regardless of whether they are games designed specifically for education or not, there are various cognitive benefits derived from playing video games. The main ones involve:

  • Coordination: players have to move and react to what they see on screen;
  • Problem-solving skills: to reach their goal, players must face challenges and puzzles and follow the rules imposed by the game;
  •  Memory enhancement: to succeed, players need to remember the game’s rules, controls as well as details about characters and plot in story-based games;
  • Improved focus: video games hold people’s attention;
  • Multitasking skills: players are often asked to monitor multiple issues at the same time, such as their avatar’s health and inventory, time limits on a level or task, etc.
  • Teamwork/Leadership: multiplayer functions encourage cooperation.

Well, we have reached the end of the article! What do you think? Are you still convinced that video games are just pure entertainment or have you changed your mind? Let us know in the comments!

We hope you found this topic interesting and that this article helped you learn something more about game-based learning. Remember to subscribe to our blog if you want to stay updated on gaming-related curiosities!

See you next month!

One Comment

  • says:

    For my thesis, I consulted a lot of information, read your article made me feel a lot, benefited me a lot from it, thank you for your help. Thanks!