Game-based learning on a shoestring

Game-based learning doesn’t have to break the bank. That was the key point of my presentation at The Learning Assembly in Melbourne last week.

Sure, you can spend an obscene amount of money on gaming technology if you want to, but you don’t have to.

Take Diner Dash for instance. In this free online game, you play the role of a waitress in a busy restaurant. As the customers arrive you need to seat them, take their order, submit the order to the chef, serve their food, transact their payment, clean their table, and take the dirty dishes back to the kitchen.

Leave any of your customers unattended for too long and they’ll walk out in a huff, costing you a star. When you lose all your stars, your shift is over.

It’s all very straight-forward… until the customers start pouring in and you find yourself racing to do everything at the same time. Straight-forward rapidly becomes complex!

Diner Dash screenshot

While Diner Dash is just a simple little game, it can afford an engaging learning experience.

For example, suppose you incorporate the game into a team-building workshop. You could split the participants into teams of 3 or 4 members, place each team in front of a computer with Diner Dash pre-loaded, and instruct them to score as many points as possible within a given time period.

Of course the game isn’t meant to be played in this way. Controlling the waitress by committee is awkward and inefficient. The participants will panic; they’ll snap at one another; someone will commandeer the mouse and go it alone; someone else will butt in; and they’ll all start to talk over the top of each other.

But that’s by design. Because when the game is over, you introduce Tuckman’s model of team development and suddenly the penny drops.

What Diner Dash has done is provide the participants with a recent experience of team building. Sure, the premise of the game was fictitious, but the dynamics among the players were real. So when it comes time to reflect upon the theoretical principles of the model, they don’t need to imagine some vague hypothetical scenario because they’ve personally experienced a highly charged scenario that very morning. It’s fresh in their minds.

Multiple hands around a laptop

Other themes that could emerge via a game like Diner Dash include time management, priority management, customer service, problem solving, decision making, strategic thinking, adaptability and learning agility.

Another is collaboration. If you were to put a leaderboard at the front of the room, I could almost guarantee that each team would default to competition mode and battle it out for supremacy. But wasn’t the objective of the activity to score as many points as possible? So why wouldn’t you collaborate with your colleagues around you to do that – especially those who had played the game before! This observation never fails to enlighten.

So, getting back to my original proposition: game-based learning doesn’t have to break the bank. With resources such as Diner Dash available for free, you can do it on a shoestring.

12 thoughts on “Game-based learning on a shoestring

  1. Great post, Ryan. GBL is awesome and certainly a more engaging way to present a scenario than a bland fictitious learning module slide.

    I’ve been learning from games for ages. From learning about which inventions enabled which technology in Civilisation to hospitality entrepreneurship in Pizza Tycoon, I’ve always been immensely engaged by games that taught you something.

    I wanted to take this further and make an English language learning game myself and started teaching myself game development, but soon realised that that is a rabbit hole that goes very, very deep. In the end, I just opened up a game school to learn with other students while finding great teachers to teach me and my students how to make games — a rather unconventional approach. It’s a slow progress, but I’m getting there! I was also surprised to learn that many of my fellow students also wanted to make learning games.

    When I’ll finally be good enough to make a game of my own is anyone’s guess though!

  2. Cheers Guido.

    Indeed, GBL is a welcome injection of fun into corporate training!

    Your Indie Game School looks great. Well done for getting it up and running.

    When you do develop a game, be sure to let me know :0)

  3. Thanks Ryan! It’s a fun little side project. I launched our basic prototyping course on Udemy a few months ago and got almost 300 people signed to it now, which is pretty exciting.

    For those of you contemplating making a game, though, be warned: you need to consider game design (‘what does the player do and why?’), art (all the graphics, animations, textures..) game development (wiring it all up with code), audio (sound effects and music), play-testing and the rapid iteration that comes out of it and then the launch with marketing, support and everything that goes with it. Making a game is a gargantuan undertaking, but it’s also a lot of fun!

    Here’s the game design document I’m using as a blueprint for my first game, the hopelessly over-ambitious Codename Lingua:

    For people looking for interesting free or cheap games (indie or otherwise, check out Steam ( or itchio ( — both platforms offer simulations like Diner Dash.



  4. Reblogged this on egenius and commented:
    Ryan has touched on an important point here [again!] – there is a perception that game based learning is expensive and complex and some of it is – but it doesnt need to be expensive and complex to yield results.
    Thanks Ryan

  5. Ryan – Great post and even better point. We get caught up in all the “razzle, dazzle” of GBL when it really doesn’t have to be. Key is making the challenge relatable to the audience, fun, and have an end point your people can connect to.

    I remember as an L&D Director for a past job, an operations manager I worked with had a horse racing game in his building (this was an entertainment company w/ large video arcades). He very proudly showed me how he used this game to teach his supervisors about leadership.

    I was confused and a tad skeptical until he pointed out each key point of the game. You started with a pony, you were responsible for raising, feeding and training it, you decided what kind of feedback and rewards you were going to give the horse. The goal being that the horse would be raised to run races and be a champion. The manager pointed out to me he discovered if you treat the horse badly, give nothing but negative feedback, don’t properly reward him or whip it in the races, the horse performed badly and he realized the lessons were transferable.

    Right in front of our faces, in most every entertainment center we had there was a built in leadership training program. Talk about light-bulb going off. Couple this with something like Situational Leadership and you have a powerful tool. So easy, so simple. We don’t have to over-think it.

  6. Phil, thanks for your reblog and comment!

    Shannon, thanks for recounting that story. I love the way you conclude it: We don’t have to over-think it.

  7. Good stuff Ryan – I think we often think of gamification being us having to design and make the game from scratch (even making diner dash from scratch would be a daunting task for most of us), but you hit on a really good point about using what’s already out there… and boy there are a lot of ‘apps’ out there that could be used this way if we put our mind to it. Good ideas – I’ll be on the lookout for games that can help learning if that’s not what they’re intended for – great type of analogical learning :)

  8. I admit I’m wary of aligning “Gamification” with GBL. As with any other learning solution, it comes down to effective design. The resultant game doesn’t have to be complex…it has to have rules, it has to have a path, it has to have a currency, etc.

    So, while a technology-based solution has some visual appeal, we could also look at low-tech “games” that teach the same kinds of lessons.

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