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When I was a kid, I used to spend hours playing Tetris. I would zone out everything else and hit a state of hyperfocus. I was fully engaged. I could spend hours playing Tetris. Over the years, the trending games have changed. I may or may not have created my own fair share of Sonic the Hedgehog fan art when I was in middle school. In recent years, I’ve seen kids playing Minecraft and Fortnite.

It has me wondering . . .

What can we learn from video games? What can video game design teach us about instructional design? What lessons can we glean from video games as we think about student engagement?

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Six Things We Can Learn from Video Games

Check out the following video below about the six things video games can teach us about instructional design and student engagement:

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#1: Intrinsic motivation

Video games are engaging because they are fun. But so is learning. Learning is fun when students get to chase their curiosity or geek on their favorite topics in a Genius Hour Project. Learning is fun when they solve challenging problems, make sense out of the past, conduct their own experiments, or get lost in fictional world.

This can be a challenge in the classroom, where the system is designed around extrinsic motivation. Everything from the tight curriculum map to the PBIS system to the traditional grading system seems to push compliance. In fact, as Phillip Schlechty pointed out, often what looks like engagement is simply strategic compliance. Kids become adept at playing the game of school while they lose the drive to learn for the sake of learning.

However, there are still things we can keep in mind as we design lessons:

  • What are ways we can tap into their interests rather than always trying to get students interested in our topics, materials, etc.?
  • What are some questions that are naturally interesting?
  • What are some of the biggest themes and existential questions that get us to think about the things that really matter?
  • How can we incorporate curiosity into the lessons? How can we encourage students to ask their own questions?
  • How can we empower students with voice and choice? What can they actually create?

This can be tricky when we have standards. However, we can tap into the intrinsic motivation within the standars that we teach. The following grid can help you think about a framework you might use:

Model Flexibility of Standards The Standards-Model Fit
Inquiry-Driven Flexible Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow for students to ask their own questions and find their own answers.
Interest-Driven Content-Neutral Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must allow students to pursue their own interests.
Product-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards with Specific Skill Standards The standards must fit within the idea of designing a tangible product.
Problem-Driven Specific Content Standards (with a Focus on Concept Attainment) with Flexible Skill Standards The standards must allow students to engage in problem-solving.
Empathy-Driven Varying Flexibility on Content Standards and Skill Standards The standards must connect to creative design and empathy with an authentic audience

If you’re interested in getting started, you might want to try out a Wonder Day Project (inquiry-based), a Design Thinking Project or a Genius Hour project.


#2: Incremental Success

The best video games have small successes that people go through. In some cases, this involves a series of levels (think Mario or Tetris). But in some cases, users move through the levels by creating something on their own. My son loves Minecraft and yet the success has been incremental, as he slowly learns the craft of Minecraft. What I’ve realized is that tasks are more engaging when success is incremental. There’s some fascinating research that people will work harder when they are closer to reaching a goal (think sprinting to the finish on a marathon). So, how do we create opportunities for incremental success in classrooms?

There’s a great Hidden Brain episode that demonstrates a counterintuitive reality that people are often more motivated right after a near-success than they are after a huge failure or a success. Too often, we, as teachers, prevent these close failures. In some cases, we provide too much scaffolding and we prevent these close failures that can actually lead to deeper student engagement.

When kids play video games, they are given carte blanche at screwing up. You’d think that the sheer amount of failure would lead to frustration. But when students realize, “this could fail,” they are also able to say, “I can try again.” They see that fail-ure is permanent while fail-ing is temporary.

It’s sort of the opposite of grit. It’s the idea of slack. Too often, though, students don’t experience this freedom to fail. We still have things like averaging of grades that send the message, “this better be perfect.” Providing do-overs can make a teacher seem “soft.” This leads to risk-aversion that often decreases student engagement. However, when students see mistakes as iterations toward success, they are more likely to hit a state of flow in their work.


#3: Find the Balance of Challenge and Perceived Skill

One of the key lessons in Flow Theory is that people are more likely to hit a state of flow when there is a high challenge and a high perceived skill level. If a task is too easy, people get bored. If a task is too difficult, people get anxious. However, when these match, students are more likely to hit a state of flow.

This requires a sense of personal control or agency over the task. In 1987, Massimini, Csíkszentmihályi and Carli published the following 8-channel model of flow in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Student Engagement in Everyday Life.

