Game Based Learning: Why Does it Work?


Forty years of research[i] says yes, games are effective learning tools. People learn from games, and they will learn more from a game than from other forms of learning.[ii] However, most people don’t get why games work, which causes them to dismiss games as frivolous.

Interested in using games for learning? Knowledge Guru is a platform of apps that use game-based learning, adaptive learning and micro-learning to increase knowledge retention and improve performance.

How to Describe the “Fun” in Games

If you want to defend games as a laudable learning strategy, you need to be able to explain how the fun of games links to the essentials of effective learning design. Let’s start with the fun. Fun can be:

  • Winning!  Most of us like to win at things even though some of us might say we don’t like competition. Games don’t necessarily have to be competitive. Games can be cooperative or competitive. Cooperation can still lead to a “win” state in a game if you beat the game or achieve the game goal.
  • Triumphing. Triumphing might mean vanquishing an opponent or it could mean mastering something really, really hard (such as a level in a game or an in-game challenge). People love triumphs and the sense of emerging victorious over a human opponent or opposition of any type.
  • Collaborating. Lots of folks enjoy the opportunity to work with others. Think of times you’ve played a game as a team – and the enjoyment you got out of working together as a team toward the game goal.
  • Exploring and Building. How many of us got a kick out of checking out all the rooms in Clue as kids and making suggestions? What about participating in a scavenger hunt? Millions of players enjoy the online game, Civilization, and the ability to explore new territories and build cities. Not convinced? How about all the people who enjoy wandering around the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art or any other museum. It’s a love of exploring that makes these visits enjoyable.
  • Collecting. Ever play Pac Man? As your expertise in the game built, you collected more and more achievements. If you play Backgammon, you collect your opponent’s markers. Lots of card games allow you to collect cards (Rummy, Canasta). Many folks make hobbies out of collecting memorabilia. Lots of people find collecting fun.
  • Problem solving or strategizing. Crossword puzzles, word searches, and strategy games are popular because people like to solve problems and they like to formulate strategies that can help them build things, achieve, collect, triumph, etc.
  • Role-playing or imagining. Getting to be someone or something you’re not in the real world is fun for many people. It’s also a very safe way to try on new behaviors.
  • Surprise.  Lots of us enjoy the element of surprise or the unexpected. Often the biggest fun is in initiating the surprise, not receiving the surprise.

How to Describe the Essential Elements of Learning

Now, let’s identify essential elements[iii]  needed for learning to happen.  To learn, we need:

  • Motivation. People have to have some motivation to learn: either a desire to learn or a compelling need to learn (e.g. I cannot perform my job unless I learn how to do X. If I cannot do my job, I will get fired.)
  • Relevant practice. For maximum learning effect, practice needs to be contextual – mirroring the situation where the learning will be applied as closely as possible.  (e.g. if you want a person to learn how to drive, you put them in a car on the road, not in a classroom with a written test.)
  • Specific, timely feedback that reinforces that we’re doing well or gives us clear feedback on where we are performing poorly.
  • The ability to retrieve what we’ve learned when we need it. Our ability to retrieve skill or knowledge depends on how much of #2 and #3[iv] we got as well as on how much repetition we got when learning.[v]

How to Map the Fun to the Learning

Finally, let’s map the fun in games to elements needed for learning to occur:

Learning Element:

Game elements that meet these needs:

Motivation: to start, to keep going, and to remember. 1) Game Goals: Games tend to have clear, well-defined goals for success. Decades of psychology research show us that most of us are goal-oriented and tend to perform better when we have goals to achieve.

2) PBL’s – Points, Badges, and Leaderboards: PBLs are very common in online games. All three are used because they are highly motivating to players who will play to earn points, collect achievements (aka badges) and obtain top positions on leaderboards.  Leaderboards and badges both also represent a type of recognition of achievement. Recognition is a common motivator for people.

3) Levels: The ability to master things or triumph over things is another common motivator. Levels provide people with the motivation to keep playing. Think of levels as mini-goals toward the overarching game goal, which often cannot be accomplished until you’ve mastered all levels in a game. To advance within a higher level, you have to recall what you learned in a previous level and use it.

4) Flow: In a great game, time seems to either stand still (no awareness of it passing) or it goes incredibly fast. This flow occurs when we get immersed in problem-solving or strategy or simply the desire to win. We keep playing because its fun; the more we play, the more we learn from playing.

5) Fun: It is fun to problem-solve, strategize, collaborate, etc. People find all of these things motivating.

