Teach like a video game: Put students in the story

Teach like a video game: Put students in the story

Dylan Mansur, a former student of mine who now designs video games, believes that both gamers and students ask themselves the same question early on in their experiences: “What does it mean that I’m here?”

The question seems simple enough, but it took me completely by surprise. As a teacher, I’ve spent hours pondering what my students should know and be able to do. I’ve thought a great deal about why my students should learn the concepts they explore in my classroom, but I can’t remember truly considering how each of my students answer the question, “What does it mean that I’m here?”

Game designers continuously ponder that question, and perhaps that’s what makes a player feel an emotional connection with a video game more readily than an experience at school. Well-designed games lead a player to find a reason for their involvement within the first ten minutes of play. A game that leads players to a satisfying answer to that question can hold a player’s attention for countless hours.

Why can’t I do the same?

In the following video, Dylan outlines the motivational power of story and narrative and explains a few ways that game designers involve a player in their experience.

The Power of Story

The most effective answer the question, “What does it mean that I’m here?” Is “I’m here because this story can’t progress without me.”

So, what’s the story of your class?

Whether or not you’re conscious of it, students eventually assemble a story for each of your classes and carve out a role for themselves. If I am intentional about shaping that story from the very first moments of each class I teach, I can design an important role for each one of my students. I can craft a story that relies on each of my students to progress.

By looking deeply at the areas of game design that Dylan mentioned in our interview, I can get a more clear picture on how to build a meaningful story.

I was here

“The desire to be remembered is a universal desire and the fear of forgetfulness is a universal fear.” (The Railway Age, 1906)

Game Over

Be remembered with a high score.

Why do students scratch messages on their desks or leave random notes in the margins and inside cover or text books? They want to be remembered.

They did the same thing in the arcade. Remember how hard some people would work just to get three letters on the leader board for a game? They do this out of the same need to have their achievements seen, remembered, and recognized by others. Now, gamers work for hours to unlock achievements or trophies in their games. These events are broadcast to their online friends. The leaderboards are no longer local or temporary – as they were in arcades. Now high scores are communal and shared with the world. It’s an even greater opportunity to be recognized and remembered.

If my students were aware that the story they are creating and the work that they do together and individually is going to be uniquely remembered and shown to future classes, perhaps my students will find a deeper meaning in their role in the story and a greater sense of importance.

Instead of leaving their marks on my desk and inside of textbooks, students may work to leave their mark in a more meaningful way.


An easy way to get a player motivated in a game is maximizing the idea of customization. Players want to be in the games they play.  The more connected they feel with the game, the more they strive for better things and experiences for themselves. Sometimes the customization is overt – like the opportunity to create a character and control everything from eye color and brow shape to shoe style and temperament. Other times, it’s more subtle and deep – like allowing the small choices a player makes in a game to affect the outcome. This means that all players have a unique experience on both the surface level of the game’s appearance and the deeper level of the game’s outcome.

To create a better story for all students in my classroom, I can maximize their ability to customize their experience. Teachers should already know that customization is best practice. Alfie Kohn says that the best classrooms are decorated with student-created work and not posters created by distant corporations. An ability to customize the learning environment and individual workspaces is similar to character creation in a game. Looking more deeply can lead to even more authentic customizations that happen even without the students being overtly aware of them.

Giving students some choice over the way they complete assignments and projects is empowering. Even more engaging and rewarding is giving students the power to shape the questions and problems they are faced with in a classroom. A master teacher, like a master designer, is always aware of where the student needs to end up at the end of an experience, but can honor each student’s method of reaching that place. This makes each experience a student has unique, but still allows students to demonstrate mastery of standards and meet similar learning objectives.

It also leads students to a better answer for the question, “What does it mean that I’m here?”.


Members of a World of Warcraft guild pose for a picture.

One of the most powerful answers to the question, “What does it mean that I’m here?” is “I’m here because my group needs me.”

Every classroom is a community. Students form relationships with those around them. A teacher has the power to shape the way in which those relationships take shape.

