July 12, 2018

Trevor Macduff

How to Apply Game Theory to Lessons Your Students Will Love

Topics: STEM Education / Play, Learning Through Play, STEAM


Coach your students to greater success!

My son’s high school football team won the state championship his senior year. It was an amazing ride with lots of hard work, tense moments, and travel. As I spent all those years as a dad in the stands and sidelines listening to the coaches and watching them mold the team and coax just a little bit more effort out of the boys, I learned a great deal about teaching science. Er, I mean, I learned a great deal about COACHING science.

All of my year of pedagogy and training had me building lesson plans to teach science. But after watching how leaders in sports and industry actually help others achieve the results they want, I realized that I was likely going about my curriculum all wrong.

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There are buzz words today such as “Project Based Learning” and “Standards Based Grading” which are being touted with some grandiose press releases, but the implementation of these truly fantastic ideas are often lost in the grit and grind of day to day classrooms just struggling to get by.

In the next few minutes, we’re going to explore an outline for you to integrate the best of these ideals into your classroom through Gamification of Learning.


Foundational Principles

Before we get started, let’s explore some foundational principles that will need to be the bedrock of your transition into a gamified classroom. These are three foundational principles to keep in mind as you proceed. This is more about mindset than any particular action you’re going to take. However, with the right perspective you can play for the long game and strengthen your craft of teaching moment by moment.

  1. You’re the coach- You have to see your role as the coach and your students as your team. Your job is to mold these students into a cohesive unit, practice fundamental skills, develop meaningful strategies for success, and test yourself regularly against the competition.
  2. Not all of the players are the same- Not everyone needs to be a goalie or a forward. Not everyone even needs to play the game. A survey of the staff at most major professional sports teams reveals that every employee has the same goal: WIN. This might seem obvious, but even the janitorial staff and maintenance crew has this goal, though they will likely never make it to ESPN. They clean and fix the stadiums with the knowledge that their attention to detail is vital to the success of the team. In the same way, each of your students has value to bring to the team and are vital to success.
  3. Admin might disagree- Let’s be honest, this could fly in the face of the educational philosophies of some of your admin team. If this is your situation, you may need to tread lightly as you gamify your classroom. Your goal is to get students learning in such a way that they are exploring the world around themselves independently, admin just might be one of your obstacles to success 

Now that we have those in mind, let’s make sure we understand the basics of every game ever invented. No, we’re not going through an exhaustive list, rather, this list is a boiled down synthesis from game theory. Hopefully you’ll see examples in games you play, but keep in mind this is a broad overview. However, I feel confident that you can find these concepts in every game you’ve played.


Framework of Gamework

  1. Goal- Every game has an objective. Whether it’s to cause your opponents to go bankrupt, capture the king, or score more baskets, all games have a singular objective. Even in combat sports like mixed martial arts, the goal may not be to simply beat up your opponent. MMA has developed a scoring system which many top competitors use to their advantage when they know they can’t actually defeat their opponent by force.
  2. Obstacle- There has to be something to oppose your success. This could be the windmill at the mini-putt course, or a water hazard at St. Andrews. In Chutes and Ladders the makers created that one diabolical slide that sends you nearly to the beginning after climbing so close to the goal. Regardless of the game, if there is nothing to impede your progress, then it really becomes a rubber stamp to grab the prize and there is no satisfaction or sense of accomplishment.
  3. Progress- Participants in a game have to agree on some form of continuing forward. The hurry-up offense in American Football is a great example of a team taking advantage of the forward progress of a game. By quickly returning to the line of scrimmage and implementing the next play, practitioners of a hurry-up offense often catch opponents unprepared. Even in Candy Land, children realize the value of the double color cards for advancing their marker quickly through the game. Whatever the game being played, the players need to know how to make progress toward their goal.


Periodic table battle ship. Kids play battleship to practice not just recognizing the atomic symbols, but to also become familiar with the periods and groups as a sense of organization based on 2 characteristics.

There are many other aspects of gamification that can also be added beyond these fundamentals. Many games include randomization, levels, and expulsion. For our purposes, this framework is adequate to get things started, but feel free to continue research and developing more game theory techniques as you turn your classroom into a gameroom.


From Planbook to Playbook

Every teacher has a lesson plan book somewhere. Some are required to submit plans weekly or monthly to admin. Some simply prefer to keep their records for future use. Others put their plans in a blog or website so students can access materials from offsite beyond the school day. If we are going to gamify our classrooms, it’s time to modify the perspective and design a playbook with rules for our students to succeed rather than simply make plans for them to complete activities. What follows is an outline for helping revise your lesson plans and turn them into game plans.

  1. Objectives- It’s crucial to start with the end game in mind. What do your students need to know, understand, or be able to accomplish when the game is over? Gamification is a strategy to engage students with content and sustain their attention, but the standards are still crucial to setting them up for success. Communicate this objective to the students, but assure them that the game has a separate goal.
  2. Outline- Start with an outline of the game you’re going to have the students play. Will it be a modification of an existing one? Or are you starting from scratch? Many classrooms use Jeopardy as a format. Kahoot has become a popular platform recently as well. But even something as simple as Tic-Tac-Toe can be used if thought through. A common modification is to have students answer a question correctly or solve a puzzle to earn their X or O. Cranium was a popular game in the late 90’s and has many variations even until today. Their variations on Charades and Pictionary create fantastic venues for students to demonstrate their learning.
  3. Ownership- Ultimately, the goal of gamification is that games can be played and replayed. How are you going to set up this game so that all students have the chance to demonstrate mastery? Students become empowered when they know that there are multiple chances for success. This also teaches that failure is simply another step along the way to achievement. A popular trend right now in culture is the escape rooms where participants solves puzzles to unlock more clues to figure a way to escape from a situation where they are ‘locked’ in a room. Educators and educational supply companies are turning these rooms inside out by providing lock-boxes with multiple locks on them. Students have to solve puzzles to decode the combinations to the locks and ultimately earn whatever prize is locked inside. Whether it’s a card game, board game, puzzle box, or electronic video game, when students have to learn to earn the prize, their motivation goes up, but moreso, they should be welcomed, and encouraged, to continue trying each game until they’ve mastered it.


There is no magic formula to make your classroom great. There is no one format, however much success has been seen by gamification. With your efforts to turn units and lessons into games, who knows, maybe someday textbook publishers will catch on and we’ll have our whole curriculum in an online sandbox platform with ready-made mods. Until then, happy gaming!!



Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 4.18.05 PMTrevor Macduff has been a Science/STEAM teacher in southeastern Washington for the past 22 years. He’s spoken at national and regional conferences on innovative methods for integrating technology and standards into the classroom. His passion is helping other teachers find their groove in the classroom by recognizing that there really is no box to be thinking outside of. He is currently finishing up his NASA STEM Distinguished Leadership Certificate and is excited to be participating in the Smithsonian Institution’s first even cohort of the Teacher Innovator Institute. If Trevor isn’t in the classroom, you can probably find him listening to audiobooks while driving his 12 children around to their various activities or sharing ideas on Twitter.


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