A key idea here is self-efficacy. It’s not simply a matter of matching the skill level and task level, but also what a person believes about his or her skill level. This is why metacognition and self-assessment are so critical.


#4: Embrace Conflict

Every great game begins with a challenge, a problem, or a conflict. Some of these are more narrative-driven and others are simply a nagging challenge that you want to solve (like clearing out rows in Tetris). Great conflicts can make us feel more alive. They can get us excited about what we are doing.

When you focus on conflict, you are able to create suspense in the classroom. I used to think the best way to get full engagement was a faster classroom pace. I would change up activities every ten to fifteen minutes, add a ton of movement, and pack the class period full of activities. What I realized, over time, was that it’s less about action and more about suspense. It’s why all the explosions of a Michael Bay movie pale in comparison to the suspenseful and somewhat slow pace of the latest Star Wars movie. The key difference here is that suspense is more about what could happen while action is a barrage of events happening. Suspense is that heart-racing, edge-of-your-seat sense of anticipation where you honestly don’t know what will happen next. Video games often pursue this idea of suspense by tapping into the conflict, the near misses, and the incremental success.


#5: Make it Intuitive

Two years ago, when my middle school students were creating their Scratch Video Projects, we explored the idea of allowing someone to play a game without having to give them instructions. A student asked me, “What would it look like to make class assignments and class projects so that people could begin them without having to read directions?” I’m not sure what the answer is there, but it shaped the way I redesigned the classroom space. I started researching studies on user experience and physical design so that I didn’t have to go over class procedures at the beginning of the year.

This is why I love UX Design. UX Design Theory can teach us a lot about how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses.  User experience design theory (sometimes abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED) focuses on the user experience of a platform. This might include accessibility, usability, enjoyment, and the overall flow of the experience. UX design focuses on both on how we use digital tools and on how we inhabit digital spaces. It focuses on systems in a way that is deeply human. What does it feel like for people? What does it look like for them? What are their processes?


#6: Incorporate Instant Feedback

The best video games provide instant feedback. Players know where they have been, where they are, and where they are going. They don’t have to stop what they are doing in order to see their progress. I wonder what it would mean to craft more assignments and projects in a way that students could articulate their own progress without having to stop what they are doing.

Feedback is critical for building metacognition. If you look at the metacognition cycle, students need to be able to assess the task, determine their strengths and weaknesses, plan their approach, implement strategies (while also modifying and adjusting), and then reflect on their progress. This type of metacognition requires students to know how they are doing.

Here’s where the feedback comes in. Through self-assessment, peer feedback, and teacher feedback, students gain a deeper understanding of their progress. They can then plan for their learning, making frequent adjustments along the way. This is especially true with project-based learning and design thinking, where the learning is iterative. Students engage in tons of tiny experiments, making little tweaks to both the process and the product. Here, the feedback should fuel the learning.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out the seven ways to improve student feedback.


A Little Nuance

I’m not advocating game-based learning or gamification. In many cases, video games are more programmed and passive than what I would want to see in learning. I’d argue that many of the items on the list occur when students are lost in a novel or when they are creating and editing a video or when they are writing a blog post. Furthermore, while I believe video games can teach us about student engagement, we need to remember that social injustice and trauma play a critical role in why students fail to engage in class. Teaching is a messy, deeply relational endeavor that exists in a messy, broken world — one that is far less predictable than anything you find on a screen.

However, I think there are elements of game design that we might want to consider as we think about instructional design. Sometimes the best ideas come from unexpected places. And one of those unexpected places might just be the world of video games.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Hi John
    I would add the story-form to this. Curious abou your thoughts. Games often have a compelling narrative that shapes them and that definitely evokes emotional response. The story-form is one of (and a collection of) powerful teaching tools of the imagination (dramatic forces, images, extremes and limits–cognitive tools a la Kieran Egan and Lev Vygotsky). Worth being on your list?

  • Debra Weier says:

    The idea of designing a lesson similar to a video game totally makes sense! I am going to try it; however, I fear it will be time consuming to plan. My 9th and 10th grade English students hate to read. For this to work, I would need to find not only what interests them but also differentiate the material to meet their levels (beginner to top of grade level) and increment the material in steps to gradually increase difficulty while rewarding them in a motivational way without boring them! We have two computer reading programs right now that have tried to do this very thing but have failed on the motivational piece. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  • Dayana says:

    That’s really shwred! Good to see the logic set out so well.

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