Special Report

Quests, Badges, and XP: How Teachers Are Using Digital Games

By Madeline Will — October 03, 2018 7 min read
In "Lure of the Labryrinth," middle school students solve math-based puzzles to find their lost pets and save the world from monsters. The digital game was designed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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Last school year, Holly Swartz decided to turn her 1st grade classroom into a galaxy far, far away.

She created a giant, nine-weeks-long “Star Wars” game for her class, dividing her students into Ewoks and Wookies and having them earn badges and experience points, or XP, for different tasks mastered.

“The idea was to get the kids working together,” Swartz said of her class at Hamilton Traditional School in South Bend, Ind. “I wanted to put fun back into the classroom.”

Making learning enjoyable and motivating students through play is the appeal of game-based learning and gamification. These concepts are not new, but they have become even more accessible to teachers over the past few years through technology.

Although not all teachers elect to digitize their classroom games—Swartz, for instance, had a tangible leader board hanging up in her classroom—there are a growing number of software programs that gamify classrooms by adding game-like elements to instruction, as well as digital learning games that students can play independently. And a plethora of online resources are available for teachers interested in implementing games in their classrooms, ranging from Twitter chats to online professional-development workshops.

Hit pause. Before you continue, here are some terms you need to learn:

Game-based learning is the idea that elements of games—like repetition, failure, and achieving goals—can facilitate real learning. For example, researchers at the Education Arcade at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed a digital game called “Lure of the Labyrinth,” in which middle school students try to find their lost pets and save the world from monsters through solving math puzzles.

Gamification is the concept of adding elements of a game—like scoring points or earning rewards—to a regular situation to motivate participants. For example, a teacher might award points to students who complete assignments. Students can collect points to win a prize.

The use of digital and online games has increased in classrooms over the past five years, according to annual survey results from the Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit Project Tomorrow. In 2017, 62 percent of teachers reported using digital or online games in their classroom—up from 30 percent in 2012.

Tips to Gamify Your Classroom

Want to gamify your classroom but don’t know where to start? Gaming experts Liz Kolb and Eric Klopfer give some advice.

Start small. “It’s exciting to think about changing your entire class or entire curriculum or behavior-management [approach] to a gameful system, but, of course, there’s going to be bugs,” Kolb said.

Instead, start with gamifying one project and see how your students respond.

Be familiar with the game, but don’t stress about it. “You should always play the game first, but you don’t need to be an expert at it,” Klopfer said.

He noted that a lot of teachers worry about what happens if their students are better at the game than they are. That’s OK, Klopfer said. Instead, teachers should focus on working through the content in the game to make sure it’s meaningful to the curriculum.

Make the game more than just a game. “Recognize that not all kids love to game, and we need to make sure that the focus isn’t so much on the gameful elements as much as it’s on the content,” Kolb said.

Teachers can’t rely on the gamification aspect to engage students, she said. Instead, the content in the game should build on students’ interests.

It’s less clear how many teachers are gamifying an entire lesson or unit versus assigning single games to reinforce a specific concept. Both types of games have academic benefits, said Eric Klopfer, the director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program at MIT and the Education Arcade.

With long-form games, “you’re motivated not only by the content but also the context, where you want your character to progress and make it through the story,” he said.

Klopfer has also studied how students play quick mobile games that last up to 10 minutes. For instance, in one such game called “Beetle Breeders,” students use their knowledge of biology and genetics to mate beetles to produce certain traits. Completing a level only takes a few minutes.

Teachers can assign those games as homework, Klopfer said, and then use the data from those games to see students’ progress.

The games are also addictive for students used to playing on their phones: “They’ll play on their own well beyond what we ask them to,” Klopfer said, adding that he typically asks students to play the games for 15 minutes, and they’ll end up playing for one or two hours across the week.

A 2014 meta-analysis of the available research found that digital games are tied to student-learning gains. Still, game design is critical, the researchers found—for example, those in which a single player is competing against a peer are less effective than other types, and games that featured abstract, graphic symbols are more effective than either realistic or cartoon-like games.

