Is digital gaming the right addition to your classroom?

by Amber Giffin

Game-based learning, which W-H Wu et al. defines as learning through a digital game, is becoming an increasingly popular learning tool. In fact, in 2015, Leo Doran notes that 47 percent of K-12 teachers reported using game-based learning in their classrooms, with almost two-thirds of K-5 teachers stating that they used digital games in their curriculum. With the advancements in technology and the need to increase classroom engagement, many teachers are turning to video games to help bridge the gaps in curriculum. One reason game-based learning is attractive to educators is its ability to teach students how to solve complex problems through the cognitive learning theory. Problem scenarios within games generally start off easy and become progressively more difficult as the players’ skills develop. Hamari et al. asserts that this way of learning keeps players engaged and immersed in the game, which fosters “continued interest in the game for hours, weeks, and even years.” Therefore, when used properly, video games can be useful classroom supplements to meet core curriculum standards and maintain student interest. However, due to the lack of professional development opportunities for teachers on how to incorporate game-based learning environments into the classroom, many educators face challenges when attempting to include video games in their curriculum. To examine the implementation of game-based learning in the classroom, this article looks at two case studies involving “Minecraft.” One study illustrates the challenges associated with building an entire curriculum around a game, and the other looks at “Minecraft” as a supplement to the classroom’s already established curriculum.

Case Study 1: Planning Curriculum around the Game

Game-based curriculum graphic

Along with the absence of professional development opportunities, there also has been a shortage of research regarding how to successfully implement a game-based learning environment in a classroom. Nevertheless, the research that does exist suggests that using video games to support lesson plans is much more effective than attempting to plan an entire curriculum around a game. In a 2014 study conducted by Marklund, Backlund, and Engstrom, two instructorsone fifth grade and one seventh gradetried to plan their curriculum around the game Minecraft, and faced many technological and educational challenges. The teachers were not extremely skilled with technology and had to rely on the researchers to help with most operational problems. Furthermore, the students had varying levels of experience with video games, which led to conflicts in how items were interpreted: “If game objects did not accurately represent the looks and function of its real-world counterpart, novice students would have a difficult time using them at all,” while the experienced students could easily use “game logic” to make different objects work to represent their real-world counterparts. Additionally, because the curriculum was designed around “Minecraft, which is not an educational game, the teachers had difficulties bridging the gap between the subject matter and the game’s content. This problem resulted in time intensive lesson preparations that were not needed in previous classes taught without the use of the game. Regardless of the difficulties, both educators agreed that while the “gameplay itself did not have much intrinsic educational value… when it was contextualized appropriately… it played an interesting and valuable part of larger learning processes.”

Case Study 2: Using the Game to Supplement Existing Curriculum

Curriculum-based gaming

While planning an entire curriculum around Minecraft may involve extra work, many teachers have been able to use it and other games—both educational and non-educational—to supplement their lesson plans and meet core curriculum standards. For example, Bos, Wilder, Cook, and O’Donnell did a study in 2014 where a third-grade teacher used Minecraft to teach a three-day math unit on perimeter and area. This teacher used a set of iPods with the application installed, which is more budget-friendly than using personal computers. The “students were asked to go to the creative mode to build a coastal town with a pier area of 12 square meters, a bait shop with a perimeter of 12 meters, a restaurant with an area of 24 square meters, and a square store with an area of 16 square meters.” The units were chosen strategically so that the students would have choices of stone with different dimensions, and “each square block represented a cubic meter.” After the students built their towns, they discussed which units they used and why. Exercises such as these appear to be more successful than planning an entire curriculum around a game, since the students are using what they learned in class in a virtual world setting. According to Bos et al., “designing a scenario means providing a purpose for students to use the skills they have learned in class to explore and achieve a greater depth of understanding.”

Another budget-friendly option this study suggests is to offer an online video of the instructor using the game on the class website to get the students interested in the exercise. Then, they recommend encouraging the students to create videos of themselves completing the activity on their own computer, tablet, phone, or iPod to share on the class webpage. If creating a video is not feasible for the students, then educators can ask them to take a screenshot of their final product to share on the website. By using technology in this way, “play becomes an opportunity to explore… ideas within an online community,” which can be a less intimidating way for students to share their thoughts.


Implementing game-based learning in a classroom can involve extra work, especially if the teacher intends to plan an entire curriculum around the game; however, using digital games in the classroom can also open up a vast number of educational opportunities that were previously unavailable to educators. It is always advisable to assess classroom needs, budget, and current technology when preparing to apply game-based learning to a curriculum. There are many options available from full-scale computer games to educational apps that can be adapted to fit any subject or core curriculum standard. Aside from more professional development opportunities regarding technology in the classroom, all that’s needed to gamify a curriculum is finding a game that fits your classroom requirements.


About the Author

ORISE's Amber Giffin is a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, studying educational psychology. She received her bachelor’s degree in American Indian studies from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her undergraduate studies, in addition to her work in both the technology and education fields, have inspired her to research the roles of diversity in education and the use of technology in the classroom.