Oregon Trail game

I grew up in the golden age of educational gaming. I don’t know that any games have matched the cultural and educational impact of the 8-bit majesty of The Oregon Trail (play the 1990 version here: https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990) or the full-color wonder of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (play the 1985 version here: https://archive.org/details/msdos_Where_in_the_World_is_Carmen_Sandiego_1985) on my Commodore 64. As a student, I felt like I was getting away with something by playing video games during the school day. Sure, the monochromatic splendor of the Apple IIe is laughable today, but for me and many of my generation the effect was magical. I learned more about life on the Oregon Trail in those primarily text-based games than I ever did by reading about it in our social studies textbook. Carmen Sandiego shipped with a World Almanac… a librarian’s dream! I search for more facts about countries throughout the world by chasing that mysterious red-hatted fiend than I would have without the game’s prodding.

These early educational software games are still some of the best examples of game-based learning. Many flashy apps and online games have tried to fill the niche, but too often they get bogged down in graphics and cutscenes and microtransactions and they lose sight of the vital elements of good game design.

Games vs. Game-based learning vs. Gamification

This infographic from upsidelearning.com helps to explain the differences:

Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification

Games vs Game-based Learning vs Gamification
Click to view the complete infographic.  |  Infographic by Upside Learning

Reasons to Be Scared

Unfortunately, there’s a troubling trend that emerges when reading about gamification in the classroom in its current state… it’s rarely proved itself to be a sustainable model. Where it’s successful at the elementary school level, it’s almost always the result of a relative few innovators who are taking a risk.

Ananth Pai

Ananth Pai was a businessman who became an elementary classroom teacher in Minnesota. His 3rd grade class soon became an attractive stopping place for elected officials, business leaders, and tech founders alike. They were all drawn to his classroom because they wanted to see his approach to reaching kids at their level primarily through the use of games. Students participated in numerous electronic gaming activities throughout the day, including competing in games online with peers around the world, playing math games on Nintendo DS, and more. All of this is written about Mr. Pai in the past tense, as his online presence has vanished. His Twitter handle is inactive. I can’t find record of him presenting at conferences. News stories haven’t been posted in years. It appears that Mr. Pai is now teaching 3rd grade at an International Baccalaureate school outside of Minneapolis, but his gamification stardom has quickly faded. This KQED article hints darkly at the frustration of an educator trying to innovate in the face of mandated testing and curriculum. 




Michele Alvarez

Another meteoric gamification educator… Reading through her blog posts, tweets, and subsequent lack of updates, her story is a cautionary one. Gamifying your classroom is not an easy task, and it’s made all the more difficult when roadblocks emerge: changing grades, changing curriculum, changing standards, lack of support, etc.


Extrinsic Motivation

I’ve referred to Alfie Kohn’s writings in past blog posts. Kohn’s blog post on the dangers of extrinsic motivation should play a role in the discussion for anyone looking at shifting to a completely gamified classroom or curriculum. http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/risks-rewards/ His primary concern is that once the reward is removed from the learning equation, the learner becomes disengaged from the process. This brings to mind the popular idea of badges for learners. For some, the lure of a digital badge fuels them. For others, not so much…

Reasons to Get Excited

I don’t know that the nostalgic magic of Carmen Sandiego and dysentery will ever be topped (now that’s a sentence that’s never been typed before) but there are promising signs for the future of educational gaming and gamification:

Never Alone

An atmospheric platform puzzle game designed and built in collaboration with the Alaska Native community. Tribal elders hoped to pass on their culture to the disinterested youth of their tribe. This gorgeous video game melds great game design and native folklore & language to engage young people in the Alaskan Iñupiat culture.



Leading Change

Gameful Learning banner“Developed in partnership with Microsoft, this education course aims to transform teaching and learning at all levels through explorations of how the features that make video games great learning environments can be used in formal learning environments to increase learner engagement on a local, regional and global scale. By creating classroom learning environments that support learners’ senses of autonomy, competence and relatedness, school leaders are able to promote actively engaged and resilient learning.” This free 8-week course created by Microsoft In Education in collaboration with edX (University of Michigan’s free online education program https://www.edx.org/school/michiganx) is exciting as it represents a commitment (for the time being) by private and public sector to explore digital gamification in the classroom. Enroll for free now at: https://www.edx.org/course/leading-change-go-beyond-gamification-michiganx-microsoft-education-gl101x The course starts on March 6, 2017.

