Playing Games to Learn

Most people separate games and learning. However, to me and many others, the separation is not only artificial, it is the exact opposite. Games are filled with learning opportunities. Games are the ultimate teacher—patient, consistent and unbiased.

In terms of learning, at the bare minimum, a player needs to learn rules and strategies to be successful in playing the game, but games also teach content, problem solving, critical thinking and other skills we are striving to integrate into higher education. Games provide a robust framework which educators need to tap.

Freedom to Fail

When well crafted, games provide learning opportunities at levels not achievable with many traditional learning methodologies. For example, games are excellent at teaching the concept of resilience and the value of viewing failure as an opportunity.

Think about it. In almost every situation within an academic setting failure is not an option. In many situations, failure is met with swift and punitive actions like failing a quiz, earning zero points on an assignment or getting a bad grade for a course.

Yet, most humans learn more from failure than from success. When students fail while playing a game, they often re-evaluate approaches, re-think existing methodologies and attempt new approaches. I’ve seen game players devise new strategies and develop “theories” for overcoming an extremely difficult “boss level” in a video game. Or choosing to do research on the web related to winning Monopoly so their brother can no longer get the upper hand every time they play.

The use of games encourages overcoming failure. When a college student fails at a game, they try again, they ask others how they were successful, and they think of other methods of approaching the game.

These are all skills that we want to encourage in our students. We faculty members can encourage those activities through the use of game-based learning and we can guide students to generalize the lessons learned from instructional games to wider life lessons.

Well-designed games allow students to explore the idea of failure in a safe and secure environment. What does it look like to try an unorthodox approach? What strategy might help me make this sale or solve this math problem? How can I approach this differently to achieve success the next time I try?

Importance of Fantasy in Learning Games

Games typically have the element of fantasy which provides a number of cognitive benefits that encourage the student to engage with the experience. Quite simply, the element of “fantasy” can help remove barriers and break down preconceived notions. A student may be resistant to a calculus class because he or she has never done well in calculus and isn’t “good at math.” But that same student might be interested in an adventure, solving a mystery or going on a quest and those fantasy elements can be incorporated into a game to teach calculus and the student, before he or she knows it, becomes open to exploring ideas and concepts related to calculus.

It is amazing to watch students wrapped up in a game and observe how they suddenly open up and try things they would not try otherwise or attempt problems in the game that they would never attempt on a worksheet. Fantasy allows the student to leave baggage behind and focus on the task at hand and then a good debrief about the game and lessons learned can bring the learning from the world of fantasy to the world of learning and transferability. Once the student knows he or she has been learning all this time, they gain a sense of confidence and excitement about their ability to master a difficult subject.

Games as Common Experiences

Finally, games provide a common experience to which all students in a class can reference. Given the diversity of student backgrounds, socio-economic situations and various life experiences, it’s often difficult to get one cultural reference point every student grasps from which a class discussion can be grounded. Games, on the other hand, provide a common experience which every student can reference and discuss in class. Have the students play a particular game and then discussions and references can be anchored on the game and everyone will have a common understanding.


As you can see, the concept of “playing to learn” can help students overcome failure and tackle challenges they would otherwise run away from, in addition to providing a common experience. Games can serve as an excellent instructional tool that can be used to help students think creatively, encourage experimentation and reflection, and provide opportunities for students to make safe mistakes. Games and play are just as important to college students as they are to younger children. When carefully integrated into a larger curriculum, games can provide a rich opportunity to foster learning at deep levels.


Karl M. Kapp, Ed.D., is a professor of Instructional Technology at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA where he teaches instructional game design and gamification classes. He serves as the Director of Bloomsburg’s Institute for Interactive Technologies which works with organizations to create interactive instruction including games and simulations. He has authored or co-authored seven books including The Gamification of Learning and Instruction and the book Play to Learn. He is author of several courses including the “Gamification of Learning.” Karl’s work explores the research, theoretical foundations and application of gamification, game-thinking and game-based learning, Karl has served as a Co-Principle Investigator on two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants related to games and simulations. He was recently named one of LinkedIn’s 2017 Top Voices in Education. Karl speaks, consults and conducts workshops internationally helping organizations with the convergence of game-thinking, learning and technology. Follow him on Twitter @kkapp.