How Game-Based And Traditional Learning Are Different

How Are Game-Based And Traditional Learning Different?

There are several big movements underway that are worthy of debate and possible consideration as we look to help education become the 21st-century, user-centered, on-demand, engaging, technology-centric activity that it has not been for much of its existence.

Game-based learning (GBL) is one of the models that commonly gets touted as a cure-all for the problems with education because of the popularity of gaming in our society (New Media Institute). While there are problems with the game-based learning movement as it currently stands, the model has several areas in which it differs sufficiently from traditional education to make it an intriguing possibility. Here is a look at several of those differences.


This is one of the most interesting and controversial areas where GBL can separate itself from what we see in the traditional classroom. In fact, GBL has two distinct advantages over even project-based learning, which is generally considered to be among the most authentic situations for classroom learning (Stepien & Gallagher). PBL relies on students working on less-than-authentic problems regardless of the intent. One simply cannot engage in an authentic learning exercise in a classroom…unless you can enter a virtual world within the classroom.

Games have the potential to allow students to do exactly that. The entire premise behind games is that they allow those playing them to experience simulations of reality that can replicate real-world circumstances, and theoretically can elicit the same emotional and learning responses in the brain as actually doing the real activity.

The second point is that, while it is becoming increasingly possible for students, particularly in higher education, to use authentic professional tools, it is still not the norm. While those playing games and doing simulations may not be using real tools for the task they are engaging in, they can use realistic analogs within the game and are using authentic tools to play the game. There is an inherent value in any computer use that transfers to the everyday and professional activities that people do. From the physical activity of using a mouse, keyboard, or gesture-based controller, to developing familiarity with operating systems, and using a wide array of applications, students who use technology more and engage more deeply with it have an advantage when it comes to developing technological literacy (Marquis, 2009).

While it is true that educational games often lack much of the engagement and fidelity of commercial games, and commercial games generally fall short on intellectual content, there is a middle ground where the two camps can meet and work together to develop powerful and engaging educational games that will accomplish the objectives stated here.

Student Engagement

The hidden agenda of games and play is to teach. This is why animals play and why we encourage our youngest children to play games. So that they develop an understanding of the world around them and the social relationships that they will need to engage in to be successful members of their group. Games are also fun. That is the reason that we like to play. Formal games with rules serve the same functions but additionally motivate us through our competitive nature. For all of these reasons, GBL works to engage students in ways that are more powerful for most students than traditional teaching methods, which, while effective, present obstacles to engaging deeply with each individual student.

Some teachers do an outstanding job of engaging their students to the extent that the traditional classroom format allows. However, seldom if ever do you see students in a non-game-based classroom experiencing what game designer Jane McGonigal calls ‘blissful productivity’ – deriving enjoyment from working hard to overcome obstacles. During gameplay, the individual is optimizing their productivity and enjoying it. People playing games also report losing track of time in the real world. This phenomenon is due to the extreme level of engagement that some games can promote in those playing them.  This is a sharp contrast to the usual school situation where everyone, often including the teacher, is watching the clock, waiting for the school day to end.

Creativity and Innovative Thinking

The final area in which GBL can be superior to traditional classroom learning is in fostering creativity and teaching students to be innovators. While it is not impossible for the traditional classroom model to inspire students to be creative, the standards-based approach to education, particularly in K-12 schools, works in direct opposition to this goal. A standardized curriculum, with results evaluated by standardized test cannot support individuality and actively discourages students from thinking outside the box.

Even in higher education, where one of the main goals of the university system is innovation, actual classroom teaching at the undergraduate level is largely intended to produce students who fit the needs of industry, rather than creative individuals who define industry itself. Those who break out of this mold to create new products, services, and markets are a very small percentage of actual college graduates – they are the exception rather than the rule.

The argument against GBL supporting innovation is obvious – playing games is also working within a standard set of rules, often in a nearly linear progression. A true enough assessment of many educational games and some of the less innovative commercial games, but the best games not only allow creativity and randomness (it is generally programmed into games), but demand it. One commercial game in particular that has some demonstrated educational success comes to mind: Civilization VI.

Civilization is one of the best examples of the ways in which an extremely popular commercial game can be used for educational purposes.  The game allows players to manage the rise of specific civilizations. They are in control of many of the variables that govern success or failure of the groups being controlled. Where Civilization becomes important in this discussion is in the proliferation of user-generated content that has been created for it.

Thousands of players have been collaborating for more than a decade to develop game mods that accurately represent real-world civilizations. Through these mods, users can attempt to replicate the rise of the Roman Empire or almost any other historical civilization. They work together on the Apolyton University site where they share suggestions for new mods and collaborate on creating them.


One area in which GBL is surpassed by traditional classroom learning is cost. GBL requires that each student have access to computers or other gaming devices for a far greater percentage of their instructional time than is generally possible in schools. Even at the university level, a vast majority of classrooms do not have adequate computers to allow for students to engage in GBL. Providing that kind of access is a monetarily daunting task. In addition to the cost of equipment, games themselves can be expensive to purchase. There are not generally site license options for commercial games, and while there are many free games available, aligning them to instructional needs is a challenge.

GBL is, however a best-case scenario and there is no reason to disregard it because of the potential cost of implementation. Every new innovation and technological advance requires an investment of time, thought, and money. In fact, a concerted shift to GBL might prompt funding increases for education that would benefit students in every aspect of their education. Certainly sticking with a traditional curriculum is more efficient and saves money, but neither of those things is actually beneficial to education.

The Debate Goes On

One of the biggest problems with GBL is that we are not ready for it yet. Students are ready – they spend vast amounts of time playing games and interacting in virtual worlds – but teachers, parents, politicians, and the gaming industry are not ready. Schools lack the infrastructure to support large-scale game-based learning, teachers lack training in the pedagogy of GBL, parents do not see the value of games, politicians view education as a burden that should be more efficient and cost-effective, not less, and the gaming industry focuses almost exclusively on non-educational content. We have a long way to go before GBL can become a reality for most students.

One way to spark this change is for educators, parents, and politicians to put pressure on the gaming industry to focus on shifting game content towards areas that can be readily incorporated into education. This is an ongoing debate and your input into the discussion is valued and encouraged. Contribute your opinion via Twitter @drjwmarquis using the tags #gamification, #GBL, or #GBLFriday.