Game-based Learning

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NOTE: This is an original essay on the topic of Game-Based Learning. It explores two views on humanity: that of Homo Economicus and that of Homo Ludens. It argues for play-based learning using academic literature on the topic. In the future, this topic should be condensed to its informative essence. -Ivar

From Homo Economicus to Homo Ludens: An analysis of Ludic Learning[edit]


A gathering of people is sitting in a space, restricted to their seat. Their attention is pointed towards a projection in front of them. On it, the real world is shown. Since it is only a projection there are of course distortions, but the things mapped on it are the only things the people have seen during their lives. There are also hosts, who take the greatest care in showing the right things to keep the crowd engaged.

Something special happens when one of these restricted people is freed. They are dragged from their seat and see that the projection came from a great light behind them. If they dare to move on and leave the space, they would see a blinding sunlight. At first they could only see the shadows, the projections of the sun, but gradually they start to see the real world. Only then can they be called Philosophers, who have seen the real world, interpreted it first-hand and questioned it.

This is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (The Republic, Book VII). Reading it more than two millennia later one has the creeping realisation that the allegory has lived on into recent history. Not only that, but we have modelled our entire educational system after it. And to be more specific: not the journey to leave the Cave, but the Cave itself. In this essay I would like to explore how our escape from the Cave could be aided by education rather than prevented. Or, in other words, how can we aid our fellow dwellers to become independent philosophers of the real world in their very own transcultural way.

One promising venue is the deployment of a currently growing learning theory: Ludic Learning. Ludic Learning uses novel insights in (video) game development to reimagine how we can frame the learning process. It integrates aspects of learning in holistic microcosms (game worlds) of narratives, challenges, cooperation, and (playful) competition. Systems thinking, creativity and participation are key. Rather than solely talking about subjects, subjects are often experienced by pupils in proxy, and tests are framed as part of a game: there is no failure, only iteration (Institute of Play, 2016). Ludic Learning is grounded on the understanding that learning is both situated and embodied (Gee, 2008).

My first step was to take to heart the carefully phrased advice given by Biesta in his book Good Education in an Age of Measurement (2016). Biesta states that the question of educational purpose may not have a single answer, and that each answer is necessarily preceded by a (likely subjective) value position. After he considers the option that because of this subjectivity a rational discussion may become impossible, he quickly adds that “one could argue that at least in democratic societies an attempt should be made to engage in discussions about the aims and ends of (public) education” (p. 15). This is exactly what I aim to do with this essay. Rather than immediately jumping into a learning theory, I wish to give an extensive overview of the paradigm that lends it its credibility first. Most papers focussing on such paradigmatic concerns look at epistemology, or the supposed aim of education. Instead, I wish to highlight the ontological aspect of paradigms in my essay, and therewith spark a debate from a different angle. My main research question is: what characterises Ludic Learning in the context of human nature?

I will start with comparing two visions on humanity: the traditional Homo Economicus – who I will argue the former educational system was built for – and the upcoming Homo Ludens – who I will argue will inhabit the now-developing educational system. Taking into account the features of Homo Ludens, together with the latest advances in educational sciences, I will then formulate a cohesive theory of Ludic Learning as the learning theory that – in my view – best accommodates our very human features.  


Data Collection[edit]

All data used for this literature research were qualitative in nature. Most sources were either published in peer-reviewed journals or were books by respected scholars. Literature on human nature was selected after identifying the key scholars of either vision, as well as those that continued their lines of reasoning in important ways or offered impactful critical accounts. These scholars will be introduced in the appropriate chapters.

Literature on Ludic Learning was more scattered. The first leads were found through the Institute of Play website (2016), and subsequently through searching with the keywords “Play(ful),” “Game(-like),” “Ludic,” and “Learning” through Google Scholar. Since this is a field in development I specifically looked for recent papers (published in 2015 and 2016). Additional papers were found by looking at the references section on Wikipedia (Games and learning, 2016; Educational game, 2016), which proved fruitful after reviewing which journals mentioned were respected. The relevant articles function on Google Scholar and other portals (most notably Elsevier) were used as well.

