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The K-12 guide to game-based learning


Game-based learning is a promising way to drive student engagement and boost motivation. Here’s what you need to know about this important topic.

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Think learning is all fun and games? Well, sometimes it can be.

Today’s educational environments incorporate a wide variety of innovative strategies and traditional teaching methods to engage learners, drive motivation, and make learning fun.

In particular, game-based learning is making a splash in classrooms around the world, and students are ready for it. In fact, in a survey conducted by Paper, about half of the students we spoke to said playing an educational game would be an effective way for them to learn something new.

A circle graph illustrates that approximately half the students Paper spoke to said they thought game-based learning could be effective.

Keep reading for a useful primer on what game-based learning is, how it works, and key considerations for implementing this promising tactic in your district.

What is game-based learning?

Game-based learning refers to the use of games—broadly defined—within an educational context, from K-12 classrooms to higher education environments and workplace settings. In the pursuit of learning, participants take part in gameplay. Crucially, these activities should be fun on their own merits. That is, the game should feel complete as a standalone experience, not like it was wedged into an otherwise straightforward lesson.

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In some ways, game-based learning can be viewed as a new name for an old—perhaps even ancient—phenomenon.

[READ: “Game-based learning in education: A quick history”]

Why does game-based learning seem to be more prominent today than ever before?

An article in Educational Psychologist about the foundations of game-based learning points out that the rise of video games and related formats could contribute to a greater interest in how games can support educational objectives.

“The growing acceptance of digital games as mainstream entertainment has raised the question of how to take advantage of the promise of digital games for educational purposes,” note the report’s authors.

[READ: “The role of video games in education: Tips for teachers”]

Game-based learning vs. gamification: What’s the difference?

Although it can be tricky to define exactly what gamification is—or, for that matter, what a game is—it’s fairly easy to distinguish between gamification and game-based learning.

[READ: “3 ways game elements can drive educational engagement (Infographic)”]

Gamification refers to the use of game elements to drive behavior without changing the underlying nature of the tasks that have to be completed. In fact, individuals might not even notice when gamification is being used. On the other hand, game-based learning is a more holistic experience that may involve immersive environments, sophisticated rules, competitive elements, engrossing storylines, and more.

1 traditional lesson + X game elements = gamification

Think of a lesson in which a student has to click through a series of screens to read about all the steps needed to simplify a fraction. Then, this learner has to complete several simple practice problems. If the course designers included a status bar to help the student track their progress as they clicked through the lesson—or if they gave the student points for completing practice problems—that could be considered gamification. Still, at its core, the lesson would not be considered a game.

Game-based learning: A unique world that plays by its own rules

For a different spin on learning the same concept, imagine that students are tasked with playing a board game, engaging with a video game, or entering a virtual reality environment. The game could involve characters, storylines, side quests, and unique rules of play that help provide an immersive experience—all while learners gain additional practice in simplifying fractions and applying related concepts. This would be an example of game-based learning.

Origin story: The place of play in game-based learning

Before we get too caught up in these definitions, we may want to take a step back. Let’s explore why game mechanics, in any form, can offer compelling ways to teach and learn. As the Educational Psychologist article explains, play is at the root of what makes games work.

 “Play—the essential activity in games—has long been thought of as a critical element in human development,” the researchers note.


Being at the forefront of education involves more than ensuring students are getting top grades.

From teacher support to college and career readiness, learn the 8 priorities for districts in 2023—with examples from the field, additional data, and evidence-based strategies for creating a brighter future in K-12.

Early childhood education and the continuum of playful learning

In a comprehensive resource on the power of playful learning in early childhood settings, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) describes playful learning as a mode of education in which children build knowledge through self-directed and guided play or through games.

[READ: “4 effective self-directed learning strategies”]

As such, playful learning exists on a continuum: Implementations vary in terms of how clearly the learning goals are articulated and based on how directly adults are involved. It’s important that adults create an environment suitable for effective playful learning and that they remain attentive to opportunities for guiding self-directed play when beneficial. And as special education teacher, professor, and education expert Dr. Pamela Brillante notes in the NAEYC resource, play skills may need to be directly taught to some students.

The happy medium of guided play, or play-based learning

In an Edutopia article, play-based learning—a term the author uses synonymously with guided play—is positioned as the midpoint on a distinct continuum between self-directed play and teacher-directed didactic instruction. In play-based learning, students are free to explore their own curiosities and interests in carefully sculpted environments where attentive teachers skillfully nudge them toward new discoveries.

