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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Game designers understand how to make games memorable and "sticky" in the sense that, even when you aren't playing the game, you're still thinking about solving its problems and puzzles. As teachers, how might we make our projects and content as sticky as games? How can we engage kids in thoughtful learning even after they leave the classroom? Here are game designers' top five secrets and some tips on using these same game dynamics to make learning in your classroom as addictive as gaming.

1. The Story Dynamic: Wrap Them Up in the Story

Some of the best games have engrossing stories full of memorable characters and following time-honored patterns from mythology and narrative fiction. Gamers play games such as The Last of Us and the Bioshock Trilogy because they see themselves in the role of the hero, undertaking a journey.

In any project-based curriculum, the story is the process. The product is the ending. Who'd want to see the just the last ten minutes of a movie? Or read just the final chapter of a book? When it comes to games, books, and movies, we're usually much more interested in how the characters got there than where they end up.

Rather than assessing the final product, find more ways to grade the process. Ask kids to keep a journal of their personal reflections as they work on a project. Ask them to write about their learning process:

  • What was surprising?
  • What was challenging?
  • Where did they get stuck?
  • How did they get unstuck?
  • Who helped them?
  • Whom did they help?

All of these details can be recalled later when they turn in their final project. Challenge kids to tell you the story of the process, citing their own journal entries as the primary source material.

2. The Failure Dynamic: Fail Early, Fail Often

In certain games, such as Angry Birds, players must actually fail many times in order to succeed. Some levels simply aren't solvable until you've spent a few games locating the obstacles. In this way, failing many times allows players to get a little farther each time they try. This promotes an iterative approach, and takes the sting out of the big red "Game Over" screen.

Try providing ways for students to "fail" frequently in many small ways, rather than in one big high-stakes test. One way is by using online tools such as Socrative to check students' understanding during a unit, even during every class. Provide many ways to give and receive feedback. You might ask kids to report their scores privately by name, or request their anonymous feedback as a group by voting on whether or not they're ready for the next segment. You might design projects that encourage students to rapidly prototype, and then promote constructive feedback at every stage of the design process. Don't wait until a project is done to show your work!

3. The Flexibility Dynamic: Provide Multiple Paths to Success

Early video games provided only one way to win. You had to meet a predetermined series of objectives in a certain order: run up the ramp to find the key that unlocks the door which opens a window, and so forth. If you got stuck at any point, you couldn't finish the game. Later games such as Mario 64 and Grand Theft Auto provided a "sandbox" environment of quests to complete and places to explore in whatever order the gamer chose. It was possible to finish the game in your own unique way, taking a personalized path to the end.

Find ways to build this same kind of flexibility into your own curriculum. Some courses follow a set syllabus and reward students based on their progression through a linear set of objectives. This is as limiting as an old-school computer game, offering only one path to success and rewarding only one kind of learner. Try building multiple paths to success into your course. Consider offering a "main quest" or storyline that leads students through the primary content, but offer abundant "mini-quests" that allow students to investigate certain paths further.

Here's another way to look at it. Universities and some high schools allow students to choose electives as they progress through school. Not every graduate has taken exactly the same courses, but each has mastered enough of the skills to earn a degree. Consider using an elective credit system in which students need a certain number of credits to complete your course. Which units would be the required credits? What elective opportunities would you offer? Make students fulfill all of the "graduation requirements," but also require them to "declare a major" by choosing some path of interest that supplements their learning. This is the true meaning of extra credit!

4. The Progression Dynamic: Scaffold and Recognize Progress

Game designers know that they're likely to lose gamers in the first few minutes. If they aren't hooked right away, there's a good chance that they'll leave and never come back. That's why every modern game has a tutorial level that scaffolds the gamer's progress by setting up a series of simple levels, each designed to teach one new skill, and each building on previous levels. This allows gamers to build new skills within the context of game levels, and if they successfully make it through, the designer knows they've mastered that level.

Consider building self-paced learning into your class by scaffolding each student's progress through the early levels of your course. Remember the "hot and cold" hide-and-seek game many of us played as kids? "You're getting colder . . . colder . . . now you're getting warmer, warmer, hot, red-hot . . . you got it!" Try offering positive feedback for accomplishing simple tasks that get progressively more challenging. Mozilla’s badges.mozilla.org and ClassDojo offer badging and recognition tools to provide incentives and positive reinforcement.

5. The Construction Dynamic: Build Something That Matters

Badges and achievements alone won't make school feel meaningful if students don't feel engaged in creating something that has purpose. Some of the most successful games of all time, such as Civilization and Minecraft, allow open-ended building opportunities in which gamers set their own goals and freely express their creativity in the process of building something difficult and worthwhile.

Find ways to engage students in your own classroom by reaching out to the community at large, or by challenging your students to create an initiative that they care about. Build a functioning classroom economy with kid-designed currency, goods, and services. Organize a fun run in the community that benefits local shelters. Have kids design and maintain a recreational Minecraft server run by the community. The Challenge-Based Learning framework is an ideal way to frame and assess challenges that your students take on.

