Classroom Games: Designing for Experience

Hello everyone! Welcome to another games and learning blog post. Safe travels to all those venturing to the TESOL Convention. For those staying home, be sure to check out the CALL-IS session webcasts for live broadcasts from the Electronic Village.

Jonathan DeHaan prompted this month’s blog post with his incisive comment to last month’s Redesigning the Classroom Board Game. As I wrote a response to his comment, it became apparent I should make it a full blog post. Be sure to check out his comment in full and sorry for the late reply, Jon!

Jonathan questions what makes language practice unengaging enough that we need to gloss it over with game mechanics, which we often do to middling results. He asserts the solution rests in examining how we can make language and interaction more meaningful for students. I agree. Perhaps that’s the hidden motivation for this blog series as well—as educators we can, and should, look to games and game design and apply those techniques to our own craft. Yet we should not do so on a superficial level with points, badges, and leaderboards. We need to explore the art of games and study how they intentionally design for experience.

Our board game example last month was improved with the addition of game mechanics, but it is not much more engaging. I would argue that both Jonathan’s unengaging language practices and my mediocre board game suffer the same fate—there is no experience. Jesse Schell in his excellent The Art of Game Design stresses that game designers do not design games, but experiences. I would parallel that with “teachers should not create activities, but experiences.”

What we as educators should take from games is their intentional design. Intentional design considers at each step in the design process the experience of the user. Games, done well, are a constellation of design considerations all focused on eliciting a feeling in the user. Our board game has game mechanics, it has design decisions, but they are not meaningfully implemented. The game at its core is still a language exercise with a “roll and move game slapped onto it” as Jonathan wrote in his comment. The experience at the heart of the board game is to practice wh– questions, which is no experience at all.

Many educationally focused games suffer the same problem. The experience of the user is not at the heart of the design decisions as the focus is teaching content. Compare our board game from last month to the Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros by checking out Extra Credits’ fantastic analysis of the game’s first level. It shows how each design decision has meaning; every aspect is intentionally designed to teach the player the game. The culmination of all the design decisions results in a memorable experience for the player. We should strive to do the same in our classroom activities and games.

Jonathan muses, “I am trying to think about when and why students might use the language from your game example that might get that engagement in a purposeful, not slapped on game-like, way.” This makes me think of a “cops and robbers” activity on American English; it too is practicing wh– questions but within an experience of a bank robbery. On its surface, the activity is far less a game than our board game example, but at its heart, it is truer to what a game should be: an intentionally designed experience.

Jonathan closes his comment with the assertion that classroom games are dressed-up textbook exercises, and he’s right. If we combine the craft of game design with the near infinite creativity of educators, we can design meaningful experiences for our students. We just need more examples of how to do it, which games provide, and educators like Jonathan asking the right questions to keep us innovating.

Until next month, play more games!

Want to learn more? Check out Jonathan DeHaan’s website.

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn
Jeff Kuhn serves a split appointment at OHIO University, working for the Office of Instructional Innovation and in the Games Research and Immersive Design (Grid) Lab. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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