How One Teacher Turned Sixth Grade Into An MMO

Editor's Note: Ben Bertoli is a long-time Kotaku reader and commenter, a lifetime, dedicated video gamer and a sixth-grade teacher in Indiana. He reached out to Kotaku this past week to share the story of how he turned his class into a role-playing game. The enthusiasm and motivation of the children in Bertoli's class evoke the success stories seen in gamified experiences such as Fitocracy. Here, Bertoli explains his creation, ClassRealm, how it works and what motivated him to develop it.

Video games and education. Two passions in my life that I tend to keep separate. I've been on the learning side of education for the last 16 years, but last fall I made the transition from student to teacher. I was dead set on bridging the gap between my life as a gamer and my life as a teacher before the school year even started. I plastered the walls of my classroom with posters of Link, set up Mario action figures across my desk and crafted 8-bit sprites all over my board. My sixth grade students loved that I was interested in video games — just like them! As sixth graders, most of the boys in my class were more focused on Call of Duty and Madden, they had no knowledge of the magic of platformers, RPGs, or adventures games.

I wouldn't be as well read as I am today if it wasn't for video games.

As I was describing my video-game-related teachings to my buddy Courtny, we began talking about incorporating gaming into education. Why not? I probably wouldn't be as well read as I am today if it wasn't for games like Pokémon Red and Blue. Games that relied on text. How else would I have known a large Pokémon was blocking Route 12? Video games are surprisingly helpful in school. They often promote reading, help students think through problems, and give players a sense of accomplishment to strive for. Courtny and I weren't the first to think of gamifying a classroom, but maybe we could come up with the best system to date.

I worked on my classroom system for a month before I had it completely devised. The system would have RPG elements and focus on various achievements. I made the achievements tiered so students would be able to earn the lower ones quickly and get a sense of how it felt to profit from their hard work and good deeds. The whole management process would be based on working hard, doing well on assignments and tests, and being kind to others. I dubbed the system ClassRealm and spent hours working out the kinks with Courtny, throwing ideas around, creating a basic website for parents, and building a simple bulletin board for my students.

Knowing I could get some supportive and insightful feedback I even ran the idea by my pals on Kotaku. Quite a few regular users posted their thoughts and helped me flesh out some of the details I hadn't thought through.

Originally I thought I'd try ClassRealm out on my students this coming fall, but soon realised it would be too much for me to deal with at the beginning of the school year. I needed a beta test for ClassRealm. I decided I would simply put the system in to effect at the start of my current student's third trimester. I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. I didn't tell my principal for fear he might dismiss the concept before I had a chance to test it out. Video game ideals in a classroom setting!? Ridiculous, right? Maybe not.

Monday arrived and as my students filed in they noticed the new bulletin board and the giant grid paper baring their names. Once everyone was settled I introduced the system and went over the rules of ClassRealm.

1. ClassRealm is completely voluntary. If you don't want to participate you don't have to.

2. XP is the backbone of ClassRealm. Every 10 XP you earn pushes you to the next level. Every one starts at level 1.

3. XP can be obtained by doing simple things such as:

• Answering questions

• Joining in class discussion

• Working hard on an assignment

• Helping others

• Participation in general

• Random Encounter Friday (explained below)

• Gaining achievements (explained below)

4. Achievements are gained by completing specific tasks. For example: a student can obtain the "Bookworm" achievement by reading two unassigned chapter books and explaining the plot and characters to me.

5. Each achievement has four levels — bronze, silver, gold, and master. Each level is harder to reach than the one below it.

6. Boys are pitted against girls. The gender that can acquire the most achievements by the end of the year will win extra recess and an ice cream party during lunch.

7. Each Friday will be Random Encounter Friday. Every one who wants to battle will put their name in a hat. I will draw out two names and they will battle. Students will be asked a question. I will repeat the question twice and then start battle music. The first to write the correct answer on the board and put their hands up will win XP. You can only answer once. Question subjects are chosen at random.

8. Students may join in alliances of up to six ClassRealm citizens. The alliance with the highest combined level at the end of the year wins a pizza party.

