Updated: Jan 11
In this first of two blogs on designing games for kids, I'll go through how my games directly use engaging games to teach academic skills. In part 2, I'll detail how I hit a number of the Common Core standards.
Games can teach. Most people have accepted that by now – but most people’s concept of “game” is limited to the virtual space. Tabletop role-playing games are capable of even more, and for several reasons:
They’re teacher-led, and great teachers make a huge difference.
They give kids a framework for interaction, helping build and develop community.
They’re long-term, encouraging more genuine and collaborative relationships.
They’re generative; instead of “consuming content,” kids learn to build it.
In many classic tabletop RPGs (see my post on Dungeons & Dragons), a lot of critical thinking, teamwork, and collaboration occurs – but the game isn’t designed to incentivize it. Rather, they are by-products of the game – pieces of the puzzle, but not the core element. Creativity is more limited, and a lot of pressure is put on the one running the game to generate the content, rather than allowing players to generate.
When I started developing my own system for kids, I decided player agency and educational activities would be front and center.
GROWTH THROUGH WRITING
The first trick I developed was simple: in order to grow a character’s abilities, you needed to write. What about? I have a few standard prompts and pre-designed activities for each of my games, but I work with my students every time to figure out what THEY’RE interested in. This is the key to a teacher-led experience: many of us are stuck when asked to “create!," but a coach is someone who knows how to ask the right questions to get you started. I’ve had kids who said “I don’t know” to five questions – and then the sixth got them chasing an idea that turned into several pages of story.
The points they win depend on how much they’ve written – 1 for a little, 2 for a fair amount, and 3 for a lot. One point is enough to win a new ability; two or three are required for more significant talents. The story part of the game doesn’t always incentivize kids 100% - but for some, the ability to have agency and do impressive or epic things is INTENSELY motivational. Kids who struggle to write a couple of sentences will start pumping out PAGES once it’s about getting enough points to make their character able to, say, teleport the crew through magical portals or make a super-speed potion!
The second trick is the read-aloud. When we meet each class, we begin with reading everyone’s work together. Some kids are down to read their own work, but many are shy – I take the lead, here, and read with emphasis. I ask “what voice do you want?” Kids will lobby for their favorite accents, then cheer and collapse in giggles as I ham it up. In one of my favorite games this past summer, the kids decided I should read their stories in the voice of Dr. Denizen, as if reading over “field reports” from researchers for the Beast Preservation Corps. I characterized him as a slightly daft, nobby Attenborough type, and they would shout commentary as I read aloud in his voice – which I would grumpily respond to and wonder “who are these voices, anyway?!”
We all died laughing.
The read-aloud lets kids celebrate each other and themselves – and it’s a powerful incentive for every student. They might not hustle to get something written for a point towards their character’s development, but when they see everyone laughing and cheering for someone else’s work, they’ll work hard to make some fiction happen. When the things they wrote then come to life in the game – the kids travel to a country one of them created, or the dolphins playing in the surf turn out to be “dolphin-sharks” that they imagined, and chase after them – it’s yet another socially, emotionally, creatively rewarding experience.
In some ways, this requires less of the teacher – less prep, since I can’t anticipate exactly where kids will take the story, or what they’ll incorporate into the fiction. In another way, it requires more – more flexibility and creativity on my part in responding to the kids’ ideas with “Yes, and …"
I love that the games push me to be both a better teacher and a more collaborative storyteller, and I’m always thrilled with all the genius, unpredictable awesome that the kids inject into each session.
COLLECTIVE GOALS & DRAMA
Then there’s the “share and care” – an explicit practice as the teacher that helps kids learn to collaborate. First, if someone doesn’t do their work, I’ll take up collection – “anyone want to donate – let’s help them out! You will need them when things get serious, today!” I’ll also give them a “freebie” if if they need it, saying something like “cool – take a point now, and just throw down tonight and give us something to read for next time, okay?” The social expectation is enough to give kids a serious push to invest.
Mechanically, I use a tool I call – campily! – the “Doom” clock: a simple count-down to something happening that is somehow terrible. They can prevent this fictional consequence – the World Turtle being suffocated by an explosion, or the ferry being ransacked by hungry feathered serpents – by making Moves (a trick from Powered by the Apocalypse games by Meguey and Vincent Baker). Moves are explicit, and give guidance – do you want to “Figure it out” to get answers to questions, try to use “Empathy” to convince, or maybe use “Athletics” to employ brawn or speed?
Each successful move fills a “Build” clock – if all the players work together, they can prevent the Doom from occurring. This ups the tension as the Doom ticks closer, and makes each roll – and each decision! – more of a nail-biter. As the Doom Clock reaches completion, kids will start to cover their eyes before rolling, shriek in anticipation, and heatedly debate how to engage – and by doing so, both learn better collaboration skills and to trust and rely on one another as a team.
This is an aspect to online role-playing that, to me, is key. My games are not casual, drop-in for an hour affairs. I’m interested in helping kids build real, lasting emotional connections with one another, and teach them how to build online communities that are supported by real friendships. Having shared goals, emotionally intense and dramatic experiences together, and learning how to work together to solve problems can, over time, lead to real bonds. My kids often clamor for what they call “after parties,” where they stay on, debating story, finding illustrations, and generating ideas for the next day of play.
The only conflict is about whose turn it is to be the host of the Zoom!
In my newest game – a collaboration with the talented Daniel Hinds, author of the Stories Podcasts – I’ve gone a step further. We’ve designed a character sheet that lets everyone write their personality as a story, which then turns that story into the character’s abilities in the game! I’ll be working on listing up all the abilities characters can buy, all the activities that kids can use to build their stories and the world, and some help for parents and caregivers on how to jump into gaming with the kids in their lives.
I’m so excited to democratize gaming and make it not only a joyous and creative experience for adults and kids alike, but also an educational one!