Making School a Game Worth Playing: Digital Games in the Classroom


Ryan Schaaf & Nicky Mohan

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    This book presents gamification as a powerful tool for engaging learners and for the development of 21st-century fluencies, organized in levels as in the games it describes. Rich in resources for finding, evaluating, implementing, and designing classroom games, Schaaf's book shares game thinking as a global approach to learning, flavored with a hint of his own personal game nostalgia. A must-read for those exploring the use of games in the classroom!

    Danea A. Farley, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Technology, Notre Dame of Maryland University

    Integrating the fundamentals of gaming into the classroom may seem like a daunting task, but this book clearly explains how the students of today are learning and how educators can leverage a powerful media phenomenon for fun and engaging learning. Making School a Game Worth Playing clearly establishes that digital games teach students the 21st-century skills they need to develop for a successful future in a globalized world. Social, creative, collaborative, and problem solving skills are cleverly linked to digital games throughout the text. It is easy to follow and written from the perspective of a teacher. A must-read!

    Shannon Vesik, Children's Gaming and Media Professional

    Effective and strategic integration of technology into teaching and learning will produce students who demonstrate proficiency in 21st-century skills. It's critical that education moves from a teacher-centered to a more student-centered approach to instruction. Digital game-based learning helps change the role of the teacher into a facilitator. Making School a Game Worth Playing: Digital Games in the Classroom not only provides ideas on how to overcome the barriers that schools are faced with when approaching this concept, but also provides teachers with authentic ideas on how to bring digital gaming concepts into their classrooms. The text is easy to read and offers many practical applications for our teachers and district leaders. This is a game changer for our professional development program!

    Julie Wray, Coordinator of Instructional Technology, Howard County Public Schools

    Back in 2004, Pat Kane told us in his book The Play Ethic that organizations that base themselves on play and not work are healthier and more productive workplaces. Now Schaaf and Mohan have contextualized this idea for education around the use and creation of digital games. The key concept behind these books is that, in play, we are intrinsically motivated. In work, we just might not be. As they carefully explain, elements of all the things we aspire to in good education can be found in good digital games: Differentiation across a wide degree of ability, providing instant feedback, and allowing learners to level up as quickly as they acquire new skills and rewarding success.

    Traditionally, education has been hard to move and resistant to change. I am guessing that if you are reading Making School a Game Worth Playing you are not that way inclined. Your challenge is to grasp the grail of these ideas and hit the ground running with your students.

    Peter Lasscock, Deputy Head of School, Discovery College, Hong Kong, China

    As video games continue to captivate both children and adults around the world, Ryan Schaaf provides compelling evidence for playing digital games in schools to present academic content and develop essential 21st-century skills. Making School a Game Worth Playing goes beyond research and theory to illustrate how teachers can find, evaluate, and integrate digital games with classroom instruction to challenge and present content information in a fun and engaging manner.

    Chapters on how to play games; how games influence 21st-century fluencies; how to find, evaluate, and integrate games; and how to create your own games give teachers a wealth of resources for playing video games in schools and making learning fun at all levels of education. I particularly liked the “level” on the gamification of learning, which gave me great new insights into how to engage learners without the use of video games per se, by leveraging key principles of game-based learning.

    I highly recommend Making School a Game Worth Playing for educators across all levels and disciplines. I think it covers the skills and knowledge necessary for novice gamers to integrate the use of video games into their classrooms to facilitate learning, as well as giving experienced gamers a fresh look at the field of game-based learning.

    Atsusi “2c” Hirumi, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Instructional Technology, University of Central Florida


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    Have you ever observed a person playing a video game? Ever witnessed the intense range of emotions, extreme task commitment and engagement, and singular focus a player experiences while gaming? Ryan's seven-year-old son, Connor, amazed us with his proficiency in playing games on the family game console or tablet. Ryan was guilty of starting Connor on this path to early gaming. At the ripe old age of 2, Connor was visiting to learn about phonics and letter recognition. This interactive site was the gateway to more advanced gaming experiences such as Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, Star Wars Legos, and, more recently, Mindcraft.

    What was truly amazing with Connor's gameplay was all the content he was learning. Starting with, Connor discovered digital games had something to teach him. Similar to videos, songs, and books, Connor considered digital games as an educational media format—one that will continue to evolve in its presentation and message for players.

