Gamify Your Classroom

A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning – Revised edition

by Matthew Farber (Author)
©2017 Textbook XXII, 348 Pages


This completely revised and expanded field guide is packed with new innovative ideas on how to implement game-based learning and gamification techniques in everyday teaching. With nearly two dozen more experts than the first edition, this book contains interviews with more than 70 authorities in the field, including academics such as James Paul Gee, Kurt Squire, Mizuko (Mimi) Ito, Lee Sheldon, Jordan Shapiro, and Mary Flanagan. The author also shares conversations with experts from numerous organizations such as Common Sense Media, iCivics, DragonBox, Connected Camps, GlassLab Games, Schell Games, Institute of Play, Games for Change, BrainPOP, Tiggly, Toca Boca, ThinkFun, BrainQuake, Filament Games, BreakoutEDU, Kahoot, Classcraft, and more. Featuring a new introduction, as well as a foreword from USA Today’s national K-12 education writer Greg Toppo, this book provides new practical lesson plan ideas, ready-to-use games, and links for further research in each updated chapter. Included are best practice recommendations from star game-based learning teachers, including Steve Isaacs, Peggy Sheehy, Michael Matera, Rafranz Davis, Zack Gilbert, and Paul Darvasi. Regardless of your teaching discipline or grade level, whether you are new to game-based learning or if you have experience and want to take a deeper dive, this book will engage and reinvigorate the way you teach and how your students learn!

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword by Greg Toppo
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Welcome to Our Tribe
  • Book Overview
  • Chapter 1. Games for Learning
  • From Mancala to Kriegspiel
  • Video Game Mania!
  • The Edutainment Era
  • Serious Games
  • New Media Literacy and Games
  • The Art of the Game
  • Getting Good Games into Classrooms
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 2. What Are Games?
  • Defining Games
  • Designed Experiences and Meaningful Play
  • Voluntary Participation
  • Designing Game-Like Lessons
  • Rules and Constraints
  • Games as Interconnected Systems
  • Feedback Loops
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 3. Player Types and Motivation
  • Bartle’s Player Type Model
  • Social Engagement
  • Rewards and Motivation
  • Pleasant Frustration and the Flow Channel
  • Fun and Engagement
  • 4 Keys 2 Fun
  • The Tyranny of Fun
  • Game Theory
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 4. Balanced Design Digital Games
  • Avoiding Chocolate-Covered Broccoli
  • DragonBox
  • Filament Games
  • Wuzzit Trouble
  • Schell Games
  • Words with Friends EDU
  • Game-Based Assessments
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 5. Platforms with Learning Games
  • BrainPOP and the Meaning of Beep
  • Playful Assessments
  • “Mom, All of School Should Be Like iCivics”
  • GlassLab Games
  • LRNG
  • SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge!
  • Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 6. Play and Learning
  • Theories of Play
  • Risky Play
  • Explorable Explanations
  • Play at Museums
  • Location-Based Play
  • Play and School
  • Institute of Play and Quest to Learn
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 7. Puzzles, Games, and Digital Toys
  • ThinkFun
  • Toca Boca and Digital Toys
  • Tiggly Toys
  • Building Games with Bloxels
  • Originator’s Endless Apps
  • Diversity in Apps
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 8. Teaching with Minecraft
  • Connected Camps
  • Minecraft in School
  • 5th Grade in Minecraft
  • Spanish Class in Minecraft
  • Game Design Class in Minecraft
  • MathCraft
  • MineGage
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 9. Game Labs
  • Games + Learning + Society Center
  • Field Day Lab
  • Games Research Lab at Teachers College
  • EdGE at TERC
  • Center for Games and Impact
  • Games Innovation Lab
  • Thoreau in a Sandbox
  • Nutritional Education with Virtual Sprouts
  • Adventurous Dreaming Highflying Dragon
  • FutureBound
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 10. Multiplayer Learning
  • Cooperative Games
  • Pandemic
  • Kagan Structures
  • Lee Sheldon’s Multiplayer Classroom Approach
  • Collateral Learning
  • Whyville
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 11. Gamification
  • Meaningful Gamification
  • Gamification Mechanics
  • Leaderboards
  • Badges
  • Mods
  • Avatars
  • Game Geography
  • Easter Eggs
  • Gamified Learning Management Systems
  • Rezzly
  • Classcraft
  • GradeCraft
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 12. The Teacher as Designer
  • Turning a Classroom into a Game
  • BreakoutEDU
  • Blind Kahoots
  • Teaching with Commercial Games
  • Alternate Reality Games
  • Text-Based Adventures
  • Exploding the Game
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 13. The Student as Designer
  • Iterative Design
  • Game Jams
  • Moveable Game Jam
  • Climate Game Jam
  • Social Deduction
  • Interactive Fiction Writing
  • Participatory Design
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 14. Making Digital Games
  • The National STEM Video Game Challenge
  • Digital Design Tools
  • Gamestar Mechanic
  • Hopscotch
  • Scratch
  • GameMaker: Studio
  • Tynker
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 15. Geeking Out and Earning Badges
  • Affinity Spaces and the HOMAGO Framework
  • Game-Related Fan Fiction
  • Intramural eSports
  • Publishing Game Reviews
  • Machinima
  • Let’s Play Videos
  • Modding
  • Micro-credentials and Learning Pathways
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • Chapter 16. Games to Change the World
  • Mary Flanagan’s Tiltfactor
  • Mission US
  • Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna)
  • Papers, Please
  • Gone Home
  • Life Is Strange
  • That Dragon, Cancer
  • Games for Change Festival
  • Games for Learning Summit
  • Final Words on Game-Based Learning
  • Conclusions and Takeaways
  • Lesson Plan Ideas
  • Games
  • Resources
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| xi →