9. All info, except for the current amount of XP each student has, will be listed online and in the classroom for students and parents to see.

Many students were thrilled right off the bat. It was mainly my group of athletic boys, who are constantly driven by competition to do well. The fantasy/sci-fi aspects of ClassRealm drew in other students as well. It didn't matter why they cared. I just wanted them to care.

To get an achievement, children had to write an unassigned essay. 20 were turned in during the first week. I could hardly get my students to free write when it was mandatory.

I gave each student a half sheet of paper with some sections to fill in. To give ClassRealm an added (albeit pointless) feel of fantasy and role-playing I had each student create a character. I gave them a list of fantasy and sci-fi races, as well as a handful of "enhancers" to make their characters. Although the majority of my students picked ridiculous combinations they certainly enjoyed it, and that's what was important. Samurai yetis. Ninja werewolves. Mermaid princesses. It's all good in ClassRealm. Students used the sheet to keep track of their current level and as a form of ID to show their friends and parents. At the end of the day do you really want to be Billy — the normal boy? No, you want to be Molkor — the level three mountain goblin.

Participation skyrocketed on the first day. I had students I never heard from volunteering to answer questions they didn't even know the answer to. Students who normally wouldn't even care were going out of their way to get XP from class participation. Every one of my students pushed themselves to focus during the day's assignments and behave. One student, who earned a bronze level achievement, was even applauded by the entire class. It blew my mind. The amount of XP I was going to give out was undetermined, so I just let them come naturally. Share your maths answer with the class? XP for you. Let a classmate borrow your dry erase marker? XP for you!

Tuesday rolled around and I was sure my student's enthusiasm would falter, but it was surprisingly stronger than ever. In fact the first student through the door literally ran to the achievement explanation list and yelled, "I've got to get some achievements today! How can I get some?"

The "Newberry" achievement, based on the Newberry Medal, can be earned by writing unassigned five paragraph essays. It is by far the most popular achievement. I had 20 essays turned in to me in the first week. 20 unassigned essays written during my students' free time. 20. I could hardly get my students to free write when it was mandatory and now they are churning out paragraphs like their lives depend on it. It's unbelievable.

Random Encounter Friday (or REF as one student suggested I called it) was also a big hit. I used the wild Pokémon encounter music from the original Pokémon games to set off the battles. Spelling and maths questions worked the best and I could tell the class was excited by the whole concept. Four XP were awarded to the victor, while the defeated student still got one for competing. The students who weren't picked to battle were devastated, but hopeful they would be chosen for next week's battles.

I hope my students also experience the joy and accomplishment that I feel playing video games every day.

Keeping track of every student's XP and achievements was a bit of a pain, but I knew there would have to be some dedication on my part to keep ClassRealm running smoothly. More than once students had to remind me to fill in their achievement on the bulletin board, but I was on top of it for the most part. As the trimester drags on I'll have to tweak my XP recording system. It is a beta test after all.

Though a week really isn't a long enough time to judge whether a classroom management system will work in the long run, it's still amazing to see such excitement and hard work spawn from such a simple idea. Video games have always been a big part of my life. I knew when I went to college it would be for video games or for education, but I guess it was both in the end.

I suppose you could say this system has nothing to do with video games and everything to do with role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, but I don't play those games. This idea is the result of years of video games fixation. I just hope the students in my class get the same feeling of joy and accomplishment that I feel playing video games every day.

I hope that feeling is there at the end of the year and not just in the initial week. Only time will tell, but it's a journey I'm more than willing to take. For now, I'm off — to ClassRealm.


Comments

    This is complete WIN!

      Good thing he didn't use Paladium Rifts OCC's. LOL. Congrats on getting kids motivated in reality using fantasy scheme.

      QuizmasterB: Your workplace and most others are all based on the old RPG "Paranoia" http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/56/Paranoia_25th_Anniversary_Troubleshooters_Edition.png

        I'm a teacher in training and this is the best piece of motivational news I've heard! I'm surprised that even grade 6 students love the rewards or 'token economy', and how they constantly talk about MW3 (poor girls - they don't know what they're missing out on LOL).
        I think it will work in the long run if the teacher continues to have faith in their system and keep up with the points which from experience I know is a tedious process.

