Applied Games-Based Learning

Applied Games Based Learning text on workshop background

This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Games-based learning can be a powerful tool for educators. That’s because it allows them to use established games for teaching, learning, training, and education. But how exactly do you apply games-based learning? What specific learning outcomes can you target? What games are specifically available to meet the needs of your students?

This article will review the use of games-based learning as well as reiterate the main reasons why you should consider using it in your teaching and instruction practice. Games-based learning as a student centered approach will be discussed as well as how gameful applications can be explored in education.

Applying games-based learning for specific knowledge domain mastery will be discussed in depth. Specifically, games related to empathy; chemistry; biology; physics; government; arithmetic; sustainable practices; research; software operations; and procedures will be covered in depth.

Why use games

Why should you even consider using games for teaching and learning? Some of the most popular responses involve “tricking” students into engaging with material as they play a game; but that is often a short sighted goal. Instead, instructors should consider using games as another educational tool that that provides a structure to engage all students in a shared learning experience. Such an experience can now be implemented and explored no matter what the instructional modality. Be it in-person; remote; or through hybrid learning.

Serious games components

Specially, educators have most frequently turned to serious games. These games exist as a means of teaching and learning rather than for fun or entertainment. Serious games have been around for centuries and have seen updates and revisions based on societal and technical breakthroughs. However, the main condition that hampers serious games are more pervasive usage is the necessity to build and construct them based on the needs of students and their learning outcomes.

Despite this, there is a great reason to combine teaching, learning, and games. For games possess the structure necessary for students to reach specific masteries in different knowledge domains. Some of those masteries can be as diverse as social and emotional learning which can serve as a catalyst for achieving greater higher level functions.

Games remain a powerful tool for learning. However, they need to be used holistically with other approaches for teaching and instruction that meaningfully and authentically creates environments for engagement and play between other students and the content. This is specifically the case because games-based learning serves as a structure for teaching and learning that supports and scaffolds students’ mastery. Such an experiential learning focus is also found in other forms of engaging educational experiences such as internships; externships; study abroad; and outdoor education.

Student centered design

Games-based learning is student centered learning through an experiential process. Student centered learning takes into account multiple factors which influence and affect play. Those include the students’ motivations (intrinsic; extrinsic; or both) for engagement. This format also includes specific goals that the learner may have throughout the educational process.

This is most closely observed through socio-emotional learning where the content and context of the outcome is embodied through an experience and through a type of engaging medium such as games. This engaging medium is most successful as students are provided the agency to create, innovate, and problem solve within the game environment.

Illustration of students playing board game

The engaging environment of games also provide a feedback loop and mechanism which drive students to explore, experiment, test, and achieve things that have different impacts and outcomes. Some of those outcomes ideally will align with the outcomes set forth by the instructor. Otherwise, those outcomes could be extraneous or auxiliary to what is meant to be achieved. Despite these outcomes, the instructor should follow a strict active debriefing process for helping students make meaningful sense of their experiences.

Nowhere is this more evident than though empowering students to create their own games which address how they make sense; structure; and formulate their experiences within the framework of a game. Student created games have the additional outcome where students can connect their course or content outline with the principles of game design and games-based learning.

Such an approach also allows individual students to simultaneously address the content and context of courses through diverse and different learning styles.

A gameful approach

Applying games-based learning is less about using games in a teaching practice and more about taking a gameful approaching to teaching and learning as a whole. This means giving students more agency in the decision making process of what to learn as well as how to learn it.

What makes this approach difficult is the autonomy that some instructors have to give up when taking a games-based learning approach. That is why some instructors often turn to gamification first. Gamification is the application of game like elements in non-game settings. Whereas games-based learning relies on games as the medium for teaching and learning. Students play the game in order to meet specific instructor indicated outcomes.

Therefore, serious games are designed in order to help students meet these goals specifically, rather than instructors repurposing games for entertainment into  educational use. What makes serious games hard to develop for educators is the curricular path and plan that aligns game content; structure; and scaffolding with specified learning outcomes.

However, unlike traditional approaches to teaching and learning, games-based learning can also capitalize on social connections with other students as well as relationships built with the instructor in order to meet learning outcomes. These connections build upon social and cultural influences that positively affect game play.

Serious games are most effective when actual game mechanics reflect the learning mechanics of the instructor’s pedagogy. When learning outcomes are mapped specifically to these game mechanics; the serious game is much more relevant and representational of the instructor’s stated outcomes.

