Gamify Your Classroom

A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning

by Matthew Farber (Author)
©2015 Textbook X, 263 Pages


This book is a field guide on how to implement game-based learning and «gamification» techniques to the everyday teaching. It is a survey of best practices aggregated from interviews with experts in the field, including: James Paul Gee (Author, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy); Henry Jenkins (Provost Professor at University of Southern California); Katie Salen (Founder, Institute of Play); Bernie DeKoven (Author, A Playful Path); Richard Bartle (Bartle’s Player Type Theory); Kurt Squire (Games + Learning + Society Center); Jessica Millstone (Joan Ganz Cooney Center), Dan White (Filament Games); Erin Hoffman (GlassLab Games); Jesse Schell (Schell Games/Professor at Carnegie Mellon); Tracy Fullerton (University of Southern California Game Innovation Lab); Alan Gershenfeld (E-Line Media); Noah Falstein (Chief Game Designer, Google); Valerie Shute (Professor at Florida State University); Lee Sheldon (Author, The Multiplayer Classroom); Robert J. Torres (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Asi Burak (President, Games for Change); Toby Rowland (MangaHigh); Jocelyn Leavitt (Hopscotch); Krishna Vedati (Tynker); and researchers at BrainPOP and designers from Electric Funstuff (Mission U.S. games). Each chapter concludes with practical lesson plan ideas, games to play (both digital and tabletop), and links to research further. Much of the book draws on the author’s experiences implementing games with his middle school students. Regardless of your teaching discipline or grade level, whether you are a pre-service teacher or veteran educator, this book will engage and reinvigorate the way you teach and how your students learn!

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • New Media Literacy & Games
  • Book Overview
  • Chapter 1. Games for Learning
  • From Mancala to Kriegspiel
  • Video Game Mania!
  • The Edutainment Era
  • Serious Games
  • Games as Art
  • Bringing Games into Classrooms
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 2. What Are Games?
  • Defining Games
  • Voluntary Participation
  • Game Mechanics
  • Playing by the Rules
  • Games as Systems
  • Game Theory
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 3. Who Plays Games…and Why
  • Bartle’s Player Type Model
  • Rewards and Motivation
  • Pleasant Frustration and the Flow Channel
  • Fun as a Key to Engagement
  • Risky Play
  • 4 Keys 2 Fun
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 4. Iterative Design
  • Paper Prototyping
  • Prototyping with Interactive Fiction
  • Authoring Tools
  • Chronicles of the Time Society: Independence
  • Playtesting
  • Students as Co-Designers
  • Postmortems
  • Idea Forums for Teachers
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 5. Play-Based Learning
  • Learning by Playing
  • Digital Toys
  • Tablet Toys
  • The Sandbox Summit
  • Sandbox Games
  • MinecraftEdu
  • The School as a Sandbox: PlayMaker School
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 6. Learning in Cooperative Mode
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Kagan Structures
  • Lee Sheldon
  • Collateral Learning
  • Building Civilizations Together with Historia
  • Citizens of Whyville
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 7. Gamification and Quest-Based Learning
  • Gamification Mechanics
  • Leaderboards
  • Badges
  • Modding
  • Avatars
  • In-Game Economies
  • Game Geography
  • Easter Eggs
  • Gamification as a Tool… not an Add-on
  • Quest-Based Learning
  • The Player Journey
  • Social Engagement
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 8. Personalized Learning
  • Digital Badges and Learning Pathways
  • Why Badge?
  • Badges and Common Core Skills
  • Youtopia
  • ClassBadges
  • Open Badges
  • Adaptive Assessments
  • Adaptive Engines for Learning
  • Knewton
  • Games as Adaptive Assessments
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 9. University Game Labs
  • The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Games + Learning + Society Center
  • Center for Games and Impact
  • Games Innovation Lab
  • Thoreau in a Sandbox: Walden, the Game
  • Nutritional Education with Virtual Sprouts
  • Adventurous Dreaming Highflying Dragon
  • Gaming College Admissions: FutureBound
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 10. Video Games for Learning
  • Filament Games
  • Schell Games
  • GlassLab: Games, Learning, and Assessment
  • SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge!
  • Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy
  • E-Line Media
  • MangaHigh
  • BrainPOP
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 11. Communities of Play
  • Game-Related Fan Fiction
  • Let’s Play!
  • eSports
  • Machinima
  • Modding Communities: From Doom to Minecraft
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 12. Creating Digital Games
  • The National STEM Video Game Challenge
  • Click-and-Drag with Sploder and Gamestar Mechanic
  • Visual Programming Languages
  • Remixing with Scratch
  • Puzzle Challenges with Tynker
  • Coding on a Tablet with Hopscotch
  • GameMaker: Studio
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 13. Games to Change the World
  • Mission US and Social History
  • Social Impact Gaming
  • Zynga.org
  • Games for Change
  • The 11th Annual Games for Change Festival
  • Jane McGonigal’s Keynote
  • Well Played Talks
  • Games and Empathy
  • The Future
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • References
  • Index


