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author: aeStranger


14 minute read

Game-based Learning

Creating possibility spaces

To start with, a distinction must be made between game-based learning and the gamification of learning. Gamification, as defined and understood at the moment, takes a fully formed concept or practice and adds game/play elements into it. Game-based learning as a process builds a concept from the ground up to be a game/play experience with clear learning outcomes. With gamification, the question usually asked is: “Where can the fun be found in this?”, whereas with game-based learning the “fun”, as it were, is already inherent to the learning experience. It is not that the game-based learning methodology dictates that everything should become a game, not all math should be taught from within a Triple-A online game title. No, game-based learning is taking those dynamic elements and those mechanics that are found in Triple-A, Independent, Tabletop or classic games, and using them to enhance and/or augment a learning experience. After all every game at its heart is a learning experience for the individual playing it, teaching them new things as they progress and testing them in a practical environment. This is the true Game-based learning methodology that we will explore. When developing a learning experience according to the precepts of these definitions around game-based learning, several aspects of it come in to play. Each of the aspects will be explored in full, but in good game-based learning practices, each aspect must be given up front in bite-sized chunks, so that the initial seeds of understanding can be fostered for the later mastery of the overall concept. One of the first aspects is that the game/play experience is seen as taking place within its own “space”, and adheres to its own sense of time, and its own rules. This is then defined as the “possibility space”, and this is where the learning journey will begin. Another name for the possibility space is “The magic circle”. It is an abstract idea of a closed off area where anything imagined could be possible. The space or circle is where all the other aspects are housed, and all other aspects inform how the space will be managed and experienced. The next aspect is voluntariness, individuals who enter this space should always be well informed, with what is expected of them, so that their choice is a voluntary one. Within this space, the expectation will be that the learning will be hard work, challenging, but also life enhancing and enjoyable. The following aspect is that there will either be clear goals that can be broken down into short, mid, and long-term goals, or a set of rules (explanations; like the reader is experiencing here) and/or limitations to help nurture self-determined goals. Either will allow the individual room for self-discovery, and hopefully for a level of self-directed exploration and innovation The space must also be constructed in such a way that feedback of failure or success is direct, unbiased and immediate. This gives rise to the next aspect around success and failure. Failure will, and should be the most prominent end-state for the individual, as with general game/play experiences; the act of failing elicits experiential knowledge, allowing for reiteration and innovation. Failing will therefore be an epic experience that relays positive feedback to the individual, thus driving them and motivating them to succeed the next time. Epic in the case of this piece refers to a transcendent feeling within an individual. A feeling that is strong enough that it leaves a long term memory of the experience that they have had. The final aspect of the space is that there is a community living and thriving in it and that this community is part of a clear shared semiotic domain. This community of individuals will promote relatedness, social experience, and a drive to collectively master and improve this space. Each of these aspects is integral to the possibility space and each will be broken down into its various components of how they all interact with each other and promote a robust learning experience for the individual, to motivate them and to strengthen them as people.

The magic circle

The first aspect is the creation of the “possibility space” itself, it is an abstract concept and environment that will be the container for the learning experience. This possibility space is best expressed from the thought school of ludology “(…) play is an activity confined by time and space” (Huizinga, J., 1939 trans. 1955) and by two prominent thinkers in game-base learning “(…) Play is an open-ended territory in which make-believe and world-building are crucial factors. Games are confined areas that challenge the interpretation and optimizing of rules and tactics – not to mention time and space” (Walther, B.W., 2003); “(…) video games create what psychologist Eric Erickson called a ‘psychosocial moratorium’ – that is, a learning space in which the learner can take risks where real-world consequences are lowered.” (Gee, J.P., 2007). These three quotes illustrate that the game/play experience becomes its own space, as Huizinga calls it: “a magic circle”. Within this magic circle a different world can exist with its own rules and expectations. The space is literally a container for all the other aspects that are associated with game-based learning. One could almost say its creation is true emergence, it occurs because the right conditions, limitations and expectations are in place for it to be able to exist. The possibility space is the abstract area that separates a game-based learning experience from a gamified one. As was mentioned before, gamifying is the activity of trying to find the fun in something, but in this instance; Fun is the process of discovery/exploration within a possibility space. And fun is a powerful motivator for individuals to continue with something that can be challenging to achieve. Constructionism plays a large role in defining the possibility space. Within the ideas of constructionism, the space offers free-form exploration, it allows individuals to realize their own goals and the educator/facilitator is there as a distant guide to help reach those goals, not as an omnipotent being waiting to jump in at a moment’s notice. Instructions on the other side can be placed in the possibility space but is only really relevant when there is a very clear goal in mind that requires direct knowledge transfer. There is no real exploration as such, only direct discovery. An example would be of teaching someone how to boil water, there really is only one discovery of how to do that procedure correctly and safely. But with all of this, there is one key rule that these magical circles or possibility spaces share, and that is that if the individual wishes to enter it they must enter it voluntarily and thereby adhere to the expectations of it.


