Untitled-1.pngGames, Learning, and GenCon


Earlier this year, I attended a workshop devoted to incorporating games into the classroom. The presenter, a very enthusiastic gentleman, spent the entire time discussing various online tools and showed some examples of how he’d used them. I left the session with a list of websites to check out and little else.


This is, I’ve learned, a typical session. The problem is that this is not what I needed. I know how to look up tools online; Google and I are great friends when it comes to searching. What I need are guidelines, best practices, and ideas.


Then I attended GenCon.


GenCon (http://www.gencon.com/) is a four-day analog gaming (e.g., tabletop, board games, and card games) convention held over the first weekend in August each year. The convention is the largest analog gaming convention in North America and had a unique attendance this year of 61,423 people. That is a lot of people descending on Indianapolis, IN for four days each year to network with other gamers, writers, and enthusiasts.


Self-described as “the best four days in gaming,” GenCon actually kicks off with a special fifth day that only educators, librarians, retailers, and members of the press may attend. This “Trade Day” (http://www.gencon.com/attend/trade) offers a full slate of seminars and workshops devoted to education and how retailers can support educators. The day ends with a special demo session during which retailers show off the games they think educators could use, explain the rules, and give the educators an opportunity to try the games out.


Unlike the workshop I attended earlier this year, the three sessions I attended at GenCon emphasized how to select games for your classroom and the best ways to implement them. This post will give a quick breakdown of the three sessions I attended. Then, next week, I will post the responses I received regarding LMS use and science games.

Session One: Finding a Place for Gaming, Modifying Curriculum
Kathleen Mercury (@mmmmmmmercury) and Tina Vo (Ms.TinaVo@gmail.com)


I slipped into the first session of my day a couple minutes late. Each seat in the room was filled, so I found a chair along the back wall with several others who had arrived too late to snag a spot at a table. Mercury and Vo were passionate and moved quickly through a presentation that focused on designing educational games that are fun and engaging, without sacrificing learning. Vo is a Ph.D student at the University of Nebraska and brought experience working with Project Neuron (https://neuron.illinois.edu/), a group that designs curricular materials for middle and high school science. Mercury is a classroom teacher who, in addition to her regular classes, teaches a course on game design.


This session emphasized the importance of making games meaningful and provided both a rubric for teachers to use when considering a game and guidelines for making a game more meaningful for students and the classroom. I highly recommend checking out their slide presentation and resources here: http://www.kathleenmercury.com/finding-a-place-for-gaming-modifying-curriculum.html


According to Mercury and Vo, a meaningful game is

  • Epistemically-based
    • Students must think logically, have foresight, and/or design
  • Content-based
    • The game helps reach a learning objective.
    • The game adds a different point-of-view or new insight.


That said, just because a game is meaningful doesn’t mean teachers can’t misuse it by using the game as a time-filler or by not integrating the game with the curriculum. They advised that teachers discuss each game and its purpose with students.


  • Before playing the game, teachers should explain how the game models or simulates reality and how it fits into the curriculum. The explanation should explicitly align each element of the game with the real world or classroom.
  • After playing the game, teachers should discuss with students how well the game modeled reality, what was or wasn’t accurate, and ways to adapt the game and make it more accurate or fitting for the classroom.


Mercury recommended getting feedback from students using WINQ questions.


WINQ Feedback Questions

  1. What worked?
  2. What needs to be improved?
  3. What new ideas do you have?
  4. What questions do you have?


Again, go check out Mercury’s website. She has a lot more resources and ideas up there to share, including the rubric I mentioned before: http://www.kathleenmercury.com/

Session Two: Roleplaying in the Classroom
Sean Malloy (smalloy@stuartschool.org)


Sean Malloy is a math and music teacher at the Stuart County Day School of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls school. He also runs their Model UN team. When the session started, Malloy asked everyone to think of their favorite historical figure. Then he had us turn to the person beside us and hold a short conversation in character. In the discussion that followed, Malloy highlighted the need for parameters: a clear set of rules and a goal/objective.


Then he asked us to think of our favorite author, turn back to our partner(s) and hold a quick book discussion—in character—of Romeo and Juliet. This activity ran more smoothly, but in the discussion that followed the audience suggested additional parameters, such as limiting the authors to those no longer living, giving prep time, and narrowing the discussion to a particular area of or question about the play. The rules made the game and increased engagement.


Malloy suggested looking to the rules for Fiasco and Once Upon a Time for inspiration for quicker games and to the Model U.N. for longer, more intensive games. That emphasis on parameters, however, was secondary to the main idea: the power of roleplay in the classroom. Malloy argued that when teachers engage students in roleplay, they improve engagement and deeper thinking.