The most addictive games, games like World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs, do this extremely well. Players dedicate hours to these games because they are needed by their teammates. The game literally cannot progress unless each player is a part of successful group work. Every player is needed and has an important role based on their areas of expertise. These players interact in ways that are directly tied to the game, but they also interact socially within the game in their own ways.  Even single player games put players in social situations or demand they work in groups. Sometimes these players control groups, other times they must play an essential background role.

As teachers, we can create wonderful stories within our classrooms when we are intentional about the relationships and communities that students build in our classrooms. We can do everything from Community Building to crafting group experiences that maximize each learner.

One day, when the network was down and I had to scrap the day’s classroom activity, I took a class outside and had them do some community building games. We didn’t go back inside until everyone knew everyone else’s name and had interacted with each other in some way. This made for an immediate improvement in the way the class functioned and the willingness with which the students worked together with students who weren’t previously their friends.

Emotional Investment

As Dylan mentions in his interview, game designers work hard to get players emotionally invested in their games. That means that their actions are driven by a desire beyond completing a task or pressing buttons. Game designers do this in the same way great story writers do. They create characters that players relate to and feel connected with. They make each character want something. They show, or perhaps just hint at, a problem that is limiting or hurting people close to them. They foreshadow the challenges and knowledge the player will encounter in the future. This way, when a challenge comes or a quest arises, each player has a deeper motivation for accomplishing the task.

In games, there’s no, “Do it because there’s a test later” or, “Do it because you’re graded.” Gamers who can see through the story and see the game as a series of  interactions with a controller soon give up. Players play when they are emotionally invested. Learners learn when they are emotionally invested. Dr. James Gee says that, in the best games, the story floats vaguely above the players. This can be done in the same way in the classroom.

How do you start a story with immediate emotional investment? Learn from math teacher Dan Meyer.

Meyer gets his students invested in his classroom by transforming artificial and surface textbook questions into real problems. He makes the students want to take steps to solve problems by becoming as informed as possible and demanding the tools needed to apply their information. The video is worth a watch, because it will change the way you think about your role as a teacher. Teachers who craft the best problems are better than the ones who can give out the right answers.

Meyer creates a class where each student is emotionally invested in the story.


I’ve never seen a game do a better job of getting a player immediately involved in the story than NBA 2K11.

Take a look at the very first moments of the game. This is what player sees as soon as they turn on the game.


Instead of the traditional flashy video or tutorial level, the game puts you right next to Michael Jordan, who asks the player, “Are you ready?”

The next moment, the player is in Game One of the 1991 NBA Finals, playing the Los Angeles Lakers.

Ready or not, you’re playing at highest level of the game.

On the first day of class, how often do we turn to our students, ask them “Are you ready?” and then take them right into high-level learning? I didn’t do this often enough in my classroom.

I used to rely on a flashy lecture lesson or the dull “Welcome to Journalism” day where I introduced myself and then went over the syllabus and course expectations. It doesn’t get less engaging than that, folks.

When I think about my greatest classes, they’re always the ones that I ask great things of my students from the first day and challenge them from the start. I jumped in with meaningful learning experiences on the first day of class this year. Students uncovered for themselves the essential question of my first unit and reached beyond their comfort zone to experiment with existing  knowledge and see what worked and what didn’t in new situations. Like the game designers I mentioned earlier that hook a player in the first ten minutes, I had these students start crafting their own stories immediately. As an added bonus, they got used to functioning outside their comfort zones and adapted more quickly to constructivist activities.

All images in this post were used with permission under Creative Commons licenses. The background of the title picture was adapted with permission from the user Myrmi on Flickr.

Posted under Featured, Games, Main Menu, Research, Technology, Tools by
  • cameramomx2

    Interesting reading filled with thought provoking information. One of the best articles I have read and viewed recently. Higher level thinking activities connected with students interests, technology, real life situations and cooperative learning engage and inspire students to reach outside their comfort zone to construct new learning.

    • http://cleanapple.com Ryan McCallum

      Thank you for the comment.

      It’s been refreshing for me to see that engaging teaching really isn’t about having a classroom set of the latest technology tool. It’s always about learner-centered experiences. As a tech guy, stuff like this keeps me centered.