Game-Based Learning And 21st Century Skills

Adani Abutto
5 min readOct 12, 2020


Game-Based Learning (GBL) is one of those things that kind of sound too good to be true. How could it be that games teach us things in an effective manner? After all, most of the commonly known ones are designed for entertainment. Furthermore, digital games are often made so that the story takes place in a fictional world nothing like ours, take Super Mario for example. However, that’s not exactly what researchers mean when they speak of GBL. Let’s have a look at the definition(s) first.

What exactly is Game-Based Learning (GBL)?

So, what falls under GBL? According to Qian & Clark, (2016) the term is defined as an environment where both the game content and game play induce skill and knowledge acquisition. This means that the activities taking place as part of the game involve problemsolving as well as challenges that give the player some sense of achievement once completed. Now this is obviously a very broad definition.

A ladders game template (Source: Pinterest)

If the first thing that came to your mind is something like theladders game” or card games, then you’re absolutely right—these do in fact also count. It’s just that the recent focus of GBL research has been set on digital game-based learning, although incorporating digital technologies is not a must per se. You can find some examples of GBL-oriented video games on MIT’s Teacher Education Program website.

Other terms that one might come across within the field are Serious Games (SG), Gamification or Playful Learning. There seems to be an ongoing discussion on how to define and separate those, but here are some basic outlines I found:

  • Gamification encompasses extracting elements and structures from games and applying them to more “serious” environments like companies, schools or households
  • Playful Learning does not necessarily utilize games for learning, but rather emphasizes some of the playful components of learning
  • Serious Games are “designed for purposes other than pure entertainment” and might for example help with the training of doctors. The term also includes simulations: Lamb et al. (2018) mention that “Call of Duty, if used to train military personal in room clearing techniques, could be considered an example of a Serious Game”

You could technically say that GBL is an umbrella term for all of the above, but not everybody in the research community seems to agree with that. For the sake of this story, we’ll go with this (simplified) definition though. Now let’s have a look at the research that has been done so far!

What does the Research say about the Effectiveness of GBL?

As with all other research that deals with such questions, there are no definitive answers — nevertheless, there are interesting findings that are worth discussing. In a recent meta-analysis by Qian & Clark (2016), 29 relevant studies published between 2010 and 2014 were investigated. The authors focused on GBL in relation to 21st century skills (a wide range of skills including but not limited to critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication as well as media and technology skills), and provide us with the following takeaways:

  • While 21st century skills by themselves are only a small subfield of GBL research, most of the 29 papers focused on the development of critical thinking skills. Only few investigated creativity and collaboration, and only one single study took a closer look at communication skills
  • Participants covered a wide range of ages, from K5 (5 to 11 years old) up to graduate level students, which is fantastic — in comparison, action video game research focuses almost entirely on young adults
  • Constructivism was the learning theory that was most often referred to by studies, however, across the field as a whole, many studies seem to fail to address learning theories in the theoretical foundation of their research (Wu et al., 2012). This might have something to do with the outcomes of said research
  • Less than half of the studies reported effect sizes, although most (85%) reported significant effects. This is unfortunate as it limits the conclusions that can be drawn from their results
  • The results of the studies that found significant effects seemed to mostly depend on game design, while “game design elements proven successful in the entertainment game industry are most likely to lead to effective learning“. Examples of such critical elements would be Competition, Collaboration and Exploration & Discovery, which are very prevalent in non-educational video games
  • In connection to that last point, design-based games seemed to work best in improving 21st century skills despite them not having educational goals!
Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash

Conclusions and Outlook

The authors of the cited meta-analysis state that “a game-based learning approach might be effective in facilitating students’ 21st century skill development”. One thing to keep in mind is that the investigated studies are already six to ten years old, and as all technological fields move very rapidly, reviews of more recent studies are needed!

While some improvements in 21st century skills can evidently be achieved via GBL (e.g. critical thinking), there’s still a lack of research when it comes to some other ones (e.g.communication and creativity). However, in the past, research on GBL has shown that educational games are positively linked to other learning outcomes such as cognitive ones (e.g. Connolly et al., 2012). Thus, the domain as a whole seems promising and current challenges mostly lie in the effective design of the educational games. This requires new approaches to avoid ending up with the same drill and narrow academic focus in the gameplay that can (sometimes) be found in the classroom.

I myself will have a closer look at some of the more successful educational games such as MIT’s The Radix Endeavor to try and figure out what sets it apart from others.

That’s it — see you next Monday and thanks for reading!



Adani Abutto

Hi there, I’m a psychology student from Switzerland with various interests :) I have moved my writings to my website ->