Updated: Nov 13
My students always want to know about the video games I play. I tell them - in all honesty! - that I don't allow a console (PlayStation, XBox, Switch) in the house; with the older students, I'll say "no hard drugs." When they ask, I explain that I once spent far too much time and energy on video games; that, like drugs, they can be deeply addictive.
As a 14-year old patient at a video game addiction clinic in the UK put it:
“Their only goal is to make you play more and more,” Lucas says. “To them that means nothing, but to a 14-year-old, it could take over your life. They add mechanics into these games — which you are blind to as a child, or even as an adult — to constantly reward you.” He tells me how Fortnite has introduced bots that make the game even more compulsive for players who don’t realise they are fighting characters that may be easier to kill than those controlled by people. “They get such a dopamine hit from all these kills, but they’re not even being challenged by real players.”
The last game I played so much it had a negative impact on my life was Diablo II: Lord of Destruction. At one point, if I wasn't eating, sleeping, or working, I was playing. It was so bad that when I tried to quit, I broke the CD-ROM (this requires a bit of explaining, sometimes!) - and within two days I'd burned a new, bootlegged copy and gotten a hacked code so I could play again.
If I'd had the sort of games my students have access to when I was young and desperately needed an escape into other worlds, I'd have never become a reader and writer.
That's because video games are designed for one thing: player engagement. Video games make money when people spend hours and hours of time in the world of the game. This creates something that, in the entertainment industry, is priceless: consumer culture. People who have played endlessly post videos, guides, walkthroughs, create forums and write fan fictions, all of which functions as free marketing. They commit to the world of the game, and in business terms, they fall in love with the IP - the Intellectual Property. And IP is evergreen - with a rabid enough fanbase, you can release game after game, shows, movies, toys - and every one will turn a profit.
But creating a game that's immersive and addictive means avoiding many of the challenges inherent in a truly transformative learning experience. Video games are entirely created for player engagement; if that's served by a learning process that helps them master a skill, great - but it's hardly the POINT.
School has a different problem.
One of my favorite things to say about "gamification" is that it's a ridiculous term. You can't "gamify" school, because it's already a game - there are rules, points, referees, and ways to win and lose (that last bit isn't, by the way, inherent to all games, but more on that later!). We don't need to MAKE school a game; school IS a game that needs to be re-designed.
The problem? While video games don't teach because they ONLY focus on player engagement, school often doesn't because it focuses on everything else.
Grades let colleges rank graduates; standardized testing ensures school systems can track "achievement" and allocate funding. Standards-aligned lesson plans and exit tickets and daily agendas document and "prove" progress in every classroom to higher-ups. 8 AM start times let parents arrive to work on time. Heavily restricted internet and phone use "protects" students from each other and the awful things they can easily find and post when they're not in school.
In other words, most of the choices made in structuring school are about either 1) keeping students safe FROM outside forces (and thus avoiding lawsuits) or 2) satisfying outside requirements.
Which leaves the desperately crucial business of figuring out how to get and KEEP students engaged to teachers. And teachers are, at least in the US, overworked trying to meet all of those outside requirements, emotionally exhausted from carrying the weight of their students' unmet needs, and underpaid for their labor to boot.
As a teacher, I've had to do what every teacher does: become VERY inventive and clever at re-designing the bits of school I could to meet student needs. And in doing so, I took a lot of inspiration from both tabletop and video game design.
After all - that kind of rabid fandom that kids fall into when a crew of kids becomes immersed in a video game? That's a BRASS RING for educational design: having students independently, communally committed to a shared "affinity space" (a la James Paul Gee) in which they master skills that will help them find a life path they love.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the critical elements of great video games that can be leveraged to help students learn - along with some examples of how I've used those strategies in Luna Uni, my classroom-ready learning RPG.
START FROM ZERO
Video games do have SOME assumptions about players - generally, there are some basic things about how to control the character and navigate (what a menu button looks like, what direction arrows mean) that are held as common knowledge. This is equivalent to assuming most students know how to hold a pencil or pen, more or less. But games assume little else - they tend to begin by slowly coaching the player through how to move, fight, climb, jump, build, and whatever else the game requires.
Why does this matter? Here's the thing - nobody playing a video game for the first time (okay, not "nobody" playing ANY video game, but for the most part, most people playing most games) feels STUPID. Any time you have an experience doing a new thing, if there are skills that take time to build which you don't have that act as a barrier to engaging in play, it's very easy to fall into the "I'm just bad at this" and "this is stupid" traps: two ways people opt out of learning.
This doesn't mean teachers need to start every 9th grade English class with a lesson on how to sound out words. But it DOES mean that normalizing and explaining why sounding words out is critical to reading and making sure that struggling THROUGH a word is framed as AWESOME, not embarrassing, is a best practice.
