As a teacher in the classroom I didn’t choose to spend my free time reading, but now as an itinerant technology coach driving around our geographically large school board I have found that my brain needs the stimulus of non-fiction audiobooks.

Most recently I have read/listened to Jane McGonigal’s  Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  

I had remembered being impressed and inspired by this female game designer after seeing’s YouTube Video entitled Jane McGonigal: Truths & Myths in Gaming when I watched it with my students as a prompt for a critical discussion about using video games as educational tools.

This book inspired me in a number of ways:

  1. To embrace my inner gamer
  2. To make connections between the 4 Defining Traits of a Game, and effectively implemented play/inquiry-based student-centered learning systems

The above Ad Campaign by uses negative stereotypes of other groups to help people re-think using ‘’That’s So Gay!” as an insult.  Gamer’s are often stereotyped as lacking ‘real’ social relationships.


I admit that my own stereotype of gamers was part of the the reason that (before reading this book) I wouldn’t have identified myself as a gamer.  A bigger part of the reason was that I didn’t think I was a ‘hard-core gamer’ and that I needed to be to identify as a gamer.  This I now realize was based my own lack of knowledge about gamer culture.

That being said I have always loved games.  I remember looking forward to the day that we would go to the library in Grade 4 to play Oregon Trail and going home to play Pac-Man and Space Invaders on our Atari 2600. I also loved the text-based fiction games by Infocom and still remember the first game I ever completed (with no saves and only 3 lives!) Bruce Lee for the Commodore 64.

But reading this book was more than just an opening to help me proudly identify as a gamer, it also helped me see why I love being a gamer and how it helps me build connections and relationships as an educator.

Gamers don’t want to game the system.  Gamers want to play the game. They want to explore and learn and improve.
– Jane McGonigal: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  


In Chapter 1 of McGongial’s book she explains that all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation.

She further explains that:

  • The goal provides the player with a sense of purpose – this is the why.
  • The rules, remove or limit obvious ways to achieve the goal which results in – the unleashing of creativity and strategic thinking
  • The feedback (in whatever shape or form it takes) serves as promise that the goal is achievable, and thus provides motivation to keep playing
  • The idea of voluntary participation means that everyone knowingly and willingly accepts the goal, rules and feedback, which establishes common ground for multiple players and the freedom to enter or leave the game means that the intentionally challenging work is experienced as safe and pleasurable.

As a lover of games, I can’t help but see the appeal. The articulation of these traits also explains why, as kid I turned everything into a game.  I used to think that this was because I was the oldest sister of 4 younger brothers, and that I enjoyed and played a lot of team sports, but I realize that this was the way I kept life interesting when things were too easy, too hard or just too mundane.

As much as I am not a coder (yet?) I realize that I have been a gamer and game designer for a long time, just usually in less digital contexts (in the schoolyard, in the gym, in the classroom).

This doesn’t mean that I gamified everything in a manipulative, extrinsic reward system way (I know I did that sometimes), but more in a layered way trying to help students see the purpose in a task and giving them rules or a framework that made them be creative and think.

I also tried hard to differentiate the task to make the goal achievable to the individual, while still making them an important part of a larger group. By modelling a growth-mindset I strived to motivate students to continue with the hard work and inspire those around them to do the same.

The voluntary participation is the tricky part, as students don’t volunteer to come to school, but by differentiating tasks and building rules and feedback with my learners the goal was a safe and pleasurable environment with challenging work they wanted to complete.

While my classroom wasn’t a video game like utopia, I feel like many of my successes came from applying the defining traits of a game, and I can’t help but see the connections to the positive reasoning behind student-centered, play/inquiry-based learning spaces and systems.

Teachers need to Play too!

While the connections to game traits and learning for students seems like an easy fit, applying it to my new role as a technology coach (a teacher of teachers) seems like less of a natural fit.  As much as we might be able to appreciate the role of play and game design in our classrooms, how do we feel about it when we are the learners?

As adults I wonder if we think that play/games are a waste of adult time.   If we go back to the four traits, however, it is hard to argue with the positives.  If we give ourselves permission to enjoy playful learning, supported through effective game-based design, what will we learn and model for our students?  What new connections and relationships will develop?  As I begin to bring some play and gaming into my work with teachers, I have already noticed a positive impact on engagement and attitude.

By embracing our inner-gamer (no matter how small or inexperienced) students will no longer feel negatively judged by teachers for loving games.  By taking away the ‘shame of the game’ you can unlock the potential to leverage those high-interests and abilities of your students for all kinds of school related learning.

Are you game?

Gamer Jen