Top 6 Features of Successful Game-Based Learning

Shauna Carson

What better way is there to learn than by playing a game? Very few, unless the game is boring, silly or fails to deliver on that learning promise.

Game-based learning, or serious games, have great potential. While there haven't been many studies of the effectiveness of this type of learning, some of those that have been done are promising.

Unfortunately, their potential isn't always realized. All too often, learners find serious games to be dull, irrelevant or even demeaning. So how do you design a good game? Read on to find out how to develop games that keep your learners rolling the dice, not rolling their eyes.

What is Game-Based Learning?

Wikipedia defines game-based learning (GBL) as a type of game play that has defined learning outcomes. Generally, game-based learning is designed to balance subject matter with gameplay and the ability of the player to retain, and apply said subject matter to the real world.

In other words, game-based learning is playing a game in order to learn specified skills or information. Game-based learning games are often called serious games or educational games. They're sometimes mistakenly called gamification.

Gamification means using game mechanics and design features in non-game contexts. Assigning points for completing a traditional-style learning module is gamification. GBL, on the other hand, involves playing an actual game.

What Types of Games Are Serious Games?

Serious games can be any type of game.

Simple games

Simple games involving matching, sorting and trivia are often used to impart declarative knowledge.

Scenario-type games

More complex skills and behaviors tend to be better taught through scenario-type games. Learners progress through a scenario, making decisions and taking actions as they go. They succeed by demonstrating the behaviors or skills desired by the game designer.

They may learn these skills and behaviors in a traditional learning environment before playing the game, or in the game through experimentation and experience.

The first modern scenario experiences or games arose in the aviation, military and policing fields. Flight simulators are probably the best known example. These industries were able to establish the genre because the high stakes involved justified the enormous expense of developing realistic simulators.

Modern technology combined with the less complicated needs of other domains have brought scenario games into the realm of the average organization. Let's take a look at how to make the most of this opportunity.

How to Make a Great Game?

1. Develop good learning objectives, and stick to them

The foundation of effective learning content is always the learning objectives, and this applies as much to games as it does to more traditional learning materials. A game has no chance of teaching what you want it to if you don't define your goals from the beginning. Learning objectives should shape the game, determining its format, content and execution.

A good learning objective has three parts:

  • Performance (what learners must be able to DO or perform)
  • Condition (in which the learner must complete the performance)
  • Criteria (identifies how the learner is evaluated or how well the learner must perform)

Each part of the learning objective must be considered. If a condition states that learners may use reference material to complete their performance, that reference material has to be available in the game.

Keeping your objectives in mind throughout the development process not only keeps your focus on your goals, but is a major factor in designing a game that will keep learners interested. Learners will only engage with the activity if they feel that it's relevant to them.

2. Interactivity - make the learner the actor

Players are the actors in a game. To keep your learners involved, make sure that passive activities are minimized and the game is as interactive as possible.

For example, asking learners to watch a video and identify things done correctly and incorrectly may be more interactive than traditional instruction, but it's much too passive for a game. Instead, have the learner/player walk through a scenario and decide what to do and how to do it.

3. Environment - simplify the real thing

The environment of a serious game should be relevant and recognizable to the learner, but it should also be simplified, with elements extraneous to the learning objectives removed.

Consider a game designed to train clothing salespeople in customer service. It should include a believable manager and coworkers, but it doesn't need an hour of folding shirts before the first customer walks in.

And the customers? Each customer should be plausible, but the assortment of customers will be more challenging than would be strictly realistic. The simple interactions where a customer is easily satisfied are omitted in favor of scenarios that provide new learning opportunities.

4. Experimentation - let learners work through failure

When there's only one right way to do things all the way though the game, learners can quickly get frustrated. They might feel like they're completing an assessment, not playing a game.

The most successful games often provide multiple paths to success. In our customer service training game, the first mistake by a learner shouldn't send an irate customer out the door; it should lead to another opportunity. If the learner upsets the customer by not offering assistance at the beginning, it sets up the perfect chance to explore methods for appeasing an annoyed customer. The mistake does have consequences as the once happy customer is now cross, but it doesn't send the learner back to the beginning to repeat the same scenario until they get it "right".

Of course, it's also necessary to provide opportunities for in-game failure. Failure is part of the process of experimentation and learning. It also plays a role in creating the realism that engages learner interest. If the salesperson doesn't do something to placate the customer, he might well storm out the door or ask to speak to a supervisor.

Part of the value of game-based learning is that it allows learners to experiment with different actions and different decisions in a safe environment.

5. Consequences - Provide customized feedback

For experimentation and failure to provide learning opportunities, there has to be a consequence for learner actions and choices. The easiest way to assign a consequence in a game is to deduct points, but it's not usually the most effective. It's far better to show the possible real-world results of an action.

Which of these would have a more memorable effect on learners - and make for a more interesting game?

Provide feedback at the end of the game

A lab technician character overlooks the opportunity to don safety goggles. At the end of the game, a summary screen shows 50 points deducted for failure to use personal protective equipment (PPE).

Make the game evolves

Shortly after failing to put on the goggles, the tech character is sprayed by a caustic chemical. She then has the chance to run to an eyewash station, but loses time/points/resources while doing so.

6. Challenge the learner - build on learning

A key factor in maintaining learner engagement is to keep them challenged. Challenge must be carefully balanced; an easy game is little more interesting than a traditional course, and the game elements may seem like needless bells and whistles, while a game that's too difficult is frustrating, annoying work.

There are two keys to maintaining the right level of challenge:

Build on the learning

Start with simple requirements. When learners have demonstrated mastery of the initial requirements by succeeding in the game, move on to more advanced requirements.

Test the game

As you would with any learning material, make sure to test the game at various stages of development with representative user groups to ensure you're setting it at the right level.


Game-based learning has tremendous potential for teaching and promoting skills and behaviors, but like every other approach to learning it has its pitfalls too. Keep your eye on the objective, keep your audience in mind and remember the three C's: challenge, choice and consequence, and you can create a game that entertain, engage and even instruct your learners.

For more ideas on designing game-based learning, check this podcast out: Learning Games, What Works and What Doesn't by eLearning Coach.

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.