Game Design as a Microcosm

This is a guest post by Camillia Matuk, Assistant Professor of Educational Communication and Technology at New York University.

“You’re afraid of failure, You’re afraid of negative feedback, you’re afraid of risk… and there’s tension. You have to work that out. You realize you have to open yourself up in a new way. That allows you to apply that to other things that you’re doing in schools and education.”

Rebecca Rufo-Tepper is describing the process of collaborative game design to a room of 14 captivated adults in NYU’s Media and Games Network (MAGNET). The group includes middle and high school teachers of social studies, music education, computer science, and languages; and Masters’ students of social justice, digital media design, special needs education, and music technology. Many have decades of experience in public and private schools, while others are poised to begin careers in education. All, like Rufo-Tepper, are passionate about the potential of games to transform education.

For two weeks this past summer, the group came together to play, dissect and create games for learning. They were enrolled in a new, hybrid professional development and graduate level course, offered by instructors at institutions committed to advancing the theory and practice of educational games: Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, Director of Teacher Education and Research at the Institute of Play, and Camillia Matuk, Assistant Professor of Educational Communication and Technology at New York University. The course, Co-designing game-based learning experiences through Teacher-Designer Partnerships, was based on two big ideas:  that games can be both powerful learning experiences for students as well as empowering tools for teachers; and that designs for learning are more meaningful and sustainable when they integrate the various perspectives of their stakeholders.

More and more educators and academics are taking notice of the potential of games as learning environments (Boyle et al., 2015), and evidence is increasingly stacked in their favor. One recent review of research on games for learning concluded that games have both cognitive and emotional impacts on players. Through play, learners gain the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve the tasks set before them (Jabbar & Felicia, 2015).

An instinct for many teachers who are experimenting with games in their classrooms is to recreate Jeopardy, or to lean heavily on drill-and-practice formats. While there is nothing wrong with these methods, Rufo-Tepper explained that using a game is unnecessary if the goal is simply for students to recall information.

Instead, the course helped members tackle the use of games to engage learners in acquiring 21st century learning skills, such as teamwork, communication, ethical literacy, and complex problem solving. Games are especially good contexts for learning systems thinking, because to play or design one, you have to understand its components and how they work together. It is thought that games might be powerful ways to introduce students to reasoning about systems in contexts outside of games.

Playing with serious ideas

Play is characterized by, among other things, the intrinsically motivated, pleasurable engagement in imaginative rule-based activities (Garvey, 1990). Play is also a key ingredient in learning from games. Decades of research in neurology and psychology have found play to be essential to learning, not just for knowledge acquisition, but also for developing character, resilience, and emotional intelligence (Brown & Vaughan, 2009). As such, the course took play seriously. One evening, we stood in a circle, giggling as we took turns swatting our neighbors like ninjas. On another, we brainstormed ways to evoke players’ sense of collaboration, paranoia, or silliness, using paper clips, blindfolds, and balloons.

Playtesting was key to working out design kinks. Even more valuable was honest feedback from playtesters outside of the design team. Thus, on the final day of the course, we invited a group of school-aged children to playtest the participants’ final projects. Their silence upon arrival was understandable: Most of the kids didn’t know one another, let alone the adults. The adults themselves were nervous. Although they may have had decades of school experience, that day, they were newly minted game designers, about to offer up their creations to brutal critique. The group soon fell into the rhythm of playtesting, and deep moments of focused play were punctuated by bursts of cheers and laughter.

One course member, Spanish teacher Dulce Wechsler, especially appreciated the importance of playtesting with children for dispelling the assumptions that adults sometimes make. “We need to get into their world. That’s one of the reasons why I love using games and using tools where [students] can create, because it’s moving into their realm.”

Games as simulations of life

As a final project, Wechsler’s team created The Magical World of Opportunity, a board game about privilege. In it, players are dealt cards that determine their place in a hierarchy, which in turn determines the jewels they may receive. Dragons receive more than elves, for example, and male dragons more than female ones. Greater wealth allows players to complete more tasks, such as graduating from knight school, defeating an evil sorcerer, or ending a drought. The first player to become King or Queen of the world wins. But not everyone has the same opportunities. Sometimes, players must pay tolls, or are prohibited from advancing due to insufficient wealth.

Wechsler’s team expected players “to modify this game in terms of contemporary society and make concessions for institutional injustices that they think will address the needs of the underprivileged so as to better understand the duties that accompany privilege.” They may add scholarships or free college, for example.

“I tested it with my son, who’s 8, last night, and he loved it,” Wechsler said. “He liked the jewels and he liked the imagery of the dragons.” While the concept of societal privilege was too abstract for him, Wechsler believes that playing such a game can be a good way to begin conversations about difficult issues. One young playtester at the course’s culminating event gave a glimpse into the game’s potential. “I don’t want to sound racist,” he said, hesitating to articulate the parallels he saw between the game’s fantasy world and contemporary society. To this, Wechsler replied: “That’s exactly what I want you to do. You’re not racist for recognizing something [...] recognizing is actually a first step in eliminating [racism].”

