Friday, October 21, 2011

If Only My Class Were a Video Game…Game Design for the Classroom

How many times have classroom teachers pondered statements like, “If my students engaged in learning like they do video games…”  Lots of teachers have decided that learning can't resemble video games and to try to do so cheapens the content. But there are a growing number of researchers out there beginning to earnestly ask the question, "Is it possible to design learning to resemble video games?" Or, can game design be used to create meaningful learning activities?

In her recent book, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, Jane McGonigal, digital game designer and researcher, asks a broader question but perhaps captures an answer similar to the question above, "What if we decided to use everything we know about game design to fix what's wrong with reality?" Her whole premise in the book is that many people are finding fulfillment in game worlds that they can't find in reality. According to McGonigal, "In the United States alone, there are 183 million active gamers, or individuals who spend an average of 13 hours a week engaged in game play." The numbers globally are even larger. McGonigal perhaps captures an interesting point about gamers and their gameplaying:

"The truth is this: in today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring us in ways reality is not."

In other words, reality, including what we're doing in our classrooms is losing to gaming. Our students do not find what we're doing in our classrooms as fulfilling and meaningful. Problem-based learning is one attempt to make learning meaningful. But could it be possible to use gaming design to create meaningful learning activities too?

Andrew Miller of the Buck Institute, recently posted a potential answer to this question on Edutopia entitled, "Get Your Game On: How to Build Curriculum Units Using the Video Game Model."  In that post, he describes how teachers can create game-based learning units which apply "the process of using games to teach content, critical thinking, and other important outcomes." Here, I simply summarize some of his suggestions.
  • Begin with the end in mind. Is this really any different from other curriculum planning? You have to begin with what you want students to learn with game design too. What are the objectives? Goals? Learning targets?
  • Brainstorm for a rigorous scenario. Anyone who has spent time playing modern video games knows that central to game play is an overarching scenario in which individual quests or missions occur. When trying to design a learning unit using game-based design, create this scenario and offer within that the smaller quests or missions that capture intermediate goals.
  • Design quests. After the scenario is created, then pay attention to the individual quests or individual learning activities within the scenario. These should build toward resolution of the main scenario's issue or problem.
Educators are actually just beginning to scratch the surface of the kinds of learning that might be made possible through game-based curriculum designs. Perhaps instead of fighting and complaining about students wasting time on gaming, we should take heed. Design learning activities that capture what makes gaming so rewarding.

Here’s Jane McGonigal’s TED Talk, “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” Perhaps gaming can make a better classroom too.


  1. Hi John,

    I've found the more engage my students with tech the more motivated they seem. Though I haven't actively sought research that confirms this, I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. I teach a variety of courses at Kunei Girls' Junior and Senior High here in Japan that all aim to produce fluent speakers of English within 6 years. One thing I found with bringing iPads into our classes (2:1) is that they had a tendency to turn off student interaction depending on the task or activity. This is hardly desirable in a communication class. It took more than a few classes to work out how to effectively use the platform as a tool for communication among non-native speakers of English. As with any learning a whole new lexicon is needed to become proficient in tailored situational uses of language and in discussions. As a result, I actively sought to make vocabulary learning fun and less of a solitary experience by using technology. To do this, I made it into a game named Futaba. It brings good fun competition back into an ICT integrated classroom. Up to 4 students compete with each other to match a word with a picture or foreign language term spinning out of the center of the gameboard. There are 3 rounds and game-play has a time limit. I'm currently working hard to augment this simple interactive video game with materials that support k-8 curriculum. Though the initial aim of Futaba is to support existing curriculum and give teachers a way to liven up classes it can also be used to help students gain essential skills in designing their own games to be played with friends. With a tech-savy teacher who embraces ICT Futaba offers an exciting way for students to reinforce what they have learnt while interacting with one another. I saw an obvious need for this type of learning game and really hope that other educators find it useful.

    I certainly welcome the time when video games similar in scope to the Legend of Zelda are purposefully crafted to covertly teach important terminology and concepts to players. I'd say that has already begun to happen with games like Portal and the Ratchet and Clank series. These games aren't at all about pushing buttons- they are about developing critical thinking skills which Andrew Miller of the Buck Institute writes about. We are just now beginning to realize the benefits that games can impart upon young learners. With the next generation I wouldn't be surprised if school became one long fun game that prepared us our life's path ahead. The caveat here being that students are not interacting with one another. With any game design we must consider person to person interaction (not virtual) or we'd likely be training a generation who lack any sort of interactive social skills. This I believe is paramount to the design of any game based curriculum for educational purposes.

    Best regards,

    Dave Wingler
    Osaka Kunei Girls' Junior and Senior High

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Dave. I agree there are certainly flaws in the gamer approach to learning, as you suggest. I am currently reading Jane McGonigal's entire book Reality Is Broken and I hope she shares some ideas on how to overcome some of those problems. Perhaps there is a way to use game design as an instructional model.