Entering the game space voluntarily is one of the more important moments when a person ‘on-boards’/decides to participate, in a game/play experience. The reason behind its importance is due to many layers. An easily understood aspect/definition of voluntariness is buying-in to an idea. Being forced into a space results in negative feelings and reluctance or worse, resistance. This difference between choice and control relates back to Edward L. Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which is strongly applicable to the possibility space. One of the elements within SDT is autonomy, and one of the most important precepts within that is authenticity of the self. Voluntarily accepting something is a show of autonomy and to be truly autonomous one must be authentic with who they are. If an individual is forced into a space then their autonomy is removed, they will feel controlled and will ultimately be alienated from the experience. This alienation will manifest itself in either of two outcomes, one can be compliance and the other resistance. Compliance can often be seen as the more favorable outcome but it can be as destructive, the destructive nature will usually manifest internally for the individual. Complying is a passive activity, much like the average child in a school, or average office worker is compliant to their environment, they go with the tide, but no real learning or accomplishments are achieved, no real understanding is gained, they are simply doing it because that gets them through the day. It is the path of least resistance. Resistance on the other hand then is the external destructiveness, this is the child that is the class-clown, acting up, disrupting the day, and using their energy for a different out let. Or the office worker that complains, vocally naming issues and not providing solutions. They will also achieve no real learning or understanding of what they are being taught. Thus autonomous voluntary on-boarding allows the individual the choice to be open to the experience awaiting them within the possibility space. But it is not a blind choice, as expressed before, the possibility space adheres to its own rules and expectations, which if understood by the individual once entering the space, it empowers them. It offers individuals the sense that they are indeed the ‘…masters of their fate, …(the) captains of their souls’ (Henley, W.E., 1888). They must choose to join, and the hardest question to answer will always be what moves the individuals to fully commit and voluntarily join in an experience.


Challenging Experiences

As James Paul Gee has best expressed it when engaging with a game/play experience; “(…) The experience brought home (to me), forcefully, that learning should be both frustrating and life enhancing, what I will later call “pleasantly frustrating”. The key is finding ways to make hard things life enhancing so that people keep going and don’t fall back on learning only what is simple and easy.” (2007) This statement from J.P. Gee refers to life-enhancing experiences as experiences with meaning. If the experience has meaning and teaches an individual something then the experience has been worthwhile, regardless of how challenging or difficult it may have been at the time. And generally within human experience, if it has been a worthwhile experience, it will have left a positive memory of it being pleasant and/or enjoyable. Thus individuals will become predisposed to challenging and worthwhile experiences in their daily lives. Naturally the challenging experience needs to be packaged within a container, and should never be perceived as a chore due to its possible difficulty. The “pleasantly frustrating” aspect of what J.P. Gee is referring to only really has effect when a clear vision, or clear idea of the completion/goal is apparent to the individual partaking in the activity. This clear goal is either given by a guiding hand or through previous experience. Either way, the guide or the prior knowledge, should place the goal of the challenge on the edge of the individual’s area of competence, it is what Wood et. Al. (1976) and Lev Vygotsky (1930’s) called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Vygotsky’s view of a guide and prior experience, was that an older individual is aiding a younger individual, and through this a synthesis of greater understanding can be achieved within the younger individual. The individual is therefore always improving upon a previous state, and that state should be barely attainable. This zone that Wood and Vygotsky spoke of, is coincidentally also the area that an individual need to be in to achieve what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘Flow’. Flow, in this case, is the opportunity to have self-chosen goals and continuous real-time feedback while interacting with personally optimized obstacles. From this, a state can be achieved where the perceived presence of time is removed and the activity itself becomes one and all rewarding to the individual. The danger of being in a state of Flow is that, as with many things in life as a human, if it becomes too familiar it will not have the same affect, and in effect, it will become mundane. Flow experiences must not be continuous; they need to be sparsely spread out. A challenging experience in this should culminate in a state of Flow, working up towards it. In essence, the goal and the reward is the attainment of a state of Flow in the activity, along with the inherent personal achievement of completing said goal.

