[Lessons from Game Design] Introduction

I love games and puzzles.  My favorite game is called Magic: The Gathering, which I have been playing for almost twenty years.  For those who are not familiar, Magic is a trading card game; in fact, it was the very first trading card game, and it has been extremely successful.  The reason I bring this up is because for the past twelve years I have been reading a weekly column by the game’s head designer, Mark Rosewater, and I am interested to see if I can apply some of what I have learned about game design to the classroom.  After writing for a little bit, I realized that I have a lot to say on this subject, so this will simply be the introduction to a long series of posts.

Why are games relevant to teaching?  When people play games, they are voluntarily presenting themselves with a challenge in the hopes that they will receive some kind of reward for that challenge (this reward can be very different for different people).  In school, ideally students choose to challenge themselves for exactly the same reasons.  Unfortunately, that is not often the case in school, but that is also why I am writing this.

Why should I be listening to the lessons of this one guy?  Because the game of Magic has been ridiculously successful.  In fact, due to some changes and innovations in the game, sales roughly doubled over the 2-3 year period after the recession began, and Magic is currently Hasbro’s top-selling brand. Clearly, he (and the rest of the team that he speaks for) knows something about getting people interested in learning something new and sticking with it.

I think that Magic is a particularly good analogy to physics because of the structure of the game.  At its core, Magic is not a very complicated game; the rules could probably be summarized on one page.  The fact that there are over 12,000 unique cards, though, means that there are going to be some strange interactions that require a more detailed understanding of the rules.  In fact, there is a list of rulings on individual cards that takes up thousands of pages.  It would be silly, though, to think that playing the game of Magic would require knowing all of these individual rulings.  First off, these rulings are not in fact new, separate rules but rather are specific cases of more general rules.  Second, the rulings for specific card interactions are not likely to show up often in a typical game.  In real life, physics is the set of rules that describes the interactions between objects.  The basic set of rules is not that long, but the fact that the universe is so big means that there are a ridiculous amount of possible interactions.  I think the mistake that many novice physics students make is to think that in order to play the “physics game”, they need to have a detailed knowledge of all of the individual “rulings” for all of these possible interactions.  My favorite example of this was when a student of mine raised her hand during an exam and said, “I don’t have the equation for the acceleration of a tethered box on a ramp; could you give me that equation?”  I said, “Fnet=ma”.

To be clear, I am not advocating “game-ifying” teaching.  By “game-ify”, I mean turning the learning process into an actual game.  I can’t remember the citations at the moment (maybe someone can help in the comments), but I remember reading that making games out of learning makes students very good at that game, but very little of that learning transfers.  Instead, I am simply trying to apply lessons of game design to designing lessons in class to increase student interest and engagement in class material.

Are the lessons of game design something you’d like to see?  Am I entirely off-base in creating a link between game design and teaching?  I’d like to hear what you think in the comments.