When ninth graders arrived for their language arts class earlier this year, they were in for a surprise. With only a brief introduction, teacher Philip Bird and student teacher Evan Manconi invited the students into a futuristic, magical world called Cataclysm where they would spend the next several weeks in a role-playing game.
“Students took to it almost immediately,” Manconi says, using creativity and collaboration to develop characters, generate dialogue, and negotiate plot twists.
Six weeks later, the students had written some 729,500 words—nearly the equivalent of the first six books of the Harry Potter series. “They have written and written and written,” Bird says, “and all the chatter in the classroom has been focused on what their characters are doing. If writing is a muscle, I’ve gotten some incredibly muscular students out of this experience.”
Leveling Up Writing
Using a variety of approaches and tools, teachers are leveraging the power of gaming to turn even reluctant student writers into enthusiastic storytellers. Using the popular multiplayer game World of Warcraft, for example, writing teachers send students on quests and immerse them in the hero’s journey. Minecraft has attracted its own community of teachers who share language arts lessons. Dungeons and Dragons, the classic role-playing game, is enjoying a renaissance as a literacy tool.
Bird, who teaches at Monsignor J.J. O’Brien School in Calgary, Alberta, and Manconi used a gaming platform called StoriumEdu to develop their creative writing unit. The platform, designed with input from members of the National Writing Project, has students write in pairs or small groups. They take turns writing, taking into account their strengths and flaws as unique characters in the same story. Digital playing cards provide visuals and writing prompts, keeping the action moving through a three-act structure.
Game elements “align closely to the curriculum I need to teach students,” Bird adds, mentioning setting, complex character traits, and conflicts—“most of that we would teach inside novel study or narrative writing.” By introducing these concepts within a game instead of through more traditional lessons, he adds, “you bring in the sense of play. You begin to engage students. As soon as it’s not entirely about assessment or homework, you can get a surprising amount from students—including those you wouldn’t expect.”
Of course, assessment was still on Bird’s mind. His students were due to sit for a mandatory writing assessment at the end of ninth grade. They could choose to write an essay or a narrative. The intense practice that happens through the game “develops stronger writers,” the teacher says, regardless of genre. “We’ve really dug into description. We’ve focused on the difference between telling and showing, and we’re seeing that come through.”
The game-based approach to writing helps some students get off to a faster start, says Sara Tavernise, middle school teacher at the Mulberry School in Los Gatos, California. “Students can get stuck at the beginning. They can get overwhelmed thinking about character and plot,” she says, especially if previous writing instruction has focused primarily on the nonfiction essay. The structure of a game—already familiar to most students—“gives them a place to hook their thinking,” she says. “They can jump right in.”
Tavernise collaborated with Andrea Katz, a student support specialist, to design a game-based approach to dystopian literature. In language arts, students were reading and analyzing the futuristic novel The Giver, using a curriculum guide from Facing History and Ourselves. Meanwhile, during writing classes, students used StoriumEdu to create their own characters and actions in a dystopian world.
“Students were hungry for the chance to create their own stories,” Tavernise says. “They wanted the opportunity to write fiction. That’s what they read.”
The role-playing structure fostered collaboration within writing teams “and encouraged students to go further,” says Katz, especially when it came to writing with a strong voice. Tavernise recalls overhearing a particularly intense student conversation about killing off a character. “They gave story justifications,” she says, “but wanted to make sure the other characters were OK with that.”
Main Goal: Improve Writing
Not surprisingly, many teachers who are comfortable with gamified writing instruction are avid gamers themselves. “I’ve been playing role-playing games my whole life,” says Tavernise. She and Katz played their own round of digital writing before introducing Storium to their students. “Once we’d been through the process, we could better support our students as writers,” adds Katz. For example, they decided to move from the gaming platform to Google Docs when it was time for editing and revision.
Bird and Manconi went even further. They created a unique story world that reflected students’ interests as readers. “We first surveyed students about their interests in fiction. It ran the gamut from dystopia to high fantasy to noir to romance novels,” says Manconi. With that input, the teaching team tapped their own creativity to build the story world of Cataclysm on top of the game mechanics of Storium. “We’re big nerds,” Manconi adds.
Once the project launched, teachers were satisfied that their effort had been well spent. “Students could run with whatever stories they wanted to tell,” Manconi says.
“What I want for my students,” adds Bird, “is for them to have the capacity to write good narrative, good description, to tackle and deliver great dialogue. I want them to be better writers.”