        XP for you, teacher!

    This. Is. Awesome.

    I want to go back to grade 6 now.

    I wonder how I could Game-ify my workplace...

    What a terrific story, I wish I'd had you for my teacher all those years ago.

    Please please keep us updated!!

    Amazing, just emailed this to my fiancé who herself is a primary school teacher. She is quite interested.

      I am in teacher's college, and reading this article while a class is going on around me. This was a better use of my time. I'll tweak it for my own class, whenever I get one.

    Im going to be sending this story to all my teacher friends.

    Did anyone else shudder at the mention of someone named 'Courtny'? I did, for obvious reasons. Are vowels really so difficult, America? Are they?

      This is a great idea and a great article, by the way. Ridiculous names notwithstanding. I shall definitely be bringing this up at my next education tutorial.

        That's really the first thing you decide to comment on? This man inspires his students to learn, participate, and help classmates and you focus on how someone's parents spelled their name. I shake my head at you. For shame

          I'm pretty sure, given her own name, she commented because her name has been spelled incorrectly many times throughout her life.

    This is awesome.
    However, 6th graders are 10-12 years old. Why do they have COD?

      10-12 year olds make up majority of COD's customer base.

      You'd be surprised, I know I was, when even on this site I saw one instance of a 13 year old saying that she was being excluded from her peers at school because she didn't play CoD like the rest. You wouldn't expect that a 13 year old female would be in CoD's market, but there you go.

        Yeah and disowned for liking games that are more suited to someone of that age bracket & that also require brain power. It was rather sad. I mean I didn't know you copped shit in school for liking Nintendo consoles instead of Microsofts xbox 360..

    Smegging brilliant old-chap. What an incredible success!

    Amazing article. This concept could easily provide the motivation required for students to learn more at school. Really love the idea.

    Xp will be an no-win, I think - too fast, xp doesn't matter. Too slow, kids loose interest.

    Sounds like a pretty pro idea, though - 20 essays is impressive. While I worry about longevity and the students developing an attitude of "But I won't get xp..", the amount of practice these kids are going to get is staggering. If this can be set up to cover the entire school year, the education system as a whole would only be a small step away, and that would turn education around pretty far, I think.

    This sounds like such an incredible idea! I can easily imagine students really getting involved with this.
    Will you be able to write follow-up notes in say a month / 3 months? I'm very interested to know if the students kept up with it all.

    Can only repeat what someone else said. This is awesome!

    Wow, fantastic work!

    I have a few friends that are high school teachers that have been toying with gamification ideas for a while. I'm sure they'll love the practical examples.

    Keep us updated on how it goes!

    You sir are a genius . Best Idea ever.

    Next step. . . push this into the mandatory school education system.

      Unfortunately, what works in his classroom may not work in all others. Notice, he has a passion for gaming and because he was excited about gaming and his particular students could relate to gaming, they embraced his concept and succeeded. From my years of teaching, I have noticed what seems to work best is if you have teachers find something that they are passionate about that the students can also relate to as a way to inspire.

      That being said, I think that points and rewards work for most students and to be able to tie it in with anything they are interested in will create excitement.

    I love the idea of gamifying education (although I still hate the word). I am a little disappointed he went with a competitive rather than a cooperative method. Boys vs Girls is not a good ideal to instill and the competitive nature itself will cause people to fall behind if they realise that there group will never win.

    Setting up temporary groups that change is fine to instill a competitive spirit but term/semester/year long alliances won't be as effective. If you focus on cooperative spirit you may find people helping each other without requiring a reward or achievement. But as it stands, a competitive system will only foster cooperation if it is mutually beneficial.

      I absolutely agree. The last thing kids need is more competition

        I disagree, actually.

        There is real value in competition. There is also real value in losing. One of the things I think we're failing to teach kids these days is how to handle not always coming out on top - how to be a graceful loser, how not to let losing get you down for long and how to turn that loss into motivation to do better. Life is full of moments when you lose, big and small. We're only setting kids up for failure in the long term if we teach them that losing is something that is so utterly, terribly horrible that we have to rejigger our entire society to stop it from happening to them.