This book would not have been possible without the support of many people. I would like to express my gratitude to the New Jersey City University Educational Technology Department, specifically my “Leaducator” cohort and my doctoral graduate professors Laura Zieger, Christopher Shamburg, Cordelia Twomey, Christopher Carnahan, and Leonid Rabinovitz. I am grateful to my series editors, Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, for their faith in my vision. Thanks also go to the staff and administration at Valleyview Middle School and the Denville Township Board of Education, as well as my student playtesters. On a more personal note, I would like to thank my wife, Laura, for her patience throughout the duration of this research, my curious son, Spencer, and our playful dog, Lizzie. A special thank you is extended to my parents, Gary and Judith Farber, as well as my wife’s parents, Virginia Fisher and Frank Fisher.← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 → INTRODUCTION

In 2012 the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop published results of a study about games in the classroom. Five hundred kindergarten through grade-8 teachers participated. The questions were about game-based learning knowledge, integration, and comfort. About 12% of the respondents reported that they had received training about computer-based games while in a teachers’ college (Millstone, 2012). Most teachers said that they had learned about educational games on the job, from colleagues, social media, or journals—not in formal training or college (Millstone, 2012).

Right now there are hundreds of millions of dollars—from the government, universities, and private foundations—in use researching the efficacy of using games for learning. The Cooney Center’s report led me on a quest to interview people at the forefront of game-based learning. What I discovered was a small circle of passionate people. In January 2014 I asked Kurt Squire, co-founder of the Games + Learning + Society Center, about the community of game-based learning advocates. He said, “We all want to make learning engaging for kids, and some aren’t being served well. That’s why we’re here.”

I wrote this book to share what I have learned about using games as an educational tool. I am a “boots-on-the-ground” classroom teacher. I teach middle school social studies in New Jersey, and I am also a doctoral candidate ← 1 | 2 → in Educational Technology Leadership at New Jersey City University, where I am an adjunct instructor. Additionally, I write regularly about game-based learning for Edutopia, George Lucas’s educational foundation.

Much of this book draws on my experiences implementing games with my students. Research brought me to the New York City headquarters of BrainPOP, Electric Funstuff (developer of the award-winning Mission US games), the 11th annual Games for Change Festival, and the game-based school Quest to Learn. I have advised the Institute of Play, designer of the Quest school model, and I am a member of the GlassLab Teacher Network. In the 2013–2014 school year, my students tried several games for learning, such as Minecraft, Do I Have a Right?, SimCityEDU, and Historia. We also played many nondigital games, including the argumentation challenge, Socratic Smackdown. By the end of the school year, one class started calling themselves “the Beta Testers!”

