It’s Not The Games, It’s the Gamification, Part 2

This is the second part in a two-part response to “How Video Games Are Changing Education,” an infographic from Online Colleges. Read the first part here.


Online Colleges’ infographic makes an alluring, but ultimately unhelpful, argument for educators interested in building gamified curricula, gamified assessments and gamified classrooms. It goes off-track in its busy, fluid middle by seeming to make an argument that the games it cites (like SimCity, Zoombinis or Brain Age) are the best tools upon which learning might be based. I would be careful before asserting that these games have the capacity to teach the complex skills assigned to them in the infographic (and which I discuss in part 1).


Moreover, I am not convinced that these games in-and-of themselves move us closer towards creating empowered, critical thinking 21st century citizens capable of solving the complex problems American and global societies face. Elsewhere I have shared my educational philosophy, but I can cite three main ideas from it here. The purpose of education is:

  • to give young people the capacity to identify and solve any problem to which they might want to devote themselves.
  • to give young people the capacity to make dignified and dignifying life choices confident in their self identity.
  • to participate effectively in democratic society.


Do games do this? Like the infographic suggests, games might help contribute to these objectives. But the games are not the important part of the story, really. Dig deeper! What is it that these games share with each other? What makes the experience of playing Civilization V, Angry Birds, The Sims so rewarding that people spend millions of hours doing it? Strip away the games and what are you left with? The metagame if you will – that which is part of the game, but beyond it. That which derives from the game, which you can use in the game, but isn’t really part of the game. Far more important than the games themselves is this metagame, the gamification that these games can inspire us to bring to our classrooms and schools.


We have to use games as source material for understanding gamified curricula and the gamified classroom. They can inspire us to structure students’ learning experiences in radically innovative ways. Thinking carefully about the games that we play and how they function as games, we can reach out to students in ways that they would understand intuitively on the metagame level, reinforcing commitment to learning without relying on the potentially dubious value of the games themselves. After all, as great as World of Warcraft is as a game, I really have no interest in helping students learn how to master Inscription, solve a puzzle at the end of an epic quest line or find that last piece of awesome loot. But the game theory embedded in the game itself? That can power lots of classroom experiences if it can be understood.


So, what are the game principles embedded in these games’ metagames that we might use to gamify our classrooms? Here are three ideas.


Self-Direction: One of the great qualities of all of these games is that they are under the player’s control. The pathways forward, whether they lead to a win or loss, are the player’s responsibility. Gamified curricula will lean towards an epic win if they are structured to give students control over the pathways they follow as they learn how to think critically, process information and solve problems. Furthermore, curricula that embeds self-direction into the day-to-day work encourages student ownership and the ability to manage projects.

Make It Count: Great games have ways of acknowledging player successes, particularly if they have an online or multiplayer component. I have found that the achievement system I set up in my America 3.0 class this year is one of the things that has gone better than expected in gamifying that course.

Make It Doable, But Only Just: Every game in the flow chart has this at its core – it can be played, but at the beginning of the experience, it’s really hard! Surely if you’ve played Tetris at some point you know what I’m talking about. Translate that into your classrooms and your curricula. And don’t be afraid to dial back the challenge if you’ve got it pegged to high.


It’s Not the Game, It’s the Gamification

This is the first in a two-part response to “How Video Games Are Changing Education,” an infographic from Online Colleges.

Have you seen Online Colleges’ infographic about how video games are changing education before? Easy to understand, visual and accessible, it nevertheless paints only a part of the picture that should matter to someone interested in gamifying classrooms, curricula and education.

The infographic argues that video games enhance student skill development in six areas: problem solving & negotiation, judgment analysis & strategic thinking, communication skills & networking, narrative skills & transmedia navigation, non-linear thinking patterns and improved attention, vision & cognition. Some video games will certainly help learners (be they K-12 age or older…video games aren’t just for kids!) in these ways, though I would argue that all sorts of games might do this, not just video games. Moreover, in some cases, non-video games would do a better job of teaching these skills than video games would. For instance, there’s really no better game than “Diplomacy” to help students understand and develop their problem solving, strategic thinking and negotiation skills. But this masks a essential problem in the argument and in the development of the gamified classroom; this problem is manifested in the second section of the infographic.