Data Analysis[edit]

The paradigmatic groundwork was done by guidance of the main scholars found. Due to the subjectivity of human nature more liberty was taken here with argumentation. The selection of sources in this domain was relatively small, and therefore I mostly reported on the main scholars’ opinions.

My analytical approach of Ludic Learning, however, was more elaborate due to its complexity and the size of the corpus used. This analysis was therefore conducted inside QSR International's NVivo 11 qualitative data analysis Software. Encoding was guided by an analytical schema introduced by Bakker and Bronkhorst, displayed in Table 1. During analysis certain overlaps in encoding labels were experienced, but these were resolved by adding multiple labels and adding sublabels. During the writing phase I used these categories as a repository of potential quotations.

Nature of theory (philosophical/scientific)
Scope of theory (large or small object/unit of analysis)
Descriptive vs Prescriptive / normative focus
Knowledge/cognition =
Learning =
Teaching/education =
Learner & teacher/educator relation =
Individual/social relation (acquisition / participation) =
Central Markers in Discourse =
Historical roots
Contemporary value

Table 1: Analytical Schema by Bakker & Bronkhorst

Homo Econonomicus[edit]

One thing we can learn from narratology – a concept inseparable from play – is that a protagonist needs an antagonist. Our understandings are often aided by such dichotomies or multichotomies. What is cold if we do not know what hot is? That is why it is useful to start not by introducing Homo Ludens, but by introducing its counterpart: Homo Economicus. There are three aspects of the Homo Economicus that are important to review in light of our research aims: its focus on extrinsic motivation, its focus on acquisition and on how it is sustained.

Extrinsic Motivation[edit]

Bregman (2016) touches on the topic of Homo Economicus sharply in his article “Control be gone. Long live the intrinsically motivated human” (translated from Dutch). He observes that even 20th century capitalists and communists agreed on one thing: humans are inherently lazy and greedy. The only way to get them into action, they believed, was through extrinsic motivation. The capitalists believed in the free market: humankind only works to earn wealth and status. Communists believed in solidarity: if workers were inadequate they were punished. This reflects a very basic behaviourist paradigm. However, the problem is that a person rarely identifies themselves as such a Homo Economicus. They see themselves as emphatic and intrinsically motivated.

At the start of the 20th century Frederick Tayler was an important advocate of the Homo Economicus with his scientific management theories (Heath, 1999). He argued that:

Although this efficient work [is] often menial and intrinsically uninteresting, scientific managers assumed that workers would be willing to make this sacrifice because they were primarily interested in stable, high-paying jobs: ‘what workers want most from their employers beyond anything else is high wages’ (F. W. Taylor, 1911). (Heath, 1999, p. 27)

Despite Heath’s empirically supported findings against it (1999), and Deci’s earlier experiments showing that extrinsic motivation could actually decrease intrinsic motivation (1971), Taylor’s “scientific” management strategy appears still rampant to this day. On the reward side, independent psychologists in the Netherlands get rewarded for treating patients with depression for just a bit longer than the fee threshold regardless of actual needs (Human Factor TV, 2016). On the punishment side we have target quotas at call centres – which provoke unethical behaviour in favour of profit (RADAR, 2016). Likewise, our major educational systems are built primarily on grades, diplomas and accolades.

In short, the Homo Economicus lives not to satisfy its innermost curiosity. It would rather be idle its entire life, but is forced by society to learn and work and tries to do both as efficiently as possible.

The Acquisition Metaphor[edit]

Attached to this world view is a specific view on knowledge. Like capital, knowledge can be hoarded, collected, sold and bought. This reflects the acquisition paradigm, as explained by Sfard: “Concepts are to be understood as basic units of knowledge that can be accumulated, gradually refined, and combined to form ever richer cognitive structures” (1998, p. 5).

What has this acquisition metaphor meant for the structure of schools? Perhaps Illich (1971/2012) phrases the situations in conventional school most sharply in his book Deschooling Society: “In schools, including universities, most resources are spent to purchase the time and motivation of a limited number of people to take up predetermined problems in a ritually defined setting” (1971/2012, p. 19). In other words, we see knowledge as tangible, packable, truthful and transferable. Because of this we are able to create streamlined ritualistic settings to teach these pre-packaged truths.