I’ve covered education for most of the past 15 years, and I’ve come away with several rather cynical ideas about our schools. The most significant of these is this: We must never underestimate the ability of a group of people to mess up a good thing.

Again and again, I’ve seen instances where seemingly simple, straightforward ideas turn to dust amid the fraught politics and bizarre incentive structures of our education system.

Matthew Farber’s book does a lot of things, but what I’m hoping it will do most effectively is provide a kind of booster shot—or maybe it’s an actual vaccination—against future mess-ups. I really hope this book wards off the misuse of a potentially transformative tool: smart, well-designed games that get children and teachers excited about learning. We need them badly, and if anyone is going to show us how to get it right, it’s Farber.

Again and again while reading this book, I was struck by the breadth of his research. The last time I saw him, I told him he seems to know—and have scored an interview—with everyone in this business. But just as important is the depth and thoughtfulness that he brings to the enterprise, his ability to look at games through a teacher’s problem-solving lens.

Remarkably—though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised—he has the true practitioner’s ability to see the folks doing amazing things not as competitors, ← xi | xii → but as a community of practice, a group of enthusiasts who understand that they must support one another and celebrate one another’s successes.

As he points out, many of these folks are friends who play together too, a “tribe” that has developed organically as more and more teachers come to appreciate the charms of good learning games. In that regard, I almost see these folks as I would jazz musicians who, when they get together, naturally play music, or as chefs who in their spare time swap recipes and stories—and eat good food.

That, more than anything else, is what our schools need: people who love and care so deeply about their job that they do it when no one’s looking.

Actually, food may be the best analogy by which to understand this world. In the book, Farber quotes learning games pioneer James Paul Gee, who says that learning, like play, is “an appetite” that we must satisfy. “When you put it in school and make it boring and decontaminated, then of course you kill that appetite. It’s like when you give people bad food. The fact of the matter is that when you trigger the human instinct of learning—and this is true of adults, not just children—you’re triggering a deeply satisfying thing.”

One of the great pleasures I took while reporting my 2015 book on games and learning was the opportunity it afforded me to see that in action. I was, for just a little while, able to get away from the endless, often pointless debates on policy that seldom affect what happens in actual classrooms.

I was thrilled to be able to spend time—sometimes hours or even days on end—in the presence of energetic, creative teachers who were searching for ways to feed the appetite of which Gee writes. They’d spent enough time puzzling over this world to know the difference between a good game and “dressed up flashcards.” They saw that great games make learning central to the task at hand, not a formality that must be endured so the fun can begin.

They weren’t afraid to take big risks or to turn their backs on what was taking place elsewhere in their school. I used to joke with Peggy Sheehy (who appears in these pages) that every time I wrote about her classroom, I somehow ended up describing it the same way: the door was shut, the curtains were drawn, and the lights were out.

If you think that’s transgressive, just you wait: Farber’s account of Paul Darvasi’s big, month-long “pervasive games” in Chapter 12 will change your mind forever about what’s possible in the classroom.

But here’s the thing: commitments like these, while remarkable, are not required. There’s room in this tribe for all kinds of enthusiasts, even those who don’t much care for video games, avatars, dungeons, dragons, or even digital technology. ← xii | xiii →

Actually, most of the teachers I met while doing research got into this discipline not because they love games, but because they love children and want something better for them. After a while, I stopped counting the number of times that someone leaned in and told me, “I am not a big gamer.”

