Written by Gordon Louie, fourth-year PhD candidate in the Higher Education & Student Affairs program

What is the purpose of 1earning, and who gets to be a “knower”? Educational approaches, including those at colleges and universities, often rely on what Freire (1972) calls a banking approach, where knowledge is a commodity to be transmitted from those deemed “experts” to students. Following a currency metaphor, this approach disregards existing funds of knowledge that students bring to the learning process through their own background, experiences, and perspectives (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Students are simultaneously socialized in school from a young age to see play as antithetical to serious, rigorous work (Wolhwend, 2007) so that by the time they get to college, motivation is more often tied to the pursuit of specialized skillsets tied to competitive careers, and less on acquiring deeper critical thinking and reasoning skills or identity exploration (Labaree, 1997; Wong & Kaur, 2018). 

The integration of games into the classroom seeks to address this by embracing two values: the creation of authentic learning environments centered on participation in communities and the transformative potential of learning which views knowledge and learners holistically (Cranton, 2016; Herrington & Oliver, 2000). It flips the conventional saying of “learning is fun!” from a statement to a pedagogical challenge. Gamifying the classroom is a compelling approach, especially as technological innovation allows connective and realistic gaming environments. Whether via tabletop roleplaying or board games, video games, or virtual reality simulators, here are some considerations for incorporating games into your teaching: 

  1. Balancing Educational and Engaging: Instructors must navigate between two unproductive extremes: educational games that aren’t necessarily fun to engage with or, conversely, a highly compelling game that seemingly isn’t relevant to course content. To think of this another way, there needs to be a balance between addressing learning goals for the course, the gameplay itself, and the mechanics which sustain player engagement. Games that consider only a theme or content without much attention to the engagement typically are not fun while too much emphasis on the mechanics without attention to theme makes the game too generic for effective application. 
  2. Scaffolding Learning with Gameplay: Learning happens in layers, and the difficulty/complexity of tasks and/or modes of thinking need to be increased over time. Thus, how the layers connect becomes part of the challenge of an instructor. Is the use of games contained within one lesson? If so, how does that game relate to other lessons? If it is a game (e.g., roleplaying campaign) which spans a longer part of the curriculum, are there multiple routes to solutions? How are these connected in ways that promote growth in thinking and reasoning? 
  3. Distributing Learning: To ensure students can reflect on their game experiences and to allow them room to demonstrate their meaning-making processes, there needs to be equal, if not more, attention devoted to the times and spaces where students can demonstrate what they’ve gotten out of the experience. Though gameplay can constitute a learning experience in itself, reflection and discussion often add another layer to the learning process. 



Cranton, P. (2016). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide to theory and practice (3rd ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus. 

Freire, P. (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder and Herder. 

Herrington, J. & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23-48. 

Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public goods, private goods: The American struggle over educational goals. American Educational Research Journal, 34(1), 39-81. 

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132-141. 

Wolhwend, K. (2007). More than a child’s work: Framing teacher discourse about play. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 3(1), 1-25. 

Wong, Z. Y. & Kaur, D. (2018). The role of vocational identity development and motivational beliefs in undergraduates’ student engagement. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 31(3), 294-316.