Game On

From imagination to implementation: the power of collaboration between game designers and teachers

Game On 0“As a teacher, you’re normally an island in a school. If you’re lucky, you have a colleague to consult with. If you’re unlucky, you’re alone in planning and implementing your curriculum until someone periodically comes in to judge you. The model of a teacher working with a game designer and a curriculum designer at Quest to Learn brings three minds together. This allows teachers the opportunity to execute epic things in the classroom – the kinds of things that one person alone could never do.” —Rebecca Grodner, 8th grade Being, Space and Place teacher, Quest to Learn

FEATURE | by Shula Ponet and Rebecca Rufo-Tepper

On a cold January day, Rebecca Grodner’s eighth-grade students are engaged in a fiery Socratic Showdown. In this discussion-based game, they are debating how much responsibility people should have in acting against evil in society, using textual evidence from articles on the Holocaust and other topics they have studied to make connections and ask thought-provoking questions. As they play, students are awarded points whenever they make a constructive contribution to the debate based on the categories chosen for that round of play. They can also lose points if they exhibit disrespectful behaviors such as interrupting or insulting their teammates. While the students learn how to work together as a class and contribute meaningfully to a discussion, they engage in a process that gives them insight into why freedom of expression is so important in a democratic society.

Institute of Play image studentsStudents playing a discussion-based game in their eighth-grade Being, Space and Place class, an ELA and Social Studies domain

This game is part of a 12-week curriculum unit on the Holocaust and dystopian fiction at Quest to Learn, a public school in Manhattan. The unit is part of a required class known as Being, Space and Place – an integrated ELA and Social Studies domain. In this unit, known as a mission, students must complete a series of challenges, known as quests, to create a final deliverable: their own original dystopian fiction piece for a real writing contest the teacher discovered at Figment (see contest details).

Within the mission and the series of quests, students play Socratic Showdown to hone their discussion skills as they tackle challenging, often controversial topics. As they work through the required content of WWII and the Holocaust, they play other games to assist them in their reading and writing. Along the way, they write argumentative pieces, participate in collaborative literature circles, keep journals, and craft final dystopian fiction stories.

This may seem like an unusual way to teach and learn, but it is a very intentional game-like curriculum design methodology at Quest to Learn. Many teachers may find the idea of game-like learning intriguing, but feel blocked by a lack of support and the demanding reality of their classrooms.

How does Quest to Learn get around this problem? When the school was created, a research and design studio known as Mission Lab was integrated into the design of the school by founding partner Institute of Play. The goal of Mission Lab is to help teachers teach the way they wish they could — the way they dream of engaging their students, were it not for the lack of support and other obstacles that often get in the way. Mission Lab supports teachers by pairing them with a game designer and a curriculum designer (staffed by the Institute of Play) who help make the teacher’s vision a reality, providing support throughout the process of design and implementation.

Collaborative Curriculum Development

Curriculum teams use a game-like learning approach to not only engage and motivate students, but also to challenge students to solve complex real-world problems and step into the roles of designers themselves. Each member of the curriculum team brings something unique to the table.

The following graphic illustrates the relationship between the game designer, teacher, and curriculum designer at Quest to Learn:

Game On 2The curriculum team works collaboratively to plan missions and quests in summer professional development sessions and weekly curriculum meetings. Teachers in their first year at the school have two weekly curriculum meetings built into their schedule, and meetings for returning teachers are scheduled on an as-needed basis, usually once a week.

Game-Like Learning Model: Missions and Quests


Every trimester, students complete one twelve-week mission in each of their classes. The mission narrative, or context, is developed once the teacher, game designer, and curriculum designer have identified the big ideas, learning goals, and standards for the trimester. All of the content resides within the mission context, which creates a ‘Need To Know’ for the students – a reason why they are learning the material. When a mission is successful, it not only makes the curriculum content feel relevant to students, it offers them opportunities to take on real-world roles and to apply what they learn to everyday scenarios.

The dystopian fiction mission is called ‘The Blurred Line,’ as it asks students, “What is the line between dystopia and utopia?” Students consider when and how a society becomes a dystopia, and explore the difference between conformity and community. For example, they debate the importance of establishing norms and uniformity in a society or community, and when that becomes a danger to freedom. These big ideas are situated within the real-world challenge to create a piece of fiction – based on their viewpoints and evidence they gather – to submit to a writing contest.


