Choosing and Using Digital Games in the Classroom – A Practical Guide

By Katrin Becker

Coming in 2015, a new book in the Springer Series
Advances in Game-Based Learning

Series Editors: Ifenthaler, Dirk, Warren, Scott Joseph, Eseryel, Deniz
ISBN 978-3-319-12222-9
Due: September 17, 2015

Details practical ways to incorporate videogames in K-12 and post-secondary education.

Examines both educational games and Commercial Off-the-Shelf games (COTS)​.

Provides templates for lesson plans involving game-based learning.

​This book presents an in-depth overview of the uses of digital games in education, from K-12 up through post-secondary. Beginning with a look at the history of games in education and the context for digital games, this book guides readers through various methods of serious game implementation, including the Magic Bullet Model, which focuses on the player's point of view of the game experience. The book also includes methods of measuring the effects of games in education and guidance on creating digital game-based learning lesson plans.

Content Level » Research

Keywords » Cultural Significance of Games - DGBL - Digital Game-Based Learning - Serious Games - Traditional vs Digital Games - Videogames in the Classroom

Related subjects » Learning & Instruction

TABLE OF CONTENTS ​Introduction.- I. Context.- What is it about games?.- Digital Game-Based Learning: Learning with Games.- Digital Game Pedagogy: Teaching with Games.- II. Choosing Games.- Commericial Off-the-Shelf Games (COTS).- A Magic Bullet.- Evaluating Games.- Magic Bullet in Action.- III. Using Games.- Creating DGBL Lesson Plans.- Creating DGBL Curricula.- End Game.- Appendices.

  1. Who This Book is For
  2. What This Book Covers
  3. How This Book is Structured
  4. What You Can Get Out of this Book
  5. What You Need to Use This Book
  6. Conventions

Part ONE - Context

The first part of the book describes the context for the tools and techniques introduced in the other parts. Here we provide some initial definitions, review some of the seminal literature in the field*, and connect the dots between established and accepted educational theory and the design of good games. *NOTE: This is not intended as a full-blown academic reference, so rather than offering a full literature review, this chapter will highlight several key volumes (Gee, Prensky, Squire, etc.) as well as a few of the key existing literature reviews (Kirriemuir, McFarlane, McClarty, etc.)

Entire volumes have been written that are devoted to exploring what games are and yet we still have no definitive statement on the meaning of the word ‘game’. You will find almost as many definitions of ‘game’ as there are authors writing about it. There are some common elements though, and this chapter will use those to define what we mean by ‘game’. In order to make effective use of games in the classroom we need to be able to choose appropriate games to use in our lessons. Evaluation is a key element of the development of instruction, and when using games it is important to be able to assess its potential suitability before it goes into the classroom. We can do that using predictive evaluation, which is introduced here. Next we trace a brief history of games in society as well as in education, as games have been part of human society since ancient times, and there is evidence to suggest that one of the roles of games has always been learning. We’ve come a long way in our development of games, and digital games are more than a simple evolution of non-digital games though, and the differences are outlined. The chapter concludes with a few more definitions so that we can all start on the same page.

Chapter Goals

  • Define the term ‘game’ as it will be used in the book.
  • Explain how evaluation of games helps us choose better games for the classroom.
  • Explain the four main time-frames for educational evaluation.
  • Trace a brief history of the cultural significance of games and their role in learning general and in formal education in particular.
  • Describe the between traditional and digital games.
  • Define the initial vocabulary that will be used throughout the book, such. as: learning, education, serious game, DGBL, and COTS.


  1. What is a Game?
    1. define games for my purposes as part of a larger group of digital applications
  2. Why We Need to Analyse Games
  3. Why Games?
    1. Games in Society
    2. Games in Education
    3. Talking About Games
    4. Going Digital
  4. Games Now

This chapter and the next are quite dense and include a great number of citations. This chapter on game based learning and the next on game based pedagogy form the foundation on which the remainder of the book will build. In this chapter we will see why all games involve learning. We highlight some of what is currently known about games and learning including the arguments in favor (attraction, flow, engagement, etc.) by going through the motivation and learning theories that connect most closely with games, and examine the Clark-Kozma debate through the lens of games as educational technology. We also look at some of the challenges to using computer games in the classroom (lack of access to technogoly, lack of institutional support, funding, access to good games, etc.). We will explore the things that make games unique as a medium, and as a learning technology such as the fact that rule systems and enforcement tend to be hard-coded in games, whereas they are personally or socially mediated in traditional games. In games, players can take risks and explore “what if” questions that might be too dangerous, or risky in real life. And we conclude with a brief examination of the place games have in media literacy.

Chapter Goals

  • Explore the learning theories that have formed the foundation for digital game-based learning.
  • Connect the dots between theories of learning and the design of good digital games.
  • Review the Clark-Kozma Debate and see how games fit in.
  • Consider how it is that all games can be said to teach.
  • Identify some of the advantages and challenges in using games for learning.


  1. The Clark-Kozma Debate
  2. All Games Teach
  3. Why Games?
  4. Why NOT Games?
  5. Games Literacy

This is work that came out of my doctoral research. It connects the dots between accepted pedagogy and existing commercial games. Books, film, television, and indeed every other medium that came before them has been used and sometimes studied as media for the delivery of instruction. Outstanding examples of each medium have been applied to educative purposes with enduring results. Digital games are now also receiving attention in this context. This chapter shows how pedagogy connects with videogames by looking at a few well-known and commercially successful games through the lens of several known and accepted learning theories and styles, using the premise that “good” games already embody sound pedagogy in their designs even if the incorporation of those theories was not deliberate.