Quest to Learn (Q2L)

Quest To Learn logoTeachers and game designers work together at this public school (grades 8-12) in New York City to create learning opportunities for students, and the results are what you would expect: engagement, creativity, and a spirit of inquiry. What makes this school’s approach so promising is the fact that it’s based on a sustainable school-wide focus, rather than the siloed efforts of individual teachers like Pai and Alvarez.





So What Next?

Step One: Read this resource!

Mind Shift: Guide to Digital Games and Learning coverMind/Shift: Guide to Digital Games + Learning By Jordan Shapiro, et al. http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/publication/the-mindshift-guide-to-games-and-learning/

This collection of blog posts by Temple University’s Digital Learning Coordinator is a robust starting-point if you’re at-all interested in exploring the idea of bringing digital gaming into your classroom or school. One of its greatest strengths is that it addresses stumbling blocks with honesty and adherence to strong classroom pedagogy. Here are a couple of passages from Shapiro:

On choosing games: “A great literature curriculum considers the particular students in the class and chooses books that are simultaneously fun to read, academically challenging, and provide important canonical touchstones that can help contextualize future learning. Satisfying any one of these criteria, without the others, is problematic. The same is true for learning games. But for some reason, when it comes to games, many teachers are confused about the difference between ‘cool’ and ‘fun.’

Cool and fun are not the same thing. Cool has to do with a game’s aesthetics: the art, sound design, characters, narrative, et cetera. But a game does not need to be cool in order to be fun. Don’t be seduced by the spectacle. Making coolness a priority is tantamount to choosing to teach literature with People magazine because the students like to read it. Sure, pop culture gossip would satisfy the engagement criteria, but it wouldn’t satisfy any of the other academic criteria.”

On why game mechanics matter: “The best learning games are always fun. Try playing them yourself and see if you enjoy them. No matter how advanced your understanding of the subject matter, a good game should still be fun… All good games offer challenges in intuitive ways. In fact, this is the reason games work so well for learning: Players are intrinsically motivated to identify and succeed at understanding the game’s mechanics.

‘Mechanics’ are what game designers call the collection of rules and structures that produce the actual gameplay. The mechanics organize the game’s components in the way that defines how a player’s actions will have an impact. In good learning games, the subject matter is always embedded into the mechanics themselves. Learning to navigate the game’s mechanics and learning the academic subject matter are one and the same. Bad games sometimes attempt to simply graft a topic onto existing game mechanics. They might add vocabulary words to Angry Birds, or multiplication tables to Temple Run. It never works. The best learning games teach in the same way good teachers teach: They don’t trick students into being interested, they help students find genuine excitement in learning a subject.”  (Shapiro, 2015, 19-20)

Step Two: Start simple.

Educator Mary Beth Hertz in an Edutopia blog post distills the elements of video games that students are drawn to and love. It’s important to note none of Hertz’s ideas require technology. Technology can certainly enhance gaming and gamification, but it shouldn’t be required. Hertz writes:

  1. Mistakes as Part of Mastery

“For one, while watching my students play games I notice that they easily just click ‘retry’ or ‘new game’ or ‘start over’ and keep trying until they master whatever skill that game’s level requires. They don’t worry about making mistakes because they know they will get another chance. They learn more and more each time they have to do a level or game task over. We should be building these kinds of experiences into our classrooms.”

  1. Immediate Feedback

“In addition, games provide immediate feedback. Not just any feedback, but usually feedback that helps a student fix or improve on their previous performance. We should be giving students as many opportunities as possible for useful and timely feedback.”

  1. Manageable Goals

“Games also have a purpose, an underlying goal. Sometimes there are mini-goals that help get you to the final goal, beating the game. Players can focus on the mini-goals rather than be overwhelmed by the ultimate goal of beating the game. There is usually something that indicates how far along they are toward their final goal, which makes them feel like they’re getting somewhere. We should be setting manageable goals for our students that help them move toward mastery while providing timely feedback on their progress.”

Step Three: Begin to explore integrating a gaming culture into professional development.

My guiding question for this blog post was based on ISTE Coaching Standard 4: Professional Development and Program Evaluation. “Is gamification of professional development an achievable and sustainable goal?” I don’t know that I’m any closer to deciding on an answer after exploring the many online resources linked in this post. Digital badges seem like an interesting path to possibly explore, but Jackie Gerstein also highlights some of the issues inherent to the practice with this great blog post. Gamifying an entire PD program would quite possibly fuel greater engagement with some of my librarian colleagues, but what about those who just don’t like games? Would gamification alienate them? And how can I avoid the burnout and frustrations of innovators like Pai and Alvarez, without strong administrative support?

