This Twitter chat question posted by Stella Pollard (@Stella_Pollard) can across my feed a few days ago. It seems like such a simple question – “why do kids continue to engage with difficult games but disengage with difficult school work?” but this question could have books written about it.

To start I think the question misunderstands gamers. Gamers quite specific games all the time. Gamers chose to play some games over the other. Gamers will put (or throw) a controller down for the night and pick it up a day or week or year later.

Sometimes different games hit different motivations. I play Fortnite because I enjoy gaining XP and new skins in my Locker. I play Madden because I like to role play my football glory days. I liked playing games like GTA because I could explore. When ines in high school my favorite games were the ones I played with my two best friends on any given night.

Regardless of the player type motivations there does seem to be common traits that encourage gamers to play through frustration. These are the ones that come to mind with classroom applications.


Games Designers most important job might be designing games that keep players in that magical zone that is challenging but not frustratingly difficult. Too easy and gamers get bored and quits. Too hard and the gamer goes into a rage quits. The problem of course is that every gamers’ skill level is different! Game designers, like teachers, need to assess the skill in real time and adjust the difficulty to get the player/student into flow. Sounds a lot like what good teachers attempt to do.

I like this chart created by Andrez Marczeswki

Rapid Feedback Loops

Built into the idea of flow is the necessity of providing feedback. How can a player, or student, grow in their skill without feedback? One of my favorite examples is in an MLB baseball game Inused to play. When the batter hits a ball they could get a rapid report on whether the swing was too early orn late and how bad the timing was. Then with the next batter I was able to adjust my approach. Students need that same rapid feedback and the ability to immediately put that feedback into action. Collecting a paper on Friday, grading it over the weekend and handing it back on Monday is a literal waste of time. By the time the kid gets that paper back they have processed thousands of different pieces of information and likely haven’t thought about that information in days. I have a system of rolling submissions that allow immediate feedback and rapid iterations.

Evidence of Growth

Those rapid feedback loops are the reinforced by showing students that they have grown. Some teachers give badges, some write out feedback, others give items. I use a system of XP grading. I have a whole collection of posts on this ut essentially students recieve XP to show that they have demonstrated mastery over the skill or content to be demonstrated in that activity. In XP grading students grades start at zero and always going up. This is meant to show where students are in relation to where they need to be to demonstrate mastery over the expected course content and skills. The began in a weak state and are continually growing in their power. Even a 50% on a test is showing they know 50% more than I had evidence of before! The grade should go up!

When I play Fortnite I rarely win the battle royal but I can always earn XP andI can always level up. Even if I get frustrated with placing 3rd or 30th I still get a little boost to my XP.

Lowered Risks through low failure penalties

Grades are often treated like currency or a paycheck in the classroom. Students have to “earn” their grade. They need to work “overtime” on homework or get docked pay in the form a zero grade. The can get a “bonus” in the form of extra credit for doing little things that please the “boss”.

Kids don’t take risks in class the same reason employees don’t take risks at their job – it’s a terrible return on investment. If the risk pays off they get little reward. Maybe a 100% that another kid who plays itnsfe would also get. If it doesn’t work then they might get their pay docked (bad grade) because the work didnt meet the rubric requirements. Worst of all if experiment works the boss takes all the credit!

Grades are the problem when it comes to risks. Students need to know that he will still get good grades by doing things out of the ordinary. This is why I’ve changed to the Boss Fight Assessments. It is why I try to have constant mini conferences rather than collecting and grading.

No Silver Bullets

Even with all of these efforts some students are just going to disengage. For example, my 8 year old went for a year loving Fortnite. Then one week he just stopped playing. Some kids love Roblox, some Mincraft, others like Pokemon, and many like D&D. And their preferences will change sometimes hourly!

Build relationships. Give students time to breathe. Let them play and think and struggle and get frustrated. Learning is messy but teachers want to have efficient and straight lines toward meeting goals.

We should know better.