Part 2 of the infographic presents dozens of video games interconnected through a complex “tube map” that suggest relationships and benefits that aren’t really there. I’m not sure, for instance, how far you can reasonably push the argument that Minesweeper is a “logic” game. I love Sid Meier’s Civilization series of games but the one thing they are not is a “history” game. I can offer no argument whatsoever that Sim City, another game I enjoy, is a game that develops “communication” skills. Games are never required to serve an educational purpose. When they do, however, so much the better! Minesweeper, at least nominally, can help with problem solving and judgment analysis. Civilization is a great game for developing improved attention and strategic thinking. My experience of Sim City always seemed better if I was able to break out of conventional thinking into non-linearity. But at the end of the day, this “tube map,” and the facts and statistics that follow it, present more problems than solutions for educators interested in game-based learning when we discuss GBL with our colleagues and the general public.

So, what should we do?

  • Focus on the Learning, Not The Games: We all agree that games are cool! We love playing them! But that doesn’t mean that I as a teacher, am ever going to offer Civilization as a substitute for learning history. Ever. Rather, my responsibility as a teacher trying to gamify my classroom is to investigate how Civilization works and incorporate THAT into my classroom. How does it motivate? How does it create the flow-state that’s at the heart of game-based success stories?
  • Experiment Thoughtfully: I argued above that Diplomacy is a great game to help students develop their problem solving, strategic thinking and negotiation skills. A lesson about how diplomacy and diplomatic systems in Europe prior to World War I contributed to the war’s beginning would definitely be enhanced by playing a few turns of Diplomacy. But it wouldn’t make much sense if the game took place before students had some kind of sense of what the game was simulating.
  • Believe: Ample and growing evidence strongly endorses the game-based learning approach to curriculum development, graduation requirements, classroom structure and management, student-centered learning and the creation of learning experiences. It is to these ideas that I will turn in the second part of this series.

Gamification Sounds Cool But I Don’t Game…Where Do I Start?!

I have been getting some very helpful and constructive feedback from colleagues, students, friends and the wisdom of Internet communities as I work to build a gamified classroom. On more than one occasion, I’ve gotten a note that reads like this: “I understand how play might motivate students and I know my students play games, but I don’t play games. Where do I start!”

The best place to start is by doing a little mental inventory. Surely nearly everyone has played tic-tac-toe, checkers, chess or backgammon. I bet you’ve played Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders or Uncle Wiggly. You’ve probably also played other great games of the American golden age of games like Monopoly, Sorry, Clue, Careers. If you’ve played them, you’ve got a good start on the basics of game mechanics and game-based motivation.

From there, let me make some suggestions (and if you haven’t played these games, find a 5-year old and break out Chutes and Ladders…a far better game than Candy Land, if you ask me…).

Got a smartphone? Try Words With Friends (which I play and would be happy to play with any of you – my WWF id is joncassie) and Angry Birds (which I don’t play, because I know I’ll get sucked in and never get back out). They are pretty good examples of mobile play. WWF is asynchronous, which is a feature of a lot of games these days.

If you’ve graduated beyond Monopoly and Risk, I would start with one or two games, generally considered “gateway” games to the more complex German-designed boardgames. The first is called “Settlers of Catan,” in which you harvest and combine resources to build a settlement on the island. Simple rules; complex strategy. The other is called “Ticket to Ride,” in which you are building a railroad network across the country trying to link up certain cities (which you have in a hand of cards) while your opponents are trying to build their own network. I like “Ticket” a lot more, but “Catan” is a classic. Or visit your friendly, local game store (just about every city and town has one) and get their suggestions. They may have better ones. If you’re interested in 2-player games like checkers and chess (abstract strategy), see if you can find a copy of Dvonn or Zertz. Both are 2-player abstract strategy games, highly accessible and very, very fun.

