Educational, or “serious,” games allow students to enjoy themselves and have fun, while at the same time learning specific content or skills. There are a wide variety of games that can meet different pedagogical purposes. However, effective games let students interact with real concepts and ideas in a simulated setting.


Have clear teaching objectives for the lesson.
  • What makes educational games different than traditional games is their pedagogical purpose. Determine which aspect of course material and which learning goals you want to incorporate into your game design.
  • Games range from traditional games with an educational twist (such as subject specific jeopardy) to extended simulations. Choose the game that fits your objectives and time limitations.
Ensure you have all the materials needed for the game.
  • If possible, test out the game before the class to ensure the instructions are clear and you have the correct materials.


Introduce the rules of the game with verbal and written directions.
  • It is useful to have the instructions written on the board or printed out for each student for his/her own reference.
Allow students enough time to review the directions and ask questions.
  • Do not rush this process unless the goal is the have students be unclear at the beginning.

  • Be careful to not answer questions that preview the learning objectives of the game. When a student asks a tricky question, go back to the written directions.

Remember your role is of a facilitator and critical observer.
  • Resist the temptation to help students.

  • Listen to what students say, but also pay attention to body language, groupings, and who is doing the talking and who is not.

  • If helpful, take subtle notes to remind you of important talking points to raise during the debrief.


Allow students to celebrate their success!
  • Give time for students to cheer and congratulate each other for completing the game. This celebration may need to be postponed if doing so distracts others who have not finished.

Debrief the game with the students.
  • Ask students specific questions about what happened. Probe them to think about strategies they used, how they felt, and what they learned.

  • Write down any takeaways that support your learning goals or that seem particularly interesting. Try to use direct quotes as much as possible.

  • Ask follow­up questions about any learning that occurred.

    • Oftentimes, students will use universal language when describing their experience (e.g., “We all got along well,” “None of us understood.” “Everyone was on board with our plan.”).
    • It can be useful for the class and helpful for those who are not comfortable speaking up to probe further to see if those statements are actually true. If necessary, provide the data you collected from your observation.
  • If students covered the main learning objectives of the game, then congratulate them on their understanding.
  • If they have missed an important point, bring it up at the end, supported by your observations of them.
  • Give students time to respond to your comments.



Written by Lauren Britt­Elmore

Doctoral Candidate, Higher Education

Harvard Graduate School of Education

Games for educational purposes, or “serious games”, share the same “creative and enjoyable essence” (Akilli, 2011, p. 152) with games for entertainment, but are aimed to induce learning that meets certain pedagogic objectives. It has been identified as one type of simulation-based learning approaches, along with role-play and computer simulation (Feinstein, Mann & Corsun, 2002), with its distinctive element of “interaction within a predetermined context involving competition, cooperation, conflict or collusion” (Lean, Moizer, Towler & Abbey, 2006, p. 228).

Games were adopted to promote learning as early as around 3,000 B.C., when war game simulations were used in China and India (Keys & Wolfe, 1990). Price (1990) categorizes today’s educational games into “academic games” that teach and provide practice, and “life simulation games” that simulate either real-life contexts with strict rules, or open-ended and flexible social science contexts. Simulation games can be drilled-based, exercise-based, or problem-based (Deshpande & Huang, 2011) for students to observe a process or phenomenon, choose and apply the correct techniques, or solve problems by trying learned approaches. Additionally, gameification (or gamification) has been a growing trend, which refers to adding game mechanics or other game-associated elements to educational activities (Landers & Callen, 2011).

 The introduction of business simulation games in the late 1950s (Greenlaw & Wyman, 1973) expanded the development and use of games in higher education settings across disciplines including undergraduate economics (Stanley, 2001), chemistry (Russell, 1999), and psychology (Weisskirch, 2003). Technology has boosted the development and use of computerized games in engineering (Coller & Scott, 2009), geology (Mayo, 2007), biology (Amory, Naicker, Vincent & Adams, 1998), landscape planning (Herwig & Paar, 2002), nursing and medicine (Cook, McAloon, O'Neill & Beggs, 2012), statistics (Ramler & Chapman, 2011), media and communications (Delwiche, 2006), and social studies (Gestwicki & Morris, 2012). 

