Genres, board games, and education

Written by: Spencer Greenhalgh

Primary Source:  Spencer Greenhalgh

I do a lot of reading, thinking, and writing about educational games, and one of my biggest pet peeves is researchers of or advocates for educational games that treat them as a monolith. You know, the all games = all good = all the time sort of approach. I prefer to think about games the same way that I think about all educational technology: Pick something that’s going to work for your goals and your context.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve been thinking about how game design can inform our choices on which educational games to choose. Originally, I focused a lot on specific elements of game design, such as particular mechanics or themes. However, lately, I’ve been thinking more in terms of genres: collections of games that have similar mechanics, themes, and other features. Foster and Mishra (2009) have argued that “each game genre reflects a certain design stance taken towards any given domain” (p. 39) and that a game’s “design stance, from an educational point of view, can be seen to be an implicit pedagogical approach—with implicit theories of learning, behavior, and epistemology” (p. 39).

So, particular game genres may be able to serve as a helpful heuristic for picking the right game for our context. There are a lot of different ways of (and, I understand, a fair number of heated debates about) identifying different and distinct genres of games, so I thought I’d see if I could identify some “naturally occurring genres” in analog (i.e., board, card, and tabletop) games. That is, instead of coming up with a taxonomy of genres based on my own experience, I turned to some existing data on design features that exist in analog games.

With some help from Matt Koehler, my advisor, I collected data on over 13,000 games in the BoardGameGeek database. Each of these games can be tagged with up to 135 Categories or Mechanics, each of which indicates the presence of some design feature, from Dice Rolling to Science Fiction. I then used exploratory factor analysis to see if I could find fifteen dimensions (which I interpreted as game genres) that represent the underlying structure of these features.

I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about my methods or code (though I’m happy to answer questions), both because this isn’t a typical factor analysis situation and because I’m still trying to figure out if factor analysis (and the particular way that I did factor analysis) is the best way to get at this question. So, I’m not presenting this as a definitive account of “naturally occurring genres” so much as a fun first step.

Take a look at the list below; do these genres seem to run the gamut? Can you think of games that don’t easily fit in these genres?

War Games: simulate conflict of some kind and are often set during historical conflicts

Party Games: emphasize amusement and quick answers over long-term strategic thinking and often include mechanics like acting, singing, or answering trivia

Train Games: are thematically focused on railroads and challenge players to deliver goods, build routes, and invest in companies

Growth Games: involve either expanding the influence of a civilization or increasing the size and efficiency of a city, farm, or organization

Adventure Games: invite players to explore new areas and fight enemies and often have a fantasy theme

Pattern-based Games: require players to engage with mathematics, patterns, and puzzles

Interaction Games: rely heavily on participation from and interaction between the players, including bluffing, negotiating, trading, and voting

Deduction Games: challenge players to reason their way to discovering hidden information about other players or the game’s scenario and often have a mystery or espionage theme associated with them

Card Games: driven largely or entirely by cards and associated mechanics

Educational Games: have strong, obvious connections to traditional academic content areas like math or science and are often explicitly designed for educational purposes

Thematic Games: refers to games wherein themes such as animals, pirates, or prehistory play a prominent role and that include simple mechanics accessible to children

Horror Games: are focused on a horror theme, such as zombies

Action Programming Games: require players to plan one or several turns in advance and then carry them out simultaneously; often associated with combat between aircraft or spacecraft

Media-based Games: have connections with larger media franchises, including video games and television

Wagering Games: rely heavily on chance. To succeed, players must consider odds and often have the chance to wager money, points or success on the results of chance-based contests


Foster, A. N., & Mishra, P. (2009). Games, claims, genres & learning. In R. E. Ferdig (Ed.), Handbook of research on effective electronic gaming in education (pp. 33–50). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.

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Hi there! My name is Spencer Greenhalgh, and I am a student in the Educational Psychology and Educational Technology doctoral program at Michigan State University. I came to Michigan State University with a strong belief in the importance of an education grounded in the humanities. As an undergraduate, I studied French and political science and worked as a teaching assistant in both fields. After graduation, I taught French, debate, and keyboarding in a Utah private school before coming to MSU, where I plan to study how technology can be used to help students connect the humanities with their lives. I have a particular interest in the use of games and simulations to promote ethical reasoning and explore moral dilemmas, but am eager to study any technology that can help students see the relevance of studying language, culture, history, and government.