If you’ve got a gaming console (a PS3, Wii or Xbox), I would heartily recommend games like Super Mario Galaxy (for the Wii) as a definitive example of what Wii is about or the Wii sports games that make such great use of Wii’s special motion controllers. I have heard outstanding things about games like Assassin’s Creed and L.A. Noire has received enthusiastic and well-deserved praise.

If you’ve got a desktop or laptop computer, you can’t go wrong with Portal 2, an insanely fun puzzle game with a deep story element. I have long been a fan of The Sims franchise as well and Sims 3 doesn’t disappoint. Directing the lives of your avatars (sims) as they grow up and live their lives is totally addictive.

The final frontier in gaming commitment might be the MMO. I play World of Warcraft and, now that the first twenty levels are free, you could get a sense of how the game works without taking the big plunge. Other MMOs are much smaller and I don’t have any experience with them, but I’d love to hear from players of these other games.

So – go play and report back!!

In A Gamified Classroom, Work Should Be Public

WIth the exception of solitare-style games, all games are played in groups and in some form of public sphere. While there’s a quantitative difference between playing Zertz against a single opponent, Dominion against three or playing World of Warcraft while being a member of its largest guild, there is no qualitative difference. In every case, your play is observed, assessed and analyzed by someone else. The flow of the game is dependent on the decisions you make and your opponents responses. In every case, other players can learn from your decisions and change their play accordingly.


In two-player games like Zertz, chess and Go, this is one of the keys to success. To what extend can you read your opponent’s play, adjust your own accordingly, and learn not the rules but the strategic principles that undergird the game? In multi-player games, the same ideas pertain, but added to them are social dynamics and complex interactions between the social, the game’s rules and the player’s decisions. In massively multi-player games the social dynamic, and the ability to learn from dozens, hundreds or thousands of other players, becomes the framework in which everything you do in character takes place.


In the gamified classroom, these ideas take on additional importance. Work should, to the extent possible, be public. Why?

All Can Benefit: If student work is public, every other student can benefit from it (and not just the students in your gamified classroom…if your students’ work is truly public and available to students across the world, it’s an even greater benefit). Hardly any learning is done in isolation from learning, knowledge or wisdom that came before it. Furthermore, 21st century society, with its pace of rapid evolution and sometimes bewildering change, depends on everyone’s learning being aggregated and assessed to solve problems. Students need this experience to become the adult leaders in our society.

More Eyes? Fewer Errors: In the gamified classroom where work is public, the error rate should be much less. As students investigate their colleagues’ work, flaws in fact or thinking will emerge and be corrected. Students become a bit like detectives and as they gain expertise, they gain critical appraisal and critiquing skills.

It’s More Exciting: Students know that if their work is public that anyone could look at it and critique it. There’s a sense of personal pride in work that is put out in the public sphere. Students want that work to be well regarded…they don’t want to make big mistakes in public. As they prepare work for sharing, this leads to greater attention to detail.

It Can Generate Spontaneity: Below is a diagram a student made in class to draw connections between Technology KT level 1 (10 technologies that made the modern world) and Technology KT level 2 (show 4 relationships between them). The student could have done anything. He chose to do this work in public. I worked with him, his classmates made suggestions, he corrected himself. And when he was done, I asked him a series of questions to ensure that he understood what he thought he understood. He was authorized to level 3.


Learning Teams in the Game-Based Classroom

Towards the end of Sir Ken Robinson’s thought-provoking discussion at the RSA (shared here through an awesome “animate” – a technique that is both awe-inspiring and just plain cool), he makes a critical point for anyone thinking about building a game-based curriculum and teaching in a gamified classroom. He says “…there’s one answer, and it’s in the back. And don’t look. And don’t copy! Because that’s cheating. Outside schools, that’s called collaboration. This isn’t because teachers want it this way; it’s because it happens that way. It’s in the gene pool of education.” And he couldn’t be more right. Collaboration is a critical skill in the 21st century workplace and if our public discourse over the last few years teaches us anything, it is an essential skill that needs serious development in the American and global citizenry of the future. But how is that skill built in the gamified classroom?