In Luna Uni, the setting I use for teaching using Stories RPG, we start SMALL. You're initially only responsible for short sentences: a Drive, Downfall, Trait, Bond, Quirk, and a piece of crucial Gear your character carries. This both lets teachers gauge student needs (how complete are those sentences?) and begins helping students focus on a critical authorial and analytical skill: identifying the key elements that make a character compelling.
Luna Uni art by the incredible Chris Schons, used with permisssion.
The same character sheets they use to create with will later come into play as outlines for character analysis essays: after finding quotes to show a given character's Drive, Downfall, Trait, or Bond, they express it in a sentence. That's already two out of three things needed for a paragraph in a nonfiction essay: Claim and Evidence. All that's lacking is Analysis: the explanation of why the quote proves the claim, which they'll have to explain in order to create the sheet in the first place.
Which is a form of ...
SCAFFOLDING ≠ BORING
"Scaffolding" is a verb that's a rare example of really useful education jargon. It refers to designing a process so that it builds users up from easier, more achievable steps to more complex ones. But although it's framed as central to educational design, it's very rarely achieved.
Video games are a master class in scaffolding. Why?
Because they make mastering the small stuff FUN.
Learning something basic - how to press a button, how to write a sentence - is often not the most rewarding or exciting process. But video games lack the luxury school has: they can't keep their players playing even when they're bored. If a video game gets boring - even for a second - people put it down. As a result, every step of a tutorial has to be fun - you get a chance to roam about, score some small rewards, discover some small area.
It's harder in school to make every tiny practice engaging, but it's not impossible to up the level of engagement in mastering the small steps.
I'll go further into this in another post, but there are different KINDS of fun: expression, connection, exploration, sensation, fellowship. I mention this because "fun" as a target for a teacher who's trying - desperately, earnestly, with their kids in mind and in good faith - is a target so huge it can't be hit. It's vague - "fun" is obviously different for different people, and like "love" can mean a thousand different things.
Targeting specific KINDS of fun can make even smaller, scaffolded steps to mastery engaging.
Take character sheets in Luna Uni; finding great pictures is about expression (show a bit about yourself by showing everybody what your character looks like!) and peer recognition. It's also about helping kids who otherwise might need a lot of help coming up with an idea for a story get inspired by a visual, and by making the product communal, giving them a concrete social reward for something that is, ultimately, building academic skills.
Which is why you need ...
"DINGS": SMALL, EASY REWARDS
This is sort of the low-hanging fruit that people think of when the term "gamification" comes up. The mistake that many make is misunderstanding WHY certain video game rewards FEEL exciting for players.
Ding! Point! Coin! Sure, technically these are "rewards." But without a bigger context, they become cheap - what's the point of earning a bigger score? Is there a leaderboard? Fine, if you're the competitive sort, but what about people into other sorts of fun?
Video games offer a range of rewards, and well-designed ones make the smaller "dings" add up to bigger fun. Get to a certain goalpost quickly to unlock a new item - something that changes gameplay or allows access to a different area of the game. Take no damage in traveling to a given area, and now you've got a bonus to overcoming that ONE boss or area that always knocks you down.
Adding "dings" to a classroom only works if the small rewards built in to every day activities allow students to save up and spend for meaningful rewards. By meaningful, I don't mean candy, pizza, or "movie days." I mean something that matters to students.
In Luna Uni, there's Story Points. After sharing a story, students assess how many they've earned, using the following scale:
When I say "students," I mean the author of the story. They can't ask for anyone else to assess their work - the purpose is to cultivate individual goal-setting and clarity in evaluating their own progress (crucial skills for lifelong learning!).
What makes Story Points meaningful as "dings" is all about shared story-telling. For students who crave agency in the story and want to "win," Story Points can be spent to improve their characters, buying new lines for their character sheet: Bonds with other characters, Gear they create or find, Traits to give themselves cool powers, and even Specials that let them perform awesome feats during Live sessions (you can get more details here).
They also give kids a social reward: if a friend fails during a Drama Clock, in which students' characters are working together to overcome a larger challenge, two Story Points buy a re-roll. This allows the teacher to remind kids during Lore sessions, when they're writing and editing, to save up: "Remember, we got a big Drama Clock coming - store up some Story Points to save our bacon if things go badly!"
The key? Every "ding" hooks into multiple kinds of fun, and gives kids agency to choose how and when to spend their hard-earned rewards.
Which is a form of ...
STRATEGIC and CREATIVE AGENCY
So here's the thing: most teachers SAY they want student agency and voice in the classroom, but most of us are also AFRAID of it.
