8 Great ways to level up game based learning

8 Great Ways to Level Up Game Based Learning in the Classroom

Game based learning in the classroom should not be worksheets with points. It should be engaging and exciting. Here are eight ways to level up game based learning. Because, face it, many educational “games” fall short. Chocolate on broccoli. That is what many educators call these games that fall short of what great gaming can be. Dr. Lee Graham, a creator of the literature Minecraft experience Givercraft, says,

Some games are computerized worksheets. That is what game designers mean by ‘chocolate on broccoli.'

Some games are computerized worksheets. That is what Game Designers Mean by 'Chocolate on Broccoli." Dr. Lee Graham

What works in game-based learning? I’ve found that game experiences where students create, innovate and problem solve engage pupils in the game and learning. You don’t get that with flashcards. Memorization is “lower order thinking” according to Blooms Revised Taxonomy, after all.

Certainly, we can memorize using games, but we can do better. Creating, evaluating and analyzing are higher order thinking. Whether students are playing games where they create or go on epic quests, stories are pouring from classrooms everywhere about games that transform learning.

But for those who don't trust stories from the classroom, a body of research is growing around what makes a good game for learning. Jim Gee has examined what makes a good game and found that identity, interaction, production, risk taking, customization, and agency make a game “good.”

When my students studied good games with University of Alaska Southeast Masters Students in the Gamifi-ed Project, we were astounded to find how few games were engaging and used good teaching. But that is changing, and teachers are at the center of it all.

8 Great Ways to Level Up Game Based Learning in the Classroom

The most innovative education “app” on the planet is the innovative educator. Teachers are a powerful force for great gaming. Let’s look at eight great ways educators are leveling up game-based learning in the classroom.

1. Make Your Whole Class a Game Experience

College Professor Lee Sheldon (and former Star-Trek script writer) shares his method of gaming his college classroom in The Multiplayer Classroom. The entire course is designed for Sheldon's students to earn points, level up, and engage with learning. The first day, Sheldon tells everyone they have an F and must earn points to level up to an A. This “additive” form of earning grades has very real results as students see their grade grow.

Elementary teacher Michael Matera has students enter the realm of nobles (see video below) as his students join teams as part of learning in a not so bloody or violent Game of Thrones type approach. Famed teacher Ron Clark has his whole school divided into “houses” reminiscent of Harry Potter's Hogwarts. An entire school, Quest to Learn, has been designed using game-based learning as the framework. Immersive experiences seem to be some of the most powerful experiences for learners. But the essential ingredient is a teacher willing to be a “Game Master“, as teacher Lucas Gillispie shares.

2. Engage with Minecraft: Let Kids Build in the Sandbox

Ernie Easter, a 35-year retired teacher from Maine, says,

I have seen the results [of Minecraft] with my three granddaughters, ages 6, 8 & 10, at home. Our 8-year old’s reading blossomed when she started playing Minecraft and watching the videos. Her language expression also just exploded.

Minecraft builder bowls and clubs are emerging as kids compete to build awesome things. But schools are using Minecraft to teach. Teacher Michelle Baldwin says,

“One year, we were talking about how people organize themselves into different types of governments. One group wanted to learn about oligarchies and said they could share what they were learning by building a capital city in Minecraft. They could articulate a LOT about what they had learned as they shared their city (these were grade 3-5 kids): http://architectsofwonder.edublogs.org/…/our-capital…/

When students study North Carolina history, teacher Lucas Gillespie, manager of one of the largest Minecraft deployments in the world, has them research a topic on North Carolina history. Then students go into Minecraft and construct what they learned. After building, they give virtual tours for parents and other students to teach about North Carolina. When I interviewed him recently, he gave me dozens of Minecraft examples for every subject.

Dr. Lee Graham created Givercraft where students study the novel the Giver and build a black and white world for the earlier part of the novel. Students blog and write about their experience. Then, they have to imagine the world after the Giver ends. Wow!

3. Build a Game Experience into Learning: Live It and Learn It

A fascinating way to teach geography is Zombie-Based Learning invented by teacher David Hunter. In this case, students are located in a geographic location and told they have to plan for a zombie apocalypse. Students have to understand the geography and determine where they are going to find resources. Don't worry, you don't see the gory zombies of movies, but the game is engaging (and aligned with Common Core Standards!)

Australian teacher Jacques du Toit invented a role play on Twitter he called Tweeting Aztecs to study their history. Students tweeted as different characters. Living a quest is a great way to learn.

4. Play Games for Social Good: Have a Point, Don't Just Earn Them

Sometimes because of the sensitivity of the subject, calling some activities “games” offends some people. Please don't make the mistake of thinking the word “game” means trivial. Serious games can touch on serious topics and make a positive difference on social issues.

Mission US, City of Immigrants, lets students pretend they are a Jewish immigrant in New York City.

Mission US, City of Immigrants, lets students pretend they are a Jewish immigrant in New York City.

The Games for Change website has many good serious games. For example, a classroom studying immigrants could play Mission US: City of Immigrants. Kid play a Jewish Immigrant to New York. They have to navigate everyday life. Darfur is Dying is a “game” focusing on the genocide in Darfur. (Game is not usually in quotes, but I do this out of respect for the tragedies that have been happening there.)

Jane McGonigal's 2012 TED Talk shares how gaming can help those who game have resilience and how good games can improve the world. My students understand the Middle East more deeply as they participate in the Arab-Israeli Conflict Simulation run by Dr. Jeff Stanzler students at the University of Michigan.

History repeats itself unless we learn from history. But it is hard to make serious games real on the pages of a book. Speaking the language of this generation just makes sense.

