How do I Adapt Games for Learning?

The words 'How do I adapt games for learning' on an abstract background

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

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Most people know games as vehicles for fun, entertainment and socialization. Elements of games – through :gamification – can also be used to augment, change, and influence individuals behaviors. Those behaviors can affect the way that they interact, shop, and travel.

Games-based learning is the use and adaptation of games as a medium for learning. As such, educators are often called upon to adapt existing games as vehicles for teaching and learning.

But how do educators start with games? How can they approach the adaptation of games for teaching and learning?

This article will address the steps necessary for adapting games for learning. It’ll cover why educators should first adapt games for games-based learning. Challenges that educators often face with adaptation will be addressed as well as how a strategy can be outlined for game adaptation.

There are specific considerations to take into account prior to adapting a game for learning. Those will be outlined as well as how different approaches can be undertaken in order to smooth out challenges in the process.  Examples of game adaptations will be discussed as well as well as how learning can be supported in game adaptation through the use of assessments.

Why Adapt Games for Games-Based Learning?

Many games are fun. It’s the primary reason why people play them. Educators can use and capitalize on that fun through the adoption of games-based learning. Games can be used as an experiential framework in order to help learners achieve multiple different outcomes including the promotion of teamwork and the application of new concepts in practice.

Therefore, it is important to note that games-based learning often begins with a game adaptation as a medium for teaching and learning. Specifically, games are not meant as temporary adoptions; but rather as part of a more holistic pedagogical approach to teaching and learning.

This pedagogical approach in games-based learning is focused on learning through experience or experiential learning. Though game play, learners can apply concepts to practice in an environment where failure can be tolerated, scaffolded, and corrected. Likewise, this is done in an environment where, engagement, play, and interaction are achieved in a way that makes the activity intrinsically motivating and fun.

In addition, games can be applied in multiple different formats. Those include a solo approach to games that often includes puzzles and scenarios. Games can be also be applied in a socialized environment with other learners and/or the instructor. Such group efforts can be undertaken as either a cooperative or a competitive format in which the interaction with others can help reinforce learning outcomes or demonstrate difficult concepts.

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Challenges with Adaptation

Any educator who is interested in adapting games for teaching and learning through games-based learning will run into challenges with the adaptation process. One of which is qualifying the game selected to make sure that it aligns with the desired learning outcome. Such a process can be difficult when examining games that are appropriate for specific learners as well as considering the time commitment and modality of the educational environment.

An additional challenge is managing and meeting pre-conceived notions of applied games. Learners may come to expect something from a game dependent on their backgrounds and experiences despite the fact that educators are not prepared to deliver.  Likewise; educators can also be challenged by their expectations of games-based learning that doesn’t meet the outcomes achieved by peers and other colleagues.

Often the case for adaptation of existing games is such that it’s easier and more focused to create a new game from scratch that better meets the needs of the educator and learners. However, this process can be expensive, time consuming, and involved.  Despite those shortcomings; often that route is more preferable than adapting an existing game for educational purposes due to the limitations included with commercially available games.

These challenges can be further exacerbated by teachers in the elementary, intermediate, and secondary schools as logistical problems ranging from limited classroom lectures, facility access, and overall lack of time pose real and present challenges to adapting existing games for teaching and learning. This is further compounded by the additional role that educators must play in supervising and monitoring play: activities that they may not be comfortable implementing and adhering to in addition to other educational responsibilities.

Finally, one of the most challenging aspects due to games adaptation is the requirement that both educators and learners remain flexible throughout the process. Games are not linear tools for teaching and education. Rather, games provide an open ended process through which students create meaning through interaction, experimentation, and engagement. As such, flexibility could be required from all parties at times when patience or resources are in short supply.

Strategy for Adaptation

Despite these challenges, there remain some viable strategies for adapting games for games-based learning. One of which is to curate and select games that are appropriate from a mechanical and emotional standpoint for the learners served.  This has more to do with the individual educator who can best interpret and judge the needs and capabilities of their students and select games that serve, and don’t undermine or exceed their means or capabilities.

Likewise, educators can also use games as means to augment traditional forms of instruction and to break up and punctuate existing lesson plans. Primary and intermediate school educators may choose to use more physical, visual, or kinesthetic games that better impact and serve younger learners. This is compared to those learning and development professionals working in adult learning environments where application of abstract and theoretical concepts to practice are much more welcome and  relevant use of applied games.

Furthermore, educators can adapt and apply games in concert with different pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning. Exploratory learning focuses on learning where individuals learns by exploring environments. These can be physical as well as virtual environments that are experienced with peers as either a competitive or cooperative activity. Many massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) fulfill this type of approach. However, certain and specific table top game such as role-playing games can be applied to meet this end.