          There absolutely is real value in competition. However as a teaching mechanism it shouldn't be the sole aim at educating. ClassRealm as it stands suceeds purely on competition, outdoing classmates by getting more achievements and a higher level. Education should be firstly a cooperative space.

          When the day to day goal is to get students to engage with learning, you do not want to them to engage to outdo one another. You want it to be cooperative so students can participate as a group and learn to be a more effective team player.

          Sports and contests excel in instilling competitive spirit because it relies on 2-3 hours of hard focused play. Competitive spirit on a day to day level is beneficial for students learning skills that will get them a job. That is essentially what an education is for.

          How have we rejiggered our entire society to stop people from ever losing?

          To Ben, bookbuster, teachers, preservice teachers and anyone else who may be interested.
          I am also a middle level educator, and while I can see how students might find this awesome, I struggle with the implementation and wonder about the effectiveness. I am curious to hear how effective it was towards the end of the year, was it sustainable?
          I would like to suggest a book, Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed, by Debbie Silver. It will certainly challenge the basis of ClassRealm, as it has challenged some of my thinking about education and motivating students, but I really do think the ideas Debbie presents will help us help our students succeed and feel good about their successes.

            Many schools are adopting rules that say sports played in gym class have no winner, everyone wins for participating. Some are going so far as to not allow failing grades, opting to push every kid through regardless of what they actually earned. Mine used the Zeros Aren't Permitted (ZAP) program, which had you spend your lunch periods redoing any assignment you got a zero on, no matter what the reason, and then gave you the full percentage of what you got. So if you didn't do a 10 point assignment, you'd spend lunch the next day doing it and get 10/10 if you go everything right. Absolutely no loss there.

          I agree that competition is important, but how about randomly assigned teams?
          Reinforcing gender differences is probably not the best way to do things >.

        Competition is what life in general is based on. As a student I remember back to ranked tables in maths and science and I think they were the ones I tried hardest in to lift my rank. "Cooperative method", does that mean group work? If so that doesn't work in a school like it does in a workplace because I always found I cared more than other students did about a particular project. School is an environment where kids often don't want to be but are forced to, with work you aren't forced to be there and poor performance will see you sacked. Competition is part of life and kids by their nature are competitive, we should embrace it.

        Competition is the driving force of all life. What are you talking about? Although I do agree with your main point, they should be thought to cooperate as well.

        This. In case you thought everyone would disagree with you.
        It's not that they shouldn't be competing, it's that they shouldn't always be competing against the same people, and they really shouldn't be competing based on genitalia. There's enough of that tendency in kids, especially at that age. You want to challenge them, not just to learn academics, but to see the value in all their peers, especially the ones they've previously discounted.
        This could be a way, that's not the painful hateful group assignments, to break up cliques temporarily., to shuffle the class around, in a way they won't resent.

      I totally agree. I thought this sounded really cool until you got to random battles and boys vs. girls. I guess I'm just not a competitive person and being forced to compete on a team really bugs me. I can actually feel my inner teenager rolling her eyes and sighing. Though I do think it is nice that you've provided non competitive ways for students to get ahead.

      One thing I do appreciate is giving students credit for putting in effort, not just for getting good grades on a test. As a clever person I was never really rewarded for my effort, just the results, and as a result I tend to give up when the going gets tough. It might be a good idea to think about how you can make sure you're rewarding people for trying.

        I think the competition is good (at first I didn't, but once I thought about it, it made sense). In primary school, the girls are generally more motivated than the boys and generally do better (just in my experience). However, boys are highly competitive. How better to get them more motivated than to turn it into a competition against the people who naturally do well, the girls!

      We have a bad enough 'male vs. female' culture as it is. No need to make it worse. Boys vs. girls is as ridiculous as black kids vs. white kids. Would people stand for that?

    This is great - but why set the boys against girls? It just increases an us-and-them mentality which leads to prejudice and discrimination.

    If you have to have two teams to go against each other, how about summer-born and winter-born? Or make it more interesting by having more teams of fewer students.

