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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.

About Heather M. Ross, PhD, DNP

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