What is “game based learning”?

Questioning Game Based Learning - what is it?

Easter is coming up, and I feel like shutting down the thinking. At the same time, though, I feel like defining stuff (two contradictory feelings, it would seem).

I am always considering and exploring game based learning, and an inherent part of this process is wrestling with a feasible definition. It is very difficult to study and/or practice any given subject, if is not possible to define and demarcate the subject concerned. Therefore, we must seek an answer to the question:

What is game based learning?

This is not a question easily answered, and proposing a definition is certainly a daunting and difficult task.

At the moment, talking about game based learning might prove hard, as no common frame of reference exists. Many people look to Wikipedia for answers, and so do I. Here game based learning is defined as:

Game based learning (GBL) is a branch of serious games that deals with applications that have defined learning outcomes. Generally they are designed in order to balance the subject matter with the gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world.

If we accept the above, game based learning is nothing more than a genre of serious games, i.e. games developed specifically for learning purposes.

This does not describe my perception of game based learning at all.

To me, game based learning is about much more than the game, which is “just” a tool to support learning.

This is not to say that games easily could be swapped with any other available tool. Games do definitely have special affordances, which make them particularly well suited for facilitating learning. In its essence, playing is learning, which Jesper Juul also states in Half-Real:

Playing a game is an activity of improving skills in order to overcome these challenges, and playing a game is therefore fundamentally a learning experience.

Perhaps this is game based learning?

To me, this is the basic premise of game based learning. Games offer a situated practice, where we as players must acquire the skills, knowledge and competencies needed to beat the game, thus echoing John Dewey’s mantra, learning by doing. Such mechanics promote a feeling of experienced relevance, where we learn what is necessary when it is necessary. This is often contrasted by the formal learning in school, where the curriculum content is considered irrelevant by many students, because the purpose is not necessarily clear, and because it is not used in a situated practice.

When playing World of Warcraft, it is often considered important to be able to speak English – if you don’t, you learn it to play the game. When playing Civilization, it is important to understand the logic of history, the history of technologies etc. In Sim City, you must learn some of the inner workings of a town, and in Global Conflicts: Palestine, you must think like a journalist and acquire seemingly contradictory perspetives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition, I do not consider game based learning to be restricted to the use of serious games or other games developed specifically with learning in mind. Any game or genre could be used, it is only a matter of the didactical goals.

Games provide contexts for learning; so far, so good.

Next, it is absolutely imperative that we always remember, that games cannot provide us with a miracle; they are no “silver bullet”, as researcher Kurt Squire stated in “Changing the Game: What Happens When Video Games Enter the Classroom?” several years ago.

Ben Williamson at Games in Schools-conference

By themselves they are of no or very little value in any educational situation; it is only by designing the learning context around the games, that we can hope to harness the potentials of games.

This point has been advanced with growing impact recently, and any overly optimistic hopes have probably been curbed by now. Futurelab is doing interesting work, and has contributed to game based learning with several publications. In “Computer games, schools, and young people“, Ben Williamson suggests, that games should be perceived as teaching tools:

Viewing games as ‘teaching tools’ is a useful distinction because it highlights the key role that teachers play in defining the purposes for their classroom use, in planning activities, and in providing curricular context.

I agree with Williamson, as “defining the purpose”, “planning activities” and not least “providing curricular context” are enormously important components in order to successfully practice game based learning. It cannot be overestimated!

In the light of these deliberations, I arrive at a dynamic working definition (which is very much subject to change, and please do comment or criticize):

Game based learning describes an approach to teaching, where students explore relevant aspect of games in a learning context designed by teachers. Teachers and students collaborate in order to add depth and perspective to the experience of playing the game.