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Game Play

Rob Thacher, Middle School Faculty
A teacher-student collaboration brings the history of the Aztec Empire to life in the classroom reaching all types of learners.

An expanded version of this article with the title, Game Creation and Differentiated Learning, appeared in the 2015 Winter Issue of Independent School Magazine, an NAIS publication.

I can recall my mother, a third grade teacher, sorting and counting some kind of play currency at home in the evenings as she launched into a homespun classroom game that (if I remember correctly) was structured around a social studies unit tied to the 1492 expedition of Columbus. It seems that almost everyone has memories – however hazy and blurred by time – of a teacher or a class where game play punctuated a semester’s rhythm or lightened the classroom mood for a spell.

On a Friday afternoon last fall I had the chance to partner with one of my students, Zeezee Canning, in presenting a workshop on game design and development in the classroom at the AISNE Middle School Conference. The game that Zeezee and I presented is the fruit of a seven year process during which I’ve worked with my grade seven history students to create, develop, and refine a game to reinforce my teaching of the struggle for power and dominance among Mesoamerican city-states in the Valley of Mexico during the 14th and 15th Centuries. In historical reality, the victors of this struggle became the Aztec Empire, who ultimately ruled a huge area and population through strategic alliances, brute force, and devious diplomacy. And if you have a passing familiarity with the ways of the seventh grader, you might recognize this game’s appeal to my class: a week’s play brings scheming, double-dealing, bloodthirsty aggression, and rueful fence-mending off the playground and into the classroom.
Of course, there are plenty of similar or analogous games around; some use video and computer technology, others are based on board- or card-play; but what I’ve come to understand about the value of game development – as distinct from game play – is that partnering with students in the process of game creation and refinement serves as a substantive, multi-tiered platform offering unexpected ways to meet a challenge that looms above all others in teaching at a school like DCD: reaching, supporting, and pushing all of our students, no matter their level of expertise or learning style.
My first experience with game creation – as distinct from game play – in the classroom was in fifth grade social studies, and it turns out in retrospect to have powerfully influenced my teaching. Our teacher, Mr. Lemoine, had created a grid-based strategy game to help students “perform” – through game-play – the fall of the Roman Empire. One team played as Rome, and several other teams were various “barbarian” groups. I can’t believe I’m remembering this accurately, but I believe we had Goths, Vandals, Franks….and maybe more? The game was incredibly fun, engaging everyone in the class, and it took several days to play. The way Mr. Lemoine had designed the game made the ultimate defeat of Rome inevitable – or at least highly likely – thus imprinting some essential historical content into our minds while we thought we were just kicking Roman butt.
Later in the year, as we moved from the fall of Rome into Medieval European history, Mr. Lemoine sent a small group of us (I think four, maybe five?) off to the basement of our Middle School building with pads of paper, books, and his big chalkboard grid – and with the charge to create a game of our own that would illustrate the power struggles of nobles and kings in Europe’s Middle Ages. Obviously, he knew that we were likely to copy much of his game play for our own effort – which we did – but it occurred to me only afterward that he had removed from the classroom a group of students who
a) already understood the basic subject/content that he would spend the next couple of days going over with the rest of the class;
b) were generally trustworthy and motivated – we would actually come up with something during our unsupervised time in the basement; and
c) were capable of more complex engagement with the subject he was teaching; in other words, he used the game assignment as a way of differentiating his instruction without us even understanding – we just thought we were the lucky ones who got to put this game together for the whole class.
We did, in fact, come up with something; and the whole class played the game for several days following our project. I truly don’t remember much about the game itself, but the trust and faith our teacher showed in us, and the opportunity to collaborate and get creative, had a huge impact on how I teach today. This experience also served as a model of initiative and possibility as I considered several years ago how I might go about actually creating a game, with student input, for my own class.
The advantages to producing a game in the classroom fall along three major lines:
1)    Creating game materials in a classroom setting allows all students to excel at producing course content: art skills, research, design, probability, and debate are all essential. Creating the materials and debating over the rules reinforces knowledge and can spur additional, independent research.
