Building Learning Games

"The promise of games is that we can harness the spirit of play to enable players to build new cognitive structures and ideas of substance." - Klopfer, Osterweil, & Salen (2009)

Let's explore some general gaming ideas that can be applied to creating Google Games!

What Engages Students?

pirate"It's true that learning history is more fun when you approach it as a pirate." - Kurt Squire

What makes a game fun?

What is it about games that engage us? Marc Prensky has a dozen ideas:

Big Ideas

Think about how you can combine existing educational approaches with gaming. For instance, go to Challenge-Based Learning. Apple's website has lots of great information on building challenges. Or, turn the Object-based inquiry approach into an object-based game approach. Start with an artifact, object, model, globe, or other physical object. Use it to jumpstart the inquiry. Could the focus be on a plastic bone, scrap of paper, marks on a globe, treasure map, or other item?

Think about ways to connect learning with gaming environments.

Practice. Many assignments move from content presentation to assessment missing the important step of practice. Use games as a way for students to practice concepts.

Examples. Students need to see lots of examples and non-examples. By sharing assignments, students get the opportunity to see many examples quickly. They also have many choices representing many different perspectives.

Approaches. Sharing work allows students to see how others approach and solve problems.

The Goal of Winning. Not all games need winners. However a competitive spirit can be bring out the best in some students. It also reminds students of the importance of checking their work. For many of the games, it's possible to end before a winner is identified. Reaching the top level can constitute "finishing the game."

GAME: The Process of Building

playKatie Salen and others (2011, 11) state that "the internal architecture of games - rules, components, mechanics, goals, conflict, choice, and space - guide the design of learning experiences."

Let's use the word GAME to spell out the process of building a game.

Goal-setting. Establish a challenge and mechanics for your game. Ask:

Audience Analysis. Know your students. Design elements that fit their needs. Ask:

Motivation. Select game elements that will engage learners. Ask:

Evaluation. Before using the game in the classroom, try it yourself. Ask:

After you've tried it with a class, get feedback from your students about the game. Encourage them to add questions or suggest changes for the future.

Game Boards

Even if your students don't have Google accounts, students can still use the Google Docs demo version. Create a game board using Google Docs Drawing.

Virtual Game Boards

Board Makers

Electronic Whiteboards for Gaming

"At their best, games are imaginary worlds, hypothetical spaces where players can test ideas and experience their consequences." - Squire & Jenkins

When designing games, it's fun to use the electronic whiteboard or laptops to present game features such as dice, timers, and progress board.

Many games can be played as individuals or as teams. Use an interactive whiteboard or projector to reveal answers.

  1. Divide the class into teams.
  2. Present the task on the interactive whiteboard.
  3. Set the timer.
  4. Ask students to record their answers on the game form.
  5. Display the answer for the group.
  6. Add points to the scoreboard.

Think about the many different terms that can be used for groups of students: teams, guilds, tribes, crew, squad, club, chapter, troop, or use animal terms (flock, gaggle, bevy).

Seek tools that don't have distracting ads. Think about how some of the following tools might be used to design activities:

Game Makers. Use a game show atmosphere. Use laptops for students to search for answers.

Whiteboard Tools. Keep score in front of the classroom on a whiteboard.

QR Tools. Incorporate QR codes into your gameplay.

General Sources. There are lots of generators and tools that could be integrated into the gaming atmosphere.

Post Card Games. Use Postcards as a way for students to share what they've learned. Go to Endangered Animals Postcards or Australia Animals Postcards. Pick an animal. Locate information. Summarize, cite source, and send card

Case Cards. Create paper-based cards (print from PowerPoint) that jumpstart a search. Roll the Dice to determine your case file number. Provide basic information. Students must solve the problem. Use a bulletin board in the classroom to classify cards or share answers.

Level Up!

Look for approaches that provide everyone with a reward at the end, so the emphasis is on learning not competition. In Punished by Rewards (1999), Alfie Kohn suggests that "collaboration (teamwork), content (meaningfulness), and choice (autonomy) are motivating"... don't make it about winning and rewards.

For instance, let's focus on the theme of digital citizenship. Acquiring badges such as Privacy Plaque, Citation Citation, Authority Award, or the Hoax Hound all connect to the central theme and focus on building a community of digital citizen. Students work as team, focus on content, and choose among game areas.

