12 Things Game Design Has Taught Me About Lesson Planning

My game design story starts about 11 years ago.  Two professors from the local community college wanted to teach teachers about educational game design.  So, they applied for a grant from the NSF and were awarded the money to do just that.  

I remember sitting in the workshop during the summer of 2011.  There were about 25 teachers in this room coming up with example after example of quiz-like games that we use in our classrooms.  Jeopardy-style games: get the question right then do something in the actual game.  But the professors were gentle and diligent in telling us no, we're moving beyond this.  The truth is that none of us ever saw an educational game that wasn't a quiz.  

The professors, Steven Weitz and Mary Rasley developed their edugaming framework.  CLICK HERE to see that masterpiece.  This framework can help educators create games that are educational AND fun.  No kidding. 

And I was hooked.  I couldn't get enough.  I asked to attend the workshop again the next summer and the summer after that.  They agreed that I could attend, but I wouldn't be able to receive the stipend again.  Who cares about the money when I have the opportunity to design games!?! 

What I found from my time working with Mr. Weitz and Ms. Rasley not only helped me to develop educational games, but it helped with my lesson planning.  Here is what I learned...


In game design it is a good practice to allow your players to have a small win during the beginning stages of the game. It gives them a powerful little shot of serotonin that builds engagement, confidence, and trust.  It makes the players feel successful and encourages them to keep playing the game.

The same is true in the classroom.  You want to give your students a small win at the beginning of each lesson.  Give them that shot of serotonin that will win their trust, but don't make it too easy that it insults them.  Some fool proof methods are to give them a win that doesn't necessarily have a right answer.  A few examples include Notice and Wonder, Which One Doesn't Belong, and Open Middle.  


Can you image playing Super Mario Bros. without the storyline?  I suppose it's possible, however you lose so much along the way.  Those Goombas that you squash?  They're now squares.  The princess that you save?  That's just the right most part of your screen.  Yawn.  

I still remember the look on my students' faces when they entered my classroom to see me drinking a can of soda in the front of the room.  They KNEW something was up, and I immediately had them engaged and questioning what was going on.  This is how I introduced systems of linear equations; I wanted to know if I should purchase a Soda Stream (read about that lesson here).  When the question was posed that way, I was bombarded with opinions.  Students who NEEDED me to hear what they had to say.  This was much different than when I asked where two equations will intersect.  


Raise your hand if you look at the Swiffer cloth after you are done cleaning.  And why do we do this?  I'll tell you why, it's because we want the feedback.  We want to know if we actually just cleaned the floor or if we wasted our time pushing a stick around.  Along the same lines, canister vacuum cleaners have see-through canisters so we can see when they're full.  Elevator buttons have lights so we know that we pushed the button properly.  Car dashboards let us know how much fuel is in our tanks.  Banks send statements so we know how much money is in our accounts.  You get the point.  This is important in game design as well as education.  

In game design we want the players to see (feel?) the consequence of their actions.  Whether it's seeing the scoreboard (sports), or being able to count how much money they have, or how many cards are left in their hand, this feedback is crucial to making good decisions in the game.  

In education we want the students to see the feedback of their work.  Feedback like how a graph changes if the slope is manipulated.  Or when a student predicts that two lines should intersect in the 1st quadrant but their solution is in the 3rd quadrant.  Or simply asking if their solution makes sense.


You've hear the phrase: "Idle hands are the devil's playground."  No truer words have ever been said about teenagers.  

I don't know about you, but when it's not my turn in a game, I want to have something to do.  Or at least have my status in a game impacted in some way.  The first game I ever played that did this was Catan.  When a player rolls the dice on his turn, everyone has to pay attention to see if they receive a resource.  The dice roll doesn't only impact the currently player.  Genius!

You see this with your students as well.  "What do I do when I'm done?"  I like to have some type of ongoing project or puzzle for the students to work on.  Read about my Four 4s Posters in the this post.  I also do not assign homework daily, I assign homework weekly.  Homework that opens early each Saturday morning and doesn't close until late Friday evening.  This way students can continue to work on that assignment when there is down time for them in class. 


I was once told that the best way to gauge if players liked my game was what they said when the game was over.  If they said, "Let's play that again!" it means you're on to something.  

