Blank gif
An Educator's Guide to Technology and the Web
Search Internet@Schools
Subscribe Today!

View Current Issue
View Past Issues

Internet @ Schools

IDEA WATCH: The Power of Gaming--Student Engagement, Buy-In, and Fun

By Carolyn Foote - Posted May 1, 2012
Bookmark and Share

Greetings from your new Internet@Schools columnist! My introduction to Internet@Schools was through the Internet Librarian conference in Monterey, Calif., way back in 2000. The conference was energizing and exciting, and it showcased the cutting-edge work so many librarians of all types were engaged in. Not only that, but every day during breaks in the conference, with its proximity to Fisherman’s Wharf, you could walk out onto the pier to take in the beautiful view and feel inspired.

During that trip, I made a sojourn down to Carmel and then drove the breathtaking, dramatic Highway 1 to Big Sur. The road winds from Carmel Valley up into the Highlands, with tremendous views, past Point Lobos and down into the valley of Big Sur itself, with its little cabins tucked into the woods. I then headed out onto the cliffside to Nepenthe, which overlooks the ocean’s awe-inspiring views. It was truly breathtaking.

So for me the conference was the perfect combination. There was inspiration both indoors and outdoors—the excitement of what I was learning and exploring inside the conference combined with the excitement and drama of the seascape outside.

As your Idea Watch columnist for Internet@Schools, I’ll explore the kinds of big ideas in education and technology that are in play at conferences such as Internet Librarian and Internet@Schools; ideas that, much like Big Sur, inspire and motivate me. And I’ll write about confluence, that place where disparate ideas meet and commingle, much as when the sea meets the shore in Carmel. I’m curious how we bring these big ideas into our classrooms and our libraries in order to generate change, and how technology is a conduit for that.

What’s the Big Idea?

So, what big idea has awakened my curiosity lately? At the recent South by Southwest Education Conference (SXSWedu) in Austin, Texas, author and game designer Jane McGonigal shared her passion for the power of gaming and its potential for solving world problems. For many students, the buy-in is the emotional benefit we get from game-playing—feelings such as joy, trust, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, contentment, and creativity. While I’ve been aware of much of what’s been published about gaming in education, I suddenly felt as though I’ve only been like an armchair tourist gazing at a map of the coast.

McGonigal’s method of engaging the audience in a concrete understanding was to have the audience play a game, of course, and a massive multiplayer (MMP) game at that—MMP Thumb Wrestling. In minutes, she had a room of 400 people thumbwrestling. Watching the excitement and laughter that filled the session hall, I understood her points about gaming on a more intuitive level. Suddenly, I really got it—playing a game made learning something stick, made it make sense, and made the learning more fun.

Shortly after her session, I babysat my 7-year-old nephew. When he comes over, he frequently wants to play with my son’s video games and I normally don’t participate. But this time, I sat next to him, opened a new game (StarBursts), and worked together with him to figure it out. After playing it with him, I realized that I felt the same sense of satisfaction McGonigal spoke of—happy about the shared experience, about figuring out the game, and about getting better at it.

As McGonigal noted, games give us the sense that we have agency—that we are empowered to figure things out. She reminded us that when our students approach a game, they don’t approach it with a “Why am I doing this, anyway? I’m just going to fail” attitude. Rather, they typically approach a game with a sense of curiosity, and with the confidence that they will figure it out one way or another … or that they can always ask friends for help. And in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. McGonigal makes a powerful case for the importance of connecting to the increasing number of gamers and putting their skills to real-world uses that make a difference.

McGonigal described the inspired Find the Future: The Game, which she designed for The New York Public Library (NYPL); staff members had approached her to help them attract more teens. (See The idea was to bring 500 teens into the library overnight, engage them through a game with many of the amazing documents in the NYPL collection, and have them publish their own writings by the morning. Students used QR codes to gain access to historical nuggets of information about some of the documents in the archive, had to lobby other players to sign their own “declarations,” and then had their works bound by an expert in medieval book binding into one giant book that will be kept in the library’s rare book collection.