2)    Game play allows an entire class to work in a team-based competitive mode toward a resolution. Collaboration is essential, and the negotiation and alliance-building required for my game are aimed at reaching students whose social intelligence might outweigh their traditional academic excellence, and gives them a chance to act as leaders.
3)    Lastly, the process of development and refinement of the game allows for multi-stage engagement with learners at different levels:
The first stage consists of the full-class game preparation and play, followed by everyone debriefing and reflecting on the experience. This sequence serves as content review for all students (we typically spend 3-4 class periods on this).
Second, we have been able to use our Middle School Advisory structure for optional “activity group” game play and refinement. During last year’s winter term, interested students could pursue a replay of the game and bring their own informed perspectives into a critique of the game. We adjusted rules and added features to the game in a small-group workshop environment, providing students with a sense of ownership over not only the game, but the underlying course content as well.
The third stage – and this has been a recent revelation for me as a teacher – is the opportunity for engagement with highly motivated individual students. Last year, Zeezee (a seventh grader at the time) wanted to pursue a deeper involvement in game development, bringing his art and design skills into play. He pursued individual research on the subject, designing and producing highly advanced materials for the game. The end product, printed and realized by Zeezee on his own, is a stunning piece of advanced art and design, far beyond any expectation I might have ever held for my meager classroom game.
One of my toughest ongoing challenges as a teacher is providing enough differentiation in lessons where I am supporting the entire class, but still pushing those who need to be challenged. The game development process has provided a unique angle to take on that multi-level set of challenges, and in the case of this game – named ATLAZA [“to fight” in the indigenous Nahuatl language] by Zeezee – resulted in a phenomenal, concrete product in which everyone took part, and of which we can all be justifiably proud.
SIDEBAR: Elements of a game
I found the process of designing and refining a game to be a huge, and hugely rewarding, challenge. Here are some strategies you may find helpful in planning the creation of a game for classroom use:
  • Include a skill- or knowledge-centered element. This will probably seem apparent from the moment you decide to create a game for classroom use, but it is crucial to tie the subject and game play to the content area or skill set(s) that you wish students to master. Nevertheless, the actual course of play should probably be weighted as much toward excitement and cooperation as toward course content. Student excitement will be much greater if the game is fun!
  • Include a random or probabilistic element. Classic examples in common games include the use of dice, a spinner, random drawing, etc. The chance element prevents total control of game play by those with the greatest knowledge bases or strongest skill sets; a well-designed game will still favor certain parties, but every student should feel as though she has a chance to succeed. The occasional success of long-shot chances provides suspense and excitement even when one team/player/party appears to be in control of the game’s outcome.
  • Conceptualize game play as movement along a longitudinal axis or dimension. This can include physical movement along a path or game board, as in countless board games from Candy Land to Monopoly; the filling of space, as in Scrabble; the accruing (or depleting) of assets or points, as in Trivial Pursuit or card games such as Hearts; or the passage of time, as in Boggle and other timed games. One-way movement allows participants to locate themselves along a journey from beginning to end, which in a sense works as a stabilizing counterweight to those random elements that provide unpredictability and excitement.
  • Include a collaborative element. The best classroom games are team games, especially where the knowledge, skills, and attitudes of multiple students weigh on the outcome of the game. In Atlaza, for instance, the following skills – which are not typically present in one individual – are critical to a team’s success: understanding probability; diplomacy/interpersonal relationships; leadership/consensus building; awareness/knowledge of historical facts; persuasiveness. Teams achieve greatest success once they understand how to leverage the skills of each member collaboratively.

  • Include a physical/creative element. Some students may find the most rewarding aspect of game creation to be the hands-on creation of physical materials, media, game pieces, boards, etc. Assigning concrete creative tasks as part of the run-up to actual game play will ensure the involvement of students who may tune out the more abstract or conceptual aspects of gaming.

  • Gather feedback about the process, from creation through game play. After the experiment is complete, offer a short, written survey for participants to complete (anonymously may be helpful), detailing what aspects of the game project worked well, what seemed boring or arbitrary, and how they feel the project strengthened (or failed to strengthen) their understanding of the course content.
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