The benefits of game-based learning: Purposeful play in a motivating environment

As a structured form of playful learning, game-based learning can have benefits far beyond early childhood education. Next, we’ll explore how games can help cultivate student motivation and spur engagement with important educational topics.

Provide opportunities to foster both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for learners

Where does your personal sense of motivation come from? Are you driven purely by your own interests and a drive to make the world a better place? Or do you find that external rewards and obligations—such as a paycheck or family responsibilities—are what keep you engaged and accountable in your work?

It’s a combination of the two for most adults, and students are no different.

An article from The Hechinger Report about how to cultivate intrinsic motivation in students cites education expert Deborah Stipek as noting schools and districts have to strike a balance between these two types of motivation. Educational best practices that promote intrinsic motivation and student engagement can’t necessarily come at the expense of standards-aligned curricula.

“I think most realistic people in the field say that you’ve got to have both,” said Stipek in the article.

Drive intrinsic motivation through game-based learning

Educational research about the impact of game-based training indicates that game-based learning can help bolster students’ intrinsic motivation as they learn how to conduct peer assessments, a task that requires significant critical thinking. Research continues to evolve on this topic, and there’s much to learn about how game elements can help foster intrinsic motivation for building soft skills, pursuing knowledge in core subject areas, and more.

Boost academic outcomes with game elements that promote engagement 

Schools and districts can’t afford to overlook learner engagement. In addition to creating a more positive educational environment, engagement levels are correlated with a variety of positive outcomes.

Research from Gallup on the topic of student engagement and academic outcomes suggests that, in terms of how many learners meet or exceed standards, schools with the highest rates of engagement surpass less engaged schools.

Get students to tune in with challenges, rewards, and customization

In addition to promoting intrinsic motivation, game elements can drive educational engagement through the use of extrinsic motivators. This can be accomplished by:

  • Posing challenges and using progress indicators to encourage the adoption of beneficial educational practices.
  • Providing recognition for positive learning behaviors through the use of points or digital badges.
  • Offering a personalized experience in which students can customize avatars and interact with fun storylines.

Furthermore, teachers can leverage game-based learning to promote social interactions in the classroom and beyond. This can take the form of collaborative learning exercises where students share their enthusiasm for game elements with one another. Alternatively, classroom activities can involve a competitive element as teachers provide additional recognition for learners who log the most practice hours or accumulate the most points in a game-based learning environment.

How to implement game-based learning strategies

In addition to informal game-based classroom exercises, strategic game-based learning initiatives can help ensure teachers and administrators know how to make the most of this educational strategy.

[READ: Game-based learning activities by grade level]

Here, we’ll discuss why it can sometimes be difficult to launch game-based learning initiatives and how to persevere in the pursuit of this worthwhile endeavor.

Identify barriers to successful game-based learning adoption

Researchers have explored the factors that U.S. teachers believe are inhibiting game-based learning. Some initial findings centered on concerns about:

  • Effective implementation
  • Technological constraints
  • Institutional support
  • Access to games

These are not the only obstacles districts face when setting out on a journey toward greater adoption of game-based learning, but these challenges do represent a strong cross-section of several valid concerns.

Remove the obstacles and provide training for teachers

As with many educational initiatives, it’s clear that the more administrators can do to offload the work of implementation from their dedicated teachers, the better. That means vetting and acquiring suitable games at the district level and putting adequate tech support and robust resources in place.

Providing sufficient professional development is also essential to help teachers gain an appreciation for these newly acquired games. In addition, educators may need support as they strive to integrate game-based learning with classroom activities and connect games to course objectives.

[READ: “7 tips to blend game-based activities with other teaching strategies”]

Empower students as you roll out your game-based learning plan

With some educators expressing concern about the possibility of games pulling focus from core curricula, granting students the opportunity to explore educational games on their own time can be vital.

As such, it’s important that game-based learning opportunities can be explored in a self-paced manner. Crucially, these games have to be entertaining and engaging enough to keep students’ interest.

[READ: “Boosting long-term student success with independent practice in math”]

Ready to start your quest?

Effective game-based learning has immense potential to help drive learner engagement while supporting vital educational outcomes and helping students succeed. With the right strategy in place, these initiatives can have lasting benefits.

Want to know what else today’s education leaders are focused on? Check out our free ebook, “K-12 leadership guide: 8 priorities for 2023.”


Being at the forefront of education involves more than ensuring students are getting top grades.

From teacher support to college and career readiness, learn the 8 priorities for districts in 2023—with examples from the field, additional data, and evidence-based strategies for creating a brighter future in K-12.

Download the guide

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