“Games just sort of model how good learning happens—they keep people on the edge of their expertise,” Klopfer said. “They provide context for problem-solving.”

Still, digital educational games have received pushback from some parents and others who are concerned about children’s screen time, data privacy, and the quality of the games. Many critics, Klopfer said, “think of games as something that’s frivolous and mindless, and they think of educational games as chocolate-covered broccoli.”

That’s the nickname for situations in which the game is disconnected from the learning. Often, the games are essentially worksheets without the paper and with some game elements thrown in.

But true game-based learning is not having kids “shoot things while solving math problems,” Klopfer said. Instead, it should be a deep connection between the content and the game.

Reality in the Classroom

Gamification is one of those education trends that “ebbs and flows,” said Liz Kolb, a clinical associate professor of education technologies at the University of Michigan. She gamified her college classroom and described the experience as a “mixed bag.”

“Right now, [game-based learning] is fairly popular, but I have also talked to many teachers who have had similar experiences as me, [in which] they tried it and scaled it back,” she said.

Kolb, who previously taught middle and high school and says the lessons she learned through gamifying college courses are applicable to K-12, used gamification software to turn assignments into quests. Students could choose which quests to complete, and they could team up with other students to complete certain quests. When they completed their quests, they earned digital badges and experience points.

She was excited about the possibility of her students focusing less on grades and more on the mastery of skills by advancing through the game. Kolb also thought game-based learning would help her students develop a growth mindset, or belief that their intelligence can be developed, since students could repeat quests without penalty until they mastered the skill.

“The truth is, it wasn’t a whole lot different from my regular classroom experience with a more traditional learning system,” Kolb said. “My students who were self-motivated really liked it. ... I also had students who found it very frustrating, who told me straight out that they didn’t like gaming.”

"The Radix Endeavor" is an online multiplayer game for middle and high school students. Players use their math and science knowledge to solve quests in a virtual world.

Kolb quickly encountered some additional challenges: Some of her undergraduate students didn’t want to reach the top of the academic leader board because they thought it would be uncool. Some students procrastinated on completing their quests—turning them all in at the deadline rather than incrementally—which frustrated Kolb’s plan to give ongoing feedback.

And gamifying the classroom adds a lot to a teacher’s workload, she said.

“You’re constantly giving feedback. Every single day, you’re assessing [a quest]—you can’t wait a week before you give feedback,” Kolb said. “You really have to, as an instructor, look at everything carefully, which is a good thing, but it’s a lot of work.”

Still, Kolb said, she teaches gamification as a pedagogical tool to her preservice teachers, because gamifying her classroom had its benefits: She ended up with lots of data on her students’ progress. And several of her students enjoyed being able to work at their own pace and to choose which quests to complete.

After all, student choice is at the heart of game-based learning, said Steve Isaacs, a game-design and -development teacher at William Annin Middle School, in Basking Ridge, N.J.

“When it comes to gamification, a lot of people use it for more like a behavior-management system,” he said. “To me, the most compelling part is when kids have choice and autonomy around learning, and we can help them find their passion in learning through these choices.”

Making School ‘Fun’

For Swartz, who is now a digital-integration specialist at Hamilton, her “Star Wars” game last school year made her 1st graders excited about learning.

Before the game, teachers were having trouble getting students to complete their reading minutes. But when Swartz tied the reading program to game points, the students began trying to outdo each other—and class reading scores began to rise. They were also eager to complete a voluntary science project—a “side journey” in the game, she said.

The game encouraged collaboration, requiring students to work together on tasks. And while Swartz called herself the game master, her students were involved in making the rules, giving them a sense of ownership over the game.

Now, Swartz is working with another 1st grade teacher to gamify her classroom—only this time, the game will be Disney-themed. While Swartz’s game last year wasn’t digital, she said she hopes to help her colleague digitize certain elements this year.

Above all, Swartz said, she succeeded in making her classroom joyful again. Students called each other Padawans, which means a Jedi-in-training in the “Star Wars” universe. Swartz dressed up in four different “Star Wars” costumes on May 4—also known as May the Fourth Be With You, or “Star Wars” day.

“I was having fun, and they were having fun,” she said.

Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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