School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.

The idea here is that games and school have more in common than does school and life. So perhaps, instead of finding ways of engaging students by turning to real life, we should be turning to game design.

How is school like a game?

Both School and Video games are highly repetitive environments where you overcome deliberate obstacles in order to reach a goal. In both cases, you pay money in order to perform work. I’m going to use one of my favorite games of all time, Diablo 2 as an example in some direct comparisons.

Players get rewards for doing tasks:

“Andre attended all his labs and thus has a chance to pass the course” vs. “Andre cleared the Den of Evil and received an extra skill point”.

Bosses have to be overcome at the end of each quest:

“After 4 months of work, Andre’s final task in CPSC 111 is to pass an exam worth 50% of the grade” vs. “In order to complete the first Act, Andre has to defeat the demon queen Andariel”.

There are side quests:

“Andre spoke at the Student Learning Conference and received the Best Returning Presenter Award” vs. “Andre found the Smith’s hammer, as a reward she will imbue one of his items with magical properties”.


“In order to do CPSC 314 you have to have taken MATH 121” vs. “In order to find Tal Rasha’s tomb and finish the act, you need to find the Horadric Staff in the Maggot Lair”.

Reaching final goal grants a status.

“Andre has completed a Bachelor’s of Science and will henceforth be known as Andre Malan, B.SC” vs. “Andre has just slain Diablo, lord of Terror and will henceforth be known as Patriarch Andre”.

Those are just a few examples and there are many, many others out there.

So why is school a crappy game?

There are many things about school that make it worse than modern video game. The reason is obvious. The game of school was designed a very long time ago when there was very little research available on how to engage students. Here are a few things that makes school suck compared to games:

High cost of failure:

In School failing a course closes many doors. In most classes, if you do badly on an assignment, then you don’t have a chance to get a better grade on it. If you fail too many times, you are kicked out of the game.

In Games, if you get killed trying to complete a quest, you respawn and try again. You may have lost some gold, but if you try hard, you can still complete the quest. You do this until you succeed. You are only judged on the end result. The game doesn’t care how long it takes you to get to a certain point or level… all that matters is that you get there in the end.

Side quests can hurt your chance of success.

In school doing too many things outside may help your overall learning, but can also seriously harm your grades. You have to often choose between doing well in the main storyline and side activities.

In Diablo, side quests only ever have positive consequences. You can get more experience points, as well as cool items or rewards. You also learn more about the world. When you are done your side quest, the main storyline is waiting for you exactly where you left off. In university, why are deadline extensions only reserved for those who are sick? What about those speaking or organizing conferences, organizing food drives, or a myriad of other important learning experiences on campus that take time away from academics? Why can’t we replace assignments with appropriate other activities that still demonstrate our learning?

Bad indicators of progress:

In school, you have grades. You start off with the assumption that you can get 100% if you complete everything. For every assignment or test that you loose points on, that 100% gets reduced. Every mistake that you make will be punished.

A good game has many ways to show you how far you have got. Diablo has levels and experience points. Dragon Age has that, as well as badges. You can visibly track your progress and compare it to that of others. I myself have even gone to class, not due to the clicker points that I would get, but because going to that class would have unlocked a new badge for me on FourSquare. Yes, that may say something about my priorities, but I think it says more about the design of the two respective “games”.

Bad storyline:

In school, the storyline is as follows: You are one of thousands of students with nothing special about you. Complete this numbers of classes, some of them requiring other classes. In each class, your mission is to go to class, hand in the assignments and pass the exam. When you’re done, you get your certificate.

In Diablo, you are a hero travelling around the land trying to stop the demon lord Diablo from freeing his brothers and reigning terror over the whole world. There are hundreds of thousands of heroes at different levels, all working together on this. a Along the way you meet many people who you have to save from situations that Diablo has put them in. Each quest is explicitly linked to this storyline.

This isn’t hard in school. UBC’s vision is a great starting example:

“As one of the world’s leading universities, The University of British Columbia creates an exceptional learning environment that fosters global citizenship, advances a civil and sustainable society,and supports outstanding research to serve the people of British Columbia, Canada and the world.”

Our mission as a student is to become a global citizen that advances a civil and sustainable society. We are all individuals who have an opportunity to make a difference. That’s a much better mission that the mission we all think we are on… take X number of courses and get a degree. I know that UBC would like us to consider our mission the mission statement, but there is nothing in the system that makes that happen. Here is a perfect example of a game designer would approach showing students what their mission is:

What’s my mission? from Alchemy on Vimeo.

In the end, video game companies have spent billions in money and in man-hours in order to find ways of keeping people engaged in highly repetitive tasks. I think educators should be looking at how they can rework some of the success that game developers have had into the classroom.

The two videos below are what inspired this line of thinking. Both of them are about making life more like a game, but I see more merit in applying them to school, as school is already a game. Applying their line of thinking is easier when thinking about school than real life. Both are quite mind-blowing and will open minds about the value that games play in our society.

