For…ever, it feels like, I have been trying to find ways to build lessons around gaming. I like games. My students like games. Games it’ll be.
“Gamification” was one of those trendy buzzwords in the education after-market. I attended many a workshop or conference about methods one could adopt to “gamify” the classroom, ranging from fully online platforms like Classcraft to more manual, tangible, offline methods that brought XP and powerups to the physical lesson. They were all interesting, worthy endeavors.
And yet, apart from things like Blooket, I hardly ever use games in my classroom. Gamification, like flipped classrooms and open schooling before it, fizzled and vanished. Merging contemporary concepts of gaming with education is hard.
1: It’s hard because I teach Social Studies. Generally, the social sciences are more conceptual than granular. Though there are dates and facts and locations, our focus tends towards big ideas that affect the world in which we live. Even the more straightforward of our standards are still rich and difficult. So when approaching a game involving social studies that game must either be entirely immersive, and so able to offer a bit of depth to the concept involved, or it must be rote.
2: It’s hard because there is very little by way of high quality purchasable content, so it all has to be developed in-house.
3: It’s hard because if I have to develop my own stuff, making games to put on display for disengaged preteens feels like a big ask. Why put in the work if some of them are going to not try or dismiss it outright? Septuple this discomfort because I’ve often thought strictly in terms of roleplaying games for students, solo or otherwise.
Tabletop RPGs are deeply personal.
Personal because it’s up to the GM, either myself as teacher or a brave student, to run the game, facilitate the story, and put themselves on the line for the overall quality of the experience. What 12 year old, however courageous, is going to do that willingly? They’re personal because RPGs are played one-to-one; one character to one player. So these characters are often proxies for us, ourselves, and it takes a certain amount of hardihood to wear one’s self on one’s sleeve, even as a bardic gnome but especially for a highly sensitive and fragile preteen.
Developing games from this point of view is daunting. It’s no wonder I’ve stalled so hard over the years. And development goes back to my first point.
As I see it, there are really two ways to work games of any sort into curriculum: immersion or trivia. Immersion means a content-rich experience that involves the student in the curriculum itself: a board game exploring types of biomes; an RPG or interactive story about the experience of children in Darfur; an engine building game that compares different types of economies. These things can, and would, teach the content, but they are challenging to create, time consuming to teach, and lengthy to play. The relatively fast pace of public school academics, with pacing guides and data requirements and erratic breaks and the like, means time is a hot commodity. So it is invariably impractical to build such games from scratch. See point number 2.
“Trivia” I use quite literally. Think of the perennial…classic?…Trivial Pursuit. The game itself is completely beholden to the quiz show. The pieces, the dice, even the board itself are effectively tacked-on.
With this model in mind, almost any game can be used in the classroom. Play some Warhammer, but you have to answer a math fact before you shoot; a little of the ol’ Ticket to Ride, but you have to answer one of the history review questions at the end of your turn; etc.
The issue with this is that it’s rather low on the classical learning hierarchy. Bloom tells us recall is the bottom rung and experience confirms this. Most of us have crammed the night before, passed the test, and then let the factoids fall out of ears like so much cerumen. Experiential learning, doing stuff, is far superior to retention and true acquisition. This would seem to score points in the favor of those immersive gaming experiences I mentioned, and I would never argue otherwise.
However between those top buns of the taxonomical sandwich are a variety of methods that can be utilized through simple questioning. Without getting too into the valid criticisms of Bloom’s taxonomy, it’s fair to say that inserting more rigorous questions into my “Board Games + Trivia” method, things like comparing and arguing, could promote a bit of critical thinking. “Explain the difference between presidential and parliamentary democracies” is a bit higher order than “What is a democracy?”
I also have to wonder about the efficacy of retention through games. Even if something is simple recall is it firing more neurons, and promoting learning, just because it’s done through a game? I seem to recall holding on to more facts about random alien civilizations from video games than Roman emperors from lectures.
Board Games + Trivia also circumvent the social deterrents of RPGs. I’m not playing as my secret barbarian self, I’m just pushing little mans around a carboard map!
Certainly with the right mix of kids RPGs would be incredibly fun and powerful in the classroom. I have friends that run after school D&D groups to great effect. But, in a general setting, it’s easier for kids to hide behind a squad of orcs or a wooden meeple farm and actually learn something.
What I’ve come to realize this year is that it’s better to set my sights a little lower, to just let kids play something like Catan while answering review questions rather than creating a thousand page DM manual for a campaign about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Rather than letting my wheels spin for the rest of my teaching career and never actually doing the thing, like talking big Revolution instead of just taking small revolutionary actions, I mean to start putting games into my classroom and letting the chips (dice?) fall where they may.
What do you think?