Kids don't need to play actual games in your class to benefit from game dynamics, and you don't need to be a hardcore gamer to create curriculum as stimulating and engaging as games. Much of what we know about good instructional design is modeled in the very games that most of our students play every day. Game designers engage players in learning more and more about how to be successful in the game world. Our students expect it from the games they play. Let's build it into the classroom, too!

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7GenGames's picture

Great points. Very glad that you included Story as one of the keys. That one is often overlooked these days, but is undeniably one of the most captivating, addictive qualities about many great games. So applying that mentality to educational games can be a great approach

Victor Small Jr's picture
Victor Small Jr
9/10th Grade English Teacher from San Jose, California

I love the ideas and concepts, especially the idea of allowing the kids to fail. I often spend a lot of time telling them when it's okay to fail, and how they should approach those situations. Ultimately, they learn from mistakes most as much as you will from theirs.

Supriya Prabhakar's picture

That's an incredible article. I particularly liked the part where there is a mention about presenting the prototype and presenting a project at various phases. As a student, I would find this extremely useful and the just-in-time feedback leaves constant room for improvement that only makes me grow. Gaming in general is a big motivator for students to be engaged. I think grouping students into a small team and have the team compete in a game would be a good addition for learning through games. I think it would promote collaboration within a group and help learn better.

Mallikarjun Patil's picture

Well written article. I liked the point about Elective Credit system, apart from fulfilling the regular credits the student can take the subject of his interest which will keep him motivated to do his Master's by choosing his path of interest.

Dhanyatha Manjunath's picture

Excellent Article! I like how aptly you have compared the gaming principles to scenarios in learning. Building on Supriya`s response, I agree that the feedback at regular interval of time on any learning activity is preferred, as students can learn from their mistakes early on. Additionally, students can be grouped optimally based on different cognitive abilities, background and skills in a team to maximize team`s success. A team with right mix of participants can guarantee collaboration to some extent and help students to learn by interacting with their peers.

Also, as you have pointed out, games nowadays offer multiple paths to success. On similar lines, courses should be flexible in a sense that student can set his/her own learning objectives( define their path to success) and measure their success based on them. This helps to reward different kind of learners. Taking the example of a gaming scenario where the difficulty level of the game adapts to the player`s health points (life span), the student`s curriculum\teaching must be flexible to take into consideration individual pace of learning, provide hints to encourage students to keep going or progressively increase or decrease the complexity depending on individual learner`s situation.

C Keller's picture

Thank for the great ideas and benefits of gaming highlighted in this article. I find the idea of learning to deal with and handle failure in stride as a particularly interesting idea. Many of my students in my remedial Biology class are very easily discouraged by early failure, and that effects their performance throuhgout the rest of the year. I think the ideas highlighted here on gaming would give them the intrinsic motivation to be use their failures and motivation to to keep on trying until they have acheived success.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I'll admit I was nervous reading this post since my experience with Gamification has largely been teachers using traditional teaching techniques combined with badges- not the kind of progressive teaching I'm looking for. I was thrilled to see that you really delivered on what you promised! The whole idea of story, of multiple paths to success, of failure as a key part of the process...that's what I'm looking for! I going to use this in our Critical Skills Institute this summer! (http://www.antiochne.edu/teacher-education/med-working-teachers/problem-... Thanks for a great post!

Sree Aurovindh Viswanathan's picture

The major take home point that can be obtained from Gaming principles and can be applied to education is to make or build the coursework that is both engaging and challenging. Infact students should be placed in "zone of proximal development" where they had an opportunity to improve from the baseline. This will not only facilitate better learning through collaboration between various students of the class but also will drive the "WOW" factor that would help students to linger about what has been taught in class.

In addition, this would have a very positive impact as the motivation levels of the students are kept high without artificially enforcing them on students.I think extension of gaming to the field of education looks very positive as it keeps the student learning as well as as motivated which seems interesting to me.

Denny Abraham Cheriyan's picture

A lot of solid points have been presented in this article. Rather than having one shot at the end, receiving feedback constantly will help students learn along the way. Also giving students the flexibility to choose their own topics of interest will make them feel more involved in what they want to learn depending on their goals. Getting the students involved, and showing them how what they learn will give them the tools to make an impact will be very motivating.

Niharika Bollapragada's picture

The article provides an innovative approach to the learning process. Story mode along with peer help will help learning much better. This involves persistent learning where people realize their mistakes and keep learning newer things at every level of the game.
The point that talks about failure is one area which I totally disagree. Making a student purposefully fail would actually discourage him and make him lose interest in that particular topic. Though we know "Failures are the stepping stones for success", it might backfire in this case. Otherwise, every pint in the topic actually helps student learn much more efficiently and effectively.

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