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How Game-Based Learning Develops 21st Century Skills

What are 21st Century Skills?

If you’ve been watching the K-12 space for the past few years, you’re probably aware that the rapid advance of education technology and the increasing centrality of the service economy in has prompted a re-orientation of education institutions’ goals and benchmarks for success. New standards, new media, and new skillsets are all becoming integral to the structure of the day-to-day classroom experience in parallel to the same changes happening in the workplace. Among these new trends is the mandate to develop 21st century skills, a category of skillsets that are critical to workforce preparedness in a tech-infused, service-based economy.

There are many frameworks that inventory the components of 21st century skills, but when we look at 21st century skills through the lens of game-based learning, we see particular strengths in terms of developing critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. These skills are especially crucial in workplaces where the norm increasingly includes progressive team-based structures and an emphasis on technical proficiency.

How Do Games Develop 21st Century Skills?

Critical Thinking

Games are set apart from traditional classroom materials in that they 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, a 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 Radix, a massively multiplayer online learning game in which players can work together to complete quests.

Problem Solving

As Mary Headington puts it in our How to Teach with Games eBook, games don’t just teach students what to learn – they teach them how to learn. The open ended nature of games affords players the ability to solve a problem in multiple ways – this is crucial because it’s reflective of solutions to practical, real-life problems that might not have any prescribed solution when they’re first confronted. Games create the opportunity for players to use multiple types of reasoning and to make judgments and decisions based on the evidence presented by their activities in the game. They also facilitate systems thinking, where students have an impact on a system by understanding its constituent parts. This kind of reasoning and inquiry practice is critical to being effective in a workforce that is rapidly moving past traditional structures and processes.

For an example of a game that fosters problem solving, check out Backyard Engineers, an engineering design game where players solve engineering problems by manipulating the individual components of a machine (in this case a water balloon catapult).

These are all highly important areas of pedagogy in today’s classroom, but this list is by no means comprehensive. Like any new frontier, the realm of 21st century skills will benefit from continued scrutiny and new ways of understanding what we need to do to equip the adults of the future. What are the other 21st century skills you see emerging as integral to today’s classroom? How are you using games to develop those skills? Sound off on our Facebook or Twitter!


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