Games enable effective situated learning by simulating environments or scenarios that cannot be directly presented in a traditional classroom. They can “mimic real world situations without importing unwanted constraints and risks of the real world” (Westera, Nadolski, Hummel & Wopereis, 2008, p. 420). Games encourage dynamic participation and lessen resistance to innovative ideas and concepts (Petranek, 1994). As drill and repetition are made more enjoyable through play, students show greater retention over time, develop proficiency more steadily, and become more motivated for optional learning tasks (Randel, Morris, Wetzel & Whitehill, 1992; Philpot et al., 2003; Landers & Callan, 2011). With computerized games, graphics and multimedia elements can capture more student attention (Deshpande & Huang, 2011).

Although research is yet to reach a conclusive answer on the effectiveness of educational games as measured by direct learning outcomes, but empirical studies have proved the benefits of the particular games investigated (Randel et al, 1992; Susi, Johannesson & Backlund, 2007). Games have proved to stimulate deeper learning (Coller & Scott, 2009), comprehension of subject complexity (Mayo, 2007) and maximize the transference of academic knowledge to industry (Deshpande & Huang, 2011). Games have also been found to exert positive effects on students’ attention, visuospatial skills (Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani & Gratton, 2008; Green & Bavelier, 2003), and team functioning (Deshpande & Huang, 2011). 

Along with the multiple benefits come new challenges to instructors. As games enable students to take decisions and manage the process, instructors are required to switch into a facilitator’s role, instead of just being an observer (Torres & Macedo, 2000), by revamping the traditional, linear approach of content creation and delivery (Morrison, 2003). It is also worth noting that educational games, or “serious games”, differ from leisure games whose main motives are fun, amusement and relaxation; instructors, especially those in higher education, are encouraged to apply the games that require reasoning, reflection, and collaboration, rather than following the approaches for developing and using leisure games (Westera et al., 2008). It is recommended that only the context, approach, and game mechanics suitable to specific learning objectives be selected so as to make learning happen (Landers & Callan, 2011).


 Written by Danxi Shen, Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education




Akilli, G. K. (2011). Games and simulations: A new approach in education. Gaming and Simulations: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools and Applications, ed. Information Resources Management Association, USA, 150-167.

Amory, A., Naicker, K., Vincent, J., & Adams, C. (1998). Computer games as a learning resource. In World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, 1, 50-55.

Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabiani, M., & Gratton, G. (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta psychologica, 129(3), 387-398.

Coller, B. D., & Scott, M. J. (2009). Effectiveness of using a video game to teach a course in mechanical engineering. Computers & Education, 53(3), 900-912.

Cook, N. F., McAloon, T., O'Neill, P., & Beggs, R. (2012). Impact of a web based interactive simulation game (PULSE) on nursing students' experience and performance in life support training—A pilot study. Nurse education today, 32(6), 714-720.

Delwiche, A. (2006). Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) in the new media classroom. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 9(3).

Deshpande, A. A., & Huang, S. H. (2011). Simulation games in engineering education: A state‐of‐the‐art review. Computer Applications in Engineering Education, 19(3), 399-410.

Feinstein, A. H., Mann, S., & Corsun, D. L. (2002). Charting the experiential territory: Clarifying definitions and uses of computer simulation, games, and role play. Journal of Management Development, 21(10), 732-744.

Gestwicki, P., & Morris, R. (2012). Social Studies Education Game Development as an Undergraduate Immersive Learning Experience. In M. Cruz-Cunha (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Serious Games as Educational, Business and Research Tools (pp. 838-858). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-0149-9.ch043

Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423(6939), 534-537.

