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Game-based learning - a long history
Andreas Hellerstedt and Peter Mozelius
Stockholm University and Mid Sweden University, Sweden
Several studies on Game-based learning (GBL) start out in the era of Tetris and PacMan and
are limited to digital learning games. However, the GBL concept has a long pre-history with
board games like Kalaha, Xiangxi, Chess and other forms of game having been used for
thousands of years in educational contexts, training strategic and tactical thinking, as well as
language skills, mathematics and other subjects. Games and play-based learning were well-
known didactic ideas in ancient Greece and during the Roman Empire. The oldest African
board games were built more than 5000 years ago.
The aim of this study is to analyse and discuss ideas on the role of games in education from a
historical perspective. A literature study was carried out with a focus on the intellectual history
of educational theory, followed by discussions of a number of key texts. Authors have analysed
the changing conceptions of play and games in the context of the philosophy of education.
Findings indicate that the view of games and game-based learning varies between the studied
époques. However, the idea of complementing theoretic and abstract education with
concrete and motivating play seems to have a constant value. A concept that for several
reasons can be even more important in contemporary, technology enhanced mass education.
Keywords: Game-based learning, GBL, Play-based learning, The history of GBL, Spieltrieb
1. Introduction and aim
The use of play and games in educational contexts goes way back in history, with mathematic,
combinatory skills and logic taught and trained with board games such as Chess and Mancala.
Chess has Asian roots and has been played in various forma for thousands of years and the
African board game Kalaha was played in Egypt as early as in the era between 1500 – 1150
B.C. (Barnes, 1975). Human general play is even older, and probably older than human culture,
and as described by the Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga: "We can safely assert, even,
that human civilization has added no essential feature to the general idea of play" (Huizinga,
2016, p 1.).
The aim of this study is to analyse and discuss ideas on the role of games in education from a
historical perspective. Main research questions to answer are:
1. How were games understood to contribute to learning in the ancient world, the
Renaissance, and in the modern period?
2. What role did games play in the educational ideas of the thinkers in question?
3. Did they consider games/play to have a complementary function to learning or did they
wish games to be an integral part of the educational process?
4. What factors prevented the widespread acceptance of games in learning before the modern
5. How did the concept of game/play (ludus, paidiá) in educational contexts develop over
The study was carried out as a central and comparative literature study. Central in the aspect
of reviewing a body of literature central to the chosen topic, and comparative in the aspect
that texts describing GBL concepts from ancient eras have been compared to contemporary
ideas. Historical texts were studied using a contextual method, viewing the older works as
moves in an argument. Attention was also paid to historical shifts in the meaning of concepts
(using methods of Begriffsgeschichte or the ‘History of Concepts’).
3. Findings and discussions
The comparison revealed interesting patterns, themes and similarities, but also important
differences and long-term changes. GBL is older than the use of dice in games, and while
hazard games and gambling often have been condemned and moralised upon, GBL concepts
have had a high status throughout history. There are several examples of how games have
been used to educate princes, military officers and politicians. Furthermore, the ancient
peripatetic idea of playing in outdoor environments seems to be experiencing a renaissance
today, with the popularity of location-based games.
Aristotle’s Politics (1337b-1338a) presents play (paidiá) as a form of relaxation or rest from
more serious study or work. As such, Aristotle considered its value to be instrumental at best.
Plato’s Laws (643B-C) proposes a more constructive role for play in education. Plato viewed
the linguistically related concepts of paidiá and paideía (education, Bildung) as fundamentally
distinct, and his view resembles Aristotle’s in this respect. However, Plato still considered play
to be necessary for education, as he saw it as a first step on a ladder towards true knowledge.
In the Renaissance, educators such as Vittorino da Feltre re-introduced the idea that
games/play could have a role in education. Vittorino was consciously following Plato,
referencing the latter’s discussion in the Laws. However, he also specifically attributed the
idea of using games in the teaching of mathematics to the ancient Egyptians (Goeing, 2014),
probably a reference to a Mancala game.
