Game-Based Learning in the University Classroom: Insights from the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory

By Dave Ng

As digital games, and even analog games (such as card and board games), continue to surge in popularity, many educators have looked to using this common playful pastime as a tool in learning.  Game-Based Learning is simply where pedagogy has been included in the act of using a game.  In other words, there is a directed attempt to teach whilst the learner is engaged in the game.  This is different from the term gamification, which is essentially much broader and includes the use of games towards achieving goals in general (i.e. this can include using game mechanics to solve a problem, increase productivity, or enhance visibility/immersion).


Our lab has been involved with this area of learning for a number of years, specifically when we launched our crowdsourced initiative Phylo: The Trading Card Game.  Our experience with this STEM card game system, mostly as an observer but more recently with an academic lens, has led us to a number of interesting insights that may be helpful to educational folks thinking of dabbling in this area of learning.


At its core, game-based learning activities thrive due to their ability to incorporate playfulness and to enhance engagement.  However, not all games are equal in their ability to meet these objectives, and in fact many educational games suffer from what is known as the “chocolate covered broccoli” effect (i.e. the stigma that comes with thinking, “sure it’s a game, but it’s an educational game.”)  Indeed, the effectiveness of a game is heavily dependent on a variety of contexts.  This can include: the students who are participating; the degree and mode of active learning incorporated; the logistics involved in inserting it into the syllabus; the learning objectives it is meant to meet or enhance; and the experience of the instructor.  As a result, finding that perfect game and the sweet spot where it is best utilized can be task in itself.  From our experience, we do feel that in the university setting, games that encourage inquiry-based learning (via group work and discussion) could be especially exciting and formative – these might include games that encourage simulations or role playing.


The usual challenges that come up with using game-based learning tend to fall under three main elements:

  •  Choosing the appropriate game: As mentioned above, choosing the right game can be quite the challenge.  This is made all the more complex given the enormous palette of choice of games that are overtly educational in nature, as well as the many existing hacks that modify common commercial games for educational purposes.  In fact, having familiarity with gaming generally is a huge asset when navigating this choice.  Furthermore, choice can also be problematic because game-based learning is a relatively new academic field and therefore rigorous assessment of the pedagogy utility of many games is often lacking.
  • Logistical: whilst games tend to be great for immersion and general student engagement, they also tend to come with logistical costs.  For instance, they would likely be more time intensive than other conventional ways of teaching the material, and the initial set up will almost definitely need to be reiterated as the instructor becomes more familiar with the exercise. This can be especially noteworthy with digital games as access to technology elements will obviously come into play (which necessitates both administrative and time management chops). Overall, there would need to be careful evaluation of whether the learning objectives are best served in this manner given some of these logistical burdens.  Note, however, this might work especially well in instances where a class is flipped (i.e. the conventional modes of learning are done offsite, freeing time in class for things like game-based learning activities).
  • Evaluation rubrics: It should also be noted that if the game is used with the explicit intent of including an evaluation component (i.e. the game outcomes matter, writing a reflection, etc), then the instructor needs to pay particular attention to the evaluation framework provided to students.  Despite the use of games becoming more common place in university syllabi, games (especially if their inclusion is quite ambitious) will still be viewed as unconventional in nature, and consequently students may express some anxiety over their unfamiliarity in a course setting.  This is best allayed by having a clear framework of evaluation in place and one where the marking rubric is clearly delineated and easily viewed by the students.


As our lab has been involved in our open source STEM card game project, as well as smaller projects that involves table top role playing games, we’ve also noted that there may be some great pedagogical value in students “designing” games, rather than just “playing” games.  Here, by taking advantage of various constructionist (learning by making something) views, we have found that the concerted act of making games to fit stated learning objectives may be a useful pedagogical model. More so, since design activities are also generally a great portal into various ways of inquiry based learning.  This is especially so when considering those that fit under cognitive apprenticeship models.  Here, direct, incentivized, relevant, and group-based activities (i.e. making the game) are created that allow students to evolve from being a new learner to an expert practitioner.


This specific area of game-based learning is one that my lab is keen to explore more, and with Writing Across the Curriculum+, we are hoping to soon offer a variety of game design hackathons that use the existing Phylo card game as an open source and infinitely editable launching point.


Dave Ng  is a Senior Instructor and the Director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory, the educational arm of the Michael Smith Laboratories.

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