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.

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