The tight coupling between the learning outcomes and game mechanics is necessary because without such a relationship, students may be intrinsically motivated to play the game but not necessarily learn. This can be detrimental to the entire instructional process and can undermine the application of games-based learning.

Applied games-based learning

Applied games-based learning takes the games; the instructor’s approach; and learning outcomes together in order to meet the goals of the course. This often begins with the rules of the game which provides a context for interaction as well as sets the tone for the “magic circle” of the game and how players are expected to act within in.

Often the implementation of small or light rule-sets makes the game much more approachable and applicable for students and learners. This is the case because smaller rules overhead combined with greater variations of play require students to design their own strategies to handle the evolving situation within the game.

These strategies are used to greatest effect when discussed in the active debriefing that follows a play session. Talking about how the game went as well as what actions individual students took within the game is critical to developing meaning as well as forming personalized conclusions for students. This represents a vital component of experiential teaching with games.

In addition, instructors can also launch directly into game play without revealing the need or nature of the game to students beforehand. The instructor can then use the time during active debriefing to discuss the experience and how the game’s context relates to the content of a course.

Games-based learning for knowledge domain learning

Many games focus on soft skills development for students and how outcomes achieved through games can help with specific areas such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence. However, there is also a need for applied games-based learning that helps students meet specific outcomes in different knowledge domains.

The following includes a series of games that may be used by instructors to fulfill the needs of students in the areas of connected empathy; chemistry; biology; physics government; civics; arithmetic; sustainable practices; research; software operations; and rules and procedures.

The following game examples are not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, this list provides an overview of games available for instructors to meet students’ needs in specific knowledge domains.

Connected Empathy

Empathy can often be a challenging concept to describe and demonstrate.

That’s because, unlike other knowledge domains, empathy involves developing the capacity to understand and feel what another person is feeling from their frame of reference. This can often be difficult to place ourselves in another person’s position.  Especially if we have never been in their position before; or at least cannot recognize the differences in position between us and them.

Sombre line drawing of people dealing with officials

This is what makes Papers, Please such an interesting and challenging take on this demonstrated empathy. Papers, Please is a simulation video game developed by Locus Pope and published through 3909 LLC. It was first released in August 2013 and involves the player role-playing the duties of the border-crossing immigration officer.

The game takes place in a dystopian Eastern-Bloc kind of country called “Arstotzka” which finds itself in challenging political relationships with its neighboring countries. The player performs their duties at an immigration check point where they must review each individual that wishes to entry the country and check their passports and supporting documentation against a growing list of rules and guides. The player has to perform the duties of this immigration officer to allow people in with proper paperwork; to reject those without the right documentation; and to detain individuals with falsified information.

While the theme and core loop of Papers, Please may not seem that interesting; it does put the player in the role (and roles) of individuals who they may have never interacted with before or never wish to be. Through these actions, the player visualizes and observes the challenges of individuals attempting a border crossing by connected empathy with their individual desires; motivations; and reasons for moving between nation states.

In addition, Papers, Please creates a world through which players can experientially test these circumstances through role-playing within the magic circle of the game. While the designer never intended to create a game that embodied this type of connected empathy; instructors could use the game in order to provide students with a demonstrable scenarios in which individuals’ goals and motivations are not too dissimilar.

Similarly, Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr places the player in a position of authority in order to provide care for a terminally ill patient: Billy Kerr. Kerr plays the non-player character (NPC) of the game who has been rushed to the player’s hospital following a massive heart attack during a Sydney to London flight. The game begins with players only knowing the patient’s name, his age, and the fact that he only has days to live.

Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr is a cooperative table top game in which all players must work together to provide appropriate care to your patient, responding to medical emergencies, and gaining his trust through his final days. The game is played over ten different scenarios where you learn increasingly more about Billy Kerr’s past. Your role is to help him find the courage to confront the regrets that keep him holding on.

The theme and play of this game is dark, as it forces players to deal with the ideas of dying and regret. However, it does so in a potentially neutral and collaborative way as players need to work with one another in order to help ease the suffering of the non-player character (Billy Kerr). Unlike, Papers, Please, players can communicate and work with one another in order to determine the best course of action given what you know about the character in order to help Billy Kerr achieve peace in his final days.

Hard Sciences: Chemistry, Biology, and Physics

Areas of chemistry, biology, and physics are often the topics of choice when creating games for teaching and learning. No more is this the case with table top games that help players reach and achieve the same learning outcomes taught in many secondary schools through more traditional instruction.