Homo Economicus is Manufactured[edit]

How is it that, despite these deep flaws in the Homo Economicus, this human vision remains so dominant in our society? The short answer is: it self-perpetuates.

One of Illich’ (1971/2012) arguments surrounds the construct of childhood, which he points out was only recently invented in Western Europe and the Americas by the bourgeoisie class. Before this moment children were seen as miniature adults, who were smaller in size but displayed the same cultural traits. Industrial society consequently allowed “childhood” to be mass-produced: public schools were introduced. Illich frames being a child as a curse: a conflict between self-awareness and this child-role imposed by society. He argues that schools could not have existed without the construct of childhood; we would not have allowed adults to be submitted to a mandatory school environment.

I would not go as far as this radical scholar in saying that all schools should be abolished, but Illich does manage to put the finger on core undesirabilities of many school systems. It is in great measure the school environment that creates new generations that focus on extrinsic motivation, efficiency, conformity and acquisition.

Homo Ludens[edit]

“I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano;
A stage where every man must play a part”
(Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene I)

I am particularly fond of the above quote from Shakespeare. The metaphor of the world as a stage, where we are all but participants in the play upon it has a special poetic beauty to the Homo Ludens. For the Homo Ludens play does not end in childhood as it does for the Homo Economicus, nor does it end in entertainment and education: play defines us in all that we do.

In order to further explore that bold statement, I will look at the Homo Ludens in parallel to the Homo Economicus: its focus on intrinsic motivation, its focus on participation and on how it is sustained.

Intrinsic Motivation[edit]

Instead of departing from a view of humankind as lazy, the Homo Ludens departs from a deep trust in human curiosity. Another vital difference is that work and play are not separated: humans enjoy doing what they do for the sake of the activity itself (Brown, 2010). Brown makes the point that:

[T]he opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression. Our inherent need for variety and challenge can be buried by an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Over the long haul, when these spice-of-life elements are missing, what is left is a dulled soul. (p. 126)

We want to feel competent, Brown adds; we like to challenge ourselves for the intrinsic reward that it gives.  


Play is not about acquisition of anything in particular. Huizinga (1949) describes play as stepping out of common reality into a higher order of being.

Most often play is enacted in groups, and in this case play is co-constructed with peers in line with the Participation metaphor. Sfard (1998) describes learning in the Participation metaphor as: “a process of becoming a member of a certain community.” In play we interact with each other and gradually acquire the rules of that particular play – whether personal or professional.

Homo Ludens is Biological[edit]

Brown, in his book Play (2010), analyses play in the animal kingdom (which he argues is incredibly pervasive). He identified its purpose as the ability to prepare for the unique challenges that they will face on this ever-changing planet. It allows them to rehearse for crucial moments in life; moments where no second chances are available. He also notes that play stimulates nerve growth around emotional and executive functions. Play appears to be a biological part of us.

Ludic Learning[edit]

Extending from the established image of the Homo Ludens, I would like to introduce a learning theory that befits it: Ludic Learning. This learning theory has mainly been called Game-Based Learning (e.g., by Hamari et al., 2014) and Game-Like Learning (e.g., by McBride & Shaw, 2016) in the literature, as well as Distributed Authentic Professionalism (Gee, 2011). There are however, problems with the connotation of “game” in the literature, which is why I have opted to use the terminology of Ludic Learning.

One reason is that “game” is often interpreted as “video game” in non-English speaking vocabularies. Ludic Learning can, however, equally be served by offline games and other types of play. “Play” also has a stronger connotation with “narrative,” which I will argue is crucial to this learning theory.

The more important reason, however, is due to the fact that only a singular aspect of games has often been appropriated by commercial parties and misguided educators; an aspect that speaks only to the most base of our instincts. This aspect is correlated with the term “gamification.” Deterding et al. define gamification as the use of game design elements in non-game contexts (2011, p. 10). However, what the use of gamification has resulted in most are “software service layer[s] of reward and reputation systems with points, badges, levels and leader boards” (2011, p. 9). Gamification is not meant for the Homo Ludens. It was built to cater to the Homo Economicus: the human that likes to acquire virtual currencies, arbitrary accolades and to compete for the sake of being more respected than others.

