Game Based Learning, Gamification, & Game Design: A n00bs guide.

Lately, I've been doing a lot with games in my classroom. I've also been teaching other educators about ways they can use games and game design in their classroom. One thing that often frustrates and confuses newcomers to this discussion is the differences between Game Based Learning (#GBL), Gamification (#Gamification), and Game Design. Often the lines between these three distinct fields are blurred in conversation as well as practice. This isn't a good or bad thing; it just is. Sometimes though, it is helpful to make a distinction. For example, If I'm telling someone how successful Game Based Learning or Game design has been in my classroom only to have them ask questions about Gamification, the whole conversation can get confusing. Don't get me wrong, Gamification is awesome, and I use it to an extent, but it is not Game Based Learning or Game design. As a n00b* myself, I'm creating this n00b's guide to help clear up these topics and how they apply to our classrooms. It has taken this n00b awhile to unravel these mysteries, so I'll try to share what I've picked up along the way.

Game Based Learning

Identified on Twitter by the hashtag #gbl (and now the edchat: #gblfriday), Game Based learning is game play that has defined learning outcomes. In other words, GBL involves using actual games in your classroom that you've selected to reach specific objectives or goals. For example, a Physics teacher might use Portal 2 to work with concepts such as mass, friction, elasticity, and conservation of momentum. A Business or Math teacher might use Lemonade Stand or Coffee Shop to teach micro economic or computational concepts. A social Studies teacher might use games like Win the Whitehouse or We the Jury to teach Political Science concepts.

Game Based learning is not Gamification. You are using actual games in the classroom, be they Epistemic games (educational / serious games), Commercial Games, or Mods of Commercial games. I'll go over some great resources for these games at the end. For now, it's on to Gamification.


Code Academy Badges gamify learning code.
Gamification is the application of game mechanics in a non-game context, such as your classroom management system, your assessments, your grading procedures, etc. in order to increase user motivation and engagement. Gamification techniques use people's natural response to challenge, achievement, epic meaning (being a part of something bigger), and mission completion. Good examples of Gamification in the classroom include Chore Wars, which gives you an avatar and level-ups for completing classroom chore; Class Dojo, which uses avatars and badges to reinforce desired classroom behaviors; and even Edmodo badges, which can be used in a variety of contexts.

You can gamify parts of your classroom, such as my use of the ABI system to make grading more closely resemble leveling-up, or you can gamify your entire course, like Paul Anderson's Science class. Gamification is tricky, because it can easily be gimmicky. Simply replacing the language with which you present things, for example, but maintaining the same old methods of assessment and teaching are not gamification. They're just gingerbread.

Game Design

Game design is just as it sounds. It's is the process of planning the components, goals, mechanics, environment, and rules of a game, as well as considerations, in many cases, of storyline and characters. Its the consideration of user interaction with your design. It is the process of responding to user feedback and creating iterations on your design. Game design can also encompass but is certainly not limited to coding, programming, and digital art. Game design not only allows students to enter the domain of STEM through system-based thinking and user-centric design, but also engages 21st century skills like  problem solving and collaboration as well as liberal arts / humanities disciplines, such as art, storytelling, and digital media literacy.

There are a lot of ways you can incorporate game design into your classroom without getting into serious coding, or even programming concepts. Gamestar Mechanic, a site that teaches game design concepts through play, allows you teach game design for game design's sake or use it as a tool to teach everything from plot & character development to tessellations. Of course, there are a lot of free tools available to get into more serious programming concepts, such as Stencylworks, Scratch, & even Valve's Hammer editor. 

Purists, Naysayers, and Realists

Despite the differences between these three topics, there's clearly a lot of overlap between them. There are purists who would argue that Game Based Learning is where the action is and gamification is a load of bunk. The President says we should be teaching game design, but he doesn't say much about Game Based Learning or Gamification. A quick look at a tool like Gamestar Mechanic, though, reveals an experience that gamifies the process of game design, which is essentially game based learning. Wow, that is as "meta" as it gets. All of these concepts overlap in my class, and I don't believe that they're easily separated.



Enough theory, here's some stuff to read, watch, & play with:

Tools & Games 

  • ARIS - is an open source platform for developing mobile learning experiences.
  • Gamestar Mechanic (explained above)
  • Teach with Portals- offers free content, information and tools to help educators build innovative curricula.
  • Games for Change - Founded in 2004, Games for Change facilitates the creation and distribution of social impact games that serve as critical tools in humanitarian and educational efforts.
  • Minecraft Edu - this site actually requires a monetary investment to get your classroom rolling, but Minecraft is epistemic gaming nirvana.
  • Playforce - A community built for and by players, parents, and educators to discover and share learning experiences in games.


TED Talks

Other helpful articles and stuff...
I could share a lot more, but we'll leave it at that for now. Good luck, and great gaming! DFTBA!


*n00b - gamespeak for one who is admittedly clueless, but tries to look like the authority - basically what we teachers do every day.


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