Let’s Play Education: Telling the Story of my Learning Lab

Games in Education

I became fascinated with games in education the moment I started teaching. I’ve always loved video games and have been trying time and again to implement different pieces of game elements into the classroom.  It began with an idea about a school store for students to buy things like pencils and paper using “in-game(class)” currency they would earn.

I never got to fully implement that, because soon after I started teaching I became aware of Credly, Badgestack, and BadgeOS. I thought the system of badging and achievements would be a great motivator and engagement tool for the classroom. So, I created a website, implemented the badges, and created a game world called Extremia.

Extremia was an example of Gamification. This term may sound familiar at this point, but it has only been around no more than the last ten years. The term “gamification” can also mean a lot of things, but is generally broken down into two parts.

First, there is “games-based learning”, also referred to as “content gamification”, where the content itself is adapted into a game (Kapp, 2012). Math games are popular forms of content gamification, as are board games which are adapted to teach content. The video game Oregon Trail may be one of the most famous forms of content gamification, as it takes the historical narrative of traveling west and turns it into a game.

The second part has simply been referenced generally as gamification, but I like the term “structural gamification” a little better. This is the application of game elements and mechanics to the classroom without changing any of the content, things like badges, achievements, quest systems, leveling/experience points, etc. (Kapp, 2012). The layer of structural gamification is beneficial because it can apply to any content area, and can be applied by the teacher to varying degrees of complexity.

Extremia, the game played in my class, can be considered a blending of content and structural gamification.

 Get Extreme!

Extremia was a game lovingly named after our team (Team Extreme) at Lamoille Union Middle School in Hyde Park, Vermont. We are a relatively large rural school with a student body that comes from all the ranges of the socio-economic spectrum. There are six sending towns, and some students have to travel more than an hour to get here.

The students themselves are a passionate bunch but can be challenging. They are a no-nonsense, yet completely nonsensical group of young people. In short–a lot of fun to work with. So, when I talked to them about exploring the impact that games would have on making learning more personalized, they were enthusiastic and ready to go (in all honesty though, what teenager wouldn’t be excited to play games in school?).

So over the years that’s what we did. I would write narratives that students would follow throughout the year. We would play our own versions of civilization-building games right in the classroom. We would use services like Classcraft to keep track of experience points and even lose HP if a student was misbehaving.

Extremia grew.

These forays into injecting game culture and game elements into the classroom is not a new phenomenon. In fact, I would argue that it is something that has been done for a long time in education. School has scores, points, start and end times, rules, regulations–games have all these things, too. The difference is, however, is that in a game the points have meaning. In school, that meaning has been lost.

A Wild Proficiency-Based, Personalized Learning Experience Appeared!

Enter personalized learning and proficiency-based grading. Both initiatives have been embraced by the state of Vermont (legislatively) and are sweeping through our public schools. These initiatives, when they became the new laws of the land, opened up the opportunity for games-based education and gamification to finally make the points matter in an engaging and meaningful way.

This visual is a representation of an idea for a “gamified Personal Learning Plan”. In short: it’s a character sheet for students.

What is personalization?

A character sheet is the epitome of personalization. In a typical RPG (role-playing game) experience, the player creates–personalizes–their own character. Through random generation, the player chooses which aspects of their character to invest in and strengthen. After investing in their core skills, players then choose different proficiencies in things like lock picking or spell craft.

In the same way, the student sheet is designed to represent where students’ strengths lie. These points(?) are drawn from different pieces of evidence from their school career and applied to our transferable skills. As for the proficiencies, instead of “leveling up” lock picking students would work on improving content knowledge and skills in the different disciplines.

How is it similar to/different from differentiation?

It’s hard to differentiate personalization. Games, again, address this appropriately–particularly in video games. While the character a player creates will be personalized in strengths, proficiencies and appearance the overall difficulty of the game can be adjusted to a specific play style.

A student’s experience can also reflect this. Through designing their journey and identifying their strengths a student can personalize their experience but there can also be different paths for success a student can follow at their own difficulty.

What are the design features?

Design is everything when creating and playing a game. Games have a set design, and they have rules. They are not games if they do not have these things. Even games that are more open-ended like Minecraft have rules. Therefor a gamified personalized system needs to be laid out in such a way that students know what is expected of them and what parameters they can operate in. I’m not saying this is the answer for getting personalized learning right, but mimicking the design features of games in a system like this makes sense.

Looking Back to Look Forward – Lessons Learned

At the start of this journey, I wrote about how I like to push buttons and break things intentionally just to see how they work. Professionally, I still do this. By injecting  game-like systems into my content and classroom structure, I have had plenty of opportunities to see what works and what doesn’t. The most important feature that works, and will continue to work regardless if you are in the education, business, or gaming field is the concept of fun. If you strive to have fun and play, the learning will come with it. One of the things about the middle level that I appreciate and love is this ability to tackle serious concepts and content, but have a good time doing it.

Sources of Inspiration

  • The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros
    • Really great book to get the creative juices flowing in terms of project creation and thinking differently about education from a more
  • Explore Like a Pirate by Michael Matera
    • Not to be confused with the famous Teach Like a Pirate, this book is an awesome resource when it comes to different methods of gamifying your classroom. Ever wondered how to implement the use of an item called the “Staff of Zweif” into your curriculum? This book’s got an answer for you.
  • Digital Badges in Education
    • Another really great book with articles and essays about using digital badging/microcredentialing.
  • Classcraft.com
    • The definitive just-getting-started structural gamification platform for any classroom. It’s got everything you need to get going right at the start of the year, with great how-to videos as well.
  • GameCrafter
    • This site is for more serious content gamification creation. You can design and order your own game cards, maps, boards, anything you need to make your own games.



Couros, G. (2015). The Innovator’s Mindset: Empower learning, unleash talent, and lead a culture of creativity. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Matera, M. (2015). Explore Like a Pirate: Gamification and game-inspired course design to engage, enrich, and elevate your learners. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Muilenberg, L. Y., & Berge Z. L. (Eds.). (2016). Digital Badges in Education: Trends, issues, and cases. New York, NY: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Kapp, K. (2016). Choose Your Level: Using games and gamification to create personalized instruction. In M. Murphy, S. Redding, & J. S. Twyman (Eds.), Handbook on Personalized Learning for States, Districts, and Schools (pp. 131 – 143). Philadelphia, PA: Information Age Publishing.




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