I’ve been teaching long enough to have heard the old cliche ‘that kid is good at playing the game’. When said in a school context it is usually code for ‘that kid may not be the smartest but will get an A because I like them, or they are quiet, or they hand in assignments on time, or they do pester me for extra credit, or some combination of factors’.  It is the ultimate backhanded compliment. It is also an indictment of the system. We have built an educational institution in which a teacher knows that the grades and assessments will not give an accurate indication of the students actual abilities. 

Before learning about gamification and game inspired design my typical response would have been to shrug my shoulders and say good for them. Since gamifying the classroom though – and we will come back the the ‘school as a game’ metaphor – I have taken this backhanded compliment more seriously. What if the students really are treating school like a game? In that case, what are the expectations, norms, and schema they are bringing to class? How does game play explain the daily the behaviors and interactions? What are the roles we should have in the classroom? Why is that pestering me for extra credit and why does the system reward the quiet kid that raises their hand?

My epiphany came when I realized that if I wanted to treat my classroom like a game I would have to stop thinking of those kids entering my room as students. They are the players and that makes me the game designer. Games fail all the time so if I want mine to succeed I would need to understand the different player types, their external and internal motivations and their reward and currency expectations. Most importantly of all – gamers volunteer to do hard and sometimes tedious work, but only if it has some meaningful consequence  in their world. When I first started teaching Dr Mel Levine argued that there is no such thing as a lazy student but they may have ‘output failure’ – meaning their priorities may not match my priorities. What I am realizing through game inspired design is that we teacher’s sometimes fail to account for the fact that students are not volunteering to do our hard work. They are required to attend and grades may not always be the currency or reward every student is looking for. Their output failure is the teacher’s failure to recognize the different motivations students (players) have in attending (playing). 

In a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft players can chose any number of styles of play. Some want to be ‘tanks’ – a term used to describe players that want to fight and bludgeon the enemy. Others want to be ‘Healers’ – the players that want to stay out of danger while supporting the tanks as they do battle. There are many other avatar types and game activities and all are necessary for this game universe to function. The game designers job is to provide structures and rule sets that balance the needs and interests of all the different types allowing them all to make meaningful contributions during their game play experiences.  Various game thinkers have made contributions in understanding the player types and their motivations. The first serious effort was by Richard Bartles taxonomy which seperated players into 4 types on an x-y axis based on how much they wanted to influence the environment and other players. Nick Yee, Yu-kai Chou, Andrzej Marczewski, and others have all deepened the understanding of player types. 

In this series I intend to show why that kid in the 1st paragraph is ‘playing the game’. I also intend to discuss how we can use player type models to better understand and plan for students that don’t care a bit about our grades nor our priorities. This change in mentality, thinking of students as gamers,  allows the teacher (class game designer) to think about each student’s experience as the central driving force of the classroom. Remember, when people turn on their XBOX or PlayStation they are going to save the world or win the SuperBowl – not file meaningless TPS forms.

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