Relevant practice Fun factors in here, too, as problem-solving, strategizing, mastering things, etc. all can tie into providing relevant practice. Also, learning games tend to be designed in context.

In a simulation, for example, the simulation is set up to mimic the real-world or real-world challenges. This provides relevance. In a quiz-style games such as Knowledge Guru, relevance can be mirrored via scenarios that match those the learner will encounter in the job.

Game rules and game resources can also be designed to mimic real-world constraints. Rules can affect order of play, how you acquire or lose resources, how you influence the circumstances of others, etc. In a game, the entire “play” is practice. In traditional training, there is often a ton of “tell” before you get to any “do.”

Specific, timely feedback that is continuous Games offer continual, immediate feedback. Good performances get rewarded with increasing points, escalating achievements, or advancements to new levels. Poor performance typically results in the opposite and causes the player to immediately adjust behavior to try to improve.

The “turn” nature of games ensures lots of opportunities to adjust and recalibrate to refine performance.Traditional training doesn’t come close to a game environment for feedback.

Ability to retrieve what we need when we need it Games are often repetitive in nature and repetition cements memory. Repetition builds mastery. In games, we often repeat the same sequence of steps over and over, with the level of difficulty escalating as we progress in the game.

We can also replicate real-world context without real-world risk. This replication gives us context, and context makes it easier to retrieve information later.


[i] Van Eck, Richard (2006). Digital Game-Based Learning, EduCause, Vol 41, No. 2:

[ii] Kapp, Karl (2012). The Gamification of Learning: What Research Says About Simulations and Serious Games. Keynote address for The Medical Device and Diagnostic Trainers Summit, Princeton, NJ

[iii] Gagne, R. and Driscoll, M (1988) Essentials of Learning for Instruction (2nd ed), Prentice Hall.

[iv] Clark, Ruth and Mayer, Richard (2003). eLearning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning, Pfeiifer,.

[v] Medina, John (2008). Brain Rules, Pear Press.

  • Good description!

  • ulrikeR

    What a great post! Games as a way to teach and learn seems to be a new frontier on the horizon of education. Kids growing up now are digital natives. They take to games naturally. The big question is whether adults who are digital immigrants will also take to games in the same way. Or are we dealing with a digital and generational divide? I’m assuming that adults who did not grow up with the current technology are as eager to learn as everyone else.

  • I remember posting a comment here, but somehow it does not appear here nor in my Disqus account. Anyway, just wanted to point out to a PhD thesis on “Gamers on Games and Gaming – Implications for Educational Game Design”. It was defended 2 days ago, and it is the result of a grounded theory on endless amounts of chat logs between gamers about games. So a gamers perspective. Aimed at game designers, it provides a model that outlining the most important elements in designing educational games. The link to the (free) PDF is

    • LessonsOnLearning

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Bartłomiej Polakowski

    Really nice. Games are really great learning tool. However as I observed it’s really hard to convince older people to this form.

    • LessonsOnLearning

      I would argue “older people” is a bit broad. Many people more senior in age enjoy games. We’ve found it is all in how the game is framed. If you can communicate the value of playing the game, learners are more likely to engage.

  • The Contractors

    Game based learning protocols work if and only if they align with the stated goal of the exercise. This might seem obvious, however, as Don Kirkpatrick is on record as stating, the vast majority of training (learning) fails to transfer to the environment of application. [paraphrased] It has been my experience that learning games are valuable learning vehicles if the actual thrust behind the learning experience remains clearly in focus. Far too often I have found game based learning centered on “having fun” with authentic learning being a secondary concern. Well written and informative article, thanks for sharing it with us. Journey well, John

    • LessonsOnLearning

      Good perspective. Thanks, John.

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  • Implementing and also connecting video games and education is process that will bring something new and innovative in today’s education.Of course it can be much more easier for the young kids who are growing with all kind of digital innovations around them.Having fun time and learning at the same time with specially design games for that purpose is the goal that education will have to develop in the future.

  • saso77

    It will be great if there is a way to adopt all those
    cool arcade games for kids not only for fun but also for education and learning.

  • Great article! I completely agree that as a child learns they need to use different games and techniques of learning. Most kids these days are all about technology. Also they crave the need to win or “show-off” to their friends. If we could create an interesting competitive app or online game that kids would get excited about, the learning community could be greatly improved.

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  • Renata

    Gamified education is actually our future. It’s most simple way to engage students, also – develop their practical skills. Strongly suggest to try out