Covalence is one such game where players work together cooperatively in order to recreate a number of different organic components. This table top game is broken up by information discrepancy. This means that one player plays the part of the “knower” who has the knowledge of the organic compound to be created; while the other players represent the “builders” and must deduce what these components are based on clues given by the knower. Covalence works within this cooperative framework in order to challenge players to use a limited number of clues available to build these different organic compounds before time runs out.

Strange looking molecular model

While chemistry is taught both at a theoretical and experiential level in most classrooms, Covalence goes one step further by challenging players with a structure of information incongruence. Thereby relying on players to deduce the structure of different organic compounds based on what they know, and what they can construct, given the teamwork demonstrated by the “knower.”

Likewise, Cytosis: A Cell Building Game is a game that challenges players to compete against one another using one of modern table top gaming’s most celebrated mechanisms: worker placement. Here, players dive deeply into a human cell to learn how it functions, divides, and eventually replicates.  The worker locations represent different functions, and resources of cells such as mRNA and ATP. In addition, different worker spots allow players to convert resources, build enzymes, hormones, and receptors that eventually help players score Health Points to win the game.

Cytosis: A Cell Building Game takes the structure and actions of a cell and replicates it in a way that provides players with both an overview and agency of what they want to do and how they can accomplish it given the constraints in the game. It provides not only a robust analysis of cellular operations; but also does so in a way that fulfills the gaming needs of modern table top gamers in a package that entertains as well as educates.

Lastly, the Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is a video game that incorporates space flight simulation, was developed by Squad, and published by Private Division for various platforms. Players take on the role of director of a space program that is staffed and crewed by humanoid creatures known as “kerbals.” The game’s claim to fame is a realistic orbital physics simulation which provides real life orbital maneuvers and allowing players to experiment with different aspects of orbital mechanics.

Simulations exist as a way for learners to try and experiential with different concepts and phenomena. Nowhere is this more the case than with the Kerbal Space Program (KSP), which expertly takes such advanced physical concepts and provides it in a sandbox environment for players to experiment and play with. The result of which is a simulation that can demonstrate concepts more easily and experientially using students’ own agency.

Government & Civics

Often finding games that teach or reinforce hard sciences is easy. What is not so easy is finding games that properly and structurally teach students about government and civics. That’s your Right answers this need by providing a venue for teaching students the US Bill of Rights in a browser based multiplayer game.

That’s Your Right can be played either single player or multi player game. It is flexible in either format as it challenges players’ knowledge and application of the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution (also known as the “Bill of Rights”). As such, this game was designed with the Annenberg Classroom’s comprehensive Constitution curriculum as a focus and primary learning outcome. That’s your Right’s  game mechanics are most closely influenced by Blizzard’s Hearthstone which in turn is influenced by Wizard of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering.

The game’s core loop involves players correctly playing cards that correspond to constitutional rights. Correct answers score points while simultaneously eliminating opponents’ cards. The game’s completely free offering with no in-game purchases makes it an accessible choice for many educators.

Additionally, Argument Wars, offers players the opportunity to test students’ persuasive abilities arguing actual US Supreme Court Cases. As another browser-based game; players compete against one another in order to craft the strongest argument.

Famous US Supreme Court cases including Bond v. United States; Brown v. Board of Education; Gideon v. Wainwright; and Texas v. Johnson. The game is available for play in both Spanish and English.

While focused on application for younger audiences; Argument Wars still provides a visceral and applicable take on the different facets; opinions; and mitigating factors that influenced some of the most important US Supreme Court Decisions in history. It’s browser-based and free-to-play format also makes this game an accessible choice for many educators.

Arithmetic Operations and Numbers

Sometimes the earliest examples of games for teaching and learning appear for children when they experience the basics of mathematics and arithmetic. Some of the most applicable examples of this knowledge domain for these young students are arithmetic games such as Mathemagician’s Duel.

In the board game Mathemagician’s Duel, students create the thematic “incanquations” from several cards in their hands. They do this in order to cast spells on their opponents in order to reduce their magical strength to zero. These “incanquations” are created by using magical energy cards (the numerals in the game) and magic symbol cards (representing operators).

Magicians duelling

This is done in line with arithmetic operations, so that when read from left to right, add up to the cast value of the chosen spell. Therefore, each successfully cast magical spell reduces the opponent’s magical strength by a specific amount.