I use games to deliver content, to build skills, and for review. You could call my teaching style “game-inspired learning.” Sometimes I don’t play games with my students at all. Regardless of your teaching discipline or grade level, whether you are a pre-service teacher or veteran educator, my hope is that this book will engage and reinvigorate the way you teach and how your students learn!

New Media Literacy & Games

There is project-based learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and even zombie-based learning (honest! Zombies can teach about geography! http://www.zombiebased.com). Now there is game-based learning. Video games are popular and kids love them, so maybe teachers should teach with them? I know, it sounds crazy.

In the heyday of arcade video games, everything depended on a player’s quick reflexes. Reacting too slowly could doom Pac-Man’ssurvival. Computer-based games have undergone a lot of advancements in the past 40 years, including the addition of adaptive engines that scale up to a player’s ability. Modern games can be used to teach abstract concepts such as the laws of physics, systems thinking competencies, social and emotional learning, collaborative team building, spatial reasoning, problem solving, and many other real-life skills. In a sense, all games are educational. After all, you need to learn a game to master it!

← 2 | 3 → Games are considered to be “new media” (as opposed to more “traditional” media, such as books or the theater). I interviewed digital media scholar Henry Jenkins about where games as new media fit into the context of school. We spoke in May 2014. Jenkins published several books on the topic, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture (1992), From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (1998), and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006), as well as white papers for the MacArthur Foundation about digital media literacy. Among other organizations, he cofounded MIT’s Education Arcade, with Kurt Squire, to “prototype how games could be used in learning.” Jenkins has been featured on PBS’s Digital Nation, and even testified in front of Congress about the misunderstandings about violence in video games.

It is helpful to remember that movies, cable television, Google, YouTube, and other technologies that now are used for teaching also have had their educational validity questioned. Jenkins was prompted to write a blog post in 2006 about misunderstandings about video games, “Reality Bytes: Eight Myths about Video Games Debunked.” Common misconceptions included:

1. The availability of video games has led to an epidemic of youth violence.

2. Scientific evidence links violent gameplay with youth aggression.

3. Children are the primary market for video games.

4. Almost no girls play computer games.

5. Because games are used to train soldiers to kill, they have the same impact on the kids who play them.

6. Video games are not a meaningful form of expression.

7. Video game play is socially isolating.

8. Video game play is desensitizing. (Jenkins, 2006b)

Data supported Jenkins’s points about who actually plays video games. The proliferation of casual gaming on smartphones (e.g., Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga) diversified the population of digital game players. Furthermore, social media has made the act highly participatory (e.g., Farmville, Words with Friends). The Entertainment Software Association, the lobbyist organization that runs the ESRB (the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the rating agency for games), reported that today’s gamers are, on average, 31 years old and have been playing for 14 years ← 3 | 4 → (2014 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry, 2014, p. 3). 48% of players are female (2014 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry, 2014, p. 3). I asked Jenkins about what has changed since his “Eight Myths” post. He stated that the blog post took just minutes to write and has lingered on longer than he had expected. Often it comes up in the discourse, especially when senseless tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 are blamed on gaming (in that case, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, pointed the finger at the gaming sector). Almost all children play video games, many of which contain violence. But correlation does not imply causation. Jenkins continued:

Every time we have a Sandy Hook we’re back to the debate about game violence. On the gender front, there is probably greater equity from girls and boys playing games, especially if you factor in casual games, but the stereotypes culturally around female players still persists as a very active problem. I think we’ve made some progress in educators getting to play games and see it as valuable in their classroom, thanks in part to the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, and a few other things. When I talk to teachers, the kneejerk response is that children should be doing homework and not playing games. These myths are not as deeply rooted in the culture, but we still revert back to them when pushed on questions. They’re questions we must engage with closely and critically moving forward.