Farber writes, “My hope is that you will integrate games for learning, and not be overwhelmed by ‘the next big thing.’” I could hardly agree more. When I speak to teachers, parents and policymakers, I admit that, even though I wrote a book about this stuff, I hope games never become “the next big thing.” I hope they always remain “the next small thing,” because the next big thing rarely lasts very long.

I sometimes say that I want teachers to look at games as just another tool, like a pencil sharpener. Think about every classroom you’ve ever visited—you’ll soon realize that they all have two pencil sharpeners: the school-issued one on the wall that chews up pencils … and the one on the teacher’s desk that actually works. Chances are the teacher saw one of these pencil sharpeners in a colleague’s classroom and bought one herself, probably with her own money. It endures not because anybody forces her and her students to use it, but because it works. Everyone can see that.

I spent four years exploring this world and could only offer a flyover, a kind of cursory introduction, a simple instruction manual for the pencil sharpener. Farber offers an actual, detailed, deeply reported “field guide.” Use it like a naturalist.

—Greg Toppo, national education writer for USA TODAY, and author of The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter (2015)

| xv →


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. 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. This journey would not have been possible without the support of my community of practice: “The Tribe.” 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. And thanks to my wife’s parents, Virginia Fisher and Frank Fisher.

| xvii →


Most people in my community of practice of game-based learning educators know Marianne Malmstrom as “Knowclue Kid,” her onscreen gamertag. Malmstrom is a veteran classroom teacher, and “follow the learning” is her mantra. The phrase came from a situation back when she began integrating more technology into her classroom. “With no map, I looked to see how the kids were using tech,” Malmstrom recalled, when we spoke in April 2016. “Kids were making movies with iMovie, so I built a multimedia program around that. Similarly, I look at games to see what they teach me about learning.”

About a decade ago, the virtual world of Second Life changed how Malmstrom taught. It also affected her best friend Peggy Sheehy’s pedagogy. Back in 2005, Sheehy launched the first school in the Teen Grid section of Second Life (Toppo, 2015, p. 119). Sheehy now teaches using the massive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft, which I observed during dissertation research. Her 6th grade humanities students played World of Warcraft as they read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937). The unit was all framed around Joseph Campbell’s book Hero with a Thousand Faces (1939), which famously proposed the monomyth, the hero’s journey that mythological protagonists take. Sheehy’s students play the game, read the book, and then draw connections from the game and the novel to their own hero’s journey in adolescence. ← xvii | xviii →

Like Sheehy, Malmstrom started teaching in Second Life’s virtual world a decade ago. Then she started using the massive multiplayer online role-playing game LEGO Universe (2010) in an afterschool club to teach digital citizenship. “It was phenomenal,” she recalled. “They saw their avatars and that others had avatars.” Students could see the consequences of their online actions. “It’s hard to then sit kids down after that experience and teach them PowerPoint. Games gave me the space to look at that in a way I hadn’t understood before.” Malmstrom next shared how virtual worlds led her to “follow the learning.” She said:

As in some classrooms today, 100 years ago students sat in rows listening to direct instruction from a lecturing teacher. Game-based learning challenges this factory model of schools. Games present players with optimally challenging, meaningful choices in a situated context (Gee, 2007; Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). Active learning, rather than passive sit-and-get education, seems possible due to digital technology. What’s more, computers can be used to create personalized learning environments that adapt to student ability. Student engagement and an increase in learning outcomes are part of the many promises of game-based learning.

Some proponents of educational reform have turned to game-based learning as a way to transform schools the way Uber disrupted taxi transportation. After all, the skills in the P21 Framework for 21st-Century Learning can be mapped to align with current game-based learning research (King, 2011). The P21 Framework includes the necessary skills students should possess to be able to compete in today’s global economy, which includes critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation (“Framework for 21st-Century Learning,” 2015). Aside from 21st-century learning standards, many games can deliver instruction and assess learning outcomes seamlessly.

Any experienced teacher knows that there are no simple and elegant, silver bullet solutions to problems in modern education. Like designing a game, the practice of teaching is iterative, constantly being modified and fine-tuned. ← xviii | xix → Malmstrom’s fear is that games can become “school-ified”—the use the games will only serve to enhance content curriculum. Her vision is to look at games and ask, what can they teach us about learning? “The agility to make stuff, to play games, is so critical,” she said.

Welcome to Our Tribe

Peggy Sheehy affectionately dubbed our community of practice of game-using teachers “The Tribe.” Toronto-based teacher Paul Darvasi defines The Tribe as a “community of practice of game-based learning teachers that supports one another.” Sheehy elaborated when we spoke in late 2015. “The Tribe shares a philosophy about virtual worlds, games, new technologies, new environments, new approaches to learning,” she said. “They very often attend the same conferences, they tweet each other. Each member is a conference compatriot.”

