I used to think schools needed more games

I love games! I love playing them. I love making them. I love theorizing about them. They're an essential part of who I am as a person.

I used to think schools needed more games.

I was working as a video game developer and was fascinated by "tutorial levels". You know, that part of the game that is designed to help you learn how to play the game. Some games neglect their tutorial level and it comes off feeling like a dry lecture. Go here. Push button. Repeat. However, I've also been completely awed by some games that take their tutorial levels to a completely different level. Games like The Elder Scrolls and Guild Wars for example. The experience is so seamlessly integrated with the "game" that you don't even realize you're playing a tutorial. You just play. By the time you've completed the tutorial, you were totally immersed in the game and knew exactly what you needed to.

I used to think schools needed more games.

There's an certain authenticity to this learning that I never really experienced as a student. I thought if I could design the perfect "tutorial level" for math, then everything else would just fall into place. The students would have fun. They'd learn real mathematical concepts in a natural environment. They'd grow and develop as individuals and as a group. I'd be like a "math teacher" and "guild leader" all rolled into one (although I probably wouldn't run IWAY).

I used to think schools needed more games...

...and then I started teaching.

The problem is not that school doesn't have enough games, it's that school has too many games. Now, I'm not talking about the latest web app: Kahoot, Quizizz, Manga High, etc.. Those are certainly a type of game that has a place in school, although perhaps the number of apps is getting overabundant as well, but I'm talking about the games that are school. School itself is like a "Live Action Role Playing Game". Everyone invents their character, acts out their role, cooperates with some players, competes with others, and are rewarded or punished in accordance with the game master's rules.

Now school being RPG isn't a problem on its own. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of mini-RPGs being played simulatenously, and all of them have conflicting rules. Here is a short list of a few games that might be going on at a given time:

  • The students are playing a game with each other. They compete with each other for social status while cooperating against outside threats to their system.
  • The teachers are playing a game with their students. The teachers are trying to maximize student learning while the students are trying to minimize the work they have to do.
  • The administrators are playing a game with their teachers. The administrators are trying to maximize test scores while minimizing teacher burn-out.
  • The school board is playing a game with their administrators. The school board is trying to maximize community approval while minimizing school funding.
  • The parents are playing a game with their school board. The parents are trying to maximize the quality of education while minimizing the amount of attention paid to local elections.

Within these games, temporary alliances are made to accomplish mutual goals. Teachers and parents might cooperate to get students in for extra tutoring. Administrators and school boards might cooperate for better community awareness. Sometimes these alliances help the system as whole and sometimes they detract from it. It's one of the most complex network systems I've ever seen.

I used to think schools needed more games...

...and now I think schools need to have a closer look at the games that are already being played there.

In most of these games, competition is the dominant strategy. Students that are competing for limited scholarship funds have little incentive to help one another. Schools that receive funding based on standardized test scores have a very strong incentive to focus on instructional strategies that produce short-term results over long-term retention. School boards are underappreciated as a position of political power and tend to just "fly under the radar". Until we fix the reward systems so that they encourage cooperation, the games will continue to be frustratingly difficult for everyone involved.

We need to start meta-gaming school. We need to look at how the rules affect the relationships between players. We need to look how those rules can be changed to encourage more co-operation and less competition between the parties involved. Until we have these conversations, we're never going to win.

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