The Criteria for Selecting and Using a Game for Learning

By Ryan L. Schaaf

Chocolate-Covered Broccoli

Not all digital learning games are created equal. Although the gaming market is saturated with potential titles, many fall short in quality or academic rigor. The learning game community has a label for games such as these – Chocolate-Covered Broccoli. The term refers to masking skill and drill, oftentimes didactic activities with the promise of fun, excitement, and adventure for its players. Although on the outside, these chocolate-covered games seem like a sweet, delightful treat, on the inside, the player is swindled. Collectively, the learning game community has no problem with broccoli. However, there is no amount of chocolate, nor Ranch dressing, nor even cheese that can transform broccoli into something different.

Mixing Excitement with a Purpose

According to educational thought leader Jordan Shapiro (2014), “The best learning games teach in the same way good teachers teach: They don’t trick students into being interested, they help students find genuine excitement in learning a subject” (p. 20). When finding a potential learning game, educators and parents must always begin with the end in mind – what do you want the players to learn? For parents, they must consider if the game is helping to teach or reinforce learning. For educators, this process involves consulting with their various curriculum guides or academic standards. From the standards, educators create a learning objective for their students and identify the tools and resources essential to help their students achieve these goals. Next, educators consider what instructional and assessment strategies to employ to reach all learners.

Planning Backwards

For educators, one of the easiest ways to prepare for a game-based learning activity is to find a game first, then plan the learning events around its game play. Planning backwards such as this may seem nonsensical to educators, but the simple fact is that a lot of digital games were not constructed with the purpose of being used in a classroom during a lesson. Educators using game-based learning must consider what they are teaching to students and find a game that aligns with the desired learning outcomes.

Teaching or Testing?

The next consideration for evaluating and ultimately using a digital game for learning is to identify if the game is a teaching game, testing game, or both. Karl Kapp, an instructional technology professor at Bloomsburg University and a pioneer in the field of using digital games and gamification in learning, states that there are two types of games. “Testing Games are games where the learner already needs to know the information to be successful. The focus of the game is not to apply knowledge but rather to recall knowledge . . . If you want to test knowledge, testing games are fine but do not expect learning to occur” (Kapp, 2013). The second type is teaching games: “Teaching games, on the other hand, do not test knowledge; they impart knowledge. This is accomplished through a series of activities within the game that teaches the learner what he or she needs to do” (Kapp, 2013).

As digital games continue to evolve, these two classifications of testing and teaching games begin to merge, because more and more games are becoming both—they first teach the learner, and then they test or assess the learner’s understanding of the content or skills the player learns or develops.

These game classifications become invaluable for educators considering the use of a digital game during the learning process. Educators must select a teaching game to teach their students and a testing game to assess or reinforce previously learned information. An ideal teaching game is Food Truck by the Aqua team at Amplify. It first teaches players how to slice and combine letter combinations together to make new words. The game tutorial teaches players the new skill and guides them through an example. A good testing game is Wordbots, which assesses previously acquired knowledge about sounds and blends to create new words.


Food Truck by the Aqua team at Amplify. Learn more about Aqua.


Wordbots by the Aqua team at Amplify. Learn more about Aqua.

Educators must conduct extensive searches for games that align with their student’s learning goals. It is important to consider how the game will be used during the learning process. If students need to learn new information, then educators must locate a teaching game. A testing game would be ideal for assessment or a review of previously-learned concepts. Differentiating the two game types is fairly straightforward. If the content is introduced to the player, then the game is most likely teaching. If the game starts to ask questions and expects the player to know the answers from the very beginning, then that particular game fits neatly into the testing category.

More and more learning game developers understand that games must both teach and test its players. This is why they are starting to create more games that are classified as both – teaching and testing. An example of this game classification would be Show Off. The game models story or event sequencing when the player first opens the game with visual and audio cues (teaching), then assesses understanding as the player reorders events into the proper sequential order.


Show Off by the Aqua team at Amplify. Learn more about Aqua.

Planning and Preparing for a Digital Game-Based Learning Experience

While keeping student learning outcomes in mind, educators must play available digital games and reflect upon the questions in the checklist below to determine the ideal game for instructional integration.


Learning Outcomes & Pedagogy

  • Does gameplay support learning objectives/outcomes?
  • Can you use multiple games during instruction to address more or all of the standards?
  • Is gameplay realistic and does it involve skills that are useful in the real world?
  • Will the game challenges evolve with better player performance?
  • Is the game fun, engaging, and challenging for players?
  • Is one game better aligned with the expected learning outcomes than the others?
  • Will gameplay address other learning outcomes to obtain a multi-disciplinary experience for the students?



  • Does the game contain assessment tools or performance measurements to provide users and instructors with player feedback?
  • Can the game-based facilitator incorporate reality-based assessment strategies, measuring knowledge attained during gameplay?
  • How might the game be incorporated into classroom instruction or assessment?


Technical Aspects

  • Is the audio-visual presentation of the game clearly visible, audible, and does it provide an appealing aesthetic experience?
  • Are there enough game stations to promote a low enough student-to-game ratio?
  • Are appropriate peripherals and accessibility tools provided to each game station for the gaming experience?
  • Is the game control or manipulation transparent, intuitive, and logical for players?
  • Is the digital game content appropriate for the students’ academic and/or maturity level?


Kapp, K.(2013). Testing vs. Teaching Games.

Schaaf, R., & Mohan, N. (2014). Making school a game worth playing: Digital games in the classroom. Thousands Oaks, CA.: Corwin.