by Harmony Button
Why do people love games? What makes something a game? If a game is merely a structured activity in which there are set objectives and clear parameters, where a player’s success is measured by demonstrations of skill, luck, or perseverance, then why don’t we call homework assignments “games” instead of “papers” or “problem sets?” Why do educators and students alike see games as moments of lesser learning, a Friday afternoon concession or a pre-finals last-ditch effort at broad-based review and crowd control? Are games always based on competition? Is it a deep human desire to know our place in a perceived pecking order, or to try our abilities against those of the other individuals in our community, that drives our love of games? Or is it something more philosophically meaningful — do games offer us an immediate invitation to engage, and a path to participation that doesn’t always have to be reductionary and gimmicky?
As educators, we actively resist the idea that school is a game of any kind. We take learning seriously, and deep learning takes time. By their nature, many games tend to ask players to skate along the surface of a topic, to learn by trial and error, or to rehearse specific, measurable skills until the player achieves the level of mastery needed to accomplish a (usually fairly arbitrary) task. But there is something about the energy of games — their immediate appeal, their playfulness and micro-reward systems, that we shouldn’t overlook or always look down upon as a teaching tool. The power of games is not just in their tendency to reify a student’s sense of what s/he is “good” or “bad” at — this is a dangerous side effect of games that usually comes from poor design or execution. Any game can become cruel; any game can lose its sense of fun. In a healthy classroom, I’d argue that the power of games lives in their ability to get students to play: to take pleasure from a sense of process, to collaborate and coordinate with peers, and to be delighted by quirks of luck or chance or opportunity. In other words, the goal of a good game is to shift the focus from the noun “game” to the adjective — to be game is to be open-minded, flexible, and eager to take on new challenges.
Anyone who has taught Middle School knows how the word “game” is a game-changer inside the classroom. You call something a game and suddenly, the energy of the room changes. Students perk up. Bodies shuffle. The volume rises. Students who previously expected to be passive learners suddenly assume that they will be physically, mentally, and communally engaged. Of course, we’ve all seen this physical, mental and communal engagement go wildly awry during “game” time. Many teachers refuse to ever indulge their students by playing “games” for exactly these reasons: they feel like students focus on performing, rather than learning, and that competition trumps collaboration. Also, the shouting and waving and squealing and howling and rule-arguing and whines of “that’s not fair!” have a way of giving teachers headaches and making us reconsider our career choices.
But there ways to harness game-like energy in structures and activities that don’t necessarily set up clear winners or losers. There are ways to design games that reward players for their ability to play, rather than their ability to win. Maybe this is why my students have learned to look at me sideways when I say that we’re going to play a “game” today — because what I mean is that today we’re going to set up structures and then explore them in non-linear, playful ways. Dice and scores and shouting are usually not involved, but teams often are, and there is frequently a sense of chance or luck, and there is likely to be passing of some sort: of papers, of players, of roles or rules.
To be game is to be ready to have your world-view shifted — which is why I so often find myself drawn to games that require the player to discover the rules as they play. I love the kind of games where you start in the dark and slowly feel your way into a map — either literally, or metaphorically. Often, the games that I design for my students have a sense of unfolding: what will happen next? They stay engaged with what they don’t know, as well as what they do. Where is this game going? How much of this sense of direction is under student control, how much is in the teacher’s control, and how much depends upon the whims of the game? This sense of wonder can drive even the most simple of games, revealing our most basic values: what it means to play, to participate, to preserve, or to push for change.
Maybe this broad, philosophical approach to “game”-ness is why my games often include things like the You’re Writing On The Whiteboard! game, or the You’re In Teams Of Four To Think Better! game. These would not make very good board games. But game-ness lives in attitudes more than practices — and the nature of a game is that it provides immediate and meaningful feedback, based on a player’s choices and performances — and so, I maintain that even these games can be entertaining, rewarding, and engaging.
Here are some other structures that can spark game-ness in students:
1. The “Randomizing Anything” game: anything that involves random selection is a game of sorts. How exciting!
2. The “Connections” game: anything that involves physically representing mental connections. This can include making lists on a white board and then drawing lines between elements on each list, or it can manifest in Post-Its or signs that students wear. Bonus fun occurs when the students can’t see what kind of sign they are wearing and they have to figure it out based on who/ what “connects” to them.
3. The “Teams” game: anything that involves dividing into groups, preparing as a group, and then doing something with the ideas and information that you’ve prepared. Anything that asks teams to purposefully shuffle mid-“game” adds another layer of intrigue.
4. The “My Paper Is Not My Paper” game: anything that involves putting ideas on paper and then circulating that paper through someone else’s hands, especially if that person continues to build on the ideas that the original paper-owner began. This is the heart of the “exquisite corpse” game that we sometimes play in Creative Writing.
5. The “I’m Physically Embodying Anything” game: anything that asks students to demonstrate their engagement or learning through non-verbal, physical forms. This can be as simple as raising hands, as active as asking students to move to various corners of a room, or as abstract as interpretive dance.
6. The “Tell The Story” game: this is a game of Summary Plus. This is anything that asks a student to practice empathy and engage in story telling while they demonstrate knowledge.
7. The “Your Teacher Is Also A Player” game: anything that puts the teacher on the same footing as the students, whether in terms of having access to “answers” or inside the constructs or process of the game.
8. The “And Next!” game: anything that has multiple steps that students don’t know about ahead of time.
9. The “Pass It On” game: anything that requires students to teach other students, especially when the success of the “team” is based on the performance or presentation of the last student.
10. The “Do Your Homework” game: is a dirty, dirty trick. But sometimes it still gets a laugh. This is the only game Tyler Waterhouse will play in Cross Country: “Can we play Red Light / Green Light?” the students begged. “Sure,” said Tyler. “Ready? Green Light.” And then they just went running.
When they’re done right, games can teach resilience, dedication, collaboration and grit. Encouraging your students to be game is one more way to teach them the joy of learning. Shifting your own attitudes towards your teaching and pushing yourself to be more “game” for games in the classroom can push you to recognize how tightly you want to control the sequence of events in your classroom — and how much you might want to bypass or quickly get over the messy process of learning. Games are messy because they involve missteps and mistakes, and in the good ones, even the teacher doesn’t quite know how they’re going to play out.
If you’re still not sold on gaming in your classrooms (and I fully acknowledge that to game or not to game is a matter of personal pedagogy), at least take a look at some of the exciting things that are (finally!) coming out of the actual gaming industry: video games don’t just have to be mindless ways to indulge in violence while practicing minimal hand-eye coordination! There are some really interesting discussions on the future of the video game as a story telling device, and there are plenty of games that aren’t marketed as “educational” that can still have intellectual benefits. These games are popular because they put the learner in the driver’s seat: you have to be game to learn to play a game, and the best games are the ones where you feel as if you’re not quite in control of your fate, yet in control of how you might respond to it.
Most importantly, just because something is a game doesn’t mean that it is always comfortable — a universal truth in the world of sports. To take a line from Coach Henrikson which I’m sure all his rowers know well — you should not confuse ‘comfortable’ with ‘fun.’ The best games, even while they are fun, build that sense of satisfaction from a sense of process and participation that doesn’t have to be immediate or even comfortable. The best games are not the ones that become obsolete once students have mastered them, but the ones that ask students to grow inside of them, to push their boundaries of their structures, and to alter them through their participation. Innovation is always a kind of winning, even when it doesn’t always work.