Additionally, specific game dynamics such as competition and cooperation can provide an engaging classroom experience that changes and augments the relationships between learners, the content, and instructor. Such change could be jarring for some learners who are used to and have only experienced orthodox approaches to teaching and learning.  However, this can be mitigated through low-stakes activities which explore the modality of games-based learning in greater depth prior to attempting more challenging activities.

Educators can better integrate their application of games for their learning environments through the use of story and narrative which links game activities to learning outcomes and course structure. Such an approach provides a different – albeit familiar – aspect of communication and education through allegory.

No matter how educators adapt games for teaching and learning, they should continually rely on the malleability of games for their purposes. Games used in this respect do not need to necessarily entertain individuals. Rather, different forms and aspects of applied games can be used in concert with more traditional teaching practices that best meets the outcomes of learners. Such adaptation of games for these purposes ensures that the outcomes of play align with the learning outcomes defined by the educator.

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Adaptation Considerations

There are certain factors to take into consideration when examining games for learning. One of the most important things to note is that games alone cannot completely replace traditional learning. Of course, there are some outcomes in which games are used to augment more orthodox approaches for learning. However, games by themselves (without structural learning support and scaffolding) are poor replacements for entire learning programs.

Furthermore, the use of games doesn’t necessarily entail better outcomes for learners. This is particularly true if learner populations aren’t ready or don’t see the use and benefit of applied games for learning.  Fun, enjoyment, and entertainment are positive benefits for using games for learner interaction – but alone they do not constitute a learning program.

Additionally, educators should consider the drawbacks of poor game adaptation. Specifically negative impacts could be encountered if adaptation activities for different educational outcomes, linguistic considerations, language, cultural, and societal aspects aren’t taken into account.

Furthermore, educators can often overextend themselves with their adaptation procedures. Often, a common mistake made is adapting the entirely of a class, course, or program to games-based learning. A more approachable strategy would be to start small and incrementally convert learning content, structure, and materials to games-based learning.

These small steps for adaptation should first consider how games, game elements, game :dynamics, and game mechanics can serve as complementary aspects to different learns and learning models.  Such an approach prioritizes the learner’s experience as part of the holistic outcome of their education and engagement.

Learner engagement should take a priority in this process as examining how individuals receive, interpret, and act within a games-based learning environment could provide insightful advice on how an educator should proceed with an adaptation initiative. An example of this is how primary, intermediate, and secondary school educators can use games as means of breaking up a static lesson plan with different games and activities which require involvement through different modalities. Some of which can involve physical movement while others require more cognitive applications.

Adaptation Approaches

Game adaptations are often undertaken from an educator’s standpoint. That individual could be someone who has both much game playing and teaching experience whereas others could be attempting an adaptation for the first time. Despite this, individual educators should note that players require a reflective period in concert with game play in order to gain the most from the experience.

This reflection period serves two purposes. The first is to reinforce and promote metacognitive behaviors in experiential and games-based learning. The second one is for the educator to evaluate the scale, scope, and impact of the games-based learning application and determine how it be changed, augmented, or adjusted to better fit their outcomes and goals.

This is perhaps an area were games-based learning has an advantage over digitally applied and experienced gamification. Such gamified applications can be inflexible with their use and application for learner populations. Conversely, analog applications and adaptations of table top games and other non-digital games provide the educator with agency, malleability, and the ability to personalize the experience to fit the needs of their learners.

While gamification alone relies on the implementation of individual elements of games in non-game settings; games-based learning and applied games utilize the entirety of the game for the purposes of teaching and learning. In this vein, educators can more wholly apply games for their long term educational outcomes rather than short term entertainment and engagement of learners.

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Examples of Adaptations

The number of games that educators can adapt for teaching and learning are only limited by the number of games that are published and available. Despite this, it’s often easiest to approach games-based learning adaptation through familiar game :mechanics that players might already know. For early childhood education using games with familiar themes such as  Go Fish and memory components can be easiest to adapt.

Likewise, most players can identify with the visceral and excitement involved with randomization and rolling dice. Therefore, games that include some sort of entropy with physical components such as dice and cubes could serve as attractive components for learners.  In this vein, digital games such as Minecraft capitalize on the sourcing and building aspect of games that empower players to construct n various environments.

Game adaptation often revolves around familiarity with game structures, components and aesthetics. This can make adaptation for complicated, lengthy, or complex games more difficult compared to simpler ones. Therefore, common components such as playing cards can be introduced to learners as an application of both a game component and a :mechanic. This is because they can serve as both components to store information as well as serve as a means to randomize it.

However, not all games require components for implementation. Argumentation, debate, or negotiation games can be implemented in the classroom with minimal investment into physical components. Such applications of games with structures like FunEmployed, Taboo, and Bohnanza, capitalize on these mechanics with a minimum number of physical components.