So, is it “game over” or “game on” for gamification? Well…

insert coin to continue 8-bit


Baier, M. (2015, February 19). Game Face On: Gamification for Engaging Teachers in PD. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/gamification-engaging-teachers-in-pd-matt-baier

Bell, K. (2015, September 1). Take PD to the next level with badges [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.shakeuplearning.com/blog/take-pd-to-the-next-level-with-badges/

College Ready Ohio. (2016, February 19). Gamification and Badging Professional Development | Entire Professional Development [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IsZVVXK8l0

Dobo, N. (2014, November 26). Oregon Trail computer game lingers, amid a slew of new educational games – The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/content/oregon-trail-computer-game-lingers-amid-slew-new-educational-games_18202/

Education|Evolving. (2012, November 2). A Split Screen Strategy: Creating the Capacity for Teachers to Innovate [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KimG8igaZIA

Edutopia. (2013, July 30). Katie Salen on the power of game-based learning (Big Thinkers Series) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk_OfUHpCbM

Extra Credits. (2012, May 13). Extra Credits: Gamifying Education [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuDLw1zIc94

Extra Credits. (2013, August 22). Extra Credits – Games in Education – How Games Can Improve Our Schools [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HTS2nxpRqM

Fishman, B., & Niemer, R. (2017, February 16). School is a game: Can we make it a good game? – EdTech Researcher – Education Week [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/edtechresearcher/2017/02/school_is_a_game_can_we_make_it_a_good_game.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-twitter

Gamification Co. (2012, September 27). Tim Vandenberg – Monopoly Academy (GSummit SF 2012) [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iHv3vrW2Lo

Gerstein, J. (2013, March 16). I don’t get digital badges | User Generated Education [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://usergeneratededucation.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/i-dont-get-digital-badges/

Hawkins, B. (2012, November 13). Teacher Ananth Pai’s do-it-yourself tech effort pays big dividends for students. MinnPost. Retrieved from https://www.minnpost.com/learning-curve/2012/11/teacher-ananth-pais-do-it-yourself-tech-effort-pays-big-dividends-students

Hertz, M. B. (2011, April 19). Using the Video Game Model in the Classroom | Edutopia [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/education-game-gaming-technology-tools-design-project-mary-beth-hertz

International Society for Technology in Education. (2017). ISTE standards for coaches. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Juliani, A. J. (2014, March 29). How to Gamify Professional Development in Your School. Retrieved from http://ajjuliani.com/gamify-professional-development-school/

OLTV19. (2010, June 11). Exciting new approach to classroom learning! [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSJ5LwAXxLk

Shapiro, J. (2014, September 28). The MindShift guide to games and learning. Retrieved from http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/publication/the-mindshift-guide-to-games-and-learning/

Takeuchi, L. M., & Vaala, S. (2014). Level up learning: A national survey on teaching with digital games. Retrieved from Games and Learning Publishing Council website: http://www.joanganzcooneycenter.org/publication/level-up-learning-a-national-survey-on-teaching-with-digital-games/

Talbot, M. (2015, January 9). A quest for a different learning model: Playing games in school – The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/content/quest-different-learning-model-playing-games-school_18465/

TEDx Talks. (2012, September 21). TEDxBerlin – Gabe Zichermann – “Changing the Game in Education” [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Axk5-i8oTIU

TEDx Talks. (2012, April 24). Classroom Game Design: Paul Andersen at TEDxBozeman [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qlYGX0H6Ec

TEDx Talks. (2013, May 31). Press Play — Gaming, Simulation & Achievement in the Classroom: Jonathon Best at TEDxDenverTeachers [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKpo5SeZWns

TEDxYOUTH. (2011, June 9). TEDxKids@Brussels – Gabe Zichermann – Gamification [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2N-5maKZ9Q

University of California Television. (2016, May 13). Power Play: Trends and Opportunities in Gaming for Good with Asi Burak [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SWidS0wzcA

Waniewski, B. (2012, December 18). Meet the game designers who are on a quest to make NYC Public School more fun | Fastcompany. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/3003920/meet-game-designers-who-are-quest-make-nyc-public-school-more-fun