Embracing Game-Based Learning


I’ve tried hard to understand Minecraft, the massively popular online game where players roam free, explore and build virtual environments, and create their own objectives. There aren’t any levels, and nobody shoots or kills. For those who grew up playing Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt on the original Nintendo, it’s difficult to understand this game’s huge appeal to not only students, but educators as well.

While crude and vulgar, a recent South Park episode, “Informative Murder Porn,” perfectly encapsulates my bewilderment. In one scene, parents enlist the help of a fourth-grader to learn Minecraft, though to no avail:

But for me, the Minecraft craze came into focus after reading a thoughtful Edutopia article by Andrew Miller, “Ideas for Using Minecraft in the Classroom.” I’m intrigued by Miller’s creative insight, including how kids can “wander through and literally see three-dimensional replications of buildings that are no longer there.” Students also express their understanding of scale and ratio by building virtual replicas, an activity which, depending on the teacher and lesson, can simultaneously assess one’s reading comprehension.

“They could construct various settings from the text, and even recreate scenes and plot events,” Miller says. “They could also use these recreations to give a presentation or make predictions on what might happen next, and then physically create those predictions in Minecraft.”

Apparently, the limit of one’s imagination provides the only obstacle to how Minecraft can enhance the learning process. To gain greater insight into game-based learning and the many wonderful things that it holds in store, I recently reached out to Prof. Jordan Shapiro, a leading authority on the subject, who has written extensively about education technology for Forbes magazine.

I listen intently as Shapiro tells me how his eight-year-old son plays Minecraft: “I’ll sometimes walk in and go, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’ll say, ‘I’m building an obstacle course, and I’m putting signs for how to do it, and then I’m going to invite people to come play it,’” Shapiro says. “They’re creating the game world, and participating in it together.”

The benefits of game-based learning seem abundantly obvious, at least to me. What a terrific way to engage not only student interest, but also ownership of one’s learning. I’m equally impressed with the creativity that the best games foster, and how developers take advantage of something many children are doing anyway, playing on the computer.

I’m not surprised that Shapiro shares my enthusiasm, but he directs my thoughts toward an even more pressing question, beyond what is it about a game that enables learning to happen more easily for kids.

Shapiro says, “The real question, when we get to game‑based learning from a school standpoint, is how can we learn the lessons that game developers have learned, and apply [them] to not just how can we teach you to kill the zombies, but how can we teach you to solve a complex equation the same way?”

As an example, Shapiro introduces me to DragonBox, a game that teaches basic algebra operations in the same way that one learns to play the most popular app games. Here too, students win points and experience greater challenges as they advance through the levels.

I’m a big fan of game-based learning, but I’m curious to hear Shapiro’s thoughts on what void this fills, or problem this technology solves.

“I would agree with the people who say, ‘We’ve always done it,’ but this is an efficient tool to do it more quickly, in a way that’s more exciting, in a way that’s got better graphics,” Shapiro says. “Just going back to the idea of those giant role‑playing games, lots of teachers did them for a long time, but it took an extreme amount of work from the teacher to make it work, and too much sometimes. This allows every teacher to do it.”

With this in mind, Shapiro and I also agree that education technology, including game-based learning, won’t save anything. Technology is just a tool, and its effectiveness depends entirely on how it’s used and in what capacity. Still, more teachers should integrate game-based learning into their classrooms, especially if we hope to connect with digital natives. In the coming weeks, and especially over holiday break, I plan to redouble my efforts to explore effective games that can reinforce my students’ learning.

If you plan on following my lead, Shapiro suggests browsing Graphite, a site run by Common Sense Media that offers terrific game-based learning recommendations for various subjects and all grade levels. I used the site to find Scoop.it!, another terrific site that allows users to locate, aggregate, share, and comment on online news content. I’m already thinking about how and when to introduce Scoop.it! into my journalism classroom, hopeful that it will help foster deeper interest in learning about world events.

Yet I also share another of Shapiro’s sentiments: “I’m skeptical of anyone who says they’re creating something that’s going to fix schools. Technology is not going to fix schools, but technology might empower more teachers,” he says.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.


  • Reply November 22, 2013

    Alastair Dobbie

    A super useful article, thanks for some great insights and summaries.

    P.s. I kind of get it about mine craft…kind of.

  • Reply November 24, 2013


    As with anything in life there are pros and cons, this would include gaming as a tool. The pro involves engagement, problem solving and eliminating the fear of failure. In games, failure is expected until one figures out the game. Failure is part of the process to achievement.
    The con would be the inordinate amount of time that some students would spend at a game at the expense of other tasks. There is also the concern of feeding an addictive personality since gaming addiction is a real issue. Students often lack the self control to stop and manage their time effectively. The PBS special entitled “Digital Nation” addresses this concern head on.
    Having recently attended the Media Literacy Conference hosted by Playful Learning at MIT, I can recommend the following games for classroom use;
    Quandary, Community Planit (out of Emerson), Radix Endeavor and EcoMuve.
    Happy gaming!

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