What classrooms can learn from games

After reading Setting Students Minds on Fire and A New Culture of Learning, I reflected on my own experiences with gaming and how those principles could be translated into classroom learning. As a gamer, I tend to play either simulation games (The Sims) or peaceful-ish quest games (Pokemon, Mario,etc.). Several principles of game-learning from these games can apply easily to classrooms and improve learning and retention.

First is the way a game begins. Most games start with a little background, often in the form of a cut-scene, on why you are about to start the quest/mission. I like to be immersed in a good story, and an interesting introduction is important for setting up that story. Meanwhile, back in the classroom, if you ask any student why they are taking that class, most will just say “Because it is required for my major”. As far as motivation to finish the game, that’s pretty weak. Often, majors come with a list of required courses, but no explanation as to why those courses are necessary. I’m still not sure why I had to take an Economics course as a Soil Science major. Instructors can always see the majors of their students on the class roster, and can use the gaming strategy to start the course with a little background on what the goal is, and how accomplishing that goal can be beneficial to all players. If students can see how the objectives of the course can help them in their own long term goals, they will have a better motivation than a GPA or a piece of paper to work hard and learn the material.

Once a game has established the quest, the players have to figure out how to accomplish it. Many games have the major quest broken down into manageable pieces, and often use an expanding world system. For example, with Pokemon games, you start of in one small town, then the quest takes you to another town. After you accomplish the mini-quests there, you go on to another city, increasing your skills and the available resources as you go. Sometimes the quest takes you back to towns you’ve already visited, and sometimes you go back on your own to try to collect different types of pokemon that you may have missed. In classroom settings, some of this is already employed. A lot of lectures build on previous knowledge, and often a topic will get brought up multiples times in order to give context. However, many classrooms don’t do well with the manageable mini-quests. How many courses have you taken where most of your grade came from 1 or 2 midterms and a final? This model gives rise to the binge and purge for knowledge and very low retention. Very few games have only 1 or 2 boss battles. That would be stressful and not nearly as much fun. It would not allow players to build up their skills in an engaging manner, and most players would not stick with the game for very long.

I think the principle that most desperately needs to be brought into classrooms is the outcome of failure in games. For most classrooms, when students do poorly on a test, or don’t understand a concept, they just get a bad grade and move on to the next concept. This model does not facilitate good learning, and can be extremely detrimental to students who struggle with an early concept that later parts of the course are based on.  Whereas in a game like Pokemon, if you lose a battle, you don’t get to fail and move on. You are transported to the last town you were in, and your pokemon are healed. The worst consequence is that you lose a little in-game currency. But then you try again. Sometimes you spend a little time trying to level your pokemon up, or switch out your pokemon to try a new strategy, but then you face the gym leader again, and again, until you win. You don’t get thrown onto the next, harder quest, until your are strong enough to finish the current quest. The ability to try again and again without major consequences makes players more willing to take on a challenging game. This could easily be translated into the classroom. With writing assignments, an instructor could allow for multiple drafts. On other assessments (quizzes, tests, homework), an instructor could allow students to redo the assignment in some way that allows the student to grasp the concepts they had struggled with.

I argue that this last principle needs to so desperately come into classrooms based off my own experiences as an instructor. I have seen students, used to getting high grades, become so terrified of ruining their GPA, that the focus becomes entirely on the grade than the material. I’ve had students on writing assignments hound me with questions so relentlessly about so many minute things, it felt as though I may as well have written the assignment for them. These students were so worried about getting docked points for messing up that they were totally unwilling to take any initiative for themselves. I recognize that the more opportunities for re-doing assignments there are, the more work there is for instructors. However, I think a balance can be found that enables student learning with out paralyzing fear of failure and allows instructors to get the work done. The inordinately high level of grade stress is probably responsible for a lot of burn out and perhaps one of the reasons so many students who start college degrees do not finish them.


9 thoughts on “What classrooms can learn from games

  1. I like that you’ve taken the game metaphor and actually stated what parts of a class could correspond to useful parts of the game. I found that really lacking in some of the articles and almost always thought at the end – “okay, so what are you suggesting we do?”. Your analogies took the concept and filled in that step.