The same issue has been noted by Sanchez et al. (2016b), who introduce the term Ludicization as the counterpart to gamification for the Homo Ludens. They differentiate gamification as an approach that “aims at optimizing the mental engagement of an individual, ordinarily for economic purposes” (p. 2). As self-proscribed existentialists, they further explicate that gamification is an attempt to essentialise the ludic phenomenon, which arguably cannot be essentialised as it emerges from intention rather than a materiality. What ludicization does, rather, is to allow one to “subtly combine elements in order to design a learning context where play can take place” (p. 3). The focus therefore lies on the learning environment as opposed to introducing a particular tool into it.

Having explained my choice for the terminology Ludic Learning, the rest of my analysis will follow the rigorous schema introduced by Bakker & Brinkhorst. The order has been decided as a matter of logical flow.

Scope of Theory[edit]

Homo Ludens, as has been argued for, is not a phase in human development: it is human development (Singer et al., 2006). Ludic Learning is a learning theory applicable to all ages and all contexts, and in fact trespasses the domain of education altogether.

Nature of Theory[edit]

As already discussed, any wide-scope theory of learning necessarily needs a paradigmatic grounding (Biesta, 2016). This is especially true for Ludic Learning, as it is the logical result of the vision of the Homo Ludens. Play is argued to be a pre-requisite of the construction of culture and is therefore instrumental to any successful educational endeavour (Huizinga, 1949).

Albeit its philosophical fundament, its potential is also shown through scientific game research (to name a few: Hamari et al., 2014; Boyle et al. 2016; Jabbar & Felicia, 2015; McBride & Shaw, 2016).

Historical Roots[edit]

Even though play is an age-old concept, it can be argued that the first significant notion of play as part of human nature is from J.C. Friedrich von Schiller (1794), followed up by Johan Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens (1949).

Randel et al. (1992) found academic studies looking at educational games (mostly in-class simulation-based) dating back to 1963. However, the greatest advances have been made mostly in the last two decennia, which is also where I found most of my sources for writing this analysis.

Descriptive or Normative Focus[edit]

Ludic Learning started as a descriptive theory, as a logical consequence of observing human nature. Recently the field has been making a shift towards being more interested in how this observation can be applied best. For example, All et al.’s (2015) attempt towards a conceptual framework for assessing the effectiveness of digital game-based learning. These types of results are growing more and more prescriptive in nature.


Ludic Learning has a focus on deep learning above superficial learning. Gee defines deep learning as: “[involving] first and foremost, activity and experience, not facts and information” (2008, p. 13). Ludic Learning does not straight-up deny the ability to rote-learn, but recognises that cognition prefers its input situated: “[situated learning] starts with a relatively concrete case and gradually rises to higher levels of abstraction through the consideration of additional cases.” (Gee, 2008, p. 4)

Next to allying with Situated Learning, Ludic Learning makes another claim about the framing of knowing: we are symbol weavers according to Dyson (quoted from Cremin & Flewitt, 2017). In other words, we are narrators, and think in terms of narration:

The relationships between narrative and play are multiple and complex. In the words of Paley (1990) ‘play . . . [is] story in action, just as storytelling is play put into narrative form’ (4). Indeed she further asserts ‘that this view of play makes play, along with its alter ego, storytelling and acting, the universal learning medium’ (Cremin & Flewitt, 2017, p. 3)

It is argued that narrative is a universal human trait: it is transhistorical and transcultural. It has also been shown to foster student commitment (Sanchez et al., 2016b).

To extend on this, knowledge is also seen as embodied (Gee, 2008). (Video) games offer a platform for experimentation and second-hand experience. Gee emphasises how this can enable deep learning (e.g., getting a feeling why magnets work like they do, rather than just knowing it). On the other hand, narrative too is not only verbal, but also includes movement and dance. Sykes – as well as other scholars in the same book – rightly points out the affective potential that (video) games have in changing the classroom (2006).


