How Game-Based Learning Can Help Students of All Ages Learn

In school, kids play during recess and work during class. But some of the biggest names in psychology, including Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner, believe that play is a child’s work. The best way to teach kids, they say, is through hands-on, active learning. But with state benchmarks and performance-based teacher evaluations hanging above our heads, it’s hard for educators to imagine spending precious academic time playing games with kids.  That’s where game-based learning (often confused with gamification, which isn’t quite the same thing) comes in. With this approach, learning and play aren’t at odds with each other; in fact, games are the vehicle and environment for learning.

Bruner’s Discovery Learning Theory

According to Bruner, students who engage in hands-on learning and play-based activities experience the following benefits:

  • increased motivation
  • buoyed creativity
  • enhanced problem-solving skills
  • a greater sense of personal responsibility
  • the joy of autonomy and independence

What teacher doesn’t want her students to be motivated, creative, smart, responsible, and filled with joy? If playing games truly benefits students in this way, we can’t afford not to play with them. But what does that mean in real terms?

Quest to Learn: A School of Games

You may be wondering where, in your busy classroom schedule, you’d find time in your day to insert more games. One solution is to go whole hog and play nothing but games 100 percent of the time. That’s the theory behind Quest to Learn (Q2L), a 6th through 12th grade NYC school in which students learn every subject via digital games.

Q2L opened its doors in 2009. At that time, writer/editor Owen Edwards expressed trepidation in an Edutopia blog post. The school’s curriculum, said Edwards, consisted of an “underwhelming” set of lessons that would be taught solely through games. He quipped that education is not all fun and games and fretted over the future of legitimate schooling.

Q2L’s founder and executive director, Katie Salen, offers a different point of view. As a game designer and digital media professor, Salen endorses Q2L’s “game-like” learning style. She believes that because video games are such an important part of most students’ lives anyway, playing them at school is a potent way to inspire and motivate them.

Every course taught at Q2L is standards-based. For example, sixth-grade math and science standards are integrated into a one-trimester gaming experience called “The Way Things Work.” Through video gaming, the students help a mad scientist navigate his way through a virtual human body. As they play, the students absorb the same Common Core knowledge taught to their cohorts across the country. And they have a great time doing so.

Creating Their Own Curriculum

While the benchmarks taught at Q2L are familiar to most teachers, the curriculum is obviously different. Game designers and curriculum designers meet with teachers at a place called the “Mission Lab” to design classroom games. The team identifies learning strands that are difficult for students, then brainstorms ways to overcome those difficulties through play.

Learning Design strategist Eliza Spang calls the brainstorming process at Q2L an amazing experience. When three heads come together at the ideation table — the teacher, the game designer, and the curriculum specialist — Spang says students benefit from educational products that a single-minded group of teachers or other professionals would never create.

The Benefits of Playing Games at School

If you’re intrigued by the concept behind Q2L and want to learn more about how playing video games boosts learning, you’re in good company. Reviewers at the American Psychological Association recently delved into the effects of playing video games on student learning, social skills, and health. These professionals reported that playing video games, even violent ones, helps develop a person’s capacity for three-dimensional thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

The U.S. Department of Education recently released a blog detailing a joint effort with the White House called Education Game Jam, a one-off event that took place in September 2014. Teachers, game developers, and students collaborated to create 23 educational games that address difficult-to-master K-12 concepts, then showcased their creations during a 48-hour conference at the White House.

Bringing Games to Your Classroom

Classroom games image

Image via Flickr by kjarrett

Most teachers don’t have the means or the administrative support to initiate curricular changes like those seen at Q2L. However, that doesn’t mean that you and your students can’t play more games in your classroom. Here’s a look at three popular video games that are used in classrooms today:


Q2L educator Dan Bloom recently wrote of his success using Minecraft to teach DNA extraction to 9th-grade biology students in an Edutopia article. Minecraft can help you with more than just biology; visit MinecraftEdu for a “school-ready” version of the beloved game, and learn about more great curriculum ideas in this recent article on Edudemic by Ann Elliott. The company offers discounts to teachers.

Civilization IV

Illinois teacher Zach Gilbert uses the strategy-based Civilization IV game to hook his sixth graders on history. Through play, students are transported back to ancient times in which they must build their own civilizations. Some critics worry that Civilization IV, a game developed by Firaxis Games, is not always historically accurate. Gilbert views these inaccuracies as “teachable moment” opportunities. If you’re interested in using Civilization IV in the classroom, our very own Jim Hinton has more tips in an article he penned for us in late 2014.

The Walking Dead

You might feel squeamish about allowing your students to play a gory video game like The Walking Dead as a means of learning ethics and decision-making. But that’s exactly what Norwegian high school teacher Tobias Staaby has done, according to a recent Edutopia post. Never has Staaby seen his students so engaged. He has his principal — a man who encourages teachers to use an “entrepreneurial approach” to designing lessons — to thank.


Whether you’re an elementary teacher who wants to integrate math learning apps into your classroom or a high school teacher looking for ways to use Minecraft at school, video games are a fun and effective way to inspire and motivate your students. Follow these tips for the best results:

  • Play the game yourself first.
  • Find ways to connect sore spots in your curriculum to the game.
  • Be ready to justify your use of games in the classroom to dubious onlookers.