Mathemagician’s Duel does an excellent job marrying theme with learning outcomes in helping younger player practice mental math skills as well as working memory ass they calculate the value of incanquations to the greatest effect against their opponents.

In addition, the board game Lucky Numbers takes an even simpler approach to numbers and probability by requiring players to draw and play numbers that fit within their own personal grid. Players’ personal grids provides an intimate form of personal scale and agency in the game. Players must place numbers so that each one (left to right and top to bottom) is greater than the ones prior to it.

Players must also note the boards of their opponents; for numbers that they cannot (or choose not) to play on their boards become available for their opponents to place.

Lucky Numbers is not an educational game or serious game per-se. However, the structure of the game and the simple (but puzzly core loop) provides players with interesting choices for pulling, placing, and passing on numbers that they draw.

Sustainable Practices

Teaching, education, and instruction targeted at climate change and overall more sustainable practices is growing in demand. Thus, there have been greater proliferation of serious games that address these specific and critical issues.

One such game is LOOP which stands for the Life of Ordinary People. This table top game focuses on multiple aspects of climate change and consumption that are driven by personal practices of individuals. Those contribute to things like smog; plastic pollution in oceans; and food waste in landfills.

The game identifies the need, desires, and end goals of consumerism and consumption on both a personal and societal level. Individually it examines players; needs to consume to improve quality of life; to become “happier;” or ultimately as a way to spend the resources that we generate through work and labor.

Player actions ultimately inform a larger and more nuanced discussion. However, the table top game LOOP identifies the importance of that discussion and provides an engaging, positive, and intuitive way to examine consumerism and its impacts on environmentalism and sustainability. Players take on the role of “ordinary people” who are tasked and challenged with breaking out this familiar (but often vicious) expectations of consumerism which encompasses working; buying; and consuming.

Players compete in the table top game to strategically complete activities to achieve personal goals while simultaneously utilizing specific career special abilities and favor cards to achieve satisfying combos.

A more pointed example of a serious game that addresses climate change is Green House which is a cooperative table top game aimed at stimulating real world solutions to address familiar climate events.

Green House plays as a turn-based cooperative card game where players draw cards to reveal a climate event that they must address. Some of those events include real life catastrophes such as hurricanes, disease outbreaks, and wildfires.  Players then play action cards (called climate solutions) which affect a communal pool of resources such as greenhouse gasses; money; and hope.

This is a cooperative table top game. Therefore, players will collectively lose the game if they collect too many greenhouse gas tokens or if they run out of money, hope or event cards. Players can win if they work and cooperate with one another to eliminate all of the greenhouse gas tokens in the game. Like LOOP, the game also includes “momentum” opportunities that allow players to create satisfying combos with other cards to increase positive game effects.

Green House offers several different variants for students to play which include single player; cooperative; and role-playing versions where students can embody different stakeholders in the climate change circles such as families; corporations; governments; and non-profits.

Academic Research

Perhaps one of the areas that could use the most help and guidance for students is how to conduct thorough and critical academic research. Anyone who has had to look through a database knows that this can be a daunting challenge. However,

Search & Destroy  takes the concept of developing searching strings and gamifies into a table top card game.

Search & Destroy is a multiplayer card game that is most appropriately used for librarians and teachers who want their students to improve their database searching skills. Turns for the game move quickly with the active player drawing two “keyword cards” and choose to display one of them. The active player may then play a single action or mod card which may or may not affect themselves or another player.

The real crutch of the game comes in when the active player searches for the terms on the card in an actual library or academic database (of the instructor’s choice) in order to determine the result.

Players can be eliminated from the game when their database search yields no results (which can happen given the different kinds of action and mod cards). The player left alive is becomes the winner!

While the core loop and central actions of the game are very basic; Search & Destroy does well in illustrating the main outcome of developing successful database search strings. Therefore, Search & Destroy is best for helping students determine keyword selections and experience basic Boolean searching when conducting academic research.

Student Seminar and First Year Experience

While not always discussed in many education circles; the first year (or freshman year) experience dialogue course can serve as an impactful part of a student’s first term in higher education. EnRolled embodies the necessary aspects and outcomes of this class which can have positive effects from students’ participation.

Lecture theatre with students

EnRolled is a table top game that gives students a common experience to discuss and engage with in order to further development of their understanding and relation of different factors that affect their own student experience.  Those include often divisive topics such as student debt; complicated ones such as degree requirements; and more philosophical questions such as those surrounding course and degree options.  Furthermore, random life events also find their way into games of EnRolled which further replicate the first year student experience.