5. Game Based Platforms for Learning

For some time, teachers have used Learning Management Systems. In an epic plot twist, many teachers are adding Game Based to their Learning Management Systems. Some teachers use the burgeoning Class Craft made by teacher Shawn Young to “play” their curriculum against other classes. Teacher Kevin Jarrett uses Game On, a Wordpress plugin to add points and quests to student blogging. Other Gamification programs like GradeCraft, Rezzly,  and Virtual Locker are all being used to add points, badges, and other gaming elements to the everyday classroom.

Students earn experience points and level up when class craft is used to help kids learn.

Students earn experience points and level up when Classcraft is used to help kids learn.

The challenge with this approach is to remember that not all games are alike. According to Bartle's Player Types, a categorization of the different “types” of gamers who play for a variety of reasons, some gamers play for points but others play to be on an epic quest, socialize, and some just want to explore. The most epic games appeal to all types of players, and certainly this is where point and badge-centric game based platforms for learning fall short.

6. Experience Learning: Immerse Yourself in the Experience

Some games immerse you in a simulated experience intended to teach. A student studying photosynthesis could play Reach for the Sun and manage a plant to help it produce as many seeds as possible before winter comes. Last year, my students won $7500 for their financial literacy skills as they played the H&R Block Budget Challenge. They experienced life as a recent college graduate, working, paying bills and managing investments for eight weeks.

Even literature has immersive experiences. Greg Toppo in his book The Game Believes in You talks about Walden: A Game. Toppo writes,

“There are no locks to pick or puzzles to solve. In place of levels are sunlit days and starry nights, four seasons and a journal that you fill with bits of Thoreau's actual meditations… She [Tracy Fullerton, the game's inventor], like others in the industry, has begun to see the potential of the form to breathe new life into the classics, those revered books that, as Mark Twain said, ‘everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.'”

In a twist of irony, Henry David Thoreau's book Walden has been turned into a quiet, reflective game.

In a twist of irony, Henry David Thoreau's book Walden has been turned into a quiet, reflective game.

Many more “good” games are listed on sites like  Graphite, and Appolicious. Great simulations let you live what you're learning with robust results.

7. Go Offline or Outside: You Don't Need Tech to Teach

You don't always have to use technology. My accounting classes made giant leaps in understanding debits and credits when I invented a way for students to keep their accounting books while playing Monopoly. When my students created apps, we had a Shark Tank competition to see whose app would get funded.

Geocaching activities get students outside using GPS coordinates and outdoor games for learning have been around since a caveman first drew a picture of a mammoth in the sand to warn his child. Drama in the classroom can even have game elements.

Games can happen anywhere a great teacher wants to conquer learning and sometimes that means going hands on or outside.

8. Create Solutions as You Learn: Gifts from the Hour of Code

This year, students participating in Hour of Code can program Star Wars Characters, and Minecraft themed experiences. Students learn to code as they make games with characters they love.

While the Hour of Code's primary emphasis is encouraging students to program code, I think it has produced an incredible by-product: a large group of pupils showing what works in game-based learning. With hundreds of thousands of kids of all ages playing the Hour of Code games, it is quickly seen which games kids love by how many play the games during this month.

As a teacher observing Hour of Code, this massive event seems to be producing games that are more engaging and better at teaching coding each year. But students aren't memorizing, they are learning code as they program with it. Each child has a unique experience and unique solution for many of the games. Game designers can look at their creations and understand what they did well and what didn't work.

Hour of Code is definitely leveling up in their teaching of coding. This learning can and should be applied to all topics we teach. Instead of producing manuals, handouts, and paper lesson plans, initiatives should be programming games that we play and learn together.

Game Based Learning is Here to Stay

Many gamers and game-based learning teachers turn their noses up at the rote memorization “worksheets with points” of many games that claim to be transformational. There are better ways to using gaming with learning than memorizing math facts and spelling words. (Although as a parent, I jumped for joy at Spelling City and Funbrain as these games ARE much more fun than flashcards.) 

So as was asked in the old movie, WarGames,

“Shall we play a game?”

The answer  honestly depends on the game. Not all games are created equal. Give me epic educational experiences or I'd rather not play at all. If educators can use games that spark higher-order thinking, then the games themselves can level up and so can learning.

The answer to the question shall we play a game, honestly depends on the game. Not all games are created equal. Give me epic educational experiences or I'd rather not play at all.

The answer to the question shall we play a game, honestly depends on the game. Not all games are created equal. Give me epic educational experiences or I'd rather not play at all.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Lynn Miskell November 20, 2015 - 11:55 pm

Glad to see you mentioned Hour of Code. As an engineering manager and STEM mentor in my community, I enjoy working with teachers to support their efforts to introduce programming to students. Love your blog in general, and especially liked this post about game based learning. Regarding competition and achievement, how do you encourage students to focus on doing their personal best versus being the top of the class?

Vicki Davis November 21, 2015 - 8:08 pm

I think that you have to have more than just points. There are other reasons that kids engage in games. Some like an epic quest. Others like the social aspects of the team. I think a game that acknowledges all the reasons people play games helps engage all learners, even those not motivated by points and badges.

Patrick Kane November 21, 2015 - 2:39 pm

Game based learning can be a fun way to reach children, and assuming, like you said, they require students to be creative, innovative, and problem solvers, then they can be very effective. Your 7th point struck me as being particularly important. Using games for learning does not always require technology, there are many other ways including your monopoly example. This can help those teachers who may be hesitant to rely on technology.
Great article!

Vicki Davis November 21, 2015 - 8:07 pm

There are so many ways to integrate game based learning, Patrick! You are right! Teachers can be game-masters!

Think Through Math May 23, 2016 - 3:29 pm

We’ve had great success getting teachers to step outside the worksheets and utilize a game-based learning system for mathematics. As Ben Franklin said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Great article!


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Vicki Davis writes The Cool Cat Teacher Blog for classroom teachers everywhere