“At the core of gaming is the concept of a challenge, and a player’s journey to meet it” (Neason, 2015). Learning is framed as participating in narrative universes, where players can take on new roles (often otherwise inaccessible) and to start playing according to the rules that are part of that universe and role (Williamson et al, 2005). Dynamic (semi-)fictional worlds allow us to situate learning in simulated environments, with us as actors in it (Gee, 2008). These are powerful tools for learners.

Learning is most efficient in the zone of Proximal Development (Weisberg et al., 2016), a concept also used in video game design. The most amount of learning occurs whilst the learner also has both the optimal amounts of fun and challenge. This challenge element is crucial in learning, Hamari et al. show (2016), as challenging games lead to higher engagement and immersion, and therefore higher perceived learning.

We will return to the concept of scaffolding later again, but Gee (2008) makes an interesting observation regarding it in games that apply to the broader definition of learning: “[T]he player is scaffolded by the knowledge built into the virtual characters and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game” (p. 16). The same applies to the real world: the design of our world itself can scaffold our understanding. Teaching potential is in the learning environment itself.


Teaching in Ludic Learning is creating game environments – also called Ludic Learning Spaces (Kolb & Kolb, 2010). Kolb & Kolb observed a pick-up softball league to learn more about the characteristics of such game environments, and have summarised their findings in the Figure 1.

Figure 1: Ludic Learning space and the experimental learning process (taken from Kolb & Kolb, 2010, p. 46).

Learner & Teacher/Educator Relations[edit]

Teaching in the most general terms is to select and introduce rule-based game worlds to pupils – and optionally monitor, interact with, and conclude these worlds (Sanchez et al., 2016a; Sanchez et al., 2016b). There are two streams of thought on the topic of teaching, divided on one nuance: their view on scaffolding. Both streams believe scaffolding to be a key concept of Ludic Learning, but one believes in the need of professional educators only and the other puts trust in peers only.

The first stream is the more conventional in the literature. Weisberg et al. present it most comprehensively, coining it Guided Play (2016). These scholars identified a false dilemma of choosing between learning and play in the literature, and resolved it by ensuring two key elements during play: child autonomy and adult guidance. They state that: “Guided play offers an exemplary pedagogy because it respects children’s autonomy and their pride in discovery. It thus may help to cultivate children’s love of learning, promoting their engagement while offering support for knowledge acquisition” (p. 179). The assumption is that an adult needs to be present to guide the player. The opposing stream is that of the unschoolers. Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn (2015), does not oppose that scaffolding is required in order not to get lost during play with complex subjects, but puts this responsibility on age-mixed peers:

Older children are closer in energy level, activity preferences, and understanding to the younger children than are adults, so it is more natural for them to behave within the younger ones’ zones of proximal development. … In age-mixed play, where abilities differ considerably, scaffolding occurs continuously and naturally, often unconsciously, as a way of pulling the younger children up to a level that makes the game fun for all. (p. 186)

Both back up their statements with empirical evidence. Which of the two opinions is closer to Homo Ludens then? I would argue for a fusion. Professional educators in the role of game masters have better judgements on defining the game environment (the goal and rules of it). However, within the game environment peer-learning would be the more logical form of scaffolding. It is therefore in the best interest of the teacher to make rules that accommodate this.

Individual/Social Relation[edit]

Sanchez et al. (2016b) argue that if play is integrated into the learning process as a whole (apart from introducing separate detached games), the meaning of and in a classroom is inherently changed.: “[A game] can be considered as a way to metaphorize the functioning of a classroom as a battle combining collaboration and competition. This metaphorization is a core element of the ludicization process.” (p. 12)

Narratives too have a collaborative component. Cremin & Flewitt (2017) note that if there is space for children to narrate about their adventures together, then they will co-construct them. This is argued to be a key factor in “co-constructing friendships, peer cultures and identities” (p. 6).

Central Markers in Discourse[edit]

Central markers are play, intrinsic motivation, social engagement, leadership (or autonomy), embodied learning, situated learning and the zone of proximal development. All these have already been touched upon before.