“Give someone an alternate personality and they’re in it with you for the duration.”

According to Malloy, roleplay increases engagement because it gives students a safe platform for discussion and gives them the opportunity to be creative.


When students take on another persona, they can express ideas without worrying that their classmates will think those ideas are their own. The students are safe behind the masks of their characters. When students feel safe from negative reactions, they are more likely to contribute to a discussion.


Roleplay also gives students a character to build and explore. Even when the character in question in a real person, the student decides which parts of the person’s life to research and how to embody the person and express his or her point-of-view. If students make up their own characters, perhaps creating fictional people who belong to a nonfictional organization or occupation, they have free reign figuring out who their character is. Then, they also have the additional analysis step when roleplaying of deciding how those various factors affect their actions. For example, someone with a family might approach a situation differently than someone who did not.


One of the most important things, Malloy said, is to make sure every character has a name. For example, a student isn’t a nameless anatomy student in the 1800s debating the ethics of the resurrectionists; he is Matthew Barker, son of a surgeon who wants to outshine his father’s accomplishments.

“Every time we take an action in a classroom, we’re hoping the students, in reaction, will do what we want.”

Malloy asserted that roleplay has the power to engage students and encourage them to deeper levels of research and understanding. Roleplay, he argued, requires and encourages focus, problem-solving, risk-taking, abstracting, listening, planning, and empathy.


When we discussed Romeo and Juliet in our groups, we could not simply say what we thought of the play. Instead, we had to think—what would my author say about Romeo and Juliet? What would they even notice? We must consider that other point-of-view and use it as a lens to examine the text.


For the exercise I chose an author I’d loved as a kid and still enjoy: Sherwood Smith. I remembered an essay she’d written about settings and decided that she would pay attention to how the play creates a sense of place. Then I had to think through Romeo and Juliet for things she would have noticed and liked related to that. After that, I had to share this point-of-view with my group members and react to what they pointed out, still using my Sherwood Smith persona. That’s a lot of quick analysis for a five minute exercise.


Malloy pointed out that a teacher could assign roles to students, allowing the teacher to effectively pre-select the opinions in the room and shape the debate. He recommended giving students time to research or create their characters and shared a story of one of his students. The student was neither poor nor exceptional, but became very passionate about the character she received for a semester—a Hawaiian congressman. By the end of the semester, she was an expert on this man. She kept track of his voting record and even had a photo of him in her locker. Creating a character, writing as him in her essays, and portraying him in class debates excited this student in ways other class activities had not.

Where to use roleplay

While roleplay is an easy fit within literature and history courses, Malloy asserted that math and science worked just as easily. He suggested having students portray famous mathematicians and discuss the best way to solve a problem. A student portraying Pythagoras (or a group of students portraying his followers) might have to think through some interesting problem-solving. Or ask the students to portray scientists and ask them to evaluate innovations or form think tanks to create proposals competing for government contracts.

Session Three: Playful Learning, part 2: What Games are the Best Tools for your Classroom?
Zack Gilbert (@EdGamer)


Zach Gilbert is a sixth grade social studies teacher and the host of the EdGamer podcast (http://edgamer.net/). In these podcasts Gilbert discusses using games in learning and engages with experts on relevant topics. This session did provide some organizing principles and rules, but focused more heavily on adapting specific games. I did not attend part 1 during which Gilbert discussed the research behind gamification, its use in various fields, and the justification for using games to facilitate and support learning. The slide decks for both presentations are on Gilbert’s site (http://edgamer.net/?p=29497).


The two key points Gilbert emphasized before sharing three good games for the classroom were the 7 principles and his three rules.

The 7 Essential Principles of Innovative Learning

  1. Learners at the center.
  2. The social nature of learning.
  3. Emotions are integral to learning.
  4. Recognize individual differences.
  5. Stretching all students.
  6. Assessment for learning.
  7. Building horizontal connections.


Gilbert’s three rules for selecting games for use in your classroom are the following:

  1. Use games you enjoy.
  2. Play and know the game before you play it with your students.
  3. Have students help (e.g., making suggestions for games or blending games and learning, reviewing games, giving a game demo for classmates).


I recommend looking through his slide deck for how he has incorporated Civilization, Timeline, and Kahoot into his classroom. In addition to his website (http://edgamer.net/), Gilbert shared his Symbaloo (http://www.symbaloo.com/profile/zgilbert) as resources.

In Conclusion…

So, those are my session notes. Next week I’ll post the answers I received regarding the questions you asked.


In the meantime, however, what are some ways you’ve used games in your classrooms?


Do you think you’ll incorporate any of these ideas into your practice? If so, how so?

Check out Part II of my GenCon Adventures Here!