    Video games aren't just for kids. Nicky is an avid gamer. She loves playing Angry Birds (at all hours of the day and night). For those of you who have never heard of it, Angry Birds is a strategy video game that immediately grabs gamers’ attention with its silly premise and fun gameplay. Despite its simple design, the game explores multiple concepts and skills in a wide range of curriculum areas.

    And it's not just Angry Birds. There's a treasure trove of interesting and relevant games that have the potential to provide powerful learning experiences for students.

    A vast majority of the digital world plays video games as a pastime or hobby. By 2015, video game sales are projected to reach $112 billion worldwide. In the United States, over 63 percent of the population have played video games within the past 6 months. In China, over 338 million people are now connected to the Internet and approximately two-thirds of them are online gamers. Children and adults, locally and globally alike, are hooked on this immersive media phenomenon.

    Many living in the digital generation have never experienced a world without Mario, Master Chief, or The Sims. Outside of school, they play hours of video games each week. While playing video games in their spare time, they are highly focused, they take on all challengers, they work collaboratively, solve problems, receive instant feedback and gratification, and ingest and retain a large amount of information quickly, with amazingly accurate recall.

    They have become experts at analyzing gameplay, interpreting storylines, and ingesting raw game data. Imagine if schools could take advantage of the popularity and positive aspects of digital games during the learning process.

    Imagine if students would play to learn: they would take risks, work productively alone or in groups, strive for perfection, focus on a single task for an extended period of time, fail without stigma, persevere, work toward goals, and learn through experience, all while having fun.

    Mating School a Game Worth Playing: Digital Games in the Classroom makes the case for using gaming to instruct the digital generations. Students prefer to use the same digital tools and have the same digital experiences they are accustomed to using at home in a setting with the explicit promise to reshape their minds into a powerful instrument for future success—schools.

    This book helps parents, educators, and school leaders see the benefits of digital games and gameful design and provides readers with compelling evidence that digital games present information using a multi-sensory approach, which appeals to the learning preferences of digital learners. Digital games also provide academic content and challenge in a manner appealing to the human brain. Going beyond theory and research, this text also provides pragmatic ways to find, evaluate, and integrate digital games into instruction at every instructional level.

    The global gaming phenomenon also inspires instruction outside of digital gameplay. With a growing concentration on science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) initiatives, digital game design has become an incubator for 21st-century skills and a model for teaching the liberal arts in today's classrooms. Finally, gamification—or the gameful design movement—has real potential to transform learning environments, using gaming mechanics outside of a digital game with challenge, meaningful context, and other measures working in unison to provide motivation and engagement for all learners.

    Dedication and Acknowledgments

    I dedicate this book to my beautiful wife, Rachel, and my sons, Connor and Ben. You are my life and I am forever enriched by your love and presence. To my wonderful mother, Susan, for instilling in me the need for the best education possible. For my late father, Stephen William Schaaf—I appreciate the passion and determination you ingrained in me and my loving sister, Kristy.

    To the wonderful faculty and staff at Notre Dame of Maryland University for providing me with the “dream job” of educating teachers on the amazing potential for technology integration in the classroom.

    To Nicky, Ian, Ross, and the other members of the 21st Century Fluency Project for supporting this large endeavor and putting up with those long Skype chats to produce something special.

    Ryan Schaaf

    I want to make a difference where it matters most, and that is starting with education. I want to help teachers in many different settings and working conditions look beyond their surface differences to discover what they have in common—a restless drive to improve learning for all students. I want our conversations as educators to shift from “why that won't work here” to learn, adapt, share, and grow together.

    You know how it is—you pick up a book, flip to the dedication, and read the name of the person to whom the book is dedicated—not to you, of course. Not this time.

    Even though we haven't yet met, we are still in some way related and I have and will always think fondly of you and every other teacher. This one's for you.

    This book is also for my husband, Mini—my best friend, my love, my rock of support, my biggest fan. Mini, you left us peaceful memories. Your love is still our guide, and though we cannot see you, you are always at our side.

    To our daughter, Shona, and her partner, Shane, and our son, Sherwen—you continue to bless our home with love and have given our lives so much meaning.

    To my parents, Suraj and Chand—thank you for your unconditional love and support. I am honored to have you as parents.

    To Ian, for always being closest to me even when we were in separate time zones and separate stages of life. Thank you for not letting us get split by dumb facts like distance or time. Thank you for never giving up on our friendship. Thank you for taking care of me in every way possible. You were and are there for everything—no bargaining or explanations needed. Please do not ever change.

    To Ryan, for your prodding, patience, and understanding—you made this possible.

