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Student Engagement

Does Our Natural Affinity for Games Have a Place in the Classroom?

When one teacher organized his students into teams of competing barbarians, they embraced learning about ancient Rome.

January 8, 2021
Board game pieces
Bozidar Acimov / iStock

I’ve never been a gamer. Before I got into teaching, I had never even played Dungeons & Dragons, much less World of Warcraft, or Fortnite. Games typically don’t interest me, and I figured I didn’t have the base knowledge or experience to make a game of learning in my classroom. Gamification, I thought, was for other teachers, not me.

Then, in 2019, when teaching my seventh-grade students about ancient Rome, I faced the inevitable difficulty of getting my kids to connect with ancient civilizations. Despite my lack of gaming credentials, I remembered how Michel Matera, author of Explore Like a Pirate, presented some of the fundamentals of gamification at a conference I attended: how to define and use “experience points” (XP) and badges, for example, and why establishing “side quests” was such a powerful motivational tactic for students.

The name of the game that I’d create for my kids came to me quickly: Barbarian Battlefield. Most students, after all, have heard the term “barbarian,” and given its connotation for wildness and chaos, I figured they would probably find the name intriguing. The barbarian hook, I hoped, would keep them engaged and motivated as they chose a group (e.g., Visigoths, Vikings, Huns, etc.) and undertook various missions that exposed them to big questions of Roman culture, government, geography, religion, and wars.

Barbarian Battlefield, I had decided, would lead my students into and through the world of the ancient Romans through the tried-and-true mechanisms Matera described: XP, badges, and side quests.

Inspiration Turns Into Creation

You don’t need fancy plugins or tech tools to make a great game—you just need a great story.

I created a site for Barbarian Battlefield using Weebly, a free drop-and-drag website builder, and articulated the game’s goal—my students would become barbarians and work “to accumulate enough experience points to ensure victory against the strongest and longest lasting empire of the ancient world.”

I planned the Barbarian Battlefield website so students would be immersed in the real history of the expanding Roman empire, forcing the barbarians to learn as much as possible about Rome to stop its expansion into their territories and across Europe. To succeed at the game, then, students would have to learn about major components that supported Roman expansion, namely geography, the success of the Punic Wars, their feats of engineering, and the role of Christianity.

Students collected experience points and badges by learning about Rome through lessons and assignments; they worked individually and collaboratively with their barbarian team, competing to collect the most XP by the end of the unit. They could earn XP with every assignment within each lesson, and each assignment was worth a maximum of 100 XP. For example, if the assignment was an Edpuzzle video, if the student received a 100 percent, they were awarded 100 XP, an 80-99 percent would get 50 XP, and a 70-79 percent would get 25 XP. My hope was that by tying badges and XP to the quality of students’ work, they’d be motivated to do their best on a weekly basis.

Side quests in Barbarian Battlefield provided my students with choice and ownership over their learning. They could go out on their own, at any time during the unit, to create drawings, poems, Play-Doh or Lego creations, memes, or Facebook and Instastory pages (an idea I borrowed from high school history teacher Amanda Sandoval) related to the topic. Side quests prompted students to dig deeper into a previous or current lesson about ancient Rome and allowed them to earn additional XP for their group and earn badges—rewards for excellent work on an assignment that could give teams an advantage.

Throughout, I infused my plans with EduProtocols, which are lesson frames created by Marlena Heburn and Jon Corippo that allow students to consistently engage with technology, content, and 21st-century skills like critical thinking and teamwork. EduProtocols have inspired my teaching for years, like when I guide students through competitions modeled after Iron Chef, where they create and record presentations within one class period. I find that when I plan with them in mind, my students are seamlessly engaged in the 4C’s of 21st-century learning: collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity.

In the classroom

Barbarian Battlefield was a huge hit in my classroom. As the unit progressed, side quests became a  favorite challenge: my students consistently dug deeper into the content to earn more XP for their group and earn badges. (Here is a list of their side quests.)

I came up with relevant badges and created them with Google Drawings. “Pompey’s Pardon,” was awarded if everyone on a team turned all of their assignments on time and “Roman Senator” was if a student’s work was exceptional on a side quest, or if they finished top 3 in a Gimkit quiz. The most popular badge was the Claudius, which I hid around the school—underneath posters taped to the wall, under window sills, taped behind doors, and all around my classroom.

Just as I’d hoped, badges improved student engagement, improved the quality of student work, and infused our work together with creativity. As the unit progressed, I sometimes twisted the rules and threw in new, exciting ideas and activities. For example, the students completed a Sketch and Tell and voted to name the best, most informative creation to earn some XP. For the Fall of Rome, I incorporated Jenga; each barbarian “clan” took turns pulling out a Jenga piece. The team that toppled the Jenga tower earned 100 XP for every barbarian team except their own.

Tracking, Assessment, and Outcomes

During the ancient Rome unit, I kept track of experience points, side quests, and badge usage with a Google Sheet, complete with clan names, student names, and embedded formulas that tracked XP. Gimkit and Quizizz, which are both gamified assessment apps, helped me to check for understanding and reinforced the game-like environment I had created.

In terms of student outcomes, gamifying the unit increased teamwork and encouragement from peers. Because students earned points individually but contributed to a team, they encouraged each other to complete and turn in assignments. As a result, work completion and quality of work increased. For example, an Edpuzzle assignment might previously have had a 60 percent completion rate, but with the gamification and XP tied to it, completion rose to 90 percent.

As the game develops in your own classroom, you’ll find yourself getting creative. For example, one student suggested a brand new Punic Points badge that would enable a player to multiply all of their XP with a roll of the dice. I regularly searched Twitter with #xplap (“Explore Like a Pirate”) for additional ideas to apply to Barbarian Battlefield and often came up with new game-within-the-game ideas along the way so I could continually surprise my students with new mini-challenges that earned their teams additional XP.

All in all, this gamified unit brought out my creative side as an educator. My students fed off of my passion for creativity and teaching as they learned about ancient Roman culture. With our new unit on the Middle Ages approaching, I’ve had several student requests for XP and badges mixed with feudalism.

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  • Game-Based Learning
  • Social Studies
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