In Real Life

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.