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How Schools Design Classroom Games for Learning

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Game-based learning has become synonymous with educational video games in some circles, but low-tech games have been used with great success in classrooms for a while. In fact, games that don’t require costly technology have a lot to offer the intrepid educator both as a learning tool and an education mindset, according to game-based learning advocates.

Quest to Learn schools in New York and Chicago are based entirely on game principles, but 90% of the games used in those classrooms are board-games or physical games, according to school officials. If classes do use video games, they almost always use existing commercial games like Minecraft or Portal paired with a specific query or learning goal directive designed by the teacher. The drawback of many video games is that they are single-player and isolated. The benefit can be a self-directed and personalized experience with a lot of data to help assess if a student is learning.

“Kids can sit for hours on end playing games because games drop players into spaces that force them to face complex problems,” said Eliza Spang, Institute of Play learning director in an edWeb presentation. “Then players get immediate and ongoing feedback about their choices.” Gaming can be especially useful in middle and high school grades when school traditionally moves away from play, she added.


There are seven components to game-play that aptly fit curriculum design.

  1. Challenge is constant
  2. Everything is interconnected
  3. Failure is reframed as iteration
  4. Learning happens by doing
  5. Feedback is immediate and ongoing
  6. Everyone is a participant
  7. It feels like play

“These characteristics are very hard to untangle,” Spang said. “You need to use them all together to make them feel the most powerful.” Like a game, students won’t understand a new unit of study all at once. It should be designed around a difficult concept that students reach by doing exercises and projects – leveling up – to the point when they understand how to “win” the game or unit.


Thinking of the seven components of game-play as integral parts of classroom pedagogy allows the teacher to learn more from gaming than any one design offers, she said.


Games can also be great tools for both gauging existing knowledge and for formative assessment. As students are playing a game, a teacher can walk around and listen to the conversations students are having with one another. Through observation, teachers can tell if students understand the material or if they're struggling. The group environment allows students to work on teamwork, problem solving and leadership, and game-play can also facilitate peer-to-peer instruction as students help each other learn the game and the concepts.

[RELATED READING: MIT Unleashes New Online Game For Math and Science]

One way to assess learning at the end of a unit is to ask students to make a strategy guide written to help a classmate win the game. By documenting the choices they made in the game they're showing their knowledge. Another way to assess them could be to have students design their own game. And if students don’t know how to play or win the game at first, one of the curriculum goals is to see failure as iteration and to improve.

“Generally when you play you won’t get it right the first time,” said Brendan Trombley, a game designer at Institute of Play. “You’ll have to change your strategy or technique to overcome that challenge.”


At Quest to Learn schools teachers have a robust team of game and curriculum designers to work with as they develop new games for their classrooms. Most schools won’t have those kinds of resources, but games can still be a part of the classrooms, the speakers said. One easy way to get started designing games is to modify an existing game by breaking it down into its parts and tweaking one aspect to target a learning outcome.

[RELATED READING: Why Competition Can Be Helpful to Kids]

The parts of a game are: goal, challenge, core mechanics, components, rules and space. Change any one element and it’s a very different game. For example, Quest to Learn developed a game called “Caterpillar” focused on 6th grade math concepts of probability and frequency. Caterpillar is a modified version of Settlers of Catan. The goal is to create the longest continuous chain of blocks by the end of the game. The challenge is that to get more blocks students have to build around the most frequently rolled numbers, that’s how they get more blocks. But at the end of the game those numbers become “bombs” and everything built around them blows up. It’s a mixture of skill and chance, but students get a good understanding of what numbers are rolled most frequently by playing and how to calculate probability.

It’s also not hard to test out a game once it’s been designed. The targeted users are students, so ask them to play and give feedback. One of the biggest complaints teachers have about classroom games is the amount of time it takes students to learn how to play. Making sure the game is simple and elegant with clear rules helps maximize classroom learning time. One good question to ask the play-testers: “What would your classmate learn from this game?” That helps determine if students understand what they're supposed to be learning. It’s also a good idea to ask about the level of difficulty, because while answers vary among students if all say it’s too easy or too hard it should be modified.


“Game design is collaborative,” said Spang. “It’s really hard to do it with just one person. It’s great to have more than one head working together.” That goes for the process of picking a targeted standard, designing a game and tinkering to get it right. But it also means that once the game is deployed in the classroom, it may need further modification to meet all learners.
Quest to Learn will be putting the games it has designed online this fall so other educators can download blueprints for the games they’ve had four years to perfect.