    Finally, to Ross, for the hours of painstaking designing and editing.

    Nicky Mohan

    Ryan and Nicky would like to thank the wonderful staff at Corwin for their patience, guidance, and support during this project. Arnis, Desiree, Ariel, Cassandra, and all of the other staff members were a pleasure to work with. Also, a special thanks to Kate Stern for her keen eye and skill with the red pen of shame.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments
    • Corwin gratefully acknowledges the contributions of the following reviewers:
    • Jason Ohler (Introduction Author)
    • Corwin Author, Digital Storytelling in the Classroom, 2e, and Digital Community, Digital Citizen
    • Meghan Hearn, Math Specialist, Howard County Public Schools
    • Ellicott City, MD
    • Adjunct Faculty, Notre Dame of Maryland University
    • Baltimore, MD
    • Dr. J-D Knode, Professor
    • Methodist University
    • Fayetteville, NC
    • Dr. Jennifer B. King, Consultant
    • Jen B King's Consulting LLC
    • Mrs. Carrie Trudden, Educational Technology Teacher
    • Howard County Public School System
    • Clarksville, MD

    About the Authors

    Ryan Schaaf is the Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Notre Dame of Maryland University, and a faculty associate for the Johns Hopkins University School of Education Graduate Program, with over 15 years in the education field. Before higher education, Ryan was a 3rd-grade public school teacher, instructional leader, curriculum designer, and a technology integration specialist in Howard County, Maryland. In 2007, he was nominated for Howard County and Maryland Teacher of the Year.

    In the past, Ryan has published several research articles in New Horizons for Learning and the Canadian Journal of Action Research related to the use of digital games as an effective instructional strategy in the classroom.

    Currently, he is overseeing and constructing peer-reviewed K-12 lesson units for the 21st Fluency Project, where he is also a featured contributor for the renowned Committed Sardine blog. He enjoys presenting sessions and keynotes about the potential for gaming in the classroom, the characteristics of 21st century learning, and emerging technologies and trends in education.

    Nicky Mohan has more than 20 years’ experience in education, both as a classroom teacher and a school administrator. Her professional focus has been on developing and delivering practical professional development activities for teachers. She has also worked in the business sector as a manager responsible for the design and delivery of professional development courses and resource materials.

    Nicky has worked in a number of countries and has extensive experience in delivering literacy and numeracy courses and workshops at the post-secondary level. In her role as team leader at the University of Waikato, she designed and taught courses and workshops based on research best practices. These workshops focused on methodologies and instructional strategies that helped tutors and teachers effectively engage learners in the areas of applied literacy and numeracy


    My earliest recollections of school include memories of a sharp division between the classroom and playground. The classroom was where we “got serious about learning,” while the playground was where we went to escape all that seriousness. The classroom was where we went to work; the playground was where we went to have fun.

    At the heart of that fun was playing games. My friends and I taught each other games and gaming strategies, often beyond earshot of adults. Playing games was our world, where we collaborated to “steal the flag,” strategized to perfect hide and seek, and imagined ourselves to be super heroes and animals and treasure hunters.

    The games we played were intensely engaging, transporting us to other places, times, and identities. When teachers called us in after recess or our parents called us home after darkness had descended on the neighborhood, there was a period of adjustment as we left the game world and re-entered “the real world.” Yet we returned to game play as often as we could because it appealed to some of the most essential psychic building blocks of the human experience: Storytelling, goal setting, competition, teamwork, strategizing, and what I call “creatical thinking”—that magical blend of critical and creative thinking that permeates gaming.

    Fast forward to today. While video games may seem foreign to many, they are, in fact, a very understandable extension of that psychic core, adapted to an age of digital wizardry. Gaming is an expression of what MIT's Detouros called “the ancient human”—that part of us that drives our technological development in ways that amplify our essential human nature. Games are us, and video gaming is one the most recent manifestations of this essential reality of the human condition.

    Gaming is everywhere. Visit a restaurant and scan the families while they are dining. What do you observe? Chances are you will see children playing Fruit Ninja on a smartphone, tablet, or mobile gaming device. They're engaged in their own little world, while their parents are having a conversation that doesn't involve Elmo or Barney for a change. It has been this way for a while. The children of today have never experienced a world without Mario from Super Mario Brothers, Master Chief from Halo, a game controller, gamer's thumb, or the Sony Playstation gaming system. Video games are an integral, taken-for-granted component of their everyday lives.