Greenlaw, P. S., & Wyman, F. P. (1973). The teaching effectiveness of games in collegiate business courses. Simulation & Gaming, 4(3), 259-294.

Herwig, A., & Paar, P. (2002). Game engines: tools for landscape visualization and planning. Trends in GIS and Virtualization in Environmental Planning and Design, 161-172.

Keys, B. & J. Wolfe (1990). The Role of Management Games and Simulations in Education and Research, Journal of Management, 16: 311.

Landers, R. N., & Callan, R. C. (2011). Casual social games as serious games: The psychology of gamification in undergraduate education and employee training. In Serious games and edutainment applications (pp. 399-423). Springer London.

Lean, J., Moizer, J., Towler, M., & Abbey, C. (2006). Simulations and games: Use and barriers in higher education. Active learning in higher education, 7(3), 227-242.

Mayo, M. J. (2007). Games for Science and Engineering Education. Communications of the ACM, 50(7), 31-35.

Morrison, J. L. (2003). Simulations and the learning revolution: An interview with Clark Aldrich. The Technology Source, 35-37.

Petranek, C. Amaturation in experiential learning: Principles of simulation and gaming, Simulation & Gaming, 25(4), 513-523.

Philpot, T. A., Hubing, N., Hall, R. H., Flori, R. E., Oglesby, D. B., & Yellamraju, V. (2003). Games as teaching tools in engineering mechanics courses. In Proceedings of the American Society of Engineering Education.

Price, R.V. (1990). Computer-aided instruction: A guide for authors. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Ramler, I. P., & Chapman, J. L. (2011). Introducing Statistical Research to Undergraduate Mathematical Statistics Students Using the Guitar Hero Video Game Series. Journal of Statistics Education, 19(3), 1-20.

Randel, J. M., Morris, B. A., Wetzel, C. D., & Whitehill, B. V. (1992). The effectiveness of games for educational purposes: A review of recent research. Simulation & Gaming, 23(3), 261-276.

Russell, J.V. (1999). Using games to teach chemistry: An Annotated Bibliography. Journal of Chemical Education, 76(4), 481.

Stanley, D. L. (2001). Wealth distribution and imperfect factor markets: a classroom experiment. The Journal of Economic Education, 32(4), 344-355.

Susi, T., Johannesson, M., & Backlund, P. (2007). Serious games: An overview. Retrived from

Torres, M., & Macedo, J. (2000). Learning sustainable development with a new simulation game. Simulation & Gaming, 31(1), 119-126.

Weisskirch, R. S. (2003). Dealing with Piaget: Analyzing Card Games for Understanding Concepts. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Psychological Association.

Westera, W., Nadolski, R. J., Hummel, H. G., & Wopereis, I. G. (2008). Serious games for higher education: a framework for reducing design complexity. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24(5), 420-432.


Further Resources:

  • Amory, A., Naicker, K., Vincent, J., & Adams, C. (1999). The use of computer games as an educational tool: identification of appropriate game types and game elements. British Journal of Educational Technology, 30(4), 311-321.
  • Amory, A., & Seagram, R. (2003). Educational game models: conceptualization and evaluation: the practice of higher education. South African Journal of Higher Education, 17(2), p-206.
  • Prensky, M. (2011). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Squire, K., & Jenkins, H. (2003). Harnessing the power of games in education. Insight, 3(1), 5-33.
Reasons to use a game in your class room: Get students excited about course material. Allow students to learn teamwork and healthy competition. Encourage students to work colloboratively. 

Below we have annotated lesson plans for selected examplary activities from our database that highlight various ways to incorporate games and simulations into the classroom. 

(1) Being in the White House Situation Room: Developing Strategic Options​​: ​​​Faculty develop a national security crisis and simulate placing the students on the National Security Council Staff to develop strategic options to drive U.S. foreign policy. Find the original activity in our database here.