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Understanding Game-Based Learning: Benefits, Potential Drawbacks and Where to Begin

Jordan Nisbet

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A mother looking at what her daughter is playing on a tablet at kitchen table.

Gone are the days of textbook-only learning. As an educator, you’ve likely experienced firsthand how challenging it is to meet the needs of different types of learners — all while trying to keep student engagement high.

Game-based learning is one teaching strategy that’s growing increasingly popular to help students achieve their learning objectives. Especially as:

  1. Students are becoming tech savvy at an earlier age
  2. Educational technology companies are developing more efficacious products

And rightly so. In a 2018 study, researchers found “evidence that the use of educational games could support and increase the mathematics learning outcomes.” Another 2018 systematic review of game-based learning highlighted research that found “educational games play a successful role in terms of both a better understanding of the course content by the students and the participation of the students in this process.”

Below, we’ll dive into what game-based learning is, the benefits and drawbacks, as well as types of game-based learning educators like you can use every day.

What is game-based learning (GBL)?

A young child plays with miniature carnival rides, an example of game-based learning.

Game-based learning is a teaching method that uses the power of games to define and support learning outcomes.

A GBL environment achieves this through educational games that have elements such as engagement, immediate rewards and healthy competition. All so that while students play, they stay motivated to learn.

The great thing about game-based learning is everyone can reap its benefits, from preschool all the way up to post-secondary education and beyond. Where and how doesn't matter, either — students can learn:

  • With online games
  • In person with physical objects
  • Independently or as part of a team

Game-based learning vs. Gamification

An infographic published by EdSurge outlining the differences between gamification and game-based learning.

If you're experienced with GBL, chances are you’ve come across the terms “gamified” or “gamification.” And while they’re similar, the two applications are distinctly different.

In game-based learning, teachers incorporate educational activities into their lessons which can help students — independently or through teamwork — to refresh old concepts or solidify new ones.

By leveraging today’s students’ intimate knowledge of game play, teachers can create exciting learning environments that increase student engagement.

Gamification pulls from elements of game design, such as:

  • Gaining points
  • Getting on leaderboards
  • Earning badges
  • Collecting other rewards

However, the biggest difference from GBL is its application in non-game settings. In your classroom, gamification could mean creating a leaderboard for students who finish their homework on time every day, and getting some kind of prize for the longest streak every month.

Digital game-based learning (DGBL)

A boy engages in game-based learning on his tablet to complete school work.

In an increasingly tech-filled world, DGBL takes things one step further and harnesses technology to help make game-based learning even more engaging and effective. As defined in our digital game-based learning article, it:

“Offers a delicate balance between in-class lessons and educational gameplay. Teachers introduce students to new concepts and show them how they work. Then students practice these concepts through digital games.”

A good DGBL platform should seamlessly track progress as students work through subject matter and help identify where students are excelling, as well as where they need support.

Prodigy Math Game is an engaging, curriculum-aligned, digital game-based learning platform that checks all those boxes. Success in the game requires students to correctly answer math questions which adapt to their learning needs, and gives teachers the ability to differentiate!

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Combined with your teaching style and continued lesson plans, you’ll likely have a lot of success when you implement digital game-based learning in the classroom.

Traditional game-based learning

GBL wasn’t always digital, of course. Take formative, non-digital childhood games like Simon says or Duck-Duck-Goose, for example.

Teachers would — and still do — pepper the traditional learning environment with them to help teach students how to understand classroom rules, the importance of paying attention and to improve motor skills. All while having fun.

Top benefits of game-based learning

A young child plays with lego, a popular and traditional example of game-based learning.

Some educators and researchers still argue that game-based learning can be detrimental to educational experience.

However, studies continue to show that games can positively impact things like students’ math and language learning in many ways. Game-based learning:

  • Helps problem-solving — Game-based learning can help students solve problems by fostering skills like understanding causation, logic and decision making they can use in life outside of school.
  • Encourages critical thinking — Research has shown that GBL can improve students’ critical thinking skills, “including the development of independent beliefs prior to engaging in collaborative discourse and providing opportunities for guided reflection.”
  • Increases student engagement and motivation — A 2019 research paper found when teachers incorporated digital game-based learning elements such as feedback, choice and collaboration into their instructional design, students become more engaged and motivated to learn.
  • Introduces situational learning — Learning doesn’t only occur in our heads; it in fact, it’s a fundamentally social process. Proposed in 1991 by Jean Lave, anthropologist, and Etienne Wenger, a computer scientist, situated learning helps students understand new concepts in the context of their social relationships.
  • Addresses special education needs — GBL positively impacts special education classrooms, too, according to this 2020 literature review. Researchers found that for students with individualized education plans, “game-based learning is a must to help guide instruction, create a positive environment, and generate academic success… [And students] with autism [are] more successful and motivated when using computerized games for academic lessons.”