In the 17th century, John Amos Comenius presented a systematic theory of education, in which
he viewed the game (ludus) to be the ideal form of learning. He presents his comprehensive
theory of ludus in Schola Ludus (Comenius, 1654). This work is a preface to a work on language
education through dramatization, but the theory is not specific to that form, but a universal
ludology. It was revolutionary in the way it proposed games/play to be fully integrated with
the learning process: the “fun and the serious” should go hand in hand. A testament to the
Renaissance idea of the dignity and liberty of man, Comenius’s work is full of optimism and
foreshadows many modern contributions in discussing the relationships between spontaneity
and rules, cooperation and competition, and many other issues (Hellerstedt & Mozelius,
a strong earlier influence is the book Homo Ludens, published in 1938 by the Dutch cultural
theorist Johan Huizinga. One of Huizinga's main ideas is the one of human beings' fundamental
need of playing and that play is a fundamental human right (Huizinga, 2016).
In the 20th century game-based learning was introduced as a pedagogical approach at
university level in the 1970s by Jean Piaget (1973) and Lev Vygotsky (1978). Piaget was also
the pedagogue that created a new audience for Comenius’s game-based ideas (Piaget, 1966).
Later in the 1980s the idea of using games in educational contexts got a renaissance when
after Mark Lepper (1975) and Thomas Malone (1981) first separately presented their analyses
of why computer games are engaging and stimulate intrinsic motivation. Their common
findings of games stimulating intrinsic motivation was later conceptualised as the taxonomy
of intrinsic motivation (Malone & Lepper, 1987). One of several links between Comenius’s
didactics and Lepper and Malone’s ideas on intrinsic motivation is the American pedagogue
and philosopher John Dewey. Comenius and Dewey both questioned the overuse of root
learning, and advocated the idea of learning by activities outside the classroom without
divorcing life from learning. (Snelgrove, 2017)
In the 21st century there has been a rich production of digital games with a wide variety of
game genres and gaming platform. With the phenomenon of new so called 'casual games ',
frequent playing has reached new target groups and age groups (Juul, 2010). Today, when the
human race more than anytime earlier is meeting the idea of homo ludens, it must be realistic
to increase the use play and game-based learning as a way of mass individualisation in modern
Although Aristotle’s concept of autotelism seems to anticipate modern ideas of intrinsic
motivation, it was Plato who first truly gave games and play a place in education. Aristotle and
many other early educators tended to view games and study as opposites. Despite this, Plato
explicitly recommended games/play as a teaching tool, and his ideas were taken up by
Vittorino da Feltre in the Renaissance. From that foundation they were developed and
systematized in the 17th century by Comenius, who in turn inspired Piaget, Vygotskji and
many other modern philosophers of education.
Comenius stands out in that he envisioned education and play/games to be truly integrated.
The purpose of this was to achieve something very close to modern ideas of intrinsic
motivation. In a broader context, Comenius was quite aware that intrinsic and extrinsic
motivation are both necessary. However, intrinsic motivation was the element which was
lacking in the schools of his day. In his view, the concept of ludus could remedy this by turning
school into a game.
Goeing, A. S. 2014. Summus Mathematicus et Omnis Humanitatis Pater: The Vitae of
Vittorino da Feltre and the Spirit of Humanism. Dordrecht: Springer.
Hellerstedt, A. & Mozelius, P. 2018. From Comenius to Counter-Strike: 400 years of Game-
based Learning as a didactic Foundation, Proceedings of the 12th European Conference on
Game Based Learning. Sophia Antipolis: Academic Conferences and Publishing International.
Huizinga, J. 2016. Homo Ludens, a study of the play element in culture. Angelico press.
Juul, J. 2010. A casual revolution: Reinventing video games and their players. MIT press.
Lepper, M. R., & Greene, D. 1975. Turning play into work: Effects of adult surveillance and
extrinsic rewards on children's intrinsic motivation, Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 31(3), 479.
Malone, T. W. 1981. Toward a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction, Cognitive
science, 5(4), 333-369.
Malone, T. W., & Lepper, M. R. 1987. Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations
for learning, in Aptitude, learning and Instruction III: Cognitive and affective process analysis.
Ed. Snow, R. E. Hillsdale: Erlbaum.
Piaget, J. 1968. The Significance of John Amos Comenius at the Present Time, in John Amos
Comenius on Education, Classics in Education 33. New York: Teachers College Press.
Piaget, J. 1973. To understand is to invent, Grossman, New York (Original work published
Plass, P. 1967. ’Play’ and Philosophic Detachment in Plato, Transactions and Proceedings of
the American Philological Association, vol. 96.
Snelgrove, D. (2017). Testing, Experience, and Reason: Perspectives from Comenius and
Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes,
Harvard University Press, Cambridge.