    Video games have quickly become a global obsession. The world is beginning to pick up the game controller at an astounding rate. Roughly 70 percent of the world's 7 billion people play video games. It is estimated that global video game sales will be in excess of $82 billion annually by the year 2015. The gaming industry generates more revenue than the movie, gambling, music, and book industries. It is extremely difficult to make an argument dismissing the influence of video games on our globalized, digitally connected world.

    Many games can be played alone in the privacy of one's imagination. But many are meant to be played with others. This generation—Sherry Turkle's “always on, always on us” generation—has never experienced a disconnected world, and it takes ubiquitous connectivity for granted, often playing games together, either in real life sitting side by side, or in a shared virtual space via the Internet.

    However they do it, many kids spend their time connecting with their friends through social networking, text messaging, and listening to music while they blog and watch videos on YouTube.

    Blending virtual reality and real life is the unique challenge of our generation. As a grandparent I am a strong advocate for a balanced digital diet. That's why I am so interested in why the younger generations flock to digital media such as video games. That's why I want to understand what the gaming experience is for them, how it impacts who they are, and how gaming can be used in education.

    The particular value of this book rests in its consideration of how gaming can be used in education. It's been my experience that most teachers are cautiously optimistic about gaming in their children's lives. They would like to spend more time investigating gaming but have so much to do already. They have to plan the best instructional lessons possible, attend numerous daily meetings, communicate with administrators and parents frequently, and at the same time deliver content to their students in a meaningful, engaging, and relevant manner. And now we want them to include gaming in the mix.

    But as this book makes clear, doing so will have tremendous payoffs. There are a number of sources already available that are low-cost or free that appeal to students and that enhance or integrate well with curricula. The result is that we now have compelling reasons to use gaming in education. Integrating digital games into meaningful classroom instruction is a crucial piece of the educational puzzle and offers opportunities to engage the interests of students accustomed to using them outside of schools. This book does an excellent job of showing how and why this can happen.

    Similar to the structure of a digital game adventure, this book is separated into levels instead of chapters. The opening level is “Digital Games as Learning Tools? Game On!” and it begins our knowledge quest by reimagining video games (a source of entertainment and youthful angst) into a versatile tool for instruction. The availability of technology infrastructure in learning institutions and a saturated marketplace of ready-built digital games provides teachers with the potential for classroom adoption.

    Level 2, “It's All About the Game and How You Play It,” examines how video games present information to players using their preferred learning style in a manner consistent with the way the human brain learns.

    Level 3 is split into two sections. “The Need for the 21st Century Fluencies” explores the rapid changes occurring in the digital generation in a globalized world, and encourages teachers to incorporate essential critical skills known as the 21st Century Fluencies into their teaching, learning, and assessment models. “Gaming's Influence on Developing 21st Century Fluencies” establishes the strong connection between the fluencies and instructional gaming.

    Level 4, “Finding and Evaluating Digital Games for the Classroom,” examines the various platforms, retail outlets, and resources available to incorporate digital games into instruction. It gives the readers an easy-to-follow outline of the essential steps that are needed to find, evaluate, and prepare for digital game-based learning in the classroom.

    Level 5, “Digital Games and Instruction,” suggests ways of preparing a learning environment for digital game-based learning experiences and provides an easy-to-follow, pragmatic approach to teaching with video games using effective research-based strategies.

    Level 6, “Designing and Creating Games: A Liberal Arts Experience,” makes a clear case for incorporating video game design and other relevant 21st century skills into schools to promote unity and system thinking.

    The seventh and final level, “The Gamification of Learning: Gaming Without the Game,” encourages the use of gamified learning design to promote student buy-in and explains how to tailor learning into a fun and engaging experience. By transforming the classroom to model a video game, teachers use the best components of gaming to create challenging learning environments. Social media and big business have embraced gamification as a powerful approach to motivating people.

    Ryan and Nicky bring together decades of research in education and other fields to outline a compelling argument as to why video games are a powerful tool for learning. They shed new light on how teachers can find and use video games to meet the demands of curricular standards while still providing opportunities for authentic assessment. The digital generations want to use the same approaches for learning, communicating, and creating in schools as they do in their personal lives.

    At one point or another in the history of schooling, the use of chalk, paper, books, ink, pencils, ballpoint pens, and calculators were banned from the classroom. It is time for teachers, parents, and school leaders to re-examine the potential of video games in children's lives. It is time to turn on the power button to powerful learning.

    JasonOhler, Author of Digital Community, Digital Citizen
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    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK-12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”

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