Taylor Nix may be a newcomer to teaching—he introduced himself as a n00b in my interview with him—but his approach of using gaming in the classroom is something many veteran teachers trying to reach apathetic students should take note of. Nix has taught for one year in the low-income area of Poplar, Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
On his blog, Nix wrote of a sophomore world history class he taught that was “plagued with utter apathy.” An experienced gamer in his spare time, he decided to liven up the class by inventing an adventure role-playing game.
“It worked a lot like a combination of D&D and Magic: The Gathering,” Nix said. Students would create their own characters, pick their names and class (think mage, warrior, healer, etc.) and even write their own backgrounds for their characters in fantastical lore. The class split into teams for a moderate amount of competition, but overall the idea was for the students to invest themselves into their characters, which as any gamer knows is the entire point of a successful RPG title.
Nix posted history assignments on a bulletin board on the back of his classroom every Tuesday which served as the game’s “quests.” Fans of RPG-giant game developer Blizzard may appreciate the exclamation points appearing over the board’s assignments. In RPG games, exclamation points above characters heads typically indicate a job being offered for money or other reward.
The students would complete the assignments and receive loot in addition to their letter grades. Each student had a folder for their inventory with spots for a helmet, chest plate, bracers, boots, pants and weapon, just like the inventory screen in a game like Diablo or Dragon Age. So if a student was lacking a helmet, they went to the quest board and found a quest which listed a shiny new helmet as a reward and completed the assignment.
Quests also gave students’ RPG avatars new skills, abilities and character stats. Nix limited his game’s stats to Attack and Defense but says he’s learned of other teachers who have taken the concept further by including additional stats like Charisma, Strength and Intelligence.
Though enjoying the game was the defining characteristic of the class, students still learned the material. In his blog, Nix wrote he was “the leader of a group of data-gathering soldiers bound and determined to gather and collect information about different civilizations throughout history.”
On the computer, Nix devised a Jeopardy-style arrangement of doors with questions behind each one. On the lesson plan on the Americas, he included questions about the Iroquois, Mayans, Aztecs and others. He likened these Jeopardy-style questions to multiplayer dungeon raids, as many questions featured historical figures which acted like “bosses” with increasing difficulty to conquer. I wonder how hard it was to take down Cortés or Montezuma.
The raids were conducted in teams and were the students’ favorite part of the game. “I overheard them making sure that all of their teammates were going to be in class,” Nix said. “They’d plan out which assignments they would do in order to get the gear that best benefitted them, which was actually preparation for a test.” This is fun-based educational deception. He tricked his students into learning by making a game out of world history and inserting a moderate amount of competition into the mix.
Nix concluded his blog post by saying that he “found a way to inspire and motivate kids to do quality work by using their own creativity and interests in a positive way. They show up to my class ready to succeed and more importantly ready to play.”
The students may have entered into fantastic RPG combat with historical figures depicted as monsters in a make-believe world, but Taylor Nix’s boss fight was with apathy itself.
“What it comes down to is that at my particular school, unless I come up with something fairly out of the box, I’m not going to reach my students in the way that I want to.” Nix told me. “I am going to figure out something creative and unique to have some fun with them.” He tackled students’ low motivation and behavioral issues and unwillingness to learn and gave them an outlet of expression.
Taylor Nix is scheduled to teach government and psychology next year and says he hasn’t yet come up with an idea of how to apply his game model to the new classes. He’s considering tweaking the history RPG game for his new batch of students. When the school year starts, we’ll get in touch with him and see what innovations he is bringing to the classroom.