How to Hack Into the Joy of Gaming

“You took my joy, and I want it back.” – Lucinda Williams

The young man in the photograph, his face lit by bright artificial light, has opened his eyes so wide his forehead crinkles. His chin has literally dropped to his chest in open-mouthed ecstasy. Not surprisingly, we learn in photographer Phillip Toledano’s note, the young man is playing a video game we cannot see. According to gaming expert Jane McGonigal, he is probably experiencing simultaneously several of the “Top 10 Emotions” reported by gamers: joy, surprise, curiosity, excitement, wonder, and creativity.
When was the last time you saw that face in a classroom? I can remember mine, and I reluctantly must admit it was in the last century. Nicole, a student who typically squirmed in her seat or gazed longingly out of the window at the soccer fields, was reading Frankenstein and she had gotten to the part where Mary Shelley’s monster (sorry, spoiler alert) speaks. Oh, and he doesn’t just speak in monosyllabic grunts, he speaks heartrendingly in the Queen’s English. Nicole looked up from her book, and as she made eye contact with me, I knew she had felt it: the joy of reading.
The joy has gone out of many classrooms in our current century, and I want it back. I empathize with the teachers who mourn their loss – I mourn it too. It’s not our fault, we tell ourselves. Things have changed. Kids have changed. It’s those darned social media and video games. But technological change is not why we have experienced this excruciating loss. We are – because we have failed to adapt and learn from our students.
I am not a gamer, but I have kicked around a bit in Second Life. I have flown to the top of the Sistine Chapel, I have danced at an Inaugural Ball, and I have played the marimba on a lonely beach to the sound of waves washing against the shore. In Second Life, I am Sulu Dezno, a rock star.
The first time I dabbled in Second Life, I borrowed a friend’s avatar and travelled to a virtual Italy where strange creatures came up to me and started speaking…well…Italian. We beat it out of there faster than you can say, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Yet we were giggling uncontrollably, and boy oh boy we felt joy.
In schools, we need to figure out how to get our own joy and our students’ joy back, but we are going to have to move past grieving over what has been lost to do this. We need to hack the joyful mindsets of video gamers and use them to reinvent how we engage students, building a bridge to lure them back from the virtual world into the quaint magic of literature, art, and imagination in ours.

Hack#1: Derring-do 

When I watch my husband play Mirror’s Edge on his iPad, I think of derring-do. Guts, risk, leaping into the void. Daring to do. If you are over fifty, you may be reminded as I am, of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood clearing a castle wall or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid jumping from a cliff to escape capture. My husband doesn’t think twice about having his heroine drop several stories between skyscrapers to swing from a convenient flagpole into what looks like an elevator shaft.
Derring-do teaches us how to take chances in order to learn, how to leap into the void without knowing where we will land or if we will be able to stand up at the bottom. It’s a crazy sense of adventure that super-charges our adrenaline as we develop the skill of out-maneuvering an opponent or a challenging concept.
Derring-do also represents learning from mistakes and the opportunity for do-overs. The racing heroine of Mirror’s Edge never even stops to catch her breath, until quite literally she crashes (and dies one presumes), and then she looks like she takes a nap before she’s up and running again. The guy who guides her actions with stabs of a finger and a tilt of the iPad heaves his chest and gulps some air. He has been imbibing derring-do vicariously.

Hack #2: Questing

Certainly, old-schoolers like me are not unfamiliar with the quest. We have celebrated the trials and tribulations of Odysseus’s journey home and traced the influence of eastern cultures on Europe’s development as a result of the Crusades. We understand the very nature of the hero as someone who sacrifices the easy life to attend to a higher cause that requires learning and dedication over the long haul.
However, teaching “the hero” concept to eighth-graders this past fall made me realize that our students understand the heroic quest in terms of video games. My colleague, Stephen Vrla, an avid gamer, has taught me to see literature through a gamer’s eyes. From massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, many of our students know that a hero or heroine brings a hopeful sense of adventure and keen purposefulness to the journey ahead. Tests are viewed as opportunities to learn and build skill or to acquire valuable prizes or tools. Guides will help the seekers find meaning and their way toward their destination, despite the villains who will distract them from their goal.
We need to help our student-gamers bring that sense of hopeful, dedicated purpose and joyful resilience to their own heroic journeys as learners in school and in life.

Hack #3: Design

I learned about visual design by editing my high school yearbook. Kids these days learn the pleasures of building and arranging things in new, aesthetically pleasing combinations from video games. I’ve seen some amazing works of art in Farmville, never mind whether the crops wilt or the cows aren’t fed. Gamers move through rooms and worlds to learn their logic and master their organization. At the most basic level, games demand that we spend some time figuring out how they are put together and how we can leverage their design to move literally and metaphorically to “the next level.”
This kind of “systems thinking” is critical to the work of the Quest to Learn School. According to a report by NPR, the school’s director Katie Salen, describes such thinking as a “a tool to manage complexity.” The confident joy and satisfaction that comes with figuring out how systems work is critical to the learning we need to redesign into our classrooms.
Hacking the joy of gaming is starting to take hold in education. The Mind Research Institute uses simple visual design from gaming to teach pre-Algebra concepts without the use of language. I had a conversation recently with a new teacher about introducing the gaming concept of “do-overs” to encourage mastery of skills in her 8th grade math class, and it worked. I don’t know a physics teacher who hasn’t at least thought about how to use Angry Birds to help students understand in visual and interactive terms the laws of the physical universe.
My personal quest is to gain a better understanding of the heroic quest in video games. Once I learn the secrets of engaging in multi-player digital narrative creation, perhaps then I can lure my students back into the now exotic kingdom of reading literature.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Larry Kahn

Serendipitously Edutopia just released this terrific talk by James Paul Gee on learning that happens while gaming:

Marie Bjerede

"Tests are viewed as opportunities to learn and build skill or to acquire valuable prizes or tools."
This is one of the most beautiful sentences I have seen in a while. I'm a big fan of the gaming metaphor in edreform - this one captures the essence of what needs to change on many levels. Thank you.

Craig Lawson

You may be interested in seeing what we are doing in Pender County, North Carolina. We are currently using World of Warcraft to teach students about a "Heroes Journey." You can learn more about this project at

Susan Davis

Thanks to Larry and Craig for sharing more information. Craig, your work with World of Warcraft if impressive. I am sure my colleague Stephen Vrla, who coached me, will be in touch. Marie, I am honored by your praise!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.