January 16, 2017

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Quest to Learn: A collaborative effort to design engaging game-like learning environments | Gaming Life

If you’ve played enough well-designed games, you know that they provide immediate feedback, are constantly challenging, promote learning by doing, and reframe failure as iteration. As most teachers already know, these are core principles of good teaching. This is a powerful relationship. When we make it explicit, and design from it, we see students engaged in playful, studious, and deep learning.

In 2009, the Institute of Play, a not-for-profit design studio founded by a group of game designers, collaborated with the New York City Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools to design and realize Quest to Learn (Q2L). A game-like public school in New York City, Quest to Learn opened its doors in 2009 with a sixth grade class of 78 students. It currently has 370 students in grades six through nine, and will add a grade each subsequent year until it graduates its first class in 2015. Teachers are licensed by the Department of Education and students take required standardized tests. But at Q2L, a team of game designers, curriculum specialists, and after school mentors work with teachers to design rigorous, engaging, game-like learning environments, including the design of classroom games.

At Quest to Learn, students face tasks that are challenging but approachable. Teachers assess student learning based on these tasks. Students receive meaningful feedback about their progress. Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s good teaching, grounded in over 30 years of learning research.

Part of this process is the design of classroom games. So not only are the learning environments explicitly game-like, but students and teachers play games in these spaces, reflect on games, mod (modify) them, and design their own. We are designing a library of irresistible experiences for learning. It’s an illuminating collaborative process.

The Why

The game integration process begins in our weekly curriculum meetings attended by a teacher, a game designer, a curriculum specialist, and a learning strategist. The process springs from carefully considered learning goals that are based on New York State and Common Core Standards. The decision to integrate a game is usually sparked by one of two situations:

1. Sometimes it’s just a tough topic. For example, during a curriculum meeting, a teacher notes that arithmetic with negative integers is a troublesome topic. Games are excellent for tough topics, so we begin the process.

2. Sometimes content just feels game-like. Perhaps the space of the topic feels game-like (like circles, triangles, and rulers), or perhaps the mechanics/actions of the content feel game-like (like how citing sources can be similar to trusting players in a bluffing game). We try to brainstorm a prototype. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and that’s fine. We don’t push what’s not working just because we like games.

Our first response to these two potential sparks is always: “Is there a tool that already does this?” Our goal is learning, not game design. If the tool already exists, we use it. Some of the fine tools that we use include Algodoo, Minecraft, SimCity, Vernier and Pasco Probeware, LEGO robotics, MangaHigh, Brainpop, Prezi, Pixlr, Wikispaces, Comic Life, iMovie, Keynote, and these things called pencils. If a great tool does not already exist, then perhaps the game design process begins.

A note on leadership: the curriculum team follows the teachers, not the other way around. Teachers know what they want to teach, know their students, and know what will work best for the context. This is extremely important, and is not just a principle of our game design process but of our curriculum design process as a whole. The team supports with their skills, is a sounding board, and offers advice—but the teacher is the teacher is the teacher.

Prototype and playtest

After zooming in on learning goals and deciding to move forward, we brainstorm relevant game mechanics or actions, playtest prototypes, and plan strategies for the classroom.

In the case of teaching arithmetic with negative integers, our game designer brainstormed and came back to our next meeting with an idea. She had us play a game that already existed, called Gloom. It had a mechanic where players could add or subtract points from another player’s stack of cards, so players were already adding and subtracting integers. It seemed like a good place to start, but its rules were too complex for the classroom and it didn’t focus in on operations with negatives. We focused on the learning goal, kept the basic card-covering and card-stealing mechanics, varied the numbers used (-5 to +5), and designed some additional arithmetic operations and actions. Each of these decisions had consequences that needed to be worked out through playtesting.

During subsequent meetings, we went through several iterations. We asked ourselves questions like: “Is this fun?” “Do I feel confused?” “Are the rules complicated?” “Do I feel active?” “Are we collaborating/competing?” “Do my choices matter?” And then we asked the overarching question: “Are we hitting the learning goals?”

Of course, as adults with arithmetic fluency, we can’t necessarily predict how students will react to the mathematics or the gameplay. We tackle this through playtesting. The teacher invites students with various strengths and weaknesses to play and provide honest and critical feedback. They complete a playtest reflection form that’s used as a springboard for the feedback session.

When students playtested our Gloom mods (modifications), which became a game called Absolute Blast, they reported that they would like to have more opportunities to “mess” with other players. We immediately worked to incorporate a stronger “stealing” element to the game. One student reported a feeling of “too many things going on in her head to make a good choice”—cognitive overload. We took steps to reduce this by constraining player choice and available information. These modifications improved students’ ability to competitively and strategically perform arithmetic with negative integers. Students sometimes come up with ideas that are so good that we immediately incorporate them. In this way, students engage in our collaborative design process and take on designer identities.

Exploding the Game

It’s important to note that our games are not one-and-done’s. They work best when the teacher “explodes the game.” This can mean a number of things. It can be something as simple as choosing the best time to introduce the game. For example, our game Shortcuts motivates students to wish that they had something like the Pythagorean Theorem. So, students might play it right before they are introduced to the theorem.

Perhaps the teacher wants to play the same game, but increase the levels of difficulty over time. If we use a game with a more open/fill-in framework, students can play with the same space, rules, and mechanics, but at varying teacher-created difficulty levels, which can be a differentiation strategy as well. Another great possibility is for students to create strategy guides for games. This works better with some games than others, depending on how close a relationship there is between strategy and content understanding.

Perhaps the students create the new game levels. Cast them into the role of game designers so that they can learn and display their content understanding as they work on new difficulty levels, or more interestingly, as they introduce fundamental modifications that require them to struggle with the content. For example, in our game Caterpillar, which is a heavy mod of Settlers of Catan, the learning goal is about understanding the probabilities of rolling two dice. After playing for a while, some students chose to mod only the game space, while others modded both the game space and the number of rolled dice.

If we don’t have the time to mod or design from scratch (or even if we do), we may explode games that we didn’t design. Why not take Scrabble and ask students why certain letters have their point values? How would they design a game like Scrabble if they were making it? Would they do it differently? How would their modifications affect player strategy? What would they have to understand in order to make informed decisions for a fun game?

What game will you take apart or mod for learning? It’s wide open. Explode the game.

Dan O'KeefeDan O’Keefe (Daniel@instituteofplay.org) designs learning spaces for the Institute of Play for Quest to Learn in New York City.



  1. Just a note to say thanks for the gaming update, that was exactly what I (used) to be in search of!