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Motivating Students Through Gameplay

Motivating Students Through Gameplay

At the beginning of the pandemic, educators faced new challenges engaging students through distance learning. As many of us return to in-person instruction, what did we learn about motivation and how can we apply it to the new school year?  With my experience and background in educational technology, I played a support role in my district. I worked with teachers to address the pressing needs of teaching online and with students who were home, often  alone, or babysitting their younger siblings while their parents were working.

Addressing stubborn technology issues required me to remote into student Chromebooks and attempt to either fix the issue, or model how to complete a procedure or task that their teacher had required of them. Nearly one-hundred percent of the time I did this, students were engaged in backchannel chats with their friends; many had game apps running, or were chatting on their computer while playing an online multiplayer game on a gaming console.

As frustrating as it was for teachers who were working incredibly hard to engage their students via this new platform, I must admit that if I were in the same situation as my students, I would probably be doing the same thing. Clearly, playing games and talking about playing games was more important than remotely completing  schoolwork for many students.

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why this is and see if I can convince you to take a serious look at how you can include games and elements of gameplay in your lessons to make them an engaging and effective delivery system for all types of content.

An examination of self-determination theory explains why game play is intrinsically motivating and suggests why good games can have such a positive impact on learning.

Good games provide a high degree of autonomy. Players realize and accept that they are in control of their own destiny. They understand that it is their challenge to overcome. Players push themselves to improve. As teachers, we understand this is a critical element of learning.

Players seek competency by working to continually improve their skills and knowledge base. This is sometimes referred to as leveling up. With each new level comes new skills to learn and attributes to test. Players understand that they cannot “win” unless they have earned it through inspired work and experience. Good games are not easy to win and they require practice, failure, reflection, and recovery. Developing resilience leads to student success in the classroom and beyond.

Finally, players are driven by a sense of purpose or belongingness. In a classroom setting this can be seen in powerful group or team dynamics. When you are an integral part of a team, you are motivated to do your best. There is purpose behind learning.

Substituting students for players in the above statements provides educators with a recipe for creating dynamic and motivating lessons for students who will be enthusiastic participants. But how can we use games to reach this level? For this post I am focusing on using tabletop games in the classroom.

In the past decade there has been an explosion of high-grade options in tabletop gaming.

From card games to dice games to board games, from individual developers to small companies to large game studios, there are games for every audience. Games that can be used “off the shelf” in a classroom include Wingspan, a game that develops a player’s real-world “birding” skills, but also promotes an understanding of resource and habitat management. Another wonderful game with a tactile twist is Planet. Players add magnetic tiles that represent biomes onto their planet and then compete for representative animals to occupy their world.

Another way to incorporate games in your classroom is to involve your students by asking them to develop game content. For example, in Photosynthesis players take turns to plant seeds on the game board and establish trees in a forest as a cardboard sun rotates each turn. With each rotation, trees with direct sunlight grow and trees in shadow do not. The object is to plant and harvest as many full grown trees as you can. My students love this game, but I challenge them to tell me how it demonstrates photosynthesis and how they would “mod” it to make it more accurate. This produces lively group discussion as students become game designers, adding new mechanics, cards, and strategies to use to best illustrate a foundational science concept. Each group then defends their mods in a presentation. Other games that would benefit from this modded approach include Ticket to Ride, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, and Timeline.

The last option encourages students to use their favorite game mechanics to create their own games to synthesize course or class content and objectives. Examples of game mechanics include deck building, whereby players collect a series of cards representing resources or abilities, negotiation, which typically involves trading, and a good backstory that develops as players advance in the game. One popular game with interesting mechanics is Pandemic. In Pandemic, players must role-play together as a team to develop and implement a plan of action to defeat multiplying viruses. At the end of each turn, conditions change on the board which requires players to revisit their plan. In Tokaido, players complete a journey on the ancient Tokaido Road in Japan. In an interesting twist, players do not necessarily want to finish the journey first, because it is the player with the most numerous and varied experiences along the way who will win.

In designing their own tabletop games, students are not only demonstrating understanding of your class objectives, they are innovating, thinking critically about gameplay, engaging in content rich conversations, and demonstrating their creativity in new ways. Tabletop game design is big business, and there are many outlets that support independent development and production of original games.

I encourage you to look at games as a powerful tool for building relationships and one that your students can use to demonstrate their understanding of skills, concepts, and language functions in an exciting and engaging way.


John Miller is a California Teacher of the Year Finalist (2017) and Fulbright Fellow, having researched games and learning in Singapore (2019). He currently works with underperforming and economically disadvantaged students in middle school, promoting literacy through innovative uses of educational technology. John would like to thank NNSTOY for giving him this opportunity to share his passion. You can learn more about John by visiting his website, johnmillerEDU.com, and by following him on Twitter, @johnmillerEDU.




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