The What, Why, and How of Gameful Learning

The What, Why, and How of Gameful Learning

What is gameful learning?

Gameful learning in my classroom combines best practices from research-based instructional strategies and project-based learning with the elements of games and design thinking to create highly engaging, differentiated, student-centered learning experiences.  This semester I am running two gameful learning experiences – one for students in my Earth/Environmental Science class and the other for students in my World History class.

Why is gameful learning effective?

Last week, I had the privileges of taking 4 students (2 from each game) to present during the NC Technology in Education Society’s Student Showcase.  My students did an outstanding job sharing their experiences with gameful learning and showing off their work from our class wiki.  I was impressed at how well they rose to the occasion to answer challenging questions from teachers and administrators who stopped by our booth.  Listening to students’ discussion with adults and one another reminded me just how valuable this learning experience really is. 

After walking around to view the other projects at the showcase, one student had this to say: “They’re all just showing tools like Edmodo and iPads.  Nobody else is really doing anything new and different.  Nobody is creating their own thing like we are.”  

Here are a few of my other favorite quotes from last Thursday:

“I know if I’m learning what I need to because the warm-ups and exit tickets are a check-in for me.  If I can’t answer the questions, I know I need to go back to the assignment and learn the material better.”


“Relating each lesson to our biome helps me understand the material.”


“I like learning this way because it’s a lot more interactive and creative than regular classroom instruction.  I think I understand it better because I interact with the lessons more.”


“I really like the game.  It’s so much fun I even complete quests online when I’m absent to make sure I’m not letting down my kingdom.”


“We’re creating our own colony as we go, so, we have to know the science to do it right.”



How do the games work?

ImageThe first game, Kingdom Quest, is the second iteration of a gameful unit for World History students studying the Middle Ages.  The game begins with each student drawing a role out of a hat: king/queen, lord/lady, knight, freeman, villien, or serf.  Students then conduct research to create their character – choosing an Avatar from Renaissance artwork and writing a journal entry to describe their daily life.  Students work in learning teams – “kingdoms” – to complete assignments, and they earn points as they learn, and their feudal roles extend to the classroom.  For instance, during group work the king/queen always delegates tasks, and students must have permission from both their king or queen and myself to get a hall pass.  Points are awarded for completion of assignments at mastery level, winning competitions, and various other challenges (such as addressing me with my proper name – the Fantastical Empress Prattina). 

The second game, Earth Quest, is my first attempt at creating an entire course using gameful learning.  Students are assigned to crews of aliens who are hoping to colonizImagee Earth after destroying their own planet by over population and poor environmental stewardship.  Student crews drew a biome, and chose a location on earth within that biome to establish a colony.  Currently one colony is on Australia’s York Peninsula in the rain forest, another is in Australia’s Little Sandy Desert, and the third is in the chaparral region outside of Los Angeles, California.  Students’ colony becomes their lens through which they view the content we study.  For our weather unit, students collected data about weather in their biome and made predictions for one week.  The next project will involve researching severe weather in their biome and writing a survival guide for members of their colony.  Points are awarded similarly to Kingdom Quest – for completion of assignments at mastery level, first and second place in competitions, and other fun activities.

In both games, students unlock “powers and perils” as they progress – such as the ability to expand a colony, set up an industry, attack another kingdom, or spread the black plague.

How can I become a game master?

Are you interested in creating a similar gameful experience for your students?  On June 11, my research partner and I will be leading a special Professional Development track – Rebooting the Classroom: Leveling Up Motivation, Collaboration, and Learning with Gameful Pedagogy for teachers interested in doing something similar in their own classrooms. Hurry – applications are due by March 15!  If you can’t make it to Madison or want to get started sooner, check out the Resources page at the Coalition for Gameful Learning, and connect with us on Twitter or e-mail.

Critical Thinking through Play: Choose Your Own Adventure

Critical Thinking through Play: Choose Your Own Adventure

The fork in the road
Photo “The fork in the road” by i_yudai.

As a child, I loved “choose your own adventure” books. I remember my teacher reading them to my class, and allowing us to vote about each decision to choose our own ending to the story. As I became a teenager, teen magazines published quizzes about dating and peer pressure in a similar format. I think the format is appealing because it allows readers to have some autonomy over the plot of the book, and allows readers to model risks without having to suffer any real-life consequences.  This leads to positive emotions like independence and satisfaction, and if the reader chooses the “best” ending, can also lead to a sense of accomplishment.  (Positive emotions and accomplishment are important aspects of motivation in any environment.  For more information about this, see my previous post on the PERMA model.)