My dissertation work pertained to three teachers in The Tribe—the aforementioned Sheehy and Darvasi, as well as Steve Isaacs. I studied how they, as high-end users, teach with games. Aside from their depth of knowledge, each was a leader in the movement to bring more quality games, and playful learning, to students. I observed each deliver a keynote address at the Games in Education Symposium, an annual professional development conference in upstate New York. They spoke about their experiences using game-based learning as a teaching approach.

A few years ago, Steve Isaacs was “initiated” into The Tribe as a community of practice. He shared the story when we spoke in April 2016. “I came down for breakfast at the hotel [while attending the Games for Education Symposium]. I saw an open seat at a table. I was asked to sit down and was immediately welcomed. Eating at that table was Sheehy, Malmstorm [World of Warcraft in Schools co-creator], Lucas Gillispie, and [Rezzly co-founder] Chris Haskell.” Isaacs continued:

Over the years we became dear friends. There is nothing I love more than interacting with people who are passionate about game-based learning. When I travel to conferences, the best part is connecting with my tribe. These are the people I want to surround myself with. We are an extensive support system of affirmations, guidance, and feedback. If I have a question about something, I throw it out there to them. Also, these people tend to be outside of my school because I do something very different. I’m immersed in games in the classroom. Most of what I learned is the “outside” community of practice, and this has led to deep friendships. We play together and laugh together. I wouldn’t be nearly as inspired or excited without this community to interact with. ← xix | xx →

This book is here to help guide you along the exciting field of game-based learning. So what exactly is game-based learning? Well, that can be difficult to define. It can mean different things to different people: teaching curriculum like a game, using parts of a game in nongame contexts (gamification), actually playing a game, or making games. What is important is that each variant is “gameful”—what your students do should feel like a game. Game-based learning expert Bron Stuckey prefers the term “game-inspired learning.” “It was because there was backlash about gamification in education,” she said, when we spoke in April 2016. “[The word] gamification comes with a lot of baggage. Teachers think gamifying means designing a game.” She elaborated:

Stuckey recommends that teachers create their own local tribes of game using teachers. She suggests starting with a community of practice in your school—not just on social media outlets, like Twitter. “Get two people to implement games in the school,” she said. For you, this may mean sharing this book and its resources with a colleague. Or having teachers observe your use of games. Stuckey continued:

Nebraska-based English teacher Melissa Pilakowski is a “Lone Ranger” game-using teacher at her school. She started as a novice and now leads the #Games4Ed Twitter chat, an active community of practice. “I’m probably known as the biggest game teacher in my school,” she said, when we spoke in May 2016. “The history teacher next door does a lot of games and simulation. But if you asked who the game teacher was, it would be me.”

Like many teachers I spoke with researching this book, Pilakowski has autonomy to use games in her classroom. Her view of games is similar to that of educational technology integration in general. “With technology, once teachers start doing something, others take note,” she stated. “It’s organic, and I’d like to see it continue that way.” ← xx | xxi →

Book Overview

I wrote this book to share what I have learned about using games as an educational tool as a “boots-on-the-ground” classroom teacher. This book draws on my experiences implementing games with my students, as well as shared stories from teachers in the field. Research brought me several times to the game-based school Quest to Learn, the offices of BrainPOP, Schell Games, and Filament Games, and to the Games for Change Festival, the Serious Play Conference, and the Games + Learning + Society Conference.

Like a game, this book edition represents iteration. It is a “field guide” to help you navigate best practices in game-based learning. I have included practical advice on game implementation, no matter what level of experience you have. Each chapter is divided into sections and concludes with lesson plan ideas, games to play, and additional Internet resources. The point is to create as useful a book as possible. I have tried my best to assure that the links in this book are as up to date as possible. Of course, the Internet changes rapidly, and some links may not remain active after this book’s publication date. Nonetheless, I encourage you to learn by doing, exploring as much as possible, online and from other texts.


XXII, 348
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XXII, 338 pp.

Biographical notes

Matthew Farber (Author)

Matthew Farber, EdD is a social studies teacher at Valleyview Middle School in Denville, New Jersey. He is also an adjunct instructor, Edutopia blogger, and cohost on Ed Got Game on the BAM Radio Network. Dr. Farber was a recipient of a Geraldine R. Dodge Teacher Fellowship, a Woodrow Wilson HistoryQuest Fellowship, and is a Certified BrainPOP Educator. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Laura, son, Spencer, and playful Weimaraner dog, Lizzie. To learn more, visit: MatthewFarber.com.


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