My class has had a game-inspired design structure for several years now and one of my favorite parts of the year is introducing students to “the game”. My classroom is modeled around traditional role-playing games (RPG) and/or Massively Multiplayer Online RolePlaying Games (MMORPG) structures. It’s fun to see the reaction of students that are familiar with the vocabulary and structures of the genre. When I start the year, the Final Fantasy series and Legends of Zelda are typically in the back of my mind. When I introduced the class game setup last week one of my weaker student’s eyes light up. I could almost see a cartoon light bulb pop up above his head. We made eye contact and he said “Its like Saint’s Row!” I admit that with 2 kids I am not as up to speed on my video games as I used to be. Apparently this game is not in the sci-fi/fantasy genre but is instead centered on a crime syndicate story line with a more modern setting. The games must be similar enough though because now he is hooked and even has a plan to get a “high score: It helps that the class language is not built on the fantasy RPG style. Instead everything fits into the curriculum vocabulary. We don’t go on quests – we perform missions. We don’t have guilds but rather S.T.A.T.E.S. (strategically tiny assemblies to enhance success). Thinking about the similarities of the games and the commonalities of the structure drew my mind back to the old argument that I’ve made about why game-inspired design is appropriate for the classroom.

If you think about the way these games flow and the characters develop classrooms and game mechanics make perfect sense. In an RPG the player’s avatar begins as a weak and relatively powerless character but with the potential to make drastic and meaningful changes throughout the game. By demonstrating mastery of various skills and concepts the player can earn new levels which leads to their avatar becomes more powerful. RPG treatment of avatar growth also clearly connects to differentiation. Players can usually select from a few different types of characters to start the game – like a “warrior”, “mage”, or “healer” – which can impact the way the strategies and techniques available to the player. This can be further differentiated if the player chooses to specialize by advancing on different ability tree branches. For example, a mage might specialize in fire or water. The game has to be built to accommodate radically different fighting styles and strategies.

Compare this to a classroom. Most classrooms use some sort of weighted category grading system. Besides being confusing mathematical formulas that students don’t like or understand (a post for another time), these computations do a poor job of showing students their progress. If a student has a 100% average  after 1 week the score doesn’t represent 100% mastery. The RPG leveling system is much more attuned to demonstrate progress. Like the avatar that starts weak and powerless, our students start class without having demonstrated mastery over any elements of our curriculum. Similarly in RPG’s, avatars start at  level 0 and gain experience which lets the player can quickly see the avatar’s relative strength. In an MMORPG players compare each other based on each other’s level. In level up systems, as students demonstrate mastery of skills and concepts they “level up” into their grade. There grades never go down (which they love) and the level (grade) represents where they are in relation to where they want to be. If the student wants to be at a level 50 by the end of the semester but are only at a level 25 they (and their parents) know that mastery of only about 1/2 of the skills and content has been shown.

Further, the structures of a game-inspired classroom allow for the different “character types” that fill our classrooms. Students come into our realms from a variety of experiences and with a plethora of skills and abilities.  Also,.like the ability trees they often chose to specialize their talents; some become athletes, others artists, still others academics. In my gamified American History classroom I’ve seen students specialize in artistic productions, research skills, content memorization, computer tech, and more. Like the powerful RPGs and MMORPGs that provide engaging, meaningful, and differentiated experiences for an extremely wide range of player types our classrooms should be able to meet the needs and wants of these different students.