Game-Based Learning

Using Gaming Principles to Engage Students

Improve your grasp of instructional design by looking at five game design dynamics and applying them to how you build curriculum and run your class.

October 14, 2014
Photo credit: Institute of Play

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 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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Filed Under

  • Game-Based Learning
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Design Thinking
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies

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