Fortnite’s Chapter 2 Season 6 Primal theme introduced wildlife to the gameplay. Players could hunt wildlife and collect bones and meat or they could tame the animals as allies. So in the span of a few seconds the player could kill a wolf, collect its bones and meat, eat the meat (raw) to regain health, and then use the bones to craft a new more powerful weapon. If that sounds crazy just know that you could be killing a chicken only to turn around and be attacked by a Velociraptor. It was bananas!
Oh, and you could be shot by a literal banana…
In real life none of that previous paragraph makes any sense. Raw meat can’t improve your health. Bones can’t make an Assault Rifle more powerful. (Or maybe they can? I’m not a gun guy so apparently my opinion on weaponry doesn’t matter). But in the Fortnite universe it makes complete sense. In fact Fortnite had a meta-joke about this in Chapter 2 Season 4. All of these Marvel superheros and villains were magically transported to the island and in the opening cutscene there was a joke to explain that the island erased their memories and convinced them to try to kill each other in a battle royale. The game uses an internal logic that ties everything together.
This is common in most successful games and if there is no explicit dialogue they design implies elements. Often players just develop head cannon to explain things. For example, when I play Madden Football I like to relocate whatever franchise I take control of and make up stories in my head about why it had to happen or the backstory of the new rookie I just drafted. People want to make these connections. They want to know the world makes sense.
Are our classrooms any different?
I try to include as many real world connections as possible. In my US History classroom I spend a lot of time trying to discuss WHY we study History, WHY we are learning to analyze the sources of information, HOW modern events were shaped by the past. I incorporate this into the game logic to overtly explain this too.
I have all but eliminated “tests” and “quizzes”. Students understand, both implicitly and because I tell them, that the “school purpose” of these devices is to rank and sort through grades. I can tell them these are assessments and are meant to determine how much they understand but they know the school pirpose. They have had at least a decade of school by the time they get to me and they know the real purpose.
To get them out of that headspace we instead we have boss fights and grades are a small part of the purpose. The internal logical of the game – answer correctly and attack the enemy to defeat the bad guy – supplies the motivation. Answer correctly and the student gets to act. They roll dice, they throw paper balls, they get to laugh or trash talk. The game logic provides engagement. I don’t need a punitive grade and I get better data. If they miss a question the game and data it provides give them the information they need to improve next battle.
When I plan my classroom theme this applies as well. For several years I have had a superhero theme. The powers are derived from finding and analyzing primary sources. This year as they demonstrate historical thinking skills the students super powers grow. This is intended tnreflect their growing power as historical thinkers. Collecting sources, providing sourcing and context, and developing interpretation literally powers historical method. My superpower theme ties into the logical purposes of the work we do.
The game logic can be applied to the other historic thinking skills I teach. A puzzle game might require comparison skills. An investigation into a mysterious disappearance involves causation. Breaking a tricky cipher might involve reading primary sources. After the game we can reflect as to the real world applications of the skills or content.
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that important things need to be “serious”. That things that are good for us need to involve pain or suffering. We need to demonstrate grit and persevere if something matters.
It’s true that growth involves challenge. It involves overcoming obstacles. But a big lie is that it needs to be miserable. Games demonstrate that that people crave challenge, they want obstacles to overcome, they need problems to solve. Just make the real world and game logic align.