Games in higher education

/Games in higher education

Games in higher education

Note for workshop participants: say code word ‘Innovate’ to your contact (clue: check the memo again).


Play sign by Scott Schiller on Flickr

In the past few years game thinking has been gaining momentum in Higher Education. While games – or mechanics underpinning games – have been used in teaching for a very long time, it tended to be limited to a few disciplines or even individuals. Games are now being recognised as having great potential to have a positive impact on students’ learning experience – as well as on teachers using them! – and are increasingly being integrated at a curriculum level in addition to being used as stand-alone activities.

As highlighted in Educause’s “7 Things you should know about”, “the result is a diverse matrix of approaches that use gaming principles, fully developed games, or other aspects of what some describe as “gameful learning” to increase engagement, enhance learning, and explore new models of education.”

Game thinking encompasses a variety of concepts whose definitions and the distinction between which may vary. The following are definitions taken from experts in the field and that LTI uses too.


⦿ A game is a challenging activity, structured with rules, goals, progression and rewards, that is separate from the real world, and undertaken with a spirit of playfulness; it is also usually but not always) played with other people.

Whitton, N and Moseley, A. Using Games to Enhance the Student Experience

⦿ Games have a number of common characteristics that can be used to create effective learning environments. These include: 

  1. Complex environments where players are expected to make decisions and problem-solve in increasingly difficult circumstances. 
  1. Experimentation and risk taking in encouraging players to try out alternative courses of action and experience a range of different outcomes. 
  1. Narrative and thematic threads which encourage players to take on the identity of a range of characters, to build a story around these characters and interact socially with others participants (Sandford, 2005). 

Higher Education Academy. Gamification and Game-Based Learning

Game-Based Learning and Serious Games

These are educational games designed to achieve a particular curriculum need.

JISC. Gamification and Game-Based Learning

More info on games and game-based learning


Gamification is where techniques or approaches from games are adopted or incorporated into non-gaming activities to make them more engaging or enjoyable. 

JISC. Gamification and Game-Based Learning

More info on gamification

You may also find this decision chart from Gamified UK handy to understand the various concepts:

Game Thinking Decision Tree on Gamified UK

Problem-Based Learning

Games are puzzles that need to be actively solved by players


Experiential learning

Games provide experiences that allow students to try out different actions that would be difficult in real environments.


Social constructivism

Games encourage the co-construction of knowledge and peer-learning.

Cognitive development

20th century theorists Jean Piaget and Leonard Vygotsky have argued that play is a crucial component of cognitive development from birth and through adulthood.


Gaming can support behaviourist approaches to encourage repetition, recognition and recall.


⦿ safe space: games provide an alternative to the real world, allowing students to try and fail learn without damaging consequences as well as exploring various perspectives and possibilities

⦿ deeper learning and transferable skills: through games students can develop skills such as critical thinking, synthesis, evaluation, problem-solving and collaboration when playing with others. Learning is therefore based on competencies rather than less active forms such as assimilation.

⦿ autonomous learning and thinking: because games place players in situations whereby they need to make decisions and understand/are responsible for their implications and encourages them to explore possibilities, it also enables them to develop more autonomous thinking and decision-making.

⦿ engagement: for all the reasons listed above, games can increase student engagement with the course content and activities.