Many of the elements and engagement factors found in games can help inform the shape of tomorrow’s classrooms.

Today’s students are ahead of their time—or at least, their careers are. According to “Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century (from the U.S. Department of Labor), 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids will end up at jobs that haven’t been created yet. How do we cultivate an empowered workforce, one that is capable of interacting with multiple forms of technology that permeate and transform our lives, while the technology continues to evolve at such a rapid pace?

Generation Z, or the iGeneration (children who never knew a time without the internet), not only use the internet and mobile technology as a resource for knowledge, but also to socialize, communicate, build individualized spaces, and craft experiences that yield to their will with few constraints. Today’s youth literally hold the key to technology’s very form, function, and structure in the palm of their hands.

Instead of attempting to pry these devices from millions of tiny fists, as was the instinct of many educational gatekeepers at one time in our not-too-distant past, many are embracing the idea that it’s time to meet this new generation in their own space. But where, exactly, is that?

Jane McGonigal, a well-known game designer and expert writer on the topic, says that 183 million Americans, as part of half a billion people worldwide, play video games at least an hour a day. Perhaps inspecting people’s inherent desire to be playful and their love of games can help us solve the challenge of shaping a user experience for students that will prepare them to meet not only the Common Core, but also the increasingly rigorous demands of a highly competitive global workforce.

This new generation has a much higher expectation from the system then ever before. They are tough customers by the time they enter formal teaching environments, long accustomed to highly engaging elements embedded in their everyday lives. Schools need to provide a user experience that matches or exceeds what students experience in their “leisure” game play in order to keep them engaged—and learning.

Can the power of the game space (a system that feels more like a game than a classroom) be harnessed to aid instruction? How do we guarantee that students/players will actually learn? Many of the elements and engagement factors found in any number of games across a wide range of platforms and genres can help inform the shape of tomorrow’s classrooms.

(Next page: What education can learn from game mechanics)

How can we bridge the gap to make the best elements of game play for “fun” work in the classroom? For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that engagement equals fun. The hard truth about “fun” is that it’s very difficult to produce on demand. In the best of circumstances, children enter the game space in search of fun with little coaching via social cues: seeing others who are playing smile, laugh, or model playful behavior lets them know it is safe to play. Players can bend games to their own desires and create organic, unstructured activities that foster self-motivated exploration with a very low risk of failure.

In the game space, the concept of failure has been completely, and powerfully, redefined. Players who are working toward mastering a skill can attempt to do so with few consequences for repeated attempts, and they are eventually rewarded with a true mastery of the skill they have feverishly pursued. Their motivation is purely intrinsic and, indeed, creates a magical moment.

Introduced into concepts of any game play, this naturally attracts other players. When the individual is safe to try—and even fail—with little to no risk, players become more creative, communicative, and more likely to collaborate with others—all of which are invaluable 21st-century skills. And despite a general heightened knowledge that now exists about early socialization, only recently have we begun to see how very powerful these tools can be—both inside and outside of formal learning settings. The pursuit of fun is intrinsically motivating, and tapping into that motivation can yield some very powerful results. Highly engaged players want to play for the sake of play itself. For those players, anything else is gravy.

Engagement in the game space is often heightened by eye-popping graphics, exciting plots (many with fantasy elements), and the ability to choose and develop an avatar, all the while discovering the secrets of an expansive and immersive reality, with the assurance that with relentless pursuit, players will progress at a reasonable rate—and the quality and enjoyment of their play will increase as they progress, despite persistent challenge.

Players will endure the frustration of repetitive attempts because finally achieving mastery is intrinsically motivating. That motivation keeps players coming back for more. In many games, players earn experience points that gauge the progress of their avatar. This is strongly contrasted against the traditional grading system, where students begin with 100 percent and only have one way to go—down. Experience points not only enable players to earn new abilities, tools, strength, and status, but also to access side-quests and other challenges. New threads are frequently introduced into the narrative, and thus the quest for knowledge, power, mastery, and eventually, autonomy is never-ending.