One of the challenges facing a teacher who wants to build a collaborative culture in their classrooms is the simple fact of creating teams. Any teacher knows that grouping students is fraught with difficulties. Good teachers ask (but struggle to answer) questions like: Should I group students of like ability together or group students so that students with differing abilities work together? Should I group hard working students with students who are not? How do I measure the work the students do? Grade it? Can I group students and issue the group a grade? And if not, how do I grade individuals? What does it look like to grade an individual working in a group? And so on. Many great teachers resist having students work together not because it’s educationally unsound (it’s not), but because these questions resist easy answers.

In America 3.0, my solution to it is to create a systemic approach to student-created groups that they can work in (if they wish) to solve complex problems like Boss questions together (and submit work together for group leveling and group doing.) I call these groups ALTs, or accountable learning teams. Students who enroll in an ALT must complete an ALT charter in which the students create group norms that they agree to adhere to and which they police (with my assistance if necessary).

The beauty of this system (I hope, no students have yet formed an ALT) is that students are self-accountable and that the will of the group should maintain a certain quality of work and effort so that the group continues to level and do good work. I believe this system is possible because this classroom doesn’t have grades, per se, and therefore, all of the morass of grading cited above doesn’t enter into the discussion.

I include below the “team charter” instructions that students have to address themselves to before I will allow them to submit work as a team. I owe a big debt to Dr. Linda Rose and the Educational Leadership Program at UCLA for this team charter. It is essentially the team charter that Dr. Rose uses in her Action Research class with graduate students. As a graduate student, I was in an action research team and used this team charter with my fellow students with great success.



An accountable learning team (ALT) is one of the ways you can productively collaborate in America 3.0. By design, an accountable learning team gives you as students a cohort of like-minded students who have agreed to work together according to a set of rules to which you all agree. Before you can do any work together as an ALT, you must submit an ALT charter to me, discuss it with me and get it approved by me. If you do, you can then submit work to me as an ALT.

To charter an ALT, you must come to a common understanding of your goals and ground rules. Groups can consciously create common understandings and norms. The purpose of the charter is to give your group the most potential for success by developing these common understandings and norms. Write this charter as a group and submit it to me for consultation.

Answer the following questions:

1. What is your ALT’s name?

2. Who is in your ALT?

3. When and where will you meet outside of class? Who will organize these meetings?

4. Will you have an agenda for these meetings or for how you use in-class time? If so, who is responsible for developing it? Who will keep the minutes? Who will keep track of action items?

5. What will you do if a team member is responsible for distractions during a meeting?

6. What is the procedure your ALT will use to deal with members who miss meetings, don’t read email or Schoology or are late?]

7. How will you make decisions? By consensus? Majority voting?

8. What will you do if a member does not fulfill his or her ALT responsibilities? What will you do if the work of one of the team’s members does not meet the standards of other members?

9. How will you resolve conflict within the group? What resources do you have and how will you use them?

10. What steps will you take if a member of your group commits academic misconduct or behaves unethically? Consider the full range of ethical issues.


Why Achievements Are Essential in the Gamified Classroom

y design, students in my America 3.0 class this year have to earn achievements (special awards for reaching certain milestones, taking unusual approaches to their learning, doing an important or interesting thing a number of times or for building a portfolio of learning/doing in a compelling way). Unlike the acquisition of knowledge or the development of an assortment of  “do’s,” I haven’t published what the achievements are. Students have to think outside the box, experiment, try new modes of thinking and new ways of demonstrating mastery. All of this points to one of the key qualities of the gamified classroom: student self-direction.

In the gamified classroom, students have to take responsibility for their own learning, just like a player has to take responsibility for their strategy or their approach to a game. In World of Warcraft, for example, players can reach level 85 (the maximum possible level in the current iteration of the game) in an almost bewildering number of ways. Most players level through a few core mechanics (questing, 5-man instances), but there is nothing preventing a player from leveling exclusively through crafting (using in-game materials to make in-game items that confer some benefit) and never playing whole parts of the game. In the game, though, there are achievements, special rewards, that form their own metagame within the game. Achievements give structure, sometimes, to the game work that players do and lend direction to the efforts that players want to undertake. Some achievements are really quite easy to earn, others are vexingly difficult (because they represent doing something that’s just plain hard to do or because they require “grinding” – doing one thing hundreds of times over and over).

