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.

WATCH MORE: Gaming News


    The teacher is always wanted to DM in DnD but his friends never thought him fit for the roll... so he took it down to the kids.

    Loved it. Want it. Shared it.

    XP for you teach plus achievement (feat of strength even)

    Nurf the Boys! They are OP!

    Wow. I lift my hat to you sir. After reading all the comments i saw the trend of people disagreeing with boy vs girl but then someone finally brought it up. At that age then genders naturally seperate. Boys hang out with boys and girls with girls. I get that the competition between genders can be harmful if not implemented correctly, but when mastered it becomes a powerful tool. I understand my own perspective is limited to my experience but boys need to compete against each other. It helps them discover their limits and solidify their gifts. I think we all need to take a step back and remember that its grade 6.

    Im also curious (and to throw a spanner in the works), of all the opinions raised, how many negative ones came from teachers? I didnt see any (i might have missed it) but i get quite sick of everyone telling teachers how to do their jobs. Did u spend four years doing an education degree on how kids learn? I don't like getting worked up but the fact is, when people put their two cents in, they fail to see the bigger picture.

    I think if you can work it into a 1 year prigram, you can reduce the risk of creating a void when they go to the next grade. I hope this doesn't cause too many arguments ^.^

    Also ben u may wish to refine your 'races' of the characters around the 8 learning styles (verbal, kinaesthetic etc); just an idea

    may i request your blessing to introduce this system to my english class students? :)

    Awesome! A few things that could be done differently IMO, such as the hot topic of the gender-based teams, but this has definitely inspired me as an education student!

    Imagine a whole school adopting this approach. If it is indeed suitable as a long-term system, that is... Must find that blog... Does it exist?? :)

    thank you for the wonderful details, i really needed some ideas on how to get my own version of classrealm started! :D +XP

    This is absolutely amazing! As the only child of a mother who's been teaching for 25 years, and a father who plans to take up teaching post retirement (that's 5 years from now), this is perfect!

    Great job sir, great job.

    This is fantastic. I can see this upping the "collective social value" for smart kids. I remember difficulties in school at that age in particular when the girl vs girl social scene got absolutely catty and brutal. Having this be gender competitive could help kids get better social standing who are otherwise unlikely to get it.

    Also, I think a potential improvement to this would be little medallion awards laser cut out of wood for particularly spectacular and difficult achievements.

    This also reminds me of girl/boy scout badges.

    Gaming is a completely valid aspect of life and can work very well in education.

    I would say that you don't need to, and should not run it all year. Do it for 4-6 weeks in the fall and 4-6 (or as long as the enthusiasm can be reasonably sustained) in the spring. This will give kids the chance go restart, to anticipate, do try strategy, etc. in my 15 years teaching experience, often the best things are set up and run for contained periods, and are not all the time. Anything will get repetitive and lose interest if it is done every day.

    Great idea and kudos for giving it a shot.

    Another vote against gender division - for many reasons mentioned above.

    If you could refine this into a more general platform with even implementation towards high school education, it will be so great, you've just became my idol, you've became the savior for mankind, revitalizing the hunger for knowledge.

    This reminds me vaguely of the Merits/Demerit system that went out of fashion in most schools (although I know of a few that still have it). Not sure if I like it or not - when I was in school Merits/Demerits were extremely frustrating/arbitrary and bothered me. But perhaps adding a little more fun and scrapping the Demerit aspect of the system is a step in the right direction.

    Hey, great experiment!

    I remembered reading this article one year ago and I was wondering if you managed to keep this going. I would love to read a "one year after" report - even if you didn't keep it going, why? Would you start again? etc.



    I am in my almost second year of doing a version of this with my third grade class. It works wonderfully. Managing the xp is the toughest part. My students track it on charts they keep in their desks. I also have whole class achievements that earns them points towards lunch bunch. I have ways in my mind to improve it all the time...beta testing for 2 years? Guess that'll lead to patches as the years go by!

    Can we get an update?
    I plan on going into student teaching this coming Spring semester and I am interested to see how this is panning out for you.
    I really like your plan and I have been adapting a secondary reinforcement method similar to it.

    Thanks for the great article. i really appreciate it. I have been making research on the internet for a very long time and now come up with something useful. it will be a great guide for my thesis here:

    This is so refreshing to see! I've heard of some great experiences using games in a classroom, but this one, by far, may be my favorite! I love how inspired your class seems and how eager they are to not only learn, but go beyond what is asked of them. Games are truly a powerful tool.

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