See also:

How to engage girls with gaming

How ‘World of Warcraft’ and other video games are being used as teaching tools

Educational gaming gaining steam

Examples of this can be found in massively multi-player online games. The most notable of these is “World of Warcraft,” which has about 10 million subscribers. In this gaming community, players enter into a self-motivated, non-linear narrative as novices and work their way up by taking on self-directed quests, building collaborative guilds, and working toward common goals—and eventually mastery over the environment.

Notable here is the fact that the game space is player-centered, not system-centered.  As players explore the realm, they are surrounded by places to explore, missions to fill, dragons to slay—as well as a fountain of information to draw upon in order to sustain them along the way. Knowledge and solutions to challenges are everywhere and are acquired in a number of ways: through narrative, preset cast members, and from more experienced players that one meets along the way. Additionally, onlookers are very quick to provide “just in time” coaching. The latter two are strong examples of peer-to-peer teaching, which is accepted with great appreciation and, very frequently, paid forward.

In such game spaces, information is sustenance, and players actively and aggressively pull it from various resources as it’s needed and actively employ it to progress. This is in stark contrast to the traditional classroom model, where information is selected by the system and pushed upon the students. In the game space, users play in order to learn the game—as opposed to learning first and playing later.

So how do game and educational software developers serve up authentic fun and impart actual knowledge to students? Transforming instruction into a game is not a simple task or a frivolous pursuit. Despite the challenges, and amidst what could be described as a revolution of sorts, some are finding a median that is yielding very hopeful and positive results.

For example, “Lure of the Labyrinth” is currently being used in Maryland classrooms as a digital teaching option for middle-school pre-algebra students. “Lure” includes a wide array of highly engaging and discovery-based math puzzles skinned in a narrative, non-linear experience in which students work to find their lost pet—and save the world from monsters. Skills explored and mastered during game play are linked to both national and state mathematics standards, and the game helps students to think like mathematicians. “Lure” is replete with a full lesson plan, explanations of how the math in each and every puzzle works, graphic organizers, and teacher resources that meet expectations set by many basal programs.

There are other games that can be used in a more limited way, which can still introduce games into the classroom, such as the multi-awarded “DragonBox”—a game app designed to teach concepts of algebra that range from beginner to advanced, including the writing and solving of complex equations.

The challenge for many educators is where to find the right tools, and then what to do with them. First, it is extremely important for teachers to actually play these games (at least dip their toes in!) so they can find the pitfalls and support students when the technology simply isn’t enough. Indeed, games like “Lure of the Labyrinth” and “DragonBox” offer only pieces of the puzzle, and it is up to educators to employ them effectively in a learning curriculum. Children may solve puzzles and progress rapidly through a game, but they will still require restatement of the theories behind their successes, and this is where the teacher can bring focus and structure to what might seem like an activity with too few boundaries.

See also:

How to engage girls with gaming

How ‘World of Warcraft’ and other video games are being used as teaching tools

Educational gaming gaining steam

Finding the right apps, and the right partners, is not an easy task, or even a comfortable prospect for many. The good news is that collaboration between app/game designers and ed-tech publishers is becoming extremely fervent, and there are products that exist (such as i-Ready) that incorporate elements of game mechanics, as well as strong diagnostic and instructional support for educators.

Tools like these can help educators take a small step into the game space, where they can meet young members of the iGeneration where they are. The shift to make learning through games work for students in a holistic, systematic way could be the key to widespread improvement in education and elimination of the gaps that currently exist between educators and students; or, in game space terms, between players and their ultimate goal—mastery.

Daniel J. Rabone is creative director of interactive media at Curriculum Associates and has a rich background in informational design as well as elementary and middle school academic product development. Daniel is a recovering game, cartoon, and kid-media addict who is frequently off the wagon, where it is much more fun.