What video games do is a perfect form of what teachers really crave: they offer real choices to players about HOW they play (what weapons and items do you like to use? what kind of buildings do you want to build, or would you rather mine for precious metals?) WITHIN CONSTRAINTS. That last piece is key: even if you have choices about what to mine and build, you're still playing Minecraft - you can't decide you'd rather train and raise Pokemon for battles. Granted, there are games which allow a LOT of range of creativity - Minecraft and Roblox both allow for mods and all sorts of mini0games - and that's a brass ring.
So in order to understand how agency doesn't just mean "kids do whatever they want, even if it's counter-productive for their learning," I like to think of the two kinds of agency possible: strategic and creative. Strategic is what I described with Story Points, above; you can spend them to boost your character's abilities, sure, but you can also save them up for re-rolls (which is appealing to a certain kind of student who REALLY hates the uncertainty of surprise fails!).
Creative agency is when kids have choices about what they learn and how they express themselves. It is, ultimately, a kind of fun - self-expression, narrative, and discovery - to choose what to learn and spend your time creating. One commonality that I've observed in every single person who's mastered any skill? The feeling they have of OWNERSHIP - not just of the skill itself, but the contextual knowledge and understanding that helped build it.
Let any Minecraft player start explaining their personal obsessions in the game and you're in for a PhD thesis-level explanation - they've done real, intensive research in order to build their skill. They've developed mastery, and they're aware of how elite that mastery is. In Luna Uni, that doesn't just come from self-awarded Story Points. It's also embedded in the slide deck work students do: a shared, public record of their growth as a writer. This becomes not only a source of shared pride as it grows into a novella that kids all read and re-read, it lets student see their growth in a very real, personal way.
As one of my students put it after churning out a ten-page story in a single week: "Do you remember when I was just writing a paragraph or two?"
SUCCESS IS FUN, but FAILURE DOESN'T HURT
You know why video games are more fun than school? It's the same reason a student who won't finish an assignment to save their own neck will turn themselves into a PRETZEL for an extra credit point:
There IS NO CONSEQUENCE FOR FAILURE.
Every teacher knows that failure is absolutely essential for learning. Weirdly, however, we've failed to do what video games have perfected: make failing feel PRODUCTIVE.
In school, a grade feels like a judgement, and often out of kids' hands. In a video game? Respawn at the last save point and give it another go! Death is never the end, and missed opportunities never close the door on the reward you're chasing - which means as you're chasing them, you're not struggling with the fear of failure.
In Luna Uni, Story Points have no bearing on grades - they're JUST there as ways to influence the world of the game, and it's impossible to get a penalty or lose them. They're ONLY beneficial - so when students get offered a "challenge point" to re-write a story or deal with a nagging and unexciting problem (like a perpetual lack of paragraph breaks, say, or trying to use more descriptive prose), it doesn't feel like a judgement. Rather, it's a chance to WIN - to grab a bonus for doing something.
And all those little, non-grade-related Dings? They add up to real learning - our playtest last spring showed 35% growth in writing scores (mean and median!) for the 40 kids who used the approach for three months of school.
PEER REWARDS MATTER MOST
Not all Dings are created equal. There's ONE type of fun that - quite literally - kids' brains are WIRED for. As Professor Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the National Centre for Gaming Disorders in west London, observed:
“Children tend to be much more compulsive about team games. They’ve stopped investing in their real-life relationships and so they tend not to want to let their peers down online. These are their social networks and their support networks.”
In other words, if your classroom allows for the same kind of peer culture and collaboration possible in a well-designed, multi-player video game? The kids will become immersed in the experience, and connected with each other by real, lasting community bonds.
In the classroom, this means making the output of activities inherently socially rewarding. How? Make the assignment something that other students will be actively excited about, interested in, and celebratory of. That may sound difficult, but it doesn't have to be: in Luna Uni, sharing stories out loud is something students get incredibly excited for.
When a story gets read aloud, the classroom claps like mad - as hard as they can! - for a short burst after. But even DURING the stories, kids are gasping, laughing, getting creeped out, and celebrating because the world of the story belongs to them, too. Every new element being introduced is exciting because it will affect how future games go - in effect, everyone has "skin in the game."
Live sessions, in which students take on the role of their characters and face fictional challenges together, provide another way to enhance this connection. When kids play as their characters, they get a chance to have shared goals and experiment with fictional relationships - Dash might have a friendly rivalry with Quark, since they both got competitive in Tech Class building black hole drives. When they have to work together to get dice to roll and contribute Story Points to help each other re-roll when things go wrong, they have a very real experience of winning and being cheered for by their team and learning they can trust each other when things go wrong.
It all matters, because it's in the shared, creative play of the game - a space in which kids have creative and strategic agency, are recklessly unafraid to fail forward, thrill to chase their Dings, and smoothly move from the small stuff to the complex.