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Re-imagining Schools: The Perfect Game Ecosystem

Seth Priebatsch, who dropped out of Princeton University to found a website called SCVNGR, aims to build “the game layer on top of the world.”  His goal is to take the lessons learned from the game design industry (which grew larger than Hollywood in 2004) and apply them to other elements of the world.  One target he has set his sights on is education. Game mechanics, he argues, can revolutionize the way schools work.

In his keynote address at SXSW Interactive 2011, Priebatsch began by describing schools as “the perfect game ecosystem.”  Schools involve players, challenges, rewards, rules, levels, appointment dynamics, countdowns, incentives, disincentives, and more.  But, he argues, schools are crippled by a number of structural hazards.  One of his examples is the role of grades.  Grades, in gameplay, are like levels, and cum laude, percentile rankings, and the honor roll are statuses or badges that students can earn based on their levels.  

Only several of the ways schools match game ecosystems

Currently, however, students can lose in this game.  Their grades can go down.  In the language of gameplay, he argues that students should never be able to “level-down,” by dropping from an A to a C, for example, because this offers a disincentive to continue engaging.  

In video games today, players rarely face the disincentive of losing.  Games accomplish this by using progression dynamics instead of weighted averages.  In games, players earn points for what they accomplish instead of losing points for their mistakes, as students do on assessments.  In games, a player who does not succeed has the chance to try again.  

Applying this to a class, then, would mean that students gain, let’s say, the “quadratic formula” level or badge after successfully using the quadratic formula in ways the teacher determines.  If they do not succeed, they can practice and try again.  Once students do so to the teacher’s satisfaction, they move on to the “completing the square” level.  After several more levels, students might have to complete the review level for “factoring polynomials.”  

This is a compelling reframing, to me, of how a school might operate. Is school a game?  Certainly not—at least in way that we perceive many games as being frivolous—but envisioning education as a game ecosystem in this way offers an opportunity for understanding the experience of education: how motivation accrues, how students are rewarded, etc.  Followers of what’s happening with Khan Academy’s back end software (not the online video component, but the software that schools use to track student progress) will know that this is exactly what’s happening to math curricula in a number of west coast schools.  It involves a dramatic reimagining of how we understand schools, a reimagining that requires first, the mental creativity to see this new vision of education in one’s mind, and then the material creativity to make it a practical reality.  


Seth Priebatsch on Schools and Game Design (start at 5m 33s):

Salman Khan demonstrating Progression Dynamics (start at 7m 30s):


- Game Design Guide
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