Last week I came across an article about immigration at Mother Jones titled “Think You Can Beat the Immigration Maze?” The simple quiz allows players to choose a scenario and follow the steps to obtaining a legal green card for US immigration.  At once I was struck with the powerful implications of the article for games, learning, and literacy.

As a history teacher who focuses heavily on current events, I was impressed at the learning possibilities using the article as it is.  Students can assume multiple identities and simulate the immigration process.  This is a powerful tool for teaching about the real challenges and consequences of immigration policy as it stands now.  Asking students to work through the quiz, and then discuss or write about immigration law, could be an excellent lesson plan for classes about civics and government, or for classes studying the history of immigration in the U.S.

However, I think the best part of this resource is the link Mother Jones includes toward the bottom of the article:

“Want to build your own Choose Your Own Adventure game? Check out our free, open-source tool here!. ” 

The link takes users to a github site with the code from the quiz.  This is fantastic, because as much as students can learn from playing games, they can always learn more from creating games.  Imagine the potential in a history class!  Students could create their own Choose Your Own Adventure scenarios for historical events.  This would be a great assessment to have students demonstrate their understanding of multiple perspectives about the same event.  It would also be an excellent assessment for scientific processes that have many steps (Carbon Cycle?)  or mathematical problems that can be solved multiple ways.  A simpler tool to use with a similar outcome would be Google forms, in which students can link questions to the next question based on the answer users give.

My colleague Tim, from the Coalition for Gameful Learning, had another great insight.  He immediately saw the potential for writing prompts using the game.  Tim teaches fourth grade, and many of his students enjoy Choose Your Own Ending type books.  Tim thought students could elaborate on each option and write their own book about immigration.

So whether your students are ready for html, Google Docs, or just plain old paper and crayons – the playful critical thinking opportunities for Choose Your Own Ending games are endless.  What ideas do you have for having students consume or create Choose Your Own Ending scenarios?


3 Easy Content-Based Games to Encourage Critical Thinking

This week’s #sschat explored the topic of critical thinking and how educators can better incorporate higher level thinking skills into daily practice.  What is critical thinking?  The Partnership for 21st Skills identifies the following skills related to critical thinking:

  • Reason Effectively
  • Use Systems Thinking
  • Make Judgments and Decisions
  • Solve Problems

The chat on Tuesday got me thinking about how games can be a great way to get students thinking critically because they naturally involve creativity and many other critical thinking skills.   Teachers often ask me if there are quick games they can tweak to fit their content area without a lot of preparation. The games described games below require little preparation, fit into any content area, and help students practice these important skills:

1.  Would You Rather? – Would You Rather is an excellent game that can easily be applied to any content area.  Divide students into groups of 3-4 and prepare (or have students prepare) a list of questions that apply to your content area.  Cut the questions into strips and put them in an envelope.  Make an envelope for each group.  Students should draw one question out of an envelope, and write down their answer.  The other members of the group should discuss the question and come to a consensus to predict how the person answered.  After they’ve reached a consensus, the person will reveal the answer that was written down.  Of course, this should lead to discussion in which the person justifies his or her answer.  You can assign points for guessing the answer correctly, but this game is just as much fun without keeping score.  For a twist that encourages even more higher-level thinking, ask students to assume the role of a famous person, historical figure, or fictional character when answering.  Here are some examples:

  • Would you rather be Marie Antoinette or Joan of Arc?
  • If you have extra money, would you rather save it or invest it?
  • You are looking for a place to settle your civilization.  Would you rather have a natural barrier to enemies or settle along an already-established trade route?

2.  20 Questions – Have students draw a concept you have studied from a hat.  Other students in their group can ask 20 yes or no questions to guess the concept.  This helps students develop their own working definitions of words and understand the specific characteristics of important terms.  Good concepts include specific items when you are studying several similar things.  For instance, you could use the organelles of a cell, world religions, or the characters from a novel.

3.  2 Truths and a Lie – Place students in small groups of about 4 and assign each student a role related to the material you have covered.  Give students a set amount of time to research or review material about the concept (you might supply class notes, Internet access, a textbook, or another source of information to help them).  After time is up, have each student present 2 truths and a lie about the concept.  The other students must guess which statement is the lie.  Good topics for this game include historical figures, political philosophies, major wars or time periods, scientific theories, famous scientists, mathematical properties, or famous authors.

How do you use games in your classroom to help students practice critical thinking and problem solving?