Differences between game based learning and educational games

written by on August 21, 2012 in Game Based Learning and Imaginative Education with one Comment


I am often asked by teachers which game they should buy for their own kids or their classroom. I thought that I’d start this rebooted blog by discussing the differences between buying an educational game and creating a game based learning culture in the classroom.

Game based learning is a complex topic because every book and now every website about game based learning and gamification offer differing definitions of games and often in domains other than learning. Game scholars tend to focus on games as a phenomenon, offering theories and criticisms, whereas instructional designers tend to produce games that more resemble interactive quizzes. Something seems to get lost in translation.

Games appear to demonstrate many learning principles, though no one really agrees which are more essential than others. We know games build essential skills such as problem solving, decision making, communication, collaboration, negotiation, team work, creativity, leadership, and critical thinking. This has been covered at length in the literature for decades. If today’s commercial games didn’t still involve learning they would be un-playable and no one would buy them. Educational games are often designed by committees who hand down the requirements to instructional designers. Often they appear to forget imaginative play starts in the child’s head. It can be role-playing, creating a new game, giving toys a voice, inventing adventures or playing a word game. Through imaginative play the child begins to understand the world, investigates fact and fiction, and develops positive relationships with themselves and other people.

“people who don’t play games often don’t get games. They don’t understand the flow of games; the joy of discovery and what makes them fun; the playfulness of a well-crafted game mechanic and the learning that can come from play rather than reading stuff in a book. They don’t get the ebb and flow of risk and reward or the satisfaction of a perfectly-timed recovery or counterstrike” – acatcalledfrank.

Then there also ideas that become lost in time, especially those hidden in old letterpress books. For example, Hall in 1906 talked about recapitulation theory in relation to play, and said that in play, we relive our evolutionary past. For example, children enact the ‘animal stage’ of evolution by climbing and swinging. (Subsequent stages are savage, nomad, agricultural and tribal). Recapitulation theory also draws on the notion of instinct, claiming that play provide the means for children to express their instincts.

Games Based Learning is then much more than using an educational game to teach a subject.

It’s an approach to allowing the ebb and flow of play which fuels imagination. This also requires a very different approach to how classes are run and how students find wonder and excitement in the topic. Take for example, a recent UK example from Learning without Frontiers, after being involved in the project – and by that I mean having first hand experience of it – teachers found new benefits.

This isn’t new to game-based-learners, non-gamers or pre-gamers such as Parten (1930s), Piaget (1960s) and Vygotsky (1970s). For decades the most influential educational theorists have discussed different levels of social engagement in play, but not digital-play. Today, we have the networks and technology to deliver it at school, in the home and on the move. Parten for example described a number of number of social categories of play, including onlooker level, when a child observes play of others; solitary play or playing alone; parallel play, when children play along with one another but there is little interaction among the players. It’s remarkable that ‘play’ theories are often completely ignored in teacher training. While the names are familiar, most teacher I meet associate them with constructivism, but see play as something else, as their interest in play is often not covered in any depth, if at all.

What makes GBL different to educational games, is that it makes them redundant.

GBL can be achieved with imagination, paper, pens, dress-ups, the Xbox, Minecraft and so on. GBL covers a spectrum of possibilities. What makes it really interesting to me is that it can be very low-tech, and perhaps act as a tonic for teachers who have game-kids in their classroom, but are unconvinced by recent interest and demands around blogs, wikis, podcasts, tablets and so on which in all reality have made a disproportional dent in student achievement or attitudes compared to the rhetoric, time and money invested. GBL can be three sticks on the ground with a little imagination and the right approach.

Developing games based learning capacity doesn’t have to anything like the challenges and moral panic caused by moving from Word to WordPress in the ‘integration of ICT’ discourse. Investing time trying to make the ‘perfect’ education game - is moving in exactly the wrong direction and we do well to remember games are not subject to the same technological determinate rationales associated with “web2.0″. We have games, brilliant games that can be used for relatively low cost. De-tuning commercial games to educational-versioning often is purely to add levers and special powers for teachers. This isn’t game based learning, this is sabotage.

It really strikes me how much kids can get motivated by playing a game and then all of a sudden they discover that the subject they always thought was going to be boring is actually totally interesting – Will Wright

The games we choose for children need to be in sync with game-culture and evolution – because this is where the richest imagination occurs and holds great interest for them in digital-culture. Take music for example, games have spawned a genre called Dub Step – and making it, uses games and digital culture. This is why Jo Kay and I ensured Massively Minecraft is always the current release and no child has less power than the adult. All we need are teachers willing to believe imagination has a powerful role in learning. As teacher and broader community interest in GBL rises, it marks the beginning of the end for those experts and consultants whom for the last decade never bothered to pick up a controller and wonder why this funny device is so much more powerful than anything they’ve seen before. Don’t start now guys, it’s too late, the party is over, games based learning is alive and well – and steps well beyond the educational domain.

Will Wright is a good example of an agile game designer who often moves between between game and education culture and theory – to make better game experiences. Game based learners will know who he is, but if you don’t – he says things such as “A game is like the nucleus of the experience, but it’s not the whole experience.” He discussed games and education in the context of imagination constantly.

Somebody can take something from their imagination, create an external artifact, and then share it. They can even collaborate on larger imaginary structures. This is something that used to be confined to a small number of people that had very high skills in language. These individuals could write a book and describe some imaginary world, like Alice in Wonderland. But not many people had that skill set. Now average people are getting these tools that empower them, to create entire worlds, external to their imagination, to share with other people.

Game based learning is not learning based in or around any particular game. How children experience it and what they do with it incorporates many of the same technologies that have been talked about for the last decade. So the skill set exists. Games based learning is not fifth option – or a strange cousin – it’s something  teachers with or without technological skills can learn quickly and productively – to create a new way of learning and finally present an approach to 21st century that isn’t technologically deterministic or shrouded in commercialised dogma.

Games have been around forever and now can be delivered cheaply in any classroom – if you are willing to learn how.