Spectology, n.
Published in

Spectology, n.

Education and Game Design

In which my job and guilty pleasure are fruitfully combined.

While I was at General Assembly, we had a tradition of asking new hires a few questions to get to know them better. Some are the typical (who are you, what are you doing here, where are you coming from). But one stands out: what is your guilty pleasure?

While the inception of this tradition comes from after the point I was hired, I’ve always had an answer in my back pocket for those occasions when the question comes up.

I play role playing games. As in, Dungeons and Dragons, where everyone sits around a table pretending to be someone else and fighting orcs. I even run games for other people. And I even write some RPG materials to share with others.

Not only do I play them, I think education design has a lot to learn from good RPG design. Let’s talk about one education game that exemplifies how.

A history teacher trainer (that is, someone who teaches history teachers how to be better history teachers) has come up with this 35 page lesson plan + role playing game about the Cuban Missile Crisis designed to walk students through not just the events, but the decision making behind the events, and why, even though neither side wanted nuclear war, we both kept tip-toeing to the brink. It’s a look at the emergent effects of systematic adversarial, goal-oriented decision making, through the lens of the people inside the system.

I think this is awesome because A) it sounds like a lot of fun to play, and B) I’ve often been a proponent of learning about lesson and exercise design from game design. RPGs in particular share a lot of similarities to a classroom environment.

There is more information on the Cuban Missile Crisis edu game here.

There are a tonne of good things to be learned about education from video game design. RPG design offers something completely different, which is what I want to go into here.

When writing an adventure for an RPG (that is, one game’s worth of content for the players to run through), you have to think not just about what would be fun for the players to do—what puzzles they can solve, who they will meet, what locations they can explore, what the social context will be, etc—but also how to present this information in a way that’s useful for the Game Master. While video games mostly teach their mechanics through play, RPGs have a focus on exploration (both physical and social) that means that they can transcend their mechanics about teach about scenarios, situations, places, events, etc.

In a lot of ways, this is exactly what the goals of a single lesson plan are. So what can we learn from a good RPG about how to write a good lesson plan?

  1. Intrinsic Motivation. It’s an interesting scenario: a political situation where information is power and everyone has personal goals that conflict with each other.
  2. Know your students and what they need. The character design is well thought out: each player has a different role, with different information, abilities, and goals. No one is equal, but everyone is powerful in their own way, which makes it fun to play.
  3. Teach the teachers. The document itself is designed with the game master / teacher in mind. It first presents what it is, then presents how to read the document, then presents how to play the game with advice for the game master, then presents all the information that the players will have.
  4. Don’t skip steps. That said, it also includes everything the players will need to participate. Hand-outs, information specific to them, their abilities, their goals, and their “win conditions”. None of this is ambiguous, which makes moving directly into play that much faster.
  5. Think through emergent effects. The scenario itself is designed to teach specific things, and the mechanics reflect those goals. There has been thought put into not just the roles of each player, but how the emergent effect of their information, abilities, and motivations will effect the larger narrative during the game. So often when it comes to “gamification”, folks incentivize large-scale behaviors that they don’t actually want by not thinking through their systems. Think of the supposedly collaborative games that have leader boards—a leader board dis-incentivizes a person from working with others, especially those who are close to you in the ranking, because that help can lead to them out-distancing you. This is a difficult lesson to generalize at all, because the correct layers of incentives will differ depending on the scenario and the goal, but the Cuban Missile Crisis RPG is a great example of how to do this well, with a minimum of mechanical cruft.

These are a few general principles to get you started. Try reading the Cuban Missile Crisis RPG with these principles in mind to see how each is implemented. Also of interest is how to build interactive scenarios, writing good copy, and the value of letting people fail as long as they can learn from it.



(1) The study of that which is not. (2) Science fiction, cultural criticism, and philosophy of technology.

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Adrian M Ryan

Adrian M Ryan


I write about language, philosophy, literature, technology, and space.