In Short

Increasing play time when you’re under the gun to crank out achievement-oriented test takers requires you to take a leap of faith. Though it might seem counterproductive, research has shown time and again that your leap of faith will have positive results. For more ideas on incorporating games into education, check out Edudemic’s Best Game-Based Education Resources for 2014.


  1. Carl

    March 23, 2016 at 6:54 am

    Definitely games can be effective tools in learning not only for children but for students as well. Games are interesting and engaging and can therefore enhance student participation and concentration span.

    The only concern arising is how to integrate these games in the curriculum. There is limited research on the effect of games on learning and academic results. Nonetheless, despite games in education being relatively a new frontier, it is certain that its time to incorporate them in classroom setups. More research is needed though.

    • Brooke Miller

      May 6, 2016 at 5:15 pm

      I agree with you about the need for more research. I would love to integrate gaming in my classroom but I also have a hard time connecting it to curriculum. My administrator would need a lot of proven research before she would consider letting me even try gaming.

  2. Drew

    March 27, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    As a future educator and avid video gamer, it amazed me how video gaming could be beneficial to a student’s learning ability especially with the amount of psychological studies I have read that shows a negative relationship with violent video games and children’s well being. I would love to see how gaming in the classroom develops nationwide overtime like with Quest to Learn and it definitely makes me rethink how I want to teach when I’m older so my students will get the most out of my teaching and learning styles.

  3. Oswaal books

    March 28, 2016 at 4:30 am

    Thanks for sharing some new and informative with us, I really very thankful to you.

  4. Bradley

    March 31, 2016 at 12:42 am

    As much as I think learning through games is an interesting and exciting method of acquiring knowledge, I can not advocate that it replaces traditional methods of teaching and learning.
    I think the effects on the mind of the students in a game like the walking dead would have on them is not healthy.
    Whether we like to admit it or not some of the video games children are exposed to are more harmful to them than being beneficial.
    Personally I have never advocated for games where children are exposed to violence, gory scenes and nudity or adult stuff that they are not supposed to get exposed to until the ideal age.
    Also the fact that a game like Civilization IV may not always be historically accurate shows we can’t really have it replacing documented facts in a history book.

    • Stacy Mattison

      June 22, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      Your comment “Also the fact that a game like Civilization IV may not always be historically accurate shows we can’t really have it replacing documented facts in a history book.” is simply inaccurate seeing that teachers are capable of prompting students to discuss inaccuracies then quiz & test for retention. SOme kids will bring inaccuracies to light anyway.

  5. Mahee Ferlini

    April 4, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful! I’ve been looking for posts of this nature for a way too long!

  6. Daniel R. Reynoso

    April 5, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    “Increasing play time when you’re under the gun to crank out achievement-oriented test takers requires you to take a leap of faith.”

    This is such a powerful statement in your closing remarks. As an elementary school teacher with nearly 25 years of experience in the classroom, and coming from a generation that didn’t grow up behind the computer screen or with a controller in hand, I find myself both skeptical and intrigued by this article. Granted, my skepticism is based solely in the fact that I am not very tech savvy and fall into the trap of complacency as an educator. My intrigue comes from knowing that the world of education is a living breathing creature that evolves, and technology is the platform for that evolution.

    Increasing motivation and inspiring creativity are a constant challenge for many of us educators who sometimes find ourselves “out-of-touch” as we get older. I know first hand how the environment of the classroom changes when we go from “books and pencils” to our Chromebooks. It gets louder (in a great way) and kids seem so engaged.

    My questions/concerns as an educator are these: What advice can you give when it comes to helping set our parents’ minds at ease when it comes to incorporating more technology in the classroom, especially when games are introduced? What advice can you give to help us as educators in keeping our students on task while using a medium that can almost challenge a student to do something off-task?

    I am very much looking forward to investigating more through the “Best Game-Based Education Resources” article.

    Thank you for an informative and eye-opening article,
    Daniel R. Reynoso
    4th Grade Teacher
    Sacramento, CA

  7. Irene Fenswick

    April 11, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Great tips! Really great article for every teacher.

  8. Assignment Writer

    April 19, 2016 at 3:57 am

    Sounds fun as long as enough resources and time is allocated. Even the student must be aware that these games are a part of learning and they should pick up information while in the play-mode.

    Great article! :)

    • Stacy Mattison

      June 22, 2016 at 2:46 pm

      its the teachers job to train kids to check themselves for retention, set the stage, assign play mode knowledge acquisition & check for retention of important facts every 10-15 min or more.

  9. Akshara Jai

    April 20, 2016 at 2:39 am

    Great stuff Melissa, as learning just from printed materials can’t benefit the students’ percertion and grasping ability. Moreover such learning revolution is inevitable as far as our future generation is concerned. Keep up this good work of sharing your views and thoughts regarding education and learning methodologies.

  10. Lalit Pant

    May 3, 2016 at 1:21 am

    Yes Learning never be stopped for all age groups and at the present era technology growing very fast. So we need to make some different and innovative way of learning as you mentioned in this article.

  11. Stacy Mattison

    June 22, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Keep up the great work! Kids need more inspiring, engaging & differentiated ways of learning.