EnRolled is played in a semi-cooperative environment. Here, players accumulate debt each turn with the end game goal of meeting all of the requirements of their indicated degree. A player may win the game by graduating first with the least amount of student debt.

Software Operations

Perhaps one of the most cogent areas where both educators and students see games used regularly for teaching and learning is through hard skill development and software operations. Many may remember games such as Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing as our first interaction with learning games.

Many different games have iterated on this aspect over the years and now there are slew of different options that teach different software operation skills. One such game is Data Defender (prototype) which is a free and online browser based game which skillfully teaches students how to use shortcuts for Microsoft Excel to their advantage.

While the applications of such a game may be limited to specific and select groups of students; Data Defender takes the accomplishment of these learning outcomes seriously through the application of a serious game that ramps quickly in difficulty in order to test students’ mastery of Excel software operations.

Similarly, The Typing of The Dead: Overkill provides a more modern and contemporary adaptation of the skills developed in Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing but with the severe level of urgency encapsulated in a survival horror game.

The Typing of The Dead: Overkill provides comedic over tones compared to other horror games by using the theme of the House of the Dead series and combines it with a typing mechanic that requires players to keyboard specific words and phrases in order to defeat the monsters and zombies in the game. Thematically, the need to type makes no sense; however the material and the application of the typing mechanic make the game enticing and challenging for even recalcitrant typing students.

Rules & Procedures

Learning different, rules, policies, and procedures is often the task of human resources professionals and others who work for corporate training, learning, and development. It’s often not an enviable task; but it is necessary and critical for teaching new employees how an organization works and the proper protocols in place for completing their duties successfully.

The Tesco: Compliance Board Game helps new employees at Tesco learn about the company and how to comply with its many policies and procedures. It’s unique as a board game that has been developed digitally using Articulate Storyline.

The game puts new employees through their paces in developing knowledge and learning new skills for everything.  Content ranges from handling fire safety issues to new employees on boarding.  The Tesco: Compliance Board Game includes regularly seen formal game elements such as bonus cards; a timer; and a leader board.

The game exceeds in breaking up long and detailed content into several mini-games for employees to complete at will.  It also addresses common scenarios by employees that are built on 10 key core behaviors of Tesco employees.

The Tesco: Compliance Board Game is made more accessible to employees due to its modality as well as time commitment (it takes about an hour to complete). Afterwards, employees are awarded feedback based on their performance in the mini-games and their overall mastery of stated learning outcomes.


This article covered why we use games for games-based learning. It focused on games used through a student centered educational process as well as how instructors can take on a more gameful approach to teaching and learning. The reasons behind using games for knowledge mastery was covered as applied games-based learning.

Specific games were detailed in this article along with their relevant knowledge domains. Those included connected empathy; hard sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics; government & civics; arithmetic operations & numbers; sustainable practices; research; software operations; and rules & procedures.

This article was about applied games-based learning. To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to his Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

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References and further reading:


Bariso, J. (2018, September 19). There are actually 3 types of empathy. here’s how they differ–and how you can develop them all. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Cahill, G. (2013, September). Why game-based learning? Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Davis, V. (2015, November 18). 8 great ways to level up game based learning in the classroom. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2020, March 26). What is Games-Based Learning? Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2019, June 04). Formal Game Structures. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2021, September 28). Playing serious games. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2017) GAME ON! An interpretative phenomenological analysis of games-based learning in an undergraduate liberal arts environment. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest. (10264891)

Eng, D. (2019, October 29). Gaming with Motivation. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2020, September 10). What is Intrinsic Motivation? Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2021, August 31). Designing learning games with players in mind. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2020, August 20). What is Player Agency? Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2019, June 18). Feedback Loops. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2019, April 30). Gamified Learning Outcomes. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2019, August 06). Meaningful Choices. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2021, February 9). What is Self-Determination Theory? Retrieved October 23, 202,1 from

Eng, D. (2020, April 30). What is Gamification? Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Eng, D. (2020, February 06). Game Mechanics. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

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Eng, D. (2019, December 03). Core Loops. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

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Eng, D. (2019, September 17). Player Interaction. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

Erisen, C., Redlawsk, D. P., & Erisen, E. (2018). Complex thinking as a result of incongruent information exposure. American Politics Research, 46(2), 217-245.

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VentureWell. (2021, October 19). Activities for teaching innovation: Game-based learning. Retrieved October 23, 2021, from

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points ( and consults at University XP ( on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming ( a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

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