What a way to give these students ownership of the public library and to connect them “in” as customers! Powerful stuff. Many of McGonigal’s other games focus on real-world epic wins, such as her game Super Better, which uses gaming to help people achieve their personal goals through a combination of tasks and social networking. (See more about her games at Previously, I had thought about gaming from a purely event perspective—hosting game nights in the library or creating a space for students to play video games. But game design is more than that. We know that if we weave real-world causes into our culture, students know the work they do matters. Having epic goals leverages the power of learning.

A Confluence of Ideas

At SXSWedu, I attended another session led by Lock Haven University’s Reynol Junco and colleagues who shared their research studies on the correlations between Facebook and Twitter use and student engagement. One particular detail that Junco shared related to my newly inspired thinking. Their study found that students who were heavy gamers on Facebook were less likely to attend school events.

The confluence of these two talks set me to wondering: What would happen if we invited students to campus events through a gamelike format? What about creating a teaser/trailer to build anticipation and then using gaming elements such as competition, collaboration, and fun to engage students who might not normally get involved?

The big idea is thinking about how we can build game design into what we do—to challenge our students to think in a more project-based way, to connect with them, and to engage them in the sheer joy of learning as play. How do we get them excited about a lesson ahead of time (with gamelike movie trailers)? How can we advertise library services using game design? How can we build a project-based learning “game” that actually helps our students solve real-world problems? How can we help build their confidence by letting them start over again when something defeats them?

There are myriad real-world models out there to draw upon, of course. Schools such as the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, High Tech High in San Diego, and the Blue School in New York City all have creative, project-based, real-world work happening. Crowdcentric, a company that shared a site at SXSW, uses crowdsourcing to solve knotty problems, one at a time. Founder and executive director Toby Daniels feels that framing a problem in such a way that people feel ownership in it, or feel complicit, helps engage them; the problem has to mean something to them. Can we create inspiring environments like Twitter, co-founder Biz Stone wondered in his SXSW talk, where “every challenge at work becomes fun, like a game with multiple angles”?

The current reality, unfortunately, is that school is often just “work,” without that engagement and challenge. In Reality Is Broken, McGonigal outlines the key elements of a game—“epic” goals, challenges, feedback loops, and defined rules. Building in these elements is key. She also points out that students are much more accustomed to games in which they don’t know how to play at the beginning or necessarily know what to do next (unlike school?). They have to figure it out as they go. So it does require building the framework where, as McGonigal says, students are working “at the very limits” of their abilities. The question is how to structure assignments that guide students, as games do, but also leave them free to explore and figure things out on their own. How can we define assignments where we ourselves don’t always know what the outcome will be?

Toward a Solution

How can online tools become integral to building game design-based problems? To launch a project, social networking channels or YouTube could be used to promote events in a gamelike fashion, as McGonigal did with her trailer for NYPL. A wiki can be used to present details of the challenge, as an ongoing location for students to organize their work, and as a place for a guide to give feedback. Google Docs provides a collaborative environment for students to plan in. A constant feedback loop is important. Online chats with advisors or mentors outside the classroom (like the characters that pop up in video games to give advice) can become a feedback loop. Tools such as FaceTime or Skype can be used to reach out to global mentors who can provide information about the problem or for collaboration between groups (like the Flat Classroom Project does). Even polling tools or survey tools built into a lesson can assist with that. QR codes that link to surveys or rewards are another way to build in constant feedback that students crave.

This isn’t really about just making school “fun” at its simplest levels. It’s about life. When things are compelling to us, when we have access to the tools we need to do a job, and when we feel rewarded, we will put in our best effort. (It may also help when we have a little fun with a game such as thumbwrestling). If something is compelling, we are much more likely to join the activity, visit the library, do the homework, create a new invention, and create a solution. Our real talents are put to use, which is what each of us really wants.

At that first Internet Librarian conference, when I was standing on boulders in the tide pool near Asilomar State Beach, the environment asked me to do more—to wade in, to poke around among the anemones, and to be curious. Approach learning playfully yet purposefully—that is a big, exhilarating idea.


Contact Carolyn at

Blank gif