Contemporary Value in Current Society[edit]

In the past century many changes have occurred in society, but these have mainly been technological in nature. The Homo Economicus has been creating a mirror image of itself in technology: robots and computers that can do tasks more efficiently than any human ever could. However, due to this self-fulfilling prophecy, soon this type of human will have no place anymore in this world. What we need is a new image of mankind to guide us forward, and a new learning theory that accompanies its ontology.

Scientifically, Ludic Learning brings together many of the latest advances in the field, finally uniting them in one place. Many of the central markers of the discourse are currently in traction, and playful learning is philosophical enough in scope to allow cooperation with other learning theories.

To conclude, if educators wish to at last replace the test-focussed, common core style legislation that has been demotivating them and their pupils for centuries, they will need to have a strong alternative to take its place. I hope that this work will contribute to that endeavour in a philosophical fashion. However, for real change to occur teachers will have to pool their time and resources, and cooperate on creating new ludic content together.


I started my essay with the question: what characterises Ludic Learning in the context of human nature? I started this journey with exploring two visions of humankind, that of the Homo Ludens (most aligned with Ludic Learning) and that of the Homo Economicus (least aligned with Ludic Learning, and most prominent in contemporary society). I argued that the Homo Economicus is focussed on extrinsic motivation and acquisition, and is manufactured by society. Homo Ludens, on the other hand, is focussed on intrinsic motivation and participation, and is based on our biology.

I subsequently analysed the characteristics of ludic learning according to the schema offered by Bakker and Brinkhorst whilst keeping the two visions relevant throughout.

Ludic Learning can be typified as a philosophical learning theory with a broad scope. Its paradigmatic history is long-stretching, but its scientific history has only just started and appears to have a bright future. It is a descriptive learning theory that is slowly developing a prescriptive complementary part. It views knowledge as useful when it is gained through deep learning. It accomplishes this with situated learning, embodied learning and – tying these together through – narratives. Learning itself is done via roleplay in narrative universes, guided by the principles of Vygotsky’s proximal development model and a notion of world-as-scaffolder. Teaching is seen as the creation of Ludic Learning Spaces where play and learning co-occur. A teacher acts as a game master and rule maker of such a learning space, and does higher level scaffolding, where peers do lower level scaffolding. Ludic Learning emphasises the social element in play, as a social layer that can completely change the classroom through its framing.

My main aim was to explore a learning theory from another point of view: the ontological one. This has not been done sufficiently in previous literature in my opinion, and I hope that this essay may spark other authors to do the same with other learning theories: to find what vision of humankind supports their learning theory.


This essay has been written as an argumentative essay, and even though I have attempted to show both sides of the argument where crucial, it remains purposefully biased. This is not for the sake of argument only, but also because this is my legitimate viewpoint. More work could be done highlighting Ludic Learning from a critical standpoint in a philosophical manner, taking into account existing critiques on the Homo Ludens vision.

One element that this essay fails to address sufficiently is individual play; the focus has been put on social play primarily. Moreover, the kinds of play (role play, physical games, video games) have been generalised for brevity’s sake. There are of course vital differences between these, and this should be explored further.

The main pedagogy being attacked is that of the classical classroom (associated with the Homo Economicus). This left little space to compare to other pedagogies. It would be relevant to compare and contrast Ludic Learning in other paradigmatic frameworks.


Biesta (2016) made the common sense – but nonetheless crucial – observation that good education is not a matter of blind measurement of efficiency in knowledge transferral, but rather of the normative question: what should education achieve?

Rather than finding the most efficient way of filling vessel with the knowledge they need for their further live (to grow a Homo Economicus), I explicated in this essay that I would rather opt for a way to kindle a child’s flame, giving it an environment to explore themselves and the world (to grow a Home Ludens).

To conclude, let us one more time return to the Plato’s Cave. One of the main features of play is that it allows us to take elements of our world and reimagine them in our own vision so we can make better sense of it. By comparing the Cave and the classroom I did exactly that. Narrative and play are two of the strongest tools in our human toolbox, something that children grasp from a surprisingly early age – when they start playing with toys and weave their own stories.

Always remember one thing: that toolbox is still within you. It is what makes you human. And if ever there is a narrative you do not like, then you have the power to reimagine it. 


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