      I agree. Cool concept expect for that aspect.

        The gendered aspect of it did give me pause. This was exacerbated, I think, by the way Ben led into the article, which made itsound like his class was actully single-gender.

      WHAT ABOUT THE DRAGON-BORN!?

        The boy vs. girl thing got me too. Girl gamers have enough stigma without being pitted against boys in the classroom, too.

        Other than that, this kind of classroom system is something I would have loved as a kid!

        he/she can cop a math question in the knee, just like everybody else.

      Please. Us vs Them is culturally ingrained in us LONG before we even get to school. Pitting boys against girls is simply taking advantage of natural psychology and it doesn't hurt a damned thing. Quit your wining yuppie.

        I agree the competitive aspect is useful, but instead of males vs. females, it might be a positive move to mix kids from different social groups (e.g., athletes, gamers, creative types, etc.) into assigned teams (or houses or families - whatever the term) to unify them in teams and drive competition. They could even design their own logo/badge/shield for their team and display it as a flag in the classroom or on the website, etc.

        Just because mom and dad fight at home doesn't meant that behavior should be reinforced in school. Nor does it mean that that psychology is natural.

        kinda proving his point for him, there Johnson

      just realised you kinda said what I said first Nick, wasn't intending to repeat. Fully agree, we have an us-and-them culture already.

    I actually had an idea similar to this a while ago but it involved more of a virtual world (most likely browser based) they would be able to walk around even while not at school.

    Maybe submit their homework while online, pick up extra homework for more exp, random puzzle games that involve math/spelling/memory.

    But of course I have no skills at all in scripting so that is where my idea stops. lol

    I wonder about reward based education; xp, lollies, stars, etc. I think it should matter why a student cares about completing a task, it is not enough for them to just care about doing it. An interesting approach to teaching though. Careful on the ethics in both your beta testing/human research of your system, and in what the children are actually learning from this system. Should you face any issues with your department, I would perhaps argue that it only differs in theme from many other reward based approaches. There would also be an argument from many people that encouraging fantasy, role play, or even videogames is a negative thing (silly buggers). Goodluck, it will be interesting to see how this turns out.

    sounds like you understand how to be a DM perhaps try a system like grapevine or even try something with excell to keep track?

    Coolest thing I've read all month.

    ClassRealm would definitely benefit from some co-op.

    Also, regarding the reward system, can anyone honestly fault this idea if its got students writing essays in their own time?? Rewards are a part of life. Everyone knows that if you work hard you're more likely to get a bonus at the end of the year.

    And how different is a reward system from mid and end of year reports? Work hard, and you are rewarded with good grades. Don't most parents offer their kids some kind of reward for getting good grades? I'd hope so, or else whats the point? What's the point of working hard if its all for nothing?

      Learning for learning's sake vs learning for lollies' sake.

        Because all 10-13 year old children have a firm grasp on this philosophy and would naturally immediately think that they should learn for learning's sake. In fact, I fail to see why they don't come to that conclusion for standard, non "gamified", classes. We need to teach the teachers and parents that offering rewards for accomplishments are a negative aspect of education, because then the students will only strive to accomplish anything if they are motivated by a reward...

        Ridiculous...

        @Ben: This is a good idea. While competition surely has its merits, cooperation is just as important in the professional world. Leaders and managers want employees that are driven, yes, but also able to work with colleagues to attain innovation/creative solutions to dynamic problems. I suggest integrating a team based aspect, as others have stated, while still focusing on overall achievement. Maybe weight each students successes on a curve to encourage them to seek different opportunities to gain XP. As a student, I was able to use repetitive assignments to my advantage, making each one progressively easier, while putting in less and less effort. In most games, it becomes more of a challenge to progress.

        Also, back to the topic of teams; You should grade each student on their own achievements but provide unique XP opportunities to groups. That way, you encourage the students to form groups on their own, often seeking out different members with differing strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps implement a further reward for having groups overcome their weaknesses and for building each other up.