12 thoughts on “School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.

  1. Great post, Andre. The comparative approach that you use really outlines some of the drawbacks and shortcomings that traditional schooling (in this case, university teaching) has. You have very clearly provided us with an overview of what is wrong with the system.

    I’ll have to admit that while I really really liked this post, having to watch the TED talks to get the point across left me wanting more of your ideas of how we can change the system.

    In my own teaching (at UBC too) I have tried to vary the repetitive tasks. I have worked hard to engage my students with learning online technologies (and I have YOU to thank for some really great suggestions).

    My question to you would be – what are the lessons YOU have distilled from McGonigal’s TED talk (and the other video, which I’m about to watch).

    I’ll be also very honest in that I’m 350% skeptical of any TED talk. Despite the fact that people seem to see TED talks as “mind-blowing”, most of the time, whenever I’ve seen a TED talk, I’ve seen very little that blows my mind. I suppose that’s the skeptic in me 🙂

    Thanks again for this post, it’s very refreshing and sparks some thoughts for the teacher in me. I *adore* teaching. And I want to be a better educator, every day. Your post challenges me to think about ways to become a better professor, and for that, I thank you.

  2. Great post on the state of education.

    I would argue that another point you might’ve missed is that you WANT to have to play the game.

    There are also too many people who I argue aren’t in university to learn, but to simply get the degree and move on. If we can change that mindset, it’d be a huge plus.

    I recently did a post on education you can read here.

    My last point is that it would take an entire community to make this move forward. There are some professors that openly admit to having taught the same way they did years ago.

    That has to change.

  3. Nice comparison. I definitely agree with most of your post, but I feel compelled to raise a few issues.

    On leveling up: I think one of the reasons games work so well is that they provide some _real_ incentive to perform those repetitive tasks. Leveling up an MMO character allows you to win battles, which is fun. Who doesn’t like winning? It also lets you to fill your role (warrior, healer, etc.) better, and a lot of the enjoyment in MMORPGs is from filling a role. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be needed and appreciated by your peers.

    On storylines: It’s true that games usually involve epic quests to solve problems of enormous magnitude, but in my opinion, this is not what makes the story entertaining. It’s the setting, and the interactions the characters have with each other that make a good story. I couldn’t care less whether I’m saving the world from Darkspawn, or advancing a civil and sustainable society. As long as there are interesting companions with compelling stories, I’ll be entertained.

    On EVOKE: I signed up for EVOKE the week it started, and was really disappointed. Now, I can be a cynical guy sometimes (buzzwords make me gag), but I was willing to put that aside and really get into the game as long as it provided a fun ARG experience. I was imagining puzzles, or an online scavenger hunt with clues that the community could work on.
    Instead, it asked me to go study “social innovators”, then come back and blog about it. My “reward” would be a little badge on my profile.
    … That’s not fun! It’s not challenging, and it’s not what I would call a “game”.

    Anyway, good thought-provoking blog post.

  4. Awesome post, Andre. I was just at SXSWi and was in a session about universities and what sucks about the current system. At one point during the session I fantasized about building an LMS that gave “achievements” or badges or trophies or whatever for completing various course-related activities – side quests included. I think we should join forces!

  5. Whew, thanks everyone for the great feedback.

    @Raul: Sorry that I kind of left it up to you to watch the video. I have a myriad of crazy ways that this can be applied swimming around in my head. The problem is that I think applications depends on specific context. I’ll try and do a bit of a series on actual implementation soon. For now I just want to get across the fact that video games are a reasonable place to turn when looking for better teaching strategies.

    I know that you spend a lot of time thinking about how to engage your students and that is awesome. I think though that video games could offer good heuristics for those not willing to invest that time or effort.

    @Jeff: I agree completely. I think the motivation to want to play the game comes from how it is framed. If WoW was framed as “a game where you run similar but slightly different missions over and over again with minimal rewards for each run” nobody would want to play it.

    I love your post on education. It speaks to my notion of side quests! As for needing the whole system to change… I don’t think so. I think the best way to do it is lobby those above, while slowly helping the professors and staff at ground level to change as much as they can in order to provide the best environment for their students.

    @Cory, yeah Evoke itself was not what I imagined it to be. My point around Evoke was simply that if you try really hard you can make it look like doing research and blogging is actually a fun experience.

    @Nicole I’m very much on the same page. All it would take would be some creative curriculum design and maybe a WordPress plugin or two, lets see what we can do over the summer…

  6. One of my professors at UBC during my master’s program was Dr. David Coulter. He spoke many times about how (unfortunately) important and problematic learning to “play” school was in our current education system. It made me realize that in our current system, those who play school well give themselves a much better chance at winning the game of school. I also realized the vast difference between being “schooled” and being “educated”. Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

  7. This is the BEST metaphor I have ever had the privilege of knowing. What a great post!

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