    I wonder if your mini-quest, go back to the last save-point idea could work with a class full of different ‘speeds’ of learners. How could students take the extra time to redo one part without still falling behind on the next?


    1. I think that the model can be used in different ways in lots of different classes. I took a lab coarse where we were given the lab manual for the semester. We had to go through it in order, but we did it at our own pace. If you completed an experiment in 4 lab periods rather than 3 that was ok, as long as you got everything done by the end. If we did poorly on a lab assignment, we were allowed a redo. This required a little more work on the lab instructors part, to have reagents available for 2 or 3 experiments every time, but it worked out that everyone finished the requirements by the end of the semester (and some of us even finished early so we had a few weeks off). I am convinced if a lab class can make it work, most other classes can to.


  2. slharrell

    Hi Sarah!

    I enjoyed your post this week. As a gamer, I was able to relate well to your analogy of a good game vs what a good classroom experience could be. I like that you talk about how the practice of teaching would be student-oriented and that each student levels up in their own time as they develop the necessary skills. I can see where this would have a positive impact on student outcomes and would make an instructor feel good about getting up and going to work everyday.


    1. Thanks for your comment! I certainly hope that instructors are going to work enthusiastic about educating minds! I found that a lot of readings had examples geared towards humanities courses and I found myself thinking “that just won’t translate in a science course. You can’t have an engaged game of role-playing soil particles”, so I tried to think of how those lessons could work for any class.


  3. Zhackett

    Hi Sarah, thank you so much for your thoughts on what classroom can learn from games. I know that I really enjoyed how you explained the classroom as a game. It gave me a lot to think about. I agreed with you about the pet peeve about when you ask a student “why did you take this class” and their answer is “because it is required”. It made me think about how we could (in an ideal world) have advisors or make a lecture for each incoming major, explain the courses they are required to take and why it is helpful for that major. I know that the students I work with, they want to know the reasoning behind everything and it can be helpful to include them in that discussion.

    I also liked your point about failure in the classroom. I feel that as a whole, we do not necessarily teach students that it is ok to fail and when you fail, how you can learn from it and come back better (and more resilient) than ever. I know in a class I’ve had, that an assignment I learned the most from came as a result of not doing well on it the first time around. The professor gave us a midterm of sorts and than later in the semester, it was given out [ with some additions] again so that we could take what we had did originally and have a chance to rework it and make it stronger. I really got great value from this and it helped build my resilience in the classroom.


    1. Thanks for your comment! I agree that advisors should explain to their students why the requirements are there, in addition to instructors explaining why their class is relevant. I think many universities approach the major requirements as a thing that they’ve decided on and the students are just going to follow it. If the students were more involved in the discussion of why those requirements are there, they might feel a little more empowered in their choice of courses and approach some of those more “boring” courses with greater interest.


  4. Julia

    Hi Sarah,

    You emphasized three excellent points in this week’s blog:
    1) the importance of story telling or framing;
    2) the importance of connecting the course to individual students; and
    3) the need for students to be able to fail.

    For your first point, I think about Melissa Marshall’s TED talk “Talk Nerdy to Me” that helps scientists and engineers communicate with lay audiences. Similarly, a lot of what professors are trying to communicate is cool, but isn’t explained in a way that clicks.

    With respect to taking classes in different disciplines, I had an innovation professor who said “innovation happens at the interface between two disciplines.” Connecting courses to student backgrounds is important to building interdisciplinary thinkers. Professors can help students see the applicability of their course, but also engage their students with relevant examples.

    Your last point is not written or said enough. People have phobias around failure, but we learn from failure and frankly in the world outside of class students need to be resilient. If getting a bad grade seems bad now, how will students deal with giving a presentation to their boss only for it to fall flat, or getting a bad performance review, or… the list goes on. Learning how to fail, learn, and keep going is a skill that every student needs.

    Thank you for raising these points.


    1. Julia,
      Thanks! I couldn’t agree more with your last point. I still haven’t really learned how to fail and deal with failure. Case in point, I am currently at the “talking about scheduling prelims” stage of my PhD. I am already terrified of failing them, even though there is a redo opportunity built into the exams. I still feel like if I fail, it will be the LITERAL END OF THE WORLD, despite the rational part of my brain knowing that it simply isn’t true.


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