5 Elements of Good Games that Can Make Us Better Teachers

I recently took my professional development as an educator in a new direction by purchasing an Xbox. Yes, in addition to blogging, engaging in Twitter conversations, and reading the latest research on educational best practices, I started playing video games to improve my skills and understanding of educational pedagogy. Both Jean Piaget and Jerome Bruner have said that play is important for deep learning, so perhaps they would agree that the 3 billion hours each week that we spend playing video games worldwide might actually have some educational value in the process. While they’re not always having fun, video game players generally enjoy what they do. Can we say the same about the students in our classrooms? Following are five elements of good games that we can transfer to our pedagogy to improve student engagement and academic success.

1. Goals are achievable without being too easy. This principle stems from a golden rule of game design which warns against wasting the player’s time. In the context of the classroom, this means leveraging innovative instructional strategies around content-based learning activities within each student’s Zone of Proximal Development – that Goldilocks area of learning put forth by Lev Vygotsky. Busy work is the banality of any classroom. Tasks that are too easy or too hard, those outside of a student’s ZPD, will have our students “powering off” before learning can ever start.

2. All participants have a similar chance of winning. In the world of games, this refers to every player having equal access to resources and information.This element is present in all good games, at least in the beginning. Naturally, as any game advances, those who have developed the requisite skills to succeed in the early stages of the game will develop higher order thought-processes to approach the latter stages of game play. Nevertheless, a hallmark of a well-designed game is the continual opportunity to learn skills to mastery at all levels. Aside from the context, the same can be said of our experiences in the classroom. Like good game designers, teachers must structure the learning environment and process to offer equal access to the information and resources needed by our students to succeed in learning. And we must ensure that the opportunity to reach mastery is constantly present regardless of what our curriculum pacing calendar says.

3. The risk of failure is present, but not overwhelming. When the possibility of failure looms over us it can stop us in our tracks. This doesn’t always happen, however. When the risk of failure is present yet minimal we instead approach gameplay with a degree of functional anxiety, or eustress – the good kind of stress. Rather than disabling our abilities to think and perform, this risk of failure encourages active and critical learning. In the classroom, this has nothing to do with grades. Instead it has everything to do with ah-ha moments resulting from authentic learning activities. They are those which require a high amount of emotional, physical, and mental energy invested into the learning process, the type that don’t end up on the classroom floor after the bell rings, but with our hands shot into the air in a celebration of victory.

4. Positive feedback occurs during the process. In the classroom, this element of sustained engagement is often taken for granted and overlooked, but none of the best games forget about it. When playing a videogame, positive feedback can take the form of a score total, experience points (XP), narrative feedback, and unlocked items or quests for example. Whatever form this kind of feedback takes, it is constantly there and is never withheld until a final goal is reached. So, what might similar forms of positive feedback look like with our students? At the most basic level, we can recognize students’ ongoing learning with high-fives and encouraging comments in passing. Beyond that, we can offer additional points on an assignment, include specific recognition in school announcements and assemblies, send an email to the student’s parents, or even . . . go out of our way on the way home from work to stop at a student’s house to tell him or her how well they are doing in class. Whatever form of positive feedback we offer, the most important thing to remember is that it happens often and throughout the entire learning process.

5. There exists negative feedback as well. This practice lends itself to ensuring a sense of fairness in gameplay. Important to note is that negative feedback is not destructive or debilitating. It’s honest with the intent of improving our understanding of how to succeed within the context of the game, or the classroom, for that matter. When playing a first-person shooter game, negative feedback might take the form of diminishing health. When playing a competitive sporting game, it might be a losing score. And when playing a strategy game, it might be a slow time or an unsuccessful attempt at solving a puzzle. Whatever it is, in one of our favorite games or in the classroom, it is an essential part of the overall learning process. It’s never designed to exert power or dominance over a player or student. Instead, negative feedback exists to scaffold learning and encourage persistence toward the goal or objective.

Veteran game designer Raph Koster suggested that learning is really what our favorite games are all about. Though video games are certainly not a panacea for education, and while there are plenty of them that are simply consumptive in nature, offering little in return for the time invested in playing them, there are a lot of valuable lessons we can learn from playing good games , whether for fun or professional development.

Dave Guymon

Dave Guymon is a public online middle school teacher, edtech blogger, and the author of If You Can’t Fail, It Doesn’t Count.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Cas Olivier

The sixth one is enjoy.
My view is that learning takes place best when it is enjoyed and automatically includes the 5 elements.

Ken Tilton

Good move on the Xbox. In my case I was not as insightful and was merely lucky to have gotten sucked into exactly one game, the racing game Gran Turismo. As I worked on my software I realized it should work like video games. Here are the elements I picked out from GT.
1. An unbending standard. It's a DVD, my parents cannot intimidate it into giving me the Professional Driver license.
2. Yep, piling up the points and buying exotic virtual cars is a great hook, but I wonder if we need it? The intrinsic reward of doing a little better each time even as we fail is enough to keep us going. The steady, small successes are an opiate. Every time a row (or five) of blocks disappears in Tetris (ok, my other vice) I get an endorphin spray. And I must say I never worried over my score -- achievement is its own reward (for even the worst student, and perhaps especially for them).
3. The feedback is immediate and ever-present. That might be the hardest thing to arrange in many academic subjects.
4. There are a variety of activities: low-challenge arcade racing, high challenge missions I can tackle at will, and a licensing scheme I have to work through from beginner to pro.
5. And one key thing about those activities: I decide which activities to undertake, and save for the licensing ladder I can tackle any activity I like, ready or not. This makes the player/learner the master of their experience, unlike so much training in which the educator sets the activities.
It is so great you went out and got that Xbox. I gave up trying to explain all these things to a colleague, realized I had to lend them my PS3. :)

Leave a Comment

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