Goals and limitations

The argument for creating goals and limitations is that these mechanisms develop creativity and imagination, and both of these states are aspects of achieving flow in the activity and thereby creating intrinsic motivation. Having free reign over an activity can lead to boredom, and lethargy and no clear goals can confuse and make individuals despondent. The school of thought that is most relevant to this is that of Instructionism. Here an individual has a clear goal in mind, either one they have determined themselves, or the more likely, one they have been given. With this very clear goal, the knowledge transfer is far more directed and unambiguous. An example of this is where a triage surgeon is being taught how to clean a wound. The goals are clear and the method is singular. The other end of the spectrum is Constructionism, where free-form exploration is available in the possibility space. For the example of the triage surgeon, this wouldn’t work as cleaning a wound needs a clear method and a goal. Instructionism then is more akin to a linear experience. Valve’s Portal game is a good example of this. There is a linear teaching method, and the end is defined by the means, but the individual is given the opportunity to learn and explore at their own pace. Constructionism may seem like a method that may lead to the free reign learning mentioned earlier. But in fact it can be a very conducive space, as long as there is an educator or facilitator who can act as a guide for the individual. Within this space the individual constructs their own goals, they partake in what is called emergent play. As long they have a clearly defined end goal, they are then able to create smaller, simpler shorter/intermediate goals for themselves to finally move towards the final goals that they have determined with the help of the educator. The most familiar possibility space for Constructionism is the Sandbox, both the one in the real world and the virtual. The best example of a virtual sandbox is the game Minecraft, from Mojang/Microsoft, there are small short goals provided by the game but the overall experience is determined by the individual and how they wish to enjoy the experience. Regardless of which method is directly used, it remains important that the individual has a clear end goal, along with smaller segmented goals, so that they are not overwhelmed by the overarching free-reign concept, and become mired in information overflow. These concepts are directly important because of three states that help promote flow through this goal orients mindset. The engagement contingent of starting a task that offers the desired reward. The completion contingent of finishing a task with the desired reward. And finally the performance-contingent of mastering a task and achieving the desired goal. Do not confuse the label reward here for an extrinsic reward, such as a monetary one. Reward, in this case, can be the enjoyment of having created a three-dimensional object in a virtual space and appreciating the fact that you have achieved a level skill that you did not have before the start of the task. This enjoyment and achievement were thanks to the clear end goal, and limitations of possibly only using a certain program to create the object.


Eustress and failure

One of the most important aspects of gaming and by extension game-based learning, is the creation of an engagement loop: motivation -> action -> feedback -> motivation -> action -> ad infinitum. And within this loop feedback is the most psychological aspect of it. It informs all the others as it sets up our prejudices towards the experience. And within this framework, the quintessential prejudice that needs to be setup from the start is that failure will occur, that it is not finite, it always provides positive feedback on what happened, promotes a feeling of control, autonomy, and competence. Failure must be a learning experience and allow the individual to retry and improve upon the next iteration. In essence failure, as a success needs to be an epic experience. An experience that will generate that long-term memory, from which they can learn, reflect upon and look back in intellectual and competent nostalgia. With most worthwhile experiences, and especially epic experiences, there comes a level of stress, but for it to create positive memories, it should be engineered to be eustress, positive stress, not the negative stress that most people experience in their daily lives. Not the anxiety-inducing emotions of frustration, irritation and lack of expected knowledge. Many difficult games in recent years can be categorized as ones that provide positive stress to the individual engaged in it. Examples are From Software’s Souls series, or the classic 90’s adventure puzzle game adapted from Terry Pratchett’s fantasy world Discworld, or Cyan Inc.’s Myst or the more recent Super Meat Boy from Kongregate. There are many more examples out there and the readers of the piece will most probably be able to list more than the author could ever add.

Social learning experience

The final aspect of the possibility space is the one that will either break it or make it; the community. The strongest element in any learning experience is always the social element. Humans by definition are social creatures. We crave to be among others, to share, to communicate and interact. (Fairbairn, W.R.D., 1994, Psychoanalytical Studies of the Personality. New York, Routledge) When thrust into the possibility space the participant will be there with what is essentially a group of strangers. But as it’s a shared interest in this possibility space, they will need to be given the opportunity to cultivate their shared interest, to interact with each other. The shared interest allows for the seed of a community to be created, beyond that the tools need to be there so that the individuals can interact and develop the community organically themselves. The process that any individual entering the community experiences is as follows: the individual enters due to curiosity (from the social and intellectual aspects), then it’s the initial point of personal involvement, personal investment and from there the social interaction hopefully starts. This is the community entry point. This should be made as easy as possible for the individual. The ease of entry is the most important aspect really, if it is not easy and transparent the individual will not feel empowered or want to come back. And this leads in to the next part of the social experience, which is that when the entry is easy, the individual will hopefully have a desire to modify and leave a mark on the space in which the community resides. If that initial “testing” is successful the individual will feel more empowered, and be inspired to create and realistically start innovating in the space. The final step, and this comes back to the point voluntariness, is that if the individual is properly motivated by this point, they will perhaps take up the call to lead in the community. If a community leaders appear within the space, then one can be assured that it will have an increased chance of becoming a self-sustaining, organic entity in which others will easily enter and propagate the established semiotic culture.


Game-based learning isn’t about adding gaming elements or dynamics found in games to other areas of human experience. It is more about using those elements and dynamics that every human experience’s as fun, and integrating those aspects into good stories and creating recognizable and memorable experiences. All the aspects listed in this piece should be enveloped in some way within a strong story. The story is what glues all the aspects into a singular coherent experience. Without this, each aspect such as social engagement, goal setting, limitations, challenges and so forth become solitary and are reduced in meaning. It is a story that the sum truly becomes greater than the parts. Storytelling has always been what has brought humans together, shared experiences and learning gained from an abstractness that is greater than the individual is the crux of the good story. That is what the possibility space actually makes possible. It must be said that not everything can be made into a game. But almost anything can be given a strong story and given a facet that makes it more enjoyable, challenging and meaningful for any individual. And that is the essence of good game-based learning design: Enjoyable, Challenging and Meaningful. Once that has been achieved within the possibility space or magic circle, then almost anything can become imaginable for the individual, and a whole world can be opened up to them.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æ, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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