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Tapping Into the Potential of Games and Uninhibited Play for Learning

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Part 1 of the MindShift's Guide to Game-Based Learning.

By now, you’ve probably heard the buzzwords: “game-based learning” and “gamification” are pervading headlines in education coverage. Video games have always been popular with kids, but now increasingly, educators are trying to leverage the interactive power of video games for learning. Why? It turns out games are actually really good teachers.

Think about the compounding way in which Angry Birds teaches the rules, one baby step at a time, one superpower after another. Video games teach players the skills needed to overcome particular kinds of challenges; then they require a demonstration of mastery in order to move onto the next level. Players may get three or four chances to show their ability to execute the new skill. If they fail, it’s back to the prior level. If they succeed, it’s on to the next.

MindShiftGamesThink about popular games, old and new: Pac-Man, Mario Brothers, Space Invaders, Minecraft. Even very small kids can learn to play really complex games. Kids play for hours until they master the game, until they discover the patterns. They talk about it with their friends. They share tips. They share tricks. They learn together.

All games facilitate some kind of learning. Even games that are not meant to be educational teach kids something -- even if it's just the rules of the game. The learning is so effective that it deserves our attention. Educational psychologists study it. Sociologists study it. Neuroscientists study it. They're all trying to figure out what makes the great games work. In some cases, researchers are attempting to isolate and identify the attributes of video games that stimulate engagement and perseverance. It is this kind of research that has led to the “gamification” trend.


Gamification is popular in advertising, human resources, coffee shop loyalty programs, ongoing fast food promotions. Think of McDonald’s Monopoly game as an early example of intentional gamification. In general, gamification attempts to superimpose the stimulating motivational aspects of the game world onto the life world.

Across the country, teachers are using gamification in their classrooms every day. They gamify learning by replacing grades with levels and merit badges. Rather than simply delivering lectures and then testing for retention, gamification manifests when teachers create project-based units where completion, or the demonstration of mastery, is what allows the student to move on.

Perhaps students receive badges recognizing the successful completion of each assignment. Maybe future learning units are imagined like sequential game worlds--a certain number of badges are required to "open each portal." The portal is the next lesson or the next learning module. When learning is structured this way, students intuitively understand the cumulative nature of learning. They're motivated to master a compounding sequence of skills.


Any teacher can implement a "gamified" approach fairly easily -- you don’t need tablets or laptop computers. It's a matter of reframing traditional assignments as inquiry-based individual or group projects. It's also a matter of employing a more mastery-based assessment strategy that’s grounded in project-based learning and understanding the motivational benefits of a more game-like structure. Done well, gamifying the classroom encourages students to be motivated by the excitement of moving on to new challenges. Gaming emotions like “Fiero” become a commonplace part of the learning experience. Fiero is the rush of excitement that gamers experience when they overcome challenges. In Reality is Broken, a popular book that suggests ways to bring the wisdom of the game-world into the real-word, Jane McGonigal writes:

Fiero, according to researchers at the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Science Research at Stanford, is the emotion that first created the desire to leave the cave and conquer the world. It’s a craving for challenges that we can overcome, battles we can win, and dangers we can vanquish.

Scientist have recently documented that fiero is one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience. It involves three different structures of the reward circuitry of the brain, including the mesocorticolimbic center, which is most typically associated with reward and addiction. Fiero is a rush unlike any other rush, and the more challenging the obstacle we overcome, the more intense the fiero.

Obviously, when researchers stick their microscopes in people’s brains they don’t find neuro-receptors with the word “fiero” scribbled on them like tiny calligraphy on a minuscule grain of rice. But the word “fiero” was chosen by researchers for a reason -- to signify a particular neurochemical phenomena. Why that word?

The Italian word “fiero” comes from the same Latin root as our English word “fierce.” This is not only because the particular kind of pride that fiero describes makes us feel like an aggressive alpha predator at the top of the virtual food chain. Fiero also has to do with feeling of wildness. The Latin root “fiera” is also the origin of the English word “feral,” which means untamed or undomesticated.

The feeling of fiero, then, is less about pride and more about being your untamed self. Fiero is about the way you feel when you are liberated from restrictions and constraints and enabled to just be uninhibited, to play free. Gamers want those little rushes of fiero because, in a way, it's the opposite of feeling self-conscious, of feeling like they need to conform. It neurochemically reminds them that they have the ability to respond in an unrestrained way to the immediate circumstances of the world around them.

In the classroom, fiero makes students see that they're empowered players in their own education. They're released into the exciting adventure that learning can be. Without the intrinsic motivating power of fiero, however, gamification becomes nothing more than semantic spin: a language game in which a letter-based grade system is replaced by a points-based reward system. In these cases, gamification does little to address the shortcomings of a system that relies on high-stakes testing.

Be wary of gamifying your classroom in a way that disempowers students through extrinsic rewards. Remember, it is not the gold stars, points, or smiley faces that motivate gamers (nor students). Stars, points, and badges are simply symbolic representations marking a task well-done. All teachers, however, can attempt to harness the motivational power of fiero.


Game-based learning is another great way to empower your students to engage with intellectual problems. They get to experience the fiero rush that comes with knowing that they successfully overcame a challenge. That’s right: game-based learning is different from gamification. Gamification is about making a non-game into a game. Game-based learning usually refers to using actual digital video games as a classroom tool (although, traditional non electronic role playing and board games work exactly the same way, but perhaps not so efficiently), and there's a slew of video games, digital apps, and adaptive software platforms that can be used for instruction. Some are great, while others are not so helpful.

Each time we reframe class content in order to clarify something, we're reaching for a tool. Every time we try a different activity with the hope that this approach will deepen our students’ understanding, we're using a new tool. Teachers can never have too many tools in their tool boxes. Tools enable flexibility and great teaching requires being adaptable.

This blog series is an in-depth guide to game-based teaching tools. It's about making it easy for you to adopt games for teaching. It's not that we want you to replace what you’re already doing with video games. Instead, we want you to supplement and compliment your already successful strategies with another potentially powerful tool.

Over the next few weeks and months, we’ll explain the key ideas in game-based learning. We’ll discuss pedagogy, implementation, and assessment. We’ll summarize the research and provide suggestions for practical use. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of game-based learning. We’ll offer you a guide for adding games to your classroom.


The MindShift Guide to Games and Learning is made possible through the generous support of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and is a project of the Games and Learning Publishing Council.