Abstract Details

Game-based Learning: A Long History

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. We will survey the literature on the intellectual history of educational theory and focus on discussions of a number of key texts. We have analysed the changing conceptions of ‘play’ and ‘games’ in the context of the philosophy of education.

Our main research questions 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 period?
  5. How did the concept of game/play (ludus, paidiá) in educational contexts develop over time?

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’).

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, 2018).

In sum: 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 Jean Piaget (Piaget, 1968) and many other modern philosophers of education. The idea of intrinsic motivation has later been conceptualised in the well-known taxonomy constructed by Thomas Malone and Frank Lepper (Malone & Lepper, 1987), with the view of games as an important part of the educational process.

Keywords: Game-based learning, GBL, Play-based learning, The history of GBL, Location-based games



  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Plass, P. 1967. ‘Play’ and Philosophic Detachment in Plato, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 96.

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