Classroom Power Ups: Welcome to World of 8-bit Engagement

I did not know it at the time but my first professional development sessions came in the 2nd grade. That was the year that my parents surprised me and my sister by purchasing the greatest educational system of the 1980s – the Nintendo Entertainment System. Throughout my formative years, Mario and Luigi became my first professional development leaders and, I must admit, I spent a lot of time learning at the feet of these masters. Later in my adulthood, when evidence of my gaming abilities leaked out there was a suggestion that it was “evidence of a misspent youth” but as it turns out everything I really needed to know about teaching was given to me as I battled Koopa Troopas and Goombas.

To be successful a video game needs to be a great teacher. It has to engage the player right away because by definition the player is attempting to overcome unnecessary obstacles to reach the goal and if the player feels frustrated or bored rather than the spark of joy right away then the player leaves the game. Once that is accomplished, the next challenge is to immediately teach the player the rules and expectations of the game’s unique universe. Since players rarely read the instructions this all has to be embedded into the game play with the added difficulty that the instruction has to be fun. Many games with great concepts and interesting mechanics have flopped because they were not great teachers.

The great video games like Super Mario Bros, Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Madden Football inspire and inform much of my teaching practice. Even games that are not in the Pantheon of Greatness have pieces of them that are useful to understanding how students learn in this new era of education. Learning from games is also not limited to video games by the way. If you are inspired by board games, trading card games, sports, and or any number of other fun activities those can also inspire better teaching practices.  Video Games are my go to for inspiration though. When I was 8 years old Mario taught me about free2fail and the importance of rapid feedback loops as I died time and time again fighting King Bowser. I was forced to revise my strategy and immediately tried again. When I was older and discovered RPGs, the exploration complex and beautiful (sometimes dark) universe of Final Fantasy VII  taught the importance of theme and autonomous decision making. Finally in high school, many nights were spent bonding and collaborating with my best friends playing Mario Cart or tying up our phone line dialing up to play Doom battles. In college this turned into GoldenEye tournaments with my suite mates and keeping in touch back home in an online Madden league.

The power of games inspire me to PowerUp my classroom by taking the bits and pieces that engage or effectively teach and then applying them to my educational setting. Here is the definition of a Power-Up from Wikipedia:

“Objects that instantly benefit or add extra abilities to the game character, usually as a temporary effect. Persistent power-ups are called perks.”

Mario taught me about Power Ups as an 8 year old. On the first screen of the first level of the Nintendo version of Super Mario Bros the player can perform 2 actions – jump on a Goomba which teaches them how to defeat an enemy or punch a shiny block which shoots out a Mushroom. Grab that mushroom and Mario doubles in size, can break blocks, and has an extra hit before dying. What a Power Up! Not only does the enhanced abilities make the game easier it hooks the player right away. The design also gives the player an immediate unwritten instruction on the rules and physics of the game world. Its the perfect combination of engagement and pedagogy and it was not an accident. The designer Miyamoto (‘Father of Modern Video Games’) understood the importance of both engagement and instruction in video games.

Classroom Power Ups occur when a teacher takes the most engaging elements of games or even the games themselves and apply them to their practice. This might involve adapting game mechanics and elements, using pieces of actual games to teach, or transforming the classroom into a game itself. While I understand the importance of unified terminology I am thoroughly uninterested in getting involved in these semantic issues here. For the sake of clarity though, Gamification is the effort to use game mechanics in non-game situations. A limited example is using badges or leaderboards in a classroom. Game-Based Learning (or GBL) involves using commercially available games as instructional tools. This is the concept behind the MinecraftEDU movement. Both of these philosophies have strengths and weaknesses and are appropriate in different times and places. Personally, I treat my classroom as a EDURPG or EDULARP; both of these concepts suggest the transformation of the classroom into an EDUcational Role-Playing Game (EDURPG) or educational Live Action Role Playing game (EDULARP).

Whatever the terminology my core philosophy is centered around Game Inspired Design – the effort to apply appropriate games or game mechanics to an educational setting. This blog and my various appearances are designed to share my experiences, my successes, my failures, and my ideas about Game Inspired Designs so that other Educators can learn to find their own game inspirations to Power Up their classrooms and environments. We are all gamers now – even if it is just a few minute jaunt into Candy Crush or sitting down to do the NY Times Sunday Crossword puzzle. Collecting Classroom Power Ups involves a constant effort to innovate and create authentic student centered classroom universes.

Thank you for joining me on this quest to Leveling up Learning with Game Inspired Designs!

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