Consider fun themes that could adapted for any subject area:

Rewards in Games

Terri Kirk and Christopher Harris (2011) state that "the reasons for the popularity and educational value of playing games are simple. Play is an instinctual form of learning... recently, this value of playful learning has regained attention thanks to the creation of "gamification" as a new way to describe what school and public librarians have been doing with summer reading programs for years."

Kirk and Harris stress that gamification is more than points, badges and levels. They state that "like so-called educational games in which students flick a spinner and complete the worksheet that the pointer lands on, gamified tasks are not real fun... the real value of games are the episodes of authentic play that unite groups and build communities... while engaging in authentic play, students also happen to be using 21st century learning skills like inqury, evaluation, and synthesis."

Use wiki page score cards and score boards as a way for students to reward each other. Rather than stickers or paper awards, use clipart. Need ideas for clipart and fun feedback? Check out my feedback and virtual post-it ideas.

Types of Games

Brian Mayer and Christopher Harris (2010) describe the interplay between game mechanics and theme. The game mechanics is the operation of the game itself and the process of the game. The theme relates to the setting, characters, and concept behind the game. The theme gives the game a purpose or meaning to the game play.

Rather than starting from scratch, adapt an idea. For instance, go to the Honey Bee Murder Mystery. Create your own mystery that requires the use of Google.



One of the problems with question/answer games is that one person at a time is active. Keep everyone active by asking all players to work on the same question, then come together and compare results. You can even ask students to guess which of the answers is correct or best.

Narrative and Role Playing


Katie Salen and others (2011, 76-78) have identified different kinds of quests that can be used as part of a learning environment associated with games.

Google Game Starters

Use one of the following ideas to jumpstart thinking about your own game:

The Gems of Wizardworld. Divide into groups of two to four. Each person is dealt a card with a gem and question. They have five minutes to find the answer. At the end of time, they declare their answer and check it by clicking the symbol on a website. If they are correct, they collect that gem. Play continues in rounds until someone has four gems. When a person has four gems, he or she is declared a wizard. This wizard then partners with someone with fewer gems and helps them in the next rounds. When everyone is a wizard, the game is over.

Fact or Fake. The class is divided into teams of three to four. Each team receives a mission card with the entry page of a website. First, they must figure out how to find the website without the URL by looking at the contents of the page. Then they must decide if the website is fact or fake. They receive a point if they are correct. They receive a second point if they can provide three pieces of evidence showing why it is fake or real. Teams are awarded designations based on their total points after one class period. The top dogs are named Hoax Hounds.

The Dog At My Quest. Students are presented with a page with missing content. They must fill in the gaps to solve the problem and complete the quest.

Google Math. Students must search for information to solve the math problem. For instance, how many people would be impacted if Mount Rainer erupts? Identify the five largest cities within 500 miles and find their populations in 2010. What's the total? Add 20% to account for the smaller populations.

Travel Lingo. Provide students with a map of the world. When they click on the country, they're presented with a problem to solve. You're in Argentina and see a man riding on a horse. You call him a cowboy and your tour guide laughs. What do you call an Argentine cowboy? You're in Australia and ask for ketchup and mustard. They ask you to try their favorite condiment. What will they bring to the table?

Question Dice. Roll the dice to determine how many cards to take. Choose one of the questions to answer. The more cards you get, the more options you have. Roll the dice to determine the country, topic, or area of the focus of the question.

Pass the Object. Like hot-potato, pass an object until the music stops. If you're left holding the object, it becomes your team's object to explore. The questions or problem is pinned or taped to the object. Continue until each group has an object to explore.

Mystery Box. Take cards or objects from a covered box.

Plagiarism Patrol. Provide students with short articles and ask them to find out whether the student is copying or if it's original work.

Bulletin Boards. Use die-cut shapes on a bulletin board. Students post their flowers in a garden, fish in a pond, or sparkles on a giant cookie to represent their answers to questions.

Games with Games. Kick off the activity with a game. Ask questions based on the game.Ask them to do Google searches. For instance, hazards around the house. Then each student finds a hazard and makes a game card. Each person identifies something useful that's not a hazard. Put the hazards in the garbage.

small blockOften you need to come at a topic from various perspectives. Search for a topic using all the Google tools. Which tools wors the best for your topic? Use Fire and FireSafety as an example. Use this as the basis for thinking about game construction.

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