Potential drawbacks of game-based learning

A young girl spends time playing games on her tablet.

As we mentioned above, not everyone is convinced of game-based learning just yet. GBL’s purpose was never to replace teachers and traditional learning, but to help positively augment it.

Depending on your personal teaching approaches or a student’s individual learning style, there can be drawbacks to game-based learning:

  • Too much screen time
  • Games aren’t always created equally
  • Games can be a source of distraction
  • It requires a technology learning curve
  • Doesn’t replace traditional learning strategies
  • Not always aligned to teaching or learning goals

Researchers still have much to study about GBL and, if not implemented effectively, teachers and students can have a poor experience.

However, we hope resources such as the one you’re reading now help empower educators and students alike to benefit from game-based learning — in school and beyond!

7 Types of game-based learning

Three students use virtual reality headsets as part of a type of game-based learning activity.

Exploring the world of GBL will open the door to many types and examples of games, whether you teach pre-kindergarten, elementary or high school students.

Compared to games outside of the education space, “serious games” are ones designed to teach or help students practice specific skills or content.

Some of the most common game-based learning examples include:

  1. Card games — A game that uses a traditional or game-specific deck of cards. “War” is a traditional card game that can have a mathematical twist. Check out our list of classroom math games to learn how to play.
  2. Board games — A game you play on a board that usually involves the movement of pieces. Chess and checkers are popular ones, but there are hundreds if not thousands of board games for kids to explore.
  3. Simulation games — A game designed to closely simulate real-world activities. The Sims, which launched in 2000, is one of the most popular series of life simulation games that involves creating and exploring virtual worlds.
  4. Word games — A game that’s typically designed to explore the properties of language or the ability to use a language itself. Scrabble is an example of a traditional word game while the app Words With Friends is a more modern one.
  5. Puzzle games — A game that emphasizes puzzle solving through one’s use of things such as logic, word completion, sequence solving, as well as spatial and pattern recognition. For example, Sudoku and 2048 are popular math puzzles.
  6. Video games — an electronic game wherein players can manipulate what appears on the screen with, for example, a joystick, controller or keyboard. A couple that might pop into your head are the decades-old classic Pac-Man, or, more recently, Fortnite.
  7. Role-playing games (RPGs) — a game in which players assume the role of imaginary characters who engage in adventures. A popular fantasy tabletop RPG is Dungeons & Dragons and was first introduced in 1974. Prodigy Math Game is also a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) where 1st to 8th grade students go on exciting adventures and correctly answer curriculum-aligned math questions to progress.

Of course, the types of game-based learning you choose to use may depend on the students to have in a given year. But you have plenty of options if GBL is something you want to try this year!

Learn more about Prodigy for teachers

How game-based learning drives a strong learning experience

Do you remember the first time a new concept finally clicked after learning through play? Maybe you experienced something similar as a student or in an effective professional development session.

If you have, you recognize the power game-based learning can have on one’s personal learning journey. As a company rooted in game-based learning, we witness it every day: students who play Prodigy Math Game and develop a love of math that wasn't there before.

Whether you’re planning to apply it to in-person learning or e-learning, do so with an open mind. You may be surprised how much you — and your students — love game-based learning.

Consider adding Prodigy Math Game to your digital game-based learning toolset!

In an open letter titled "The Road Ahead: An EdTech Leader’s Thoughts on Going Back to School", our Co-CEO and Co-Founder Rohan Mahimker shared three ways Prodigy can help support educators, parents and students alike:

Because it’s online, adaptive and highly engaging, Prodigy’s math platform is ideally suited to help parents and teachers ensure their students are learning math in either an in-person, virtual, or hybrid learning environment. There are three product attributes that I’d like to highlight here which can help in either scenario: world-class student engagement, easy assessment and remediation, and a shared data set between home and school.

Do those things sound like something you, your students and their families could benefit from?

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