Game-Based Learning

by Sean A. Riley, PhD

(PC: Bruce Jeffrey)

Our kids are gamers today. Once a hobby for socially-isolated kids with nothing better to do, gaming has become ubiquitous in the past decade. Kids, and now adults, of all types and walks of life indulge in games that range from simple smart phone games like Angry Birds to full-throttle, heart-pounding, processor-straining multiplayer first-person shooters and simulators. You can even find SBS teachers gaming with students in the dorm some weekends. I take joy in surprising students by picking up the controller. I take even more joy (probably too much joy) in seeing the shock on their faces when I defeat them with Villager or Jigglypuff in Smash Bros.

And lest we think video gaming has distracted people from playing board games, the reality is that board games are on the rise as well. As a Deseret News article by Cody Carlson put it, “we are living in a board game renaissance.” One of the main reasons for the renaissance is that the games have just gotten better. Monopoly is boring after you’ve played Settlers of Catan, Carcassone, or Seven Wonders. Risk, which was my college board game of choice, now seems like a poorly constructed, unnecessarily long dice game in comparison to the strategy games that have come out in the past decade.

In response to the gamer revolution, many educators have been pushing the notion of game-based learning (See Edutopia’s page devoted to game-based learning). The movement, still in its infancy, aims to transform classroom learning in a radical way by replacing traditional modes of instruction with student-centered competitions. In what follows, I examine some of the strengths and weaknesses of game-based learning and then share my experience of implementing a game-based approach to teaching political theory.


The best part about game-based learning is that it promotes student engagement. Students are highly motivated by competition and are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of victory. If I ask my students to read some Thomas Aquinas for a homework grade, my dutiful students will slog through it, and a few may get really interested. If I tell them that they are giving a speech on Just War Theory in preparation for a war and diplomacy simulation, every students gets into the text, scouring it for relevant arguments.

Another oft-cited strength of game-based learning is that it gives students opportunities to practice 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. Additionally, games are safe arenas within which student can practice failing. In the high-pressure world of college prep education, students often come to believe that failure is not an option, that failure is final and devastating. The reality is that failure is probably more important educationally than success. Games encourage students to learn from failure, adjust, and improve by providing measures of success that are intrinsic to the game and immediate. Grades, on the other hand, function as external motivators, often come days after the performance, and carry more – often too much – weight psychologically.


While game-based learning may harness student energy and promote the development of important skills, it certainly has its pit-falls. First, competition can have negative consequences. As a school whose motto is “Character Before Career,” we must be careful not to promote vices like pride, envy, wrath, and greed, which too often emerge in competitive arenas. Second, while increased student engagement typically enhances learning, game-based engagement may hinder learning if students become more focused on the mechanics of the game rather than on the content they are supposed to be learning. Third, the more into a game students get, often the more rowdy they become. Students in the room next door who are taking a test or engaging in a calm discussion may find their energetic peers next door to be obnoxious and distracting. Fourth, while having measures of success outside of grades may have great benefits, game-based measures of success are typically public, whereas grades are typically private. Games may highlight the weakness of weak students and reward strong students in front of their peers, which may cause embarrassment for some and encourage vanity in others. Finally, If games are not designed well or are not intimately connected with the curriculum, they may actually hinder learning. Playing hangman with spelling words or Jeopardy for test review may get kids engaged, but neither game does much to develop skills or virtues. The best games are intentionally designed to be tightly integrated with the learning objectives.

While we make forays into the world of game-based learning, we must remain aware of potential threats and be vigiliant about protecting what has made and should continue to make a Stony Brook education excellent. We must not get so swept up in the euphoria of a successful game that we lose track of our core educational goals. And, we must guard against making non-game-based learning seem boring by comparison. Our game-based exercises must be challenging enough that they require discipline and effort, and our non-game-based exercises must be engaging enough to keep students with us.

Examples of Game-based Learning

What might game-based learning look like in reality? For many educators, the solution is to “gamify” learning by making learning more competitive, rewarding students with “badges” and scoreboards. At Stony Brook, teachers are experimenting with gamification with success. In our Humanities 9 class, Jeffrey Smith uses Class Dojo to reward contributions to Socratic seminar discussions. A few teachers have usedKahoot! for review, and many of our teachers are using Socrative. They work. They increase student engagement and motivation. But more exciting to me are efforts to transform the curriculum by contextualizing learning inside the framework of a larger game. One such example is currently being developed by two Middle School history teachers who have been working on a game they call “Historia.” I spoke with Jason Darnell, one of the developers of the game, on the phone a few weeks ago and was impressed by their concept and with their results. We may partner with them once their game goes to market. A story on their work can be found here:

The Ethics and Politics Utopia Game

Historia inspired Luke Trouwborst and me to set up a civilization-building game in our Ethics and Politics classroom during the Political Theory unit, which lasts from February to May. The basic premise is that while students read the great works of Western political theory – Plato, Aristotle, the Medievals, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau – they also build utopias of their own (a la Plato’s Republic) in small groups. They develop policies, respond to unexpected events, and interact and compete with other utopias for resources, land, and cultural development. Game events are linked to the readings, and student research, presentations, and debates impact the growth and development of their utopias. The results of our experiment have been exciting. Students appear to be engaging difficult ideas more urgently because they know that their performance in the game depends on their ability to understand and apply concepts in the readings. Early testing results also suggest that more students are learning more material with the game than they were without it.  Students agree; one wrote, “The game aspect of it is super appealing and it keeps you motivated to do your work because you really want to be the last Utopia standing…I would want other students at other schools to have as much fun as we do.” Another wrote, “We can see many important concepts in action and how they really work.” For a first iteration, we are very pleased with how the game has gone, and we hope future iterations will be even better.

Of course developing a game like this requires a lot of time and creativity. Having two teachers of the course and lots of experience with the curriculum has certainly helped. Most teachers will need time and assistance if they are going to embark on a similar adventure. I’m excited about developments like Historia, which teachers will be able to purchase as a complete package rather than starting from scratch as we have.

The Stony Brook School and Game-Based Learning

The Stony Brook School has the opportunity to capitalize on the goods of game-based learning while avoiding the pitfalls. As a school that has Christian faith and moral formation at the center of its mission, we have the chance to develop educational games that teach character, show students the consequences of vicious choices, and give them opportunities to demonstrate virtue in the safety of the classroom prior to reaching the adult world world, where they may have to choose between career success and doing the right thing. Moreover, The Stony Brook School possesses a creative and intelligent faculty full of teachers who are deeply in touch with their students. With our knowledge of students, we have the potential to develop games that substantially enhance the learning process.



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