        Finally, I should like to mention that in games there is often a penalty for failure. The problem with education, even at that level, is that failure often dissuades further attempts. I believe you see this, and so you still award XP for participation in your Random Encounter Fridays. In a certain way, failure can be an excellent motivator in its own right. Perhaps like Guild Wars' Death Penalty for a failed test or assignment. In exchange for poor performance, apply a 10%-15% reduction on XP or some other stat, with a maximum penalty of about 60%. Each successful assignment with erase 1%, while a high test score could reduce 2%-3%. It would involve more tracking, but I think the result would be a more polished system.

          I love the naivety here ... like we dont all live in capitalist countries, no one does something for nothing, life is always about risk and reward, return on investment, cause and effect. .... the team work at work things is a load of crap. People don't care about people working together they care about winning and results. No one likes a loser. Stop living in a fantasy world where you believe real life works this way because it doesn't no matter how much people promote this false truth. It simply isn't true. The master slave relationship is stronger than ever and the cooperative mantra that everyone talks about is borderline non-existent the only time people cooperate is when it's mutually beneficial or they have no choice because it's their job and they are getting paid to do it. Any notion that contradict this is complete hog wash.

            They do care about team work, because most jobs can't be accomplished in a timely manner by a single individual. They may not completely care about the others, but they care about getting the job done so they can get payed. Another reason people work together is it eases each individuals burden. It's often selfish reasons like these, but teamwork nonetheless is important in almost all career fields, because we can't do as much as an individual as we can as a group.

    That is amazing. Would absolutely love to have been in a classroom like that.

    I'd like to caution you against dividing classes along gender lines. Some kids just don't fit neatly in to a box and can be quite hurt by these sorts of divisions. http://togetherforjacksoncountykids.tumblr.com/post/14314184651/one-teachers-approach-to-preventing-gender-bullying-in

    Sounds like a really fun idea though and I hope it keeps working out well. :)

      I have to agree with this, speaking as someone who is intersexed. But the rest of it is awesome.

      I have to say, I absolutely LOVE your idea Mr. Bertoli! It really is fantastic. However I agree that you should be wary of grouping them by their gender.. I think (now, I am no teacher at all so forgive me if I am misinterpreting anything) 6th grade and middle school is a good time to have students interacting with others of genders not their own. There are other possibilities where it may slightly not be as fiar, for instance it is possible that the gender ratio in your classroom is skewed, or it may be that the options for more math related XP are more common than writing ones, which may effect points earned by gender. As well, when given the opportunity to do so, most kids at that age (and even through adulthood) are more likely to make groups with those of their own genders (or backgrounds, etc). Maybe your teams could be randomly assigned, integrating all students and allowing them to get to know or interact with new and different peers. I also like the idea mentioned above regarding opportunities for extra XP when groups are formed out of the main ones.

      I think this is a GREAT idea, I wish it would have been around when I was this age. Please continue to let us know how you do!

        I agree with what the others have been saying. 2 things I can think of to help this would be, instead of gender roles, give each student a number at random and then divide it by odds and evens. Then you would only have 1 extra on one side at worst and it would mix the two genders together. The other suggestion would be to see if you could have a personality quiz made and assign primary classes based on results, those who like athletics are warriors, those who like science are alchemists ect., and they can still choose a secondary class that they want. Using the primary class you could have it so that they can't have more than 2 people per team of 6 with the same primary class, preventing them from forming super groups of all nerds or all athletes, but a mix of everything in between. All you would have to do is give them the personality test before you begin ClassRealm and the next day explain that the primary class is just based on what they said they like to do, and is meant to help them form more balanced teams. Then you could have mini contests that would require every type of primary class spread throughout the year, and unless there's a problem in the group, or they agree with another group for a trade, they are staying in the same group. Finally, aside from averaging the groups level, like i've seen others say, you could have a clan level for the individual groups where it is raised by doing group assignments.

      Jenna Fox. You aren't perhaps the Jenna Fox that would talk about the Quad Squad at high school, and once gave an announcement one morning about loving people "the non-gay way?"

    Alternatively, the Newbery Achievement; awarded for writing literary tear jerkers where someone dies...

      which is a trend if you win the actual medal.

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