FunEmployed is available on Amazon

Taboo is available on Amazon

Bohnanza is available on Amazon

Following this, reenactments, role-playing, and other forms of situational narratives could be used with minimal components in order to better connect learning content with students’ own interoperations and applications. These can be further developed into other learning activities such as reflection exercises or writing prompts such as StorySlam which give students a means for further exploring content more viscerally.

Word games such as Boggle and Scrabble embody some of the most well known properties in gaming. As such, word games make students’ inclusion, adaptation, and utilization of letters, words, and vocabularies more engaging. Put out the Fire is such a game where teams of students work with each other to name something within different categories based on the same letter.

While many of the games discussed here can only be implemented in a traditional and physical classroom environment due to their component limitations; there often exists digital adaptations of them that can be used in a distributed and online environment.  Such applications of games like Just One, Codenames, and Wordle make it so that these games can transcend the digital boundaries included by hosting classes via web conferencing.

JustOne is available on Amazon

Codenames is available on Amazon

Lastly, there also exist specific platforms aimed at digital student engagement both online and in person via different devices. Kahoot!, Quizizz, Quizlet Live, Gimkit, and Blooket, exist to provide educators with different gamified applications of quizzing and assessment that can be applied in different modalities.

Supporting Learning in Game Adaptations

An emphasis always has to be placed on learning, no matter what games educators choose to use and adapt for their students. This support can come in multiple different formats. The most common of which is the use of debriefing and reflection of learning activities. Games don’t need to be the only activity in which metacognition is emphasized; but they are a very powerful medium for examining the “learning of learning.”

Additionally, the use and application of simulations for teaching and learning have the added benefit of utilizing theme to connect learning content to specific learning outcomes. The Model United Nations makes it so that students embody the politics, motivations, goals, and collective needs of the planet in a microcosm of the actual organization. As such, learners can more viscerally empathize with nation states as they act and interact with classmates who serve as their counterparts.

Finally, educators can best support learners engaging in games-based learning by helping utilize and apply their agency within the game in their pursuit of different actions and strategies. Such options don’t necessarily exist with more traditional forms of learning through orthodox means.  Therefore it’s most useful for educators to prioritize and emphasize the unique approach that games offer.

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Incorporating Assessment into Game Adaptations

Possibly one of the most important and critical things to incorporate into the application and adaptation of games for games-based learning are assessments. These assessments can be summative or formative. No matter what the educator chooses to use, it’s critical to make sure that the game is applied to ensure that learners are meeting the desired outcomes.

Such assessments should be implemented in order to meet the needs of both the educator and learners. Some assessments are easier to implement compared to others. This includes smaller more traditional ones such as test and quizzes which challenges learners to apply their learned skills in practice. Other content areas may require students to pass “quests” or “challenges” that are in line with the game’s theme that require learners to apply their new knowledge. No matter how these assessments are implemented, educators should examine how learners are making cognitive sense of their new learner behaviors. This metacognition (learning about learning) helps individuals  shift their own behaviors and adapt to change from games-based learning.

Games-based learning is more challenging to implement assessments because the educator must usually adapt a commercially available game for teaching and learning. Games are usually excellent at challenging players throughout play with different objectives, missions, and “boss fights” which demand players to put their skills to the test. However, educators using games-based learning must take appropriate and incisive measures in order to relate game content to their own learning objectives.

Educator intervention is especially important when it comes to supporting learners’ overall engagement and progression. That’s because it can very easy (especially for younger learners) to become despondent and demoralized from difficult game progression – especially as it relates to their own realization of self-determination and competency. This could be realized when a player gets “stuck” at a certain point in the game and is unsure how to progress or how the activity relates to a particular outcome.

Instructors can make use of these teachable moments in order to connect game content and activities with the specific learning outcomes from the material. Ideally, such connections encourage the player to apply different approaches with the objective of learning from their own shortcomings and failures. Such behavioral changes stem from the experiential learning cycle applied in games-based learning and the effect that active experimentation has on developing new approaches and strategies.

Lastly, the future of serious games and educational learning game development centers on the dynamic adaptation and change of the game to meet the learners’ needs and shortcomings. This is most likely achieved through the use of digital games-based learning which can detect and adapt to players’ behaviors and match their skill level with appropriate challenges to that helps them maximize learning while also assessing their outcomes.


This article covered the adaptation of games for games-based learning. It began with determining the reasoning behind the adaptation of games. Challenges with game adaptation were discussed as well as strategies that educators can undertake in order to help them with their process.

Specific game adaptation considerations were explained as well as some strategies that could be adopted when selecting and adapting games for teaching and learning. Special considerations for adaptations were covered as well as how educators can approach the game adaptation process. Finally, this article closed with examples of game adaptations as well how the adaptive practice can be accomplished in ways that best support student learning and assessment.

This article was about how to adapt games for learning.  To learn more about

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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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