As a kid, my favorite holidays involved two kinds of presents: Nintendo games and Lego blocks.
These two toys overlapped in my play life for several years, with the former eventually being replaced entirely by the latter. But for the half decade or so that spanned the middle and end of the 1980s, my desires and games were dominated by little yellow people and blowing into the nether regions of square gray cartridges.
For much of that time, the content of those games was more or less the same. My favorite Lego sets were those that had me building castles for little kings and knights; my favorite Nintendo games had me questing about as a little knight, seeking to save the kingdom or Princess Zelda.
I loved playing these games, and did so for hours on end. Despite the challenges presented by finding the flat black two in a sea of pieces in order to complete a drawbridge, or by the ninth dungeon in the second quest, I loved them. I would voluntarily spend an entire day or more building an intricate model of a castle, or replaying the same level until I was finally able to beat it. The challenge wasn’t something I thought about much, except in those rare instances where it was so far beyond my level that I couldn’t complete the model or the game. For the most part, I loved doing these things because they were fun.
Frequently during those years, I received comments on my report cards from school about “not working to my potential.” My teachers—many of them excellent, all of them overworked in a slowly failing public school system—had the impression that I was not trying my hardest. This was absolutely true. I found no intrinsic love of learning in the worksheets that were the bulk of my homework, and so toiling over them did not seem worth the effort. I was able, with minimal energy expended, to get most things right most of the time. So why try harder? I saw no horizons of knowledge expanding in front of me when I spent thirty minutes on a worksheet rather than five. And those 25 minutes were ones that I could be spending in the imaginative play worlds of Nintendo or Lego, where I actually enjoyed what I was doing.
This juxtaposition between voluntarily tackling increasingly difficult challenges and shying away from even the most basic trial of a nightly homework problem is one that is beginning to gain quite a bit of attention in the world of education. Researchers like Jane McGonigal, New York Times bestselling author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, have started asking why people will concentrate intensely and focus deeply on difficult problems in game worlds in a way that they do not in “real life.” Put another way, we might ask: what is it about the reward structure of games that makes the challenges they present so much more enjoyable than those of work or school?
It is not just educators who are interested in this question. “Gamification” and “game-based design” are phrases that are becoming commonplace in everything from business models to car manufacturing. Drivers of the Nissan Leaf, for example, can “win” achievements in energy-efficient driving, represented by little trees in the car’s dashboard display. The car’s computer can store several profiles, so that drivers can compete with one another for the coveted title of Most Efficient Driver. This model of extrinsic reward—in which you help the environment in order to win tree-shaped badges, rather than to just, you know, help the environment—is at the heart of much of the recent interest in gamification. A recent New York Times article on gamification even parodied the trend, awarding badges to readers for making it halfway down the page, or reading for more than thirty seconds, and so on.
In the above example we find one answer to the question about the value of reward structures in game worlds: they are clear and easy to understand. When I was running around as a little knight in Dragon Warrior, for example, I knew I was getting stronger because I got +1 strength every time I achieved a certain level of experience. That is a measurable clarity that is rare in daily life; as Jane McGonigal puts it in her TED talk, she does not get +10 public speaking for having done the talk. Our gauges of progress in the real world tend to be a lot squishier and less certain. Thus, the thinking goes, people are hungry for systems that will allow them to have that “leveling-up” experience. And so cars get outfitted with trees-for-efficiency systems, and Class Dojo, which confers badges on little student-avatars to reinforce positive behaviors in the classroom, wins awards for innovation in education.
I work now at a progressive all-girls middle school, where our classes are project-based and we do not give grades, instead using narratives to assess student learning. We do these things because, as a group of educators, we believe it is how students learn best, and it can help spark a love of learning, rather than a love of A-pluses. We are aiming, like most progressive schools, for a learning environment where intrinsic reward rules the day. As you might expect, the idea of awarding badges to our students for good behavior does not set the room on fire at a faculty meeting. In many ways that model of extrinsic reward is completely at odds with our learning goals.
In the past several years, however, a group of us at the school noticed that students have been spending increasing amounts of time during the school day playing videogames together on their laptops. This is not a new phenomenon, exactly—casual gaming, in which people play short (or ‘stupid’, as this New York Times piece put it games on computers or phones, has been on the rise for several years. But when we really started paying attention to what our students were up to, we found that more and more students were playing one game in particular—Minecraft.
Minecraft is what is known as a “sandbox” game, in which players run around in a 3D environment. But unlike other sandbox games, Minecraft does not have much of narrative arc—rather, the sandbox world itself is the game. Minecraft has been called digital Legos, and it is easy to see why: the basic mode of the game is building, and building just about anything, with little cube-shaped digital blocks. As the title suggests, there is a mining component, in which you dig minerals out of the earth and create other things out of those raw materials—everything from armor to cakes to boats, fishing rods, compasses, and more. There are bad guys that come out at night, encouraging you to build yourself a monster-proof shelter before the sun sets. But it isn’t just crude huts—people have built scale models of the Eiffel Tower, the Globe Theater, Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Starship Enterprise, and much more. The possibilities are nearly endless.
What is interesting about Minecraft in the context of this discussion of gamification is that the game itself provides very little in terms of the “leveling-up” experience. While later versions of the game have included an “End” world that players can travel to, and a “boss” dragon they can fight there, those elements are tangential to what most people spend their time doing in the game, and they do not end the game as such. There are no character attributes that increase over the course of the game, or successive dungeons to conquer. The game requires that players set their own goals, and find their own course—whether that course includes building a town, mining for diamonds, or becoming a pumpkin farmer. That is to say, it is a game that relies on intrinsic motivation—and as such, it is unlike most other videogames out there.
That focus on intrinsic motivation is also what makes Minecraft an interesting fit for progressive education. While the faculty at my school wouldn’t be especially excited about behavior badges, there has been strong interest in a game world that allows students to collaborate and set goals together in a virtual environment. But what really brings teachers here to the table is the simple fact that our students are already so engaged in this game—back to that first question, of why people voluntarily tackle challenges in game worlds. As educators, our ears should perk up when we hear about kids choosing to work together to accomplish complex tasks in their spare time. While certainly there are other lessons to be taught and ideas to explore, the possibility of capturing that lightning-in-a-bottle of adolescent excitement, by meeting our students in the blocky digital space where they are congregating, is worth whatever difficulties are presented by learning a new game.
I am happy to say that, at my school at least, we are working in that direction. In electives and experiential weeklong courses, students have worked together in Minecraft to build everything from a model of our school to small cities, complete with shared expectations about behavior within their virtual walls. As teachers we have seen students exceed our expectations of what they were capable of: as leaders, team members, and creative and critical thinkers. It has been an exciting experiment, one that is very much ongoing as I write this.
For my part, I think back to my experiences playing with Legos and getting mediocre report cards, and I feel excited to be living in this moment. There is a lot for all of us to learn about how to work to our best potential—as students, teachers, or just as human beings—and anything that helps us engage in that conversation in a meaningful way is a good thing. Whether through the clarity of shiny badges or the uncertainty of open-ended environments, the way we think about and engage with games has a lot to teach us about the ways we think about and engage with everything else.
 The baseline misogyny of the damsel-in-distress mode of these games should not go unremarked, though of course I had no critical awareness of it when I was eight. And there’s another article to be written about the “girl” Lego sets that my older daughter currently loves almost as much as I used to love my knights in tiny armor.
is a school administrator and poet in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lives with his wife Kate and their daughters Sonia and Alma.