Such moments demonstrate how games can offer safe spaces within which players can develop and practice important life skills. “I’m not telling [players] what to think,” Wechsler said. “I’m giving them the opportunity to think for themselves.” A large part of who you are in the world, she explained, “is just luck. It’s not something that you can strategize. You have the cards. What are you going to do about it?”

Supporting many voices through co-design

The course participants were clearly excited about the idea of using games to innovate classroom teaching. Many had already been using games in their instruction, and wished to ground and extend their ideas in sound principles. Another four all teach at a new South Bronx school, and described the challenge of helping their students see the relevance of what they were learning to their lives. As they kickstart their new school year this fall, they anticipate using the course’s ideas to instill a sense of community, and an excitement for learning.

Unfortunately, these course members were not typical of most teachers, whose acceptance of game-based learning is more complex (Bourgonjon et al., 2013). As research shows, leadership and administrative support are critical in helping teachers adopt and sustain innovative classroom strategies (e.g., Khatri et al., 2016). But it also takes time, effort, and resources for teachers to develop the attitudes and competencies needed to embark on such innovations.

This course aimed to address these challenges. Building on the Institute of Play’s existing professional development programming, traditionally offered only to in-service teachers, it created a forum for cross-pollinating ideas. For teachers, it was a unique professional development opportunity and a chance to earn university credit. For graduate students, it was a way to ground their work in reality through partnerships with stakeholders. Joining seasoned professionals with idealist students, and principled design with practical experience, the course operated on the belief that all members would grow by coming to better understand the others’ perspectives within a community of practice and mentorship.

The motley crew behind The Magical World of Opportunity formed a kind of microcosm of the education world: an in-service teacher, a pre-service teacher, an administrator, and an academic of education. Kyra Clemmons-Stewart, the administrator, said she benefited from the diverse perspectives of her peers, but that it was not all fun and games. “This is the first time that I’ve actually got to work with the teachers,” she explained. “And quite a few of the things I didn’t necessarily agree with. But then I learned. You know, you have to navigate, you have to compromise, that sort of thing. So it was a good experience.”

In her more than 20 years of experience as a school administrator, Clemmons-Stewart had become used to simply telling people what to do, and valued the experience of working with teachers for the first time. “I do a lot of evaluations,” she said, “but you know, coming up with the components, designing the things that come before the evaluation, I’d never really gotten to do or participate in [that].”

Involving the voices of teachers and parents is something that Clemmons-Stewart intends to incorporate in her work beyond the course. “Most [curricular materials] have been created for us,” Clemmons-Stewart explained. “Next time, I’m going to start paying attention more to our evaluations and if there wasn’t a goal met [...] we’ll sit, talk. What’s your idea? What’s a different way of doing what we’re doing right now that we could be doing that would probably help them reach their goal?”

Rufo-Tepper notes that adults often forget what it feels like to be kids, and that the course tried to remedy some of that. “In a real way, we kind of lived what we ask kids to do all the time,” she said. Just as adults, kids must learn to negotiate tension and conflict during group projects. “There are very real feelings sometimes,” she said.

Rufo-Tepper believes that game design offers important lessons for education professionals. “It’s not just about planning a game, it’s about what it means to work with others, which is such a huge thing in the world,” she explained. “Think of all the voices that go into it the one thing: It’s all the people who designed it, and all the people who tested it. [...] There’s something about playtesting where most people, kids and adults, are very open to feedback in ways that we’re not always in everyday life.”

The course participants describe their excitement to build upon the course’s material in going forward. “I’m thinking of not just designing a game,” Wechsler said. “I’m thinking now of designing whole units where we can use games that could be part of a larger objective. That’s my next challenge. I want to learn how to do that.”



Bourgonjon, J., De Grove, F., De Smet, C., Van Looy, J., Soetaert, R., & Valcke, M. (2013). Acceptance of game-based learning by secondary school teachers. Computers & Education, 67, 21-35.

Boyle, E. A., Hainey, T., Connolly, T. M., Gray, G., Earp, J., Ott, M., … & Pereira, J. (2016). An update to the systematic literature review of empirical evidence of the impacts and outcomes of computer games and serious games. Computers & Education, 94, 178-192.

Brown, S. L. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York, NY: Avery.

Garvey, C. (1990). Play (Vol. 27). Harvard University Press.

Jabbar, A. I. A., & Felicia, P. (2015). Gameplay Engagement and Learning in Game-Based Learning A Systematic Review. Review of Educational Research, 85(4), 740-779.

Khatri, R., Henderson, C., Cole, R., Froyd, J. E., Friedrichsen, D., & Stanford, C. (2016). Designing for sustained adoption: A model of developing educational innovations for successful propagation. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(1), 010112.