You’ve Got to Start Somewhere: Early Influences on Game-Based Learning

Early Cultural and Institutional Influences (prior to 1945)
In the Ancient Near East, the word “play” was used in the Hebrew Bible in the context of combat, establishing an early connection between war and games (2 Samuel 2: 14-16; Cornell, p. 42).  In Sparta, experiential learning and games were employed in warfare as boys were taken into compulsory military training and service when they were placed in a series of simulated wartime environments to teach a variety of survival skills.  As boys grew to soldiers, they engaged in organized war games to teach military strategy through experiential learning.
From these early experiences with organized military activities, experiential learning evolved into an integral part of the cultural and economic structures of societies in Europe, as the military apprenticeship model migrated to the guild structure of artisans and craftsmen in the Renaissance.  Entry into the socio-economic sphere required an education based on experiential learning in order to demonstrate knowledge and proficiency sufficient to earn a recognized role in the organized community.
This type of guild structure persisted into the healing professions and early modern medicine.  Medical and nursing education prior to the 20th century relied heavily on the apprenticeship model of learning, prior to the organization of medical and nursing schools that began to integrate classroom pedagogy into the experiential practice of patient care.  As scientific knowledge evolved, the use of simulation began to enter medical education, giving students an opportunity to learn and practice potentially risky skills without fear of causing harm in an exercise of Hippocratic and Maimonidean ideals.  An early example is the use of obstetrical mannequins for childbirth training in the early 16th century to reduce risks to mothers and babies (Ziv, Wolpe, Small, & Glick, 2003).
From ancient Greek and Roman roots, the military has continued to be a leader in using experiential learning and simulation to afford low-risk opportunities to learn high-risk skills.  Beyond organized war games, the US military was also an early adopter of digital simulation technologies beginning in 1930 with aviation simulation in the Army Air Corps.  The US military continues to be the largest user of game-based learning in the modern era (Prensky, 2001).

Timeline of Major Events and Advances Related to Game-Based Learning

1916 – John Dewey describes experiential education

1930 – Edwin Link designs the “Blue Box” flight simulator

1934 – Link meets with the Army Air Corps for flight simulation training

1967 – Logo programming language was created

1978 – Atari adapts Battlezone for ARPA’s (now DARPA) use

1979 – Military development of the geometry engine, used in commercial video gaming systems

1996 – 2-day workshop convened by the National Research Council at the request of the DOD Defense Modeling and Simulation Office – Modeling and Simulation: Linking Entertainment and Defense (Irvine, CA: home of Blizzard Entertainment)

1996 – USMC allows Marines to play commercial war games on military computers during duty hours

1997 – A.D.A.M. software began appearing in medical schools to supplement anatomy education

1997 – All military equipment simulators designed with High Level Architecture (HLA) that allows for inter-simulator communication and collaboration

1999 – US medical schools began offering digital simulation to replace the use of “dog lab” to teach cardiac physiology, in response to improving digital technology and escalating student concern about sacrificing dogs for medical education

2008 – Case Western Reserve University became the last medical school to end its use of “dog lab” in favor of digital simulation

Cornell, T. J. (2002). On War and Games in the Ancient World. War and Games, 37-72.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Game-Based Learning. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Retrieved from
Ziv, A., Wolpe, P. R., Small, S. D., & Glick, S. (2003). Simulation-Based Medical Education: An Ethical Imperative : Academic Medicine. Academic Medicine, 78(8), 783–788.

Historical and Cultural Origins

“You find the fun and snap…the job’s a game!” –Mary Poppins

Game-Based Learning (GBL) has been incorporated as a teaching strategy since antiquity, when slaves used the “cover” of spinning a top to disguise prohibited religious study.  From its subversive origins, GBL moved through the apprenticeship model of the Renaissaince and evolved to a modern teaching and learning strategy.  GBL provides low-risk opportunities for experiential learning.  The risk assessment applies here to teaching organizations and learners alike.  More broadly, GBL provides a platform for engaging individuals with multiple learning styles.

The early cultural and political influences of GBL derive primarily from  and constructivism (Dewey, 1938; Piaget, 1952).  The roots of these theories are that humans learn through sequential development where they (1) possess some heuristic or abstract representation about an idea, (2) they have some experience related to this idea, (3) they reflect on this experience, (4) and they update that original heuristic based on the reflection of their experience. These stages necessitate a first-hand learning environment where lecture is a component in a system rather than the sole form of learning. Additionally, this theory informs the learning environment design. In the digital age, Papert (1980) added to constructivism with his theory of constructionism that computer technology allowed the perfect environment for this sequential learning process, “one that helps us…learn about learning,” where personal relationships with knowledge can be created (Papert, 1980, p. 177).

GBL uses a game to facilitate experiential or hands-on learning through a narrative environment that is interactive, engaging, and reactive to the roles and decisions made by learners (Clark, 2004).  Thus, the problem that game-based learning was originally designed to solve was the lack of low-risk experiential learning opportunities for inherently high-risk enterprises. GBL, whether in-person (often led by a facilitator) or through a digital interface, are scalable, reproducible, and personalizable.

Early adoption of GBL included military and aviation industries where custom-built simulator programs created low-risk environments for people to train, capitalizing on available digital technologies to reduce risk and investment, compared to apprenticeship models.  As digital technology became less expensive and increasingly reproducible, industrial application expanded to health care practice and medical education via low-fidelity and high-fidelity simulation (Trybus, 2012).

Following industrial successes, other early examples of digital GBL like “Oregon Trail” were prevalent in schools and coincided with the rise of the video game industry in the 1970s and 1980s. The success of the video game industry was source of both support and conflict as GBL and the emergence of a critical population of “digital natives” (Prensky, 2001), has created a more accepting environment for technology and games in schools.  The “digital native” community has supported expansion of GBL throughout the workforce that they now populate.  However, early in the evolution of GBL, the perception of  a game as frivolous entertainment, and concern bred from unfamiliarity among “digital immigrants”, led to conflict with increased adoption efforts.

The decreased costs of increased digital processing power, along with the development of stable, flexible game architectures, and the development of a critical base of knowledge among game designers has supported the contemporary climate of widespread adoption and acceptance of GBL.  GBL exists as a technologically viable solution for a broad spectrum of learning applications in education and a industrial settings.  This has been accompanied by expanded understanding of varied learning styles and needs in the education community and attendant recognition that the experiential nature of GBL is ideally suited to allow a single platform to effectively serve a wide spectrum of learners (Trybus, 2012).  Perhaps because of these convergent educational and technological influences, GBL technology in schools is emerging as a metric of educational quality.

Clark, C. D. (2004). The Principles of Game Based Learning. Presented at the NETC/LSC Conference, Crystal City, VA. Retrieved from

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Kappa Delta Pi.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. Basic Books, Inc..

Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–2.

Trybus, J. (2012). Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it works, and Where it’s going (White Paper). New Media Institute. Retrieved from–what-it-is-why-it-works-and-where-its-going.html