Chapter Goals

  • Provide evidence that good games already implement sound pedagogy
  1. Introduction
  2. Studying the Masters
    1. Choosing Good Games
  3. Game Elements

Part Two - Choosing Games

Part Two discusses the things that are important in a game intended for use in the classroom, from considerations specific to COTS games, to methodologies that can be applied to any game to help readers decide if the game they are considering has sufficient merit to be used. The last chapter of this section goes through =-= detailed analyses of existing games. We will examine several educational games and two COTS games.

Possible candidates include: MathBlaster; Ossy Osmosis; Oregon Trail, The Sims (or Civilization); Going Home; Portal; Minecraft.

While there appears to be a gradually growing acceptance of the use of games for learning, this acceptance is largely focused on games designed specifically for learning, in other words, serious games where the educational purpose of the game is explicit and was likely part of the design goals right from the start. When it comes to using COTS games in the classroom, acceptance is still often replaced with skepticism.

Whether a game is intended for use in formal education (K-==, and Higher Ed, higher education, preschool.), in corporate training, or other professional development, the context and activities surrounding the game are key in reaping whatever potential benefits a particular game may offer. Using a COTS game in a formal learning context is, in most cases, analogous to an “off-label” use. We use them knowing that this is not what they were designed for and so we must accept that the efficacy of these games will inevitably come from a well-matched pairing of learning design outside of the game and directed or goal-oriented play within the game.

The aim of this chapter is to discuss the opportunities and challenges involved in the use of COTS games to help Educators achieve this pairing between COTS and the classroom.

  1. Introduction
  2. Digital Games are Special
  3. Fitness for Purpose
    1. Games for Content
    2. Games as Literature
  4. Some Examples

This chapter describes my Magic Bullet model for analyzing the learning in a game and how the balance of the various parts can affect the game's potential for use in a learning context. I first outline the ideal, and then go on to explain how to assess a game that deviates from the ideal.

Chapter Goals

  • Understand the magic bullet model
  • Be able to use it to analyze a game
  1. Introduction
    1. Informal Research
    2. Formal Research on Games
    3. Playing Games
    4. A Better Way
  2. The Magic Bullet Model
    1. Things We CAN Learn
    2. Things We MUST Learn
    3. External Learning
    4. Collateral Learning
    5. Variations on a Theme
  3. Magic Bullet for Education
    1. Operational Learning
    2. Educational Learning
    3. Elective Learning

This chapter will take readers through a step by step process for analyzing games that will highlight the key issues associated with the use of games in the classroom.

  1. Introduction
  2. What's Important in a Game for Learning?
  3. Decorative Media Principle
  4. Becker's Lazy Test (a.k.a. The BLT)
  5. The Four Pillars
    1. Gameplay
    2. Educational Content
    3. Teacher Support
    4. Magic Bullet Rating
  6. Analyzing Games for Learning

This section will go through a detailed analysis of four or five games using the model described up to this point. For each game, I will outline the more general analysis as described in Evaluating Games, and then proceed to a more detailed analysis of the learning potential using the Magic Bullet model.

This section will include images and graphics, but the book website can provide color images while the print edition can use black and white.

  1. September 12
  2. Osy Osmosis
  3. MathBlaster
  4. Going Home
  5. Minecraft
  6. Portal II

Part Three - Using Games

The last part of the book tackles the challenge of creating lesson plans that use games. No matter what kind of game is used, what happens before and after the game is played is key if we want to ensure that learners get the desired message and can transfer their learning to real world contexts.

This part looks at how to create single class, and unit lesson planes (along with a few examples), as well as ways to integrate a game as a longer term resource that can be referenced over an entire semester or even longer.

This chapter takes what we've learned up to this point and builds a template for lesson plans that make use of games. It starts with a fairly standard lesson plan template (such as the one developed by Grant Wiggins, or the framework outlined by the London Knowledge Lab “Learning Designer”, adapts it for use with a game, and develops several lesson and unit plans using that template.

At least one or two will make use of the game analyzed in the previous section. Possibilities include: September 12; MathBlaster; Ossy Osmosis; Oregon Trail, The Sims (or Civilization); Going Home; Portal; Minecraft.

Since some of these games are less than perfect, it will provide an opportunity to show how to take advantage of what a game has to offer even if it isn't perfect.

Chapter Goals

  • What's important in a game lesson plan?
  • Realize that there can't a recipe with any guarantees
  • Identify the key elements of a game lesson plan
  • Need to understand the medium to know how it might be useful
  1. Instructional Design Models
    1. ID / SD / GD
  2. Lesson Plans for Games
  3. Template: Single Lesson
  4. Template: Unit

For the medium scale and semester long plans, we switch to a different format that is a little more generalized. This chapter will discuss the use of games over a longer period of time, such as an entire semester or even multiple semesters. It considers what we learned from creating the lesson plans in the last chapter and discusses how one might plan for extended use, not unlike studying a novel or using a textbook over a whole course.

  1. Curricula for Games
  2. Using Games as a Long-Term Resource
  3. Template: Semester

The final chapter is where I will review what's been said, and what we now know as well as what we still need to discover.

  1. Learning Theories Embodied in Games
  2. Instructional Theories Embodied in Games
  3. Instructional Design Models For Games in the Classroom
  4. Mapping Theories to Games
  5. Matching Games to Curriculum
  6. Single Lesson Plan Template
  7. Unit Lesson Plan Template
  8. Course Plan Template
  9. Study Guide Template
  10. Teacher's Guide Template
  11. Glossary
  12. Games and other Software Mentioned in This Book
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