Pwn your textbooks

“Games are not fun because they’re games, but when they are well designed.”
- Sebastian Deterding, “Pawned”

Games futurist Jesse Schell of Gamepocalypse Now recently pointed towards two presentations by “gamification” researcher Sebastian Deterding: “Just add points?” and “Pawned.” Taken together Deterding’s presentations offer useful insight into contemporary game design and the elements, like fun, that we can take advantage of in teaching and learning. [NB: given some of the jokes and screenshots in Deterding's work, you might want to review the presentations at home rather than at school.]

For example, to paraphrase Deterding, school is not fun because it’s school, but when it is well designed.

When was the last time a bus ride was fun? A class? A school year? A school division? What would happen if all of those things were designed to be fun? If only there were arguments in support of learning that could somehow appease our guilt about letting kids having fun.

About twenty slides into “Just add points?” Deterding quotes Jane McGonigal of Urgent Evoke and “Gaming can make a better world” fame:

“Reality is broken. Games work better.”

I get it. When I’m playing a game, I want to finish the quest. I know there is a way to finish it. I’m willing to fail repeatedly in pursuit of the fun that comes from mastering the quest.

How many kids can say the same about school? How many teachers can say the same about students?

I don’t think McGonigal’s statement is an absolute. I do think that we have two problems as educators:

First, school reflects neither the reality of students’ lives nor the reality of their future.

Second, what we package as instruction is only fun to those students who can take advantage of the paths to mastery that our biases, hidden and otherwise, embed into the design of teaching and learning.

It’s difficult to make school seem better than games without somehow solving these problems. I don’t think any program or policy will provide a simple fix.

But let’s admit that school is fun for some kids. Let’s say that school is like a role-playing game filled with endless fetch quests and that it is entirely free of the irony of, say, Progress Wars. Hell, let’s say it’s also a Japanese RPG with poor localization. You have to like this kind of game to master it. You have to master it to have fun. If you aren’t mastering it or having fun, you get frustrated, you feel bad, and ultimately you walk away, like a student dropping out of school.

How then, as teachers, do we hack our school’s programming so that our classrooms feel like more multi-faceted games that offer more fun to more players?

Maybe we start assessing for fun. Is there anyone willing to be me that achievement will go down when students are having fun?

I can hear the naysayers now: “You can’t measure fun.”

Nonsense. Do we really think that Halo: Reach is a happy accident? Game designers – and app designers to a growing extent – know how to measure fun. They research it to make their games better. They beta test. They give feedback through the game and ask players if that feedback is fun to receive so that the designers can improve their own work. How often do we ask our kids if getting feedback from us is fun? Why does public education, as a system, rely on such limited metrics as end-of-course texts? Given our rhetorical aims to innovate, why do we settle for such an impoverished data set?

All teacherly concerns about business aside, I’d partner with the gaming sector in a heartbeat.

Triple A games offer players multiple ways to have fun. They incorporate different mission structures and/or game modes. They offer customization and adapt to players’ skills and styles. They allow for collaboration. They let players safely explore different roles, appearances, and identities, and they don’t keep players in situations that feel unsafe or frustrating.

Take a look at our current definition of literacy in American public education. Just how narrow is it? You, treasured child, must read a test, silently, alone, and pick the answers we educators think best to questions we educators think important as formatted by vendors whose work we educators say is valid. You won’t get any feedback for weeks until we mail you your state-sanctioned printout, but even then we aren’t allowed to talk with you about the test at all. I’m not even sure I should say I’m sorry that you didn’t pass.


Here are some of my current thoughts on gaming in the classroom. I offer them up as prompts for thinking and action.

  1. There are educational games that we can use to try to make content fun. Many fail. Some might succeed.
  2. There are gaming platforms like Atmosphir, Gamestar Mechanic, and Scratch that we can employ to teach content and provide performance opportunities for student learning.
  3. There also exist games that include modding and sandbox tools for users. We can use these games to provide avenues for student performances in content and design. In fact, there’s big money is using games like Little Big Planet and Spore in STEM education right now.
  4. Finally, there are fun games that we can use to teach content and inspire student reflection in the same way we use compelling novels, primary documents, and works of art. Why not teach financial literacy with The Sims 3 by asking students to balance a checkbook (too archaic?) or determine the opportunity cost of missing work to boost a skill needed for a promotion? Why not generate cause-and-effect hypotheses with the Angry Birds, or why not describe their parabolae? Why not play Farmville in another language?

My point really isn’t throw money at games to throw at kids (though that would be better than spending money on most textbooks). What I mean to say is this:

Text is a technology that has served us well, but story-telling is the medium it serves. Our students lives are increasingly vocal, social, and visual. Text is good for relaying specific information in a reliable manner, but all alone no stack of reading tests is going to save us or our planet. Games offer a better model of problem-solving than does reading alone. School can be more game-like. Teaching with games is teaching with stories that involve students directly – the same way The Neverending Story involved Bastian.

If we’re primarily concerned with passing tests, then games are going to seem like frivolous rewards reserved for students too far ahead of us to be easily taught while we attend to the middle and to those students struggling even to make it that far in our estimation.

If we’re primarily concerned with story-telling, with passing on the soul of our species, its worth, and its claim on a future that is not entirely devoid of hope, then games will seem like something more to us than a means to coerce an end.

Fun should matter more than it does in all our lives. If we’re not willing to offer it to our kids – if we’re not willing to value and make use of the fun they have – then we shouldn’t expect students to graduate from our neuroses and conflicts.

The next time you have the opportunity to serve on a textbook adoption committee – or the next time you get to commandeer some PATSO funds for your classroom – or the next time you’re thinking about letting students play games because there’s nothing else to do – consider looking around for something fun for students to do together. It can be real. It can feel like a game, but matter “more.” Make it fit your kids. Make it fit each kid. Make it about student choice. Make it about teamwork. Make it about failing to succeed. Make your feedback fun. Just please don’t settle for teaching and learning devoid of hope. Design something fun. Fun doesn’t preclude worth.

The games kids play without us are waiting for us to figure out how we can use them to teach, learn, tell stories, and solve problems together.

What else is school for?

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