Educational games are becoming more mainstream–here’s how to evaluate them 

educational-gameAs educational gaming moves from a future technology to a practice found in more and more classrooms, educators are recognizing game-based learning’s (GBL) potential to engage students and help them prepare for future learning.

By ensuring that games meet certain requirements, educators will find themselves on the path to choosing an impactful game that goes beyond the typical drill-and-practice or end-of-unit reward game.

“It can be overwhelming, but as gaming becomes more mainstream and there’s more out there about it, educators will be better equipped to evaluate games and GBL,” said Dan White, founder of Filament Games, a member of the advisory board for Games for Change, and a founding member of the Games Learning Society at the University of Wisconsin.

(Next page: What makes a good educational game?)

“Good games look a lot like inquiry-based learning tools and project-based learning tools, with constructive exploring principles,” White said.

These seven guidelines can help:

1. Define your goals and outline what you want to accomplish through educational gaming. Then, let those goals guide your actions.

“Is your goal to cover content, or is it to deliver some higher-level experience, such as critical thinking or creativity? Is it about preparation for deeper topic investigation that will happen in class after the game?” White asked. “There are lots of games out there that exist just to cover content, but most of the time, most of those tend to be relatively superficial. At that point, it’s the teacher’s discretion, but I would discourage [their use].”

A game designed for content coverage would appear as multiple-choice questions dressed up with interesting graphics.

“If it feels like a drill game or a practice, I think it’s OK to use those types of tools in the classroom, but let’s not call them games—they’re not actually games,” White said. “Now we’re in game-based learning (GBL) territory—we’ve moved away from drill-and-practice apps.”

2. Assuming you’re in GBL territory, the next question worth asking, White said, concerns learning content and learning mechanics.

“Is there a separation between learning content and mechanics? Make sure they aren’t separate. Students shouldn’t be doing anything in the game that’s just for fun,” he said. “We want the thing that the student is doing—the interaction and engaging with play—to be the same thing the student is learning.” If game mechanics align with learning objectives, the game is more likely to be a good fit.

3. A third marker of educational gaming is what White calls the “systems/identity/verbs” framework. “Good games create a really interesting system for the player to engage with, and that also puts them in a role or identity that is empowering and highly relevant to the content,” White said. “The ‘verbs’ or actions that the play can do are highly relevant to what it is you want the player to master.”

This three-pronged framework, then, is a good way for educators to evaluate an educational game.

“If it’s a good game, it should be robust in each of those three areas,” White said.

4. Many educators are successfully using games as preparation for future learning—essentially, using them at the beginning of a lesson or unit to inspire interest in subject matter and help students establish a solid foundation for learning that material.

“There’s lots of research to support this idea that games are very effective to use as an introduction to a unit, and that learning gains increase after that game,” White said. “If you play a game or interact with a simulation, or have another first-hand experience, you establish a robust mental model right out of the gate—you’re already interested.”

5. Support materials or additional instruction that gives the educator a sense of how to best incorporate the game into the classroom or lesson is another trait to look for when choosing resources for GBL. A game developer should have some evidence-based reasons for the kind of activities that surround the game, how it is best incorporated into the classroom, and how and when it should be played.

6. Production values, while not necessarily a deal-breaker, can be a red flag if the game looks or feels cheap, White said, because it can be suggestive of the amount of time, thought, or effort that went into it.

“I have seen games with very good pedagogy that didn’t have a good art or engineering team behind them, but that’s the exception to the rule,” he said.

7. One of the most important considerations is whether a game is directly aligned to learning objectives.

“Through engaging with the game, after they play, students should be getting better and better at whatever it is that you want them to learn,” White said. “Ideally, the best use of games and GBL are games that are relevant to the content you want to teach—higher-order thinking skills, critical thinking, and so on.” Games that address those skills won’t necessarily spell it out on the box, but using the previous six guidelines can help educators determine if a game meets their instructional goals.

“By making resources available, we provide a roadmap for educators—we fully expect them to modify that based on their needs,” White said. “But at least by having a default recommendation, you make it a little bit less intimidating for educators who are interested in the idea of GBL but who might not know where or how to start.”

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Laura Ascione

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