Game-based learning scholar James Gee wrote an online article about Grand Theft Auto demonstrating new media bias. He stated, “In a mission, the player must sneak into a parking lot and, unseen, plant a bomb in the trunk of a car and leave the scene without doing damage to the getaway car. Our intuition about content-driven media tells us that this is about a crime but the task could be changed to placing flowers in a loved one’s car without being discovered, and the problem and its difficulty would be the same” (Gee, 2010). In other words, gamers care more about mechanics of play than the narrative thread. In Theory of Fun for Game Design Raph Koster shared a similar view. He wrote that players do not see actions as morally wrong; rather, “they see a power-up” (2005, p. 85). A simple solution to alleviating new media bias is for parents to play video games with their children.

No matter how much research points to the benefits of utilizing games as a teaching tool, the teacher is still the gatekeeper of how lessons are delivered in his or her classroom. In January 2014 I spoke to Shula Ehrlich, learning designer at the Institute of Play, about what is the key to making game-based learning integration more widespread. For game-based learning to catch on, Ehrlich believes that teachers simply need to see how engaged students ← 4 | 5 → become. “It takes one successful experience, one teacher seeing a game in a classroom and seeing how it transforms learning,” she said. “We have teachers coming in skeptical; they see games as waste of time and the need to just hit standards. After one successful experience, they turn around. All teachers have the capacity to become game designers.”

Book Overview

Writing this book gave me the opportunity to interview several leaders in the game-based learning sector. I share the history and backgrounds of many influential people. Many of the designers, developers, and academics I spoke with are true artists in their field, devoted to bettering learning. All of the interviews occurred between January and July 2014. I was fortunate enough to speak with the following designers, developers, and academics (listed alphabetically):

 Richard Bartle—Professor of Game Design at University of Essex, and creator of the Bartle Player Type Theory

 Sue Bohle—President of the Serious Games Association

 Jim Bower—Founder of Whyville

 Asi Burak—President of Games for Change

 Seth Corrigan—Research Scientist for Learning Analytics for GlassLab

 Zoe Corwin—Research Assistant Professor at University of Southern California

 Chris Czajk—Thirteen/WNET, Co-developer of the Mission US history games

 Nicole Darabian—Decode Global, developer of Get Water!

 Bernie DeKoven—Author of the influential book The Well-Played Game

 Jim Diamond—Center for Children and Technology

 Shula Ehrlich—Lead Designer at Institute of Play for Quest to Learn school

 Noah Falstein—Chief Game Designer at Google

 Tracy Fullerton—Chair of the Interactive Media & Games Division of the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Director of the Game Innovation Lab

 James Gee—Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, ← 5 | 6 → and author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003, 2nd ed. 2007)

 Alan Gershenfeld—Co-founder of E-Line Media

 Emily Goligoski—Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges Initiative

 Marientina Gotsis—Research Assistant Professor at University of Southern California

 Claire Greene—Co-founder of the Sandbox Summit

 Spencer Grey—Electric Funstuff, designer of the Mission US history games

 Erin Hoffman—Game Design Lead at GlassLab

 Katya Hott—Researcher at BrainPOP and #edtechbridge Twitter chat co-moderator

 Steve Isaacs—Middle school video game design teacher, and a BrainPOPstar and #edtechbridge Twitter chat co-moderator

 Rex Ishibashi—CEO of Originator children’s mobile apps

 Henry Jenkins—Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, a joint professorship at the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Cinematic Arts at University of Southern California

 Santeri Koivisto—Co-founder of TeacherGaming (MinecraftEdu and KerbalEdu)

 David Langendoen—Electric Funstuff, designer of the Mission US history games

 Jocelyn Leavitt—Co-founder of Hopscotch coding apps

 Allisyn Levy—Vice President of BrainPOP’s GameUp

 Karina Linch—Senior Vice President of Product Management at BrainPOP


X, 263
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
lesson plan educator teaching
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 263 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Matthew Farber (Author)

Matthew Farber teaches social studies at Valleyview Middle School in Denville, New Jersey. Mr. Farber holds a master’s degree in educational technology from New Jersey City University, where he is currently a doctoral candidate.


Title: Gamify Your Classroom