Intuitively we teachers know this as well.  You've had students say, "Class is over already?".  Classic!  But more than that, encourage them to possibly dig deeper, to ask more questions, or send them on their way with a challenging question/problem.  


One of the first things I have my game design do it play a children's game like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders.  I listen and watch them as they play, observing and writing down anything I notice.  It never fails that the students are initially excited to play something so easy and nostalgic.  But after a few minutes their enthusiasm wears off.  They actually start yawning, it looks like work, and some groups have stopped playing.   What happened?  They tell me the game is boring.  

People, that same thing happens in our math classes.  When we make our lessons too easy or the students have no interesting choices, we lead them on a path to boredom.  If you think about your favorite game (mine is wingspan) you must admit that game doesn't tell you want you must do.  It gives you options of what you can do.  


Ok, I will admit that there are some games out there that offer little in choice but people still argue that they're fun (I'm looking at you Monopoly).  Why do people like this game?  Why do people insist that this game is awesome?  You have next to no choice, or what appears to be a choice really isn't.  And the winner of the game is known loooooong before the game ever ends.  So, what's happening here?  My guess is that this is a game you played with people you really enjoy.  It wasn't the game, it was the people.  

If students are able to interact with a lesson or have an activity where they interact with their peers, the interest level just went up a few notches.  


I can't imagine playing a game where I had no idea how to win.  I think that's why I turn my kids down so much with Minecraft.  They like to play creative mode and I just don't get it.  Unless, we create our own goal: like the time we decided to build a house that was modeled after our own house.  Now that was fun....once we have a clear goal in mind.  

The lessons that my students seem to like the most are the ones where there was a clear goal: Does it make financial sense for me to purchase a soda stream?  How many squares are hidden under each flap?  Who will win the race?  Where will these lines intersect?  How many points will Mario get at this height on the flagpole?  

Our goals as teachers may look different.  Students will be able to: solve a system of equations, solve a linear equation, determine the probability, etc.  

When lesson planning, take into consideration your own goals (curriculum standards) plus the goals of your students (storyline).

9) USE THE RULE OF LOOP (Reflect and Update)

The rule of loop with game design is finding a 'problem' with the gameplay, reflecting on why that issue may be occurring, brainstorming a way to fix it, implement the change, record the results, and doing that all over again.

Teaching is no different.  With each unit and lesson we should reflect on the learning through formative assessment, make necessary adjustments, and start the loop all over again.


One of the things I love about the game Wingspan is that there are different ways to get points and you as the player get to choose.  I could play the bird cards that have high points, or I could play bird cards that might have low points but have more eggs, or I could try for the bonus card points, or the end of round goals.  You win by having the most points, but the player has a choice on how to get those points.

In the classroom, a student will receive an A if they have 93% or higher, but how they earn those 93 percentage points can vary.  A written test?  A presentation?  A project?  A video?  A song and dance?


There is a reason very few toddlers play Chess and very few teenagers play HI HO CHERRY-O.  It's not the right challenge. 

"Why do we have to learn this?"  If I had a nickel for every time.....

When I hear that question from my students I pause and do a quick evaluation of the situation.  This question is not that the students don't see the relevance of the material.  It's because they are over or underwhelmed.  What is being presented is too hard or too easy.  

I think one thing we teachers always like to throw out there is how important math is in the real world (and it is), but students aren't really interested in when they're going to use this.  After this question is posed is not the right time for a lecture about how systems of equations are important in their everyday adult life.  It's about really listening to your students.  Plus, students are often engaged in activities that have little or no use in their everyday lives (Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Roblox??).  

I have never been asked "When are we every going to use this?" during a lesson with a storyline.  Even the lesson on how many points Mario will get depending on where he jumps on the flagpole.  When is that every going to be used in real life?


This is the least important of the 12, but it still matters.  I remember reading Harry Wong's book, The First Days of School where he talks about dressing professionally.  He stated that a person's appearance shouldn't matter, but it does.  In game design a good-looking game is one of life's little pleasures.  Again, another reason I like Wingspan.  The artwork is breathtaking.  I appreciate that the game designers took the time to have great artwork done.  Attention to detail!

Not only are your students judging you on your appearance, but they're judging you on your lesson's appearance.  Imagine the impression you would make given a typed assignment compared to a hand-written assignment.  

** BTW, a handwritten well-planned lesson is ALWAYS better than a typed stinky lesson.