Once the overarching context is mapped out for a mission, it is broken into a series of quests. A quest focuses on a particular learning goal, discrete skill, or area of content that students can learn in several days or weeks. Each quest ends with at least one deliverable that helps the students move towards completing their mission, and it relates to the narrative of the mission in a logical and meaningful way. Students are focused on a goal, given immediate and continuous feedback, and they don’t progress unless they have mastered the knowledge and skills that are needed to complete a quest.

The quests are all steps in preparing students for a final space of defense, in which students complete the mission. Often, experts are invited to be judges in this space of defense. In the game-like learning model at Quest to Learn, the integration of imagination and the design process, along with content, allows students to show true evidence of understanding and transfer their knowledge into new and meaningful contexts.

In The Blurred Line, there are three quests, each of which lasts approximately 4 weeks. The first provides students with an introduction to the Holocaust, as they grapple with what influences choices and decisions, and explore human behavior as well as historical content. In the second quest, students read dystopian fiction as models for their own original texts. They discuss their texts in literature circles, and play several games to enhance their understanding of the genre and hone their reading and writing skills. The final quest asks students to move through the writing process as they craft their original dystopian fiction piece and complete the mission by submitting it to the writing contest.


A typical mission may have 3-4 games developed and used during the 12-week period. Games are not used every day – their integration is purposeful and intentional, usually when a teacher feels there is a particular concept, piece of content, or skill that they would like to reinforce, assess, or introduce in an engaging way.

For example, three original games are integrated into The Blurred Line. The Socratic Showdown game starts in quest 1 and continues throughout the mission. Context Wagers is played during quest 2, while students are reading dystopian fiction. In Context Wagers, students use context clues to decipher the meaning of unknown words in a betting style game. Players compete to collect the most chips, as they decode sentences to define unknown words. The third game, a card game called Dystop-A-Weavers, is played during quest 3, before students start writing their dystopian fiction pieces. Dystop-A-Weavers helps students brainstorm and get their creative juices flowing, as they collaboratively write a dystopian story. Below is an image of the Dystop-A-Weavers layout.

Game On 3All of these games have gone through a rigorous playtest and iteration process, in which students, teachers, game designers and curriculum designers give feedback and refine the game.

A Collaborative Mission

Teachers at Quest to Learn arrive through many different pathways, but they are all new to collaborating with a design team in this way. Reflecting on the collaborative mission design process for The Blurred Line, the teacher, Rebecca Grodner, said it was easy for her to adapt because, in curriculum teams, “everyone focuses on the students and on the exciting new things that we’re doing, so it dissipates the discomfort that some might feel in having to share their ideas with people who might challenge them.” For Rebecca, the game-like learning focus is helpful because it allows learning to be contextualized in a meaningful way.

Ideas for games and game-like contexts can originate with any member of the curriculum team. In the case of Socratic Showdown, it started with Rebecca Grodner. She brought the team a template for something she had been trying to create. “I had this idea about Socratic Showdown,” she reflects, “and I made this primitive thing, but then the game designer came in and made it into something that I can actually use. Mission Lab takes a seed of a teacher’s idea and makes it into a reality.”

Rebecca Rufo-Tepper, Ph.D., is Director of Integrated Learning and Shula Ponet is a Game Designer at the Institute of Play, a not-for-profit design studio pioneering new models of learning and engagement. One of the Institute’s first projects was the design and implementation of Quest to Learn, an innovative New York City public school. Write to:

One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Classroom Aid and commented:
    How to design context for learning ? No matter in big or small scale, the design mindset is meaningful for every educator : ” The mission narrative, or context, is developed once the teacher, game designer, and curriculum designer have identified the big ideas, learning goals, and standards for the trimester. All of the content resides within the mission context, which creates a ‘Need To Know’ for the students – a reason why they are learning the material. When a mission is successful, it not only makes the curriculum content feel relevant to students, it offers them opportunities to take on real-world roles and to apply what they learn to everyday scenarios.”

Leave a Reply