Game-based Learning

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Game-based learning is a specific form of experiential learning. Educational experience has proven that experiential learning is articularly well suited to developing competences for democratic culture. In this sense, applying gamification/serious games to democracy education can improve it.

Games have always been part of human culture and a method of learning for life. Consequently, using games to support learning about, for and through democracy is not a far-fetched idea. Game-based learning has been on the forefront in both formal education and non-formal youth work for quite some time now and experienced an additional push in the 21st century through digitalization processes and the rise of online gaming.

Nevertheless, the use of games for learning, beyond childhood, still faces some criticisms. For example, critics highlight that used in an un-reflected way, the broad phenomenon of gamification (the transfer of games and game elements to non-game related fields) bears the risk to overly prioritize fun and entertainment in education at the expense of a serious engagement with the topics to be learned (this is sometimes referred to as edutainment).

Video Introduction: Gamification, Game-based Learning, Serious Games

Source: Demogames project

Serious Games

To go beyond mere entertainment and counter this criticism, in recent years, educators turned towards the development of so-called (analogue and digital) serious games to teach about a diverse set of topics. If well-designed, serious games allow educators to create safe and engaging learning environments, which allow learners to approach the matter at hand from new perspectives and at the same time avoid the pitfall of merely entertaining them. While game-based learning has first and foremost been a field of analog gaming, digital games have become more centre stage in recent years. Both analog and digital games share several characteristics which make them beneficial to teach about, for and through democracy.

Serious Games

Playing games as a method for experiential learning. Play is embedded in a learning process.

Serious games intend to provide players with the opportunity to interact with each other, experiment with different strategies, and re-evaluate their behaviour based on the reaction of other players.

While analogue games build on face-to-face interaction of players, digital games build on player-interface interaction. Both forms of interaction have their pros and cons. For example, digital games can be used to create reactive single-player experiences, while analogue games often utilise the interactions between players. Digitally enabled online interactions can allow a diverse set of players to engage with each other from different locations, while face-to-face interaction allows players to meaningfully engage with each other without a mediating interface. Both analogue and digital games foster immersive, experiential learning.

Consciously Embedding Play in a Learning Concept

Using games for learning does not “just” include playing a game. On the contrary, while players make new experiences during game play, it is essential for the learnings success that a game-play phase is flanked by both an input and output phase as well as a thorough debriefing. Providing players with additional input before the game or appropriate exercises after the game play empowers players to make the most of the game-play experience and sets the right mood for the learning environment.

In essence, game-based learning mirrors the core elements of Kolb’s (2015) experiential learning cycle [2]. Game-based learning allows learners to evaluate their newly made experiences through reflective observation and ideally leads to abstract conceptualisation, and the transfer of in-game experiences to other relevant areas. Finally, serious games also allow for do-overs – which fosters a central element in any learning theory: experimentation. Through playing a game several times, players can actively experiment with different strategies and adjust their behaviour to changing environments.

Due to this, game-based learning is an inclusive tool, which allows teachers, trainers, and youth workers to integrate different learning styles into their activities.

Phases of Game-based Facilitation

1. Input Phase

The introduction. Depending on the game and on the learning targets, different kinds of activities might be useful. For some games, a first engagement with the topic (‘about democracy’) may help players to immerse themselves into the situation. For other games, a team-building activity may be fruitful (e.g., an icebreaker, check-in, maybe with elements of ‘through democracy’ education).

2. Gameplay

After the input phase follows the actual gameplay. In this phase, it is crucial that the facilitator is familiar with the game rules and has chosen (if applicable) the game variant to be played. Facilitators should also decide beforehand if they will explain the game rules, or if the players will read them by themselves. Some games come with different suggestions regarding time management (e.g., set a time or a game round limit or play until the game ends).

3. Post-Gameplay/Output

Typically, players directly engage either with the game material or with a specific issue encountered in the game and continue to actively engage with this topic. For example, they create their own game cards, further research a topic, write a text, and/or hold a presentation about it. The output phase enhances learning effects as players engage in an even more active and independent way.

4. Debriefing

Familiar to facilitators of experiential learning processes, debriefing means analysing the learning experience in terms of...

  • topics & concepts embedded,
  • methods & tools employed,
  • relationships developed during the game/learning activity, and
  • any connection between these aspects and the real life of the learners the end of any kind of learning element or of the whole process (more: Evaluation).

Application Scenarios

Last, but not least, serious games and game-based learning have been linked to several desirable learning outcomes.

  • For example, playing games enables learners to acquire new knowledge about a topic or apply their existing knowledge to a different field.
  • Games may train certain skills – especially related to human interaction, like cooperation or deliberation, to name just a few.
  • Moreover, one of the major advantages frequently voiced by educators of game-based learning tools is their potential to spark the interest of players and to promote (intrinsic) motivation of learners to engage with a certain topic.

These types of activities entail an increase in the motivation of those who participate, which results in an increase in engagement.

Hence, against the criticism of edutainment, “the fun theory” defends the use of games as entertaining learning tools, since if we intend to develop learners’ opinions, values or their behaviour, it will be easier if the activities we design for these objectives are – among other things – also fun.

Further Inspiration:

Digitalisation: Games and Interactive

Game-based Learning and Facilitation - digital

Game-based Learning - Offline


  1. K. Salen & E. Zimmerman: Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge, 2004
  2. Kolb, D. A. (2015). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education.

Authors of the Introductory Article:

Sabine Jenni

Co-founder and member of the board of the Swiss non-profit organisation Demokrative - Initiative for civic education. Independent professional in the areas of in the areas of applied political research, civic education, knowledge transfer, international cooperation and project management. PhD from ETH Zurich. More: Website

Rebecca Welge

Trainer and consultant in youth and adult education, public and private sector, Lecturer and co-founder of the Swiss non-profit organisation Demokrative - Initiative for civic education. Board member of DARE - Democracy in Human Rights Education in Europe. PhD in Political Science from ETH Zurich. More: Website

Saskia Ruth-Lovell

Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Radboud University in Nijmegen, NL. Her research focus is on the impact of clientelism and populism on different facets of representative democracy in Latin America and beyond. More: Website

Jordi Sabari

Co-author of the article and part of the project Demogames.

Corina Leca

President and project coordinator at the cultural-education organisation Friendship Ambassadors (Ambasadorii prieteniei) in Targoviste (RO). MA in Human Rights from Central European University/CEU Budapest. Expert for Education for Democratic Citizenship/Human Rights Education.



This text was first published in the frame of the project Demogames: Democracy and Games – Analog and Digital Game-Based-Learning Tools for Youth Work in the Demogames Facilitator's Manual