I set up the achievements requirement in the hopes that it would stimulate creative thinking in the context of student self-direction. Today, in our fifth class, I had the evidence that the achievement system was going to have the desired effect (at least with some students).

I arrived to class and a student was tuning her violin. Her classmates were attentive to what she was doing, but weren’t obsessive about it. I cocked an eyebrow and the student said “I want to earn an achievement!” I nodded and asked her to explain what the violin had to do with anything! After all, a player doesn’t earn an achievement for something random – it has to mean something. It has to connect. The student said “Janis Joplin.” I asked her what level she was talking about, just to be clear. She said, Culture, level 1. I said “I’m not sure where you’re going with this, but let’s hear it.”

She played for about 90 seconds with skill after which I asked her to make her Janis Joplin point explicit. She cited the story about Joplin’s free spirited approach to life at the University of Texas and remarked that Joplin carried an instrument around campus in the event that she wanted to play. We discussed free-spiritedness as a quality of the culture of the 60s, as compared to the more “square” (her word) culture of the 50s. Her classmates nodded with understanding.

And I gave her a class first achievement for using a prop to illustrate a point and told her to keep leveling.

How to Play in the Gamified Classroom

After three classes, it is already clear that there are going to be some big successes in my gamified America 3.0 classroom. Of course, the successes are built on the foundation of what we are learning together in class and the degree to which we can remedy mistakes, poor design or poor clarity. This post speaks directly to that last point – clarity. I wrote a short, unconventional syllabus and shared it with students. I also shared a document called “How To Win,” explaining how to get an “A” in a classroom without grades. What I didn’t write or share, and which would have ensured day 1 success (rather than day 1 confusion) was the most obvious thing of all – a guide to playing. Rules. “How To Play.” It’s impossible to work a game without knowing the rules! When I provided them in day 2, the class really got off the ground.

So, the rules of the game:

1) Take Stock


  • Remember “How To Win:” Get to Level 100 in the Knowledge Tree; Earn 100,000 points in the Doing Tree and Earn 50 Achievements.
  • Know Your Score




  • 65 minutes of class time…before coming to class each day, have a plan in mind.
  • Will I gather knowledge in the KT? How am I going to level today?
  • Will I demonstrate what I know in the DT? How many points am I going to earn today?


3) Level


  1. Choose a branch of the KT (like Social Change or Politics).
  2. Read the requirements of the level you’re on (ask me for clarification).
  3. Execute.
  4. Bring your work to me, paying close attention to your citations. Where did you get your content?
  5. I will either give it an “A” = “authorized to level” or an “N” = not authorized.
  6. If you get an “A” and the level has a required “Do,” proceed to the “Do.” If not, proceed to the next level.
  7. If you get an “N,” I will tell you what you need to do to remedy the “N.” Remedy and bring the results of your work back to me. I will then give you an “A” or an “N.” Proceed to step 6 if you get an “A.”


4) Earn Points


  1. Choose a branch of the DT (like writing or modeling).
  2. Plan. How do you want to get the work done?
  3. Points. Meet with me and I’ll tell you how many points your plan will earn.
  4. Execute and bring your work to me.
  5. I will either give it an “A” = “authorized to earn the points we agreed to” or an “N” = “not authorized.”
  6. If you get an “A,” record your points and go level.
  7. If you get an “N,” I will tell you what you need to do to remedy the “N.” Remedy and bring the results of your work back to me. If I then give you an “A,” proceed to step 5. Otherwise, I’ll tell you what you need to do to remedy the “N.”


5) Achievements


  • You earn achievements over the course of doing your other work. When you unlock an achievement, I will tell you.
  • There are lots of different kinds of achievements. If you work creatively, with diligence and with speed, you will be rewarded.




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