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Game-based Learning for 21st Century Skills

“21st century skills” is a funny phrase. In the education world, we use this terminology to represent the skills needed for success in the modern workforce, but in a very literal sense, the phrase 21st century skills might sound like a set of abilities you needed for success 20 years ago. (Come on people, we’re DECADES into the 21st century at this point!)

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Accordingly, at Filament we tend to favor the phrase “future-facing skills,” which is good for the next 100 years and beyond! Usually when we’re talking about this concept, we’re referring to the famous 4 C’s – that is, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity, and we’re comfortable calling these future-facing skills, as it’s hard to imagine these capabilities ever going out of style. Games are uniquely suited to foster these skills – take it from us, your friendly neighborhood educational game developer. As the working world continues to rapidly shift and mutate, it remains vitally important that we develop these skill sets in our young people. Today we’re going to break down the ways that games can make it happen:

Critical Thinking

Games give players real agency over the challenge or learning objective they’re trying to master. As opposed to a question and answer format that calls for rote memorization, games present systems-based challenges that need to be solved through understanding and experimentation. These challenges are often novel to the player, offering access to experiences that would otherwise be too expensive or too dangerous to accomplish in a classroom. Along those same lines, games create a space in which players can fail safely without any real material cost to them or anyone else. This allows for reflection and iteration on the part of the player, thinking critically about their own approach and improving on it.

For an example of a game that fosters critical thinking, check out Diffission, our fraction-based puzzler that encourages players to solve puzzles through experimenting with different solutions.


Play is often best when experienced as a group, and the type of play that takes place in a learning game is no exception. Whether a game is single-player or multiplayer, it can easily serve collaborative purposes – players can use learning games in pairs or in small groups and solve problems together, emulating the kind of collaborative work style that typifies a modern workplace in which specialized professionals bring together their complementary skillsets in the pursuit of a shared goal. Some games even afford players the ability to inhabit a space together, which deepens immersion by facilitating collaboration in the virtual space. In certain situations, teachers use games as a class-wide activity, projecting the gameplay on a screen and engaging the full classroom in participation, play, and inquiry.

For an example of a game that fosters collaboration, check out Eco, a multiplayer game in which players must build a civilization capable of stopping a meteor without destroying the ecosystem in the process.


Communication is a deceptively simple aspect of working life – everyone communicates all the time, so imagining how we might train and strengthen our communication skills is not necessarily intuitive. Games excel in this regard by offering a huge host of diverse contexts in which to test and develop communication abilities. Game-based learning luminary James Paul Gee calls these contexts “affinity spaces.” An affinity space is “is a place or set of places where people affiliate with others based primarily on shared activities, interests, and goals, not shared race, class culture, ethnicity, or gender” (Gee 2004). Importantly, he notes that these “spaces” involve users participating at varying levels of involvement – what the consumer gaming world would refer to as the spectrum that runs from “casual” to “hardcore.” The mechanics of an affinity space create a sort of “apprenticeship” dynamic, wherein new players engage and develop their understanding of the game through shared experiences with more sophisticated users – all of which is facilitated by direct communication between players. 

Beyond online affinity spaces, some games also use asymmetrical design to force players to communicate verbally about information that their counterparts cannot access. In general, rather than directly developing communication skills through in-game mechanics, games create a need for interactions external to the game that are analogous to the meta-level interactions we have about daily working life. 

For an example of a game that fosters communication, check out Operation: Tango, a spy game in which two players help guide each other through various asymmetrical spy missions. 


There is no shortage of opportunities for creativity with both educational games and entertainment games. Whether the game itself is a creative tool (like Google Tilt Brush, for instance) or the player simply takes a creative approach to playing the game (like the entire speedrun community, for instance) games offer an opportunity to explore what’s possible, and even what’s impossible. One popular approach to getting creative with games is offering learners actual game-making tools to create games of their own that meet their interests. Platforms like Robox and Minecraft are increasingly leading the way towards a future where games and game-making are fully intertwined, offering learners both the ability to enjoy games thoughtfully, and the ability to make the games they want to see in the world!

For an example of a game that fosters creativity, check out our upcoming game RoboCo, a PC/VR robotics sandbox game.

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