Blog Post

Videogame University--what would it look like?

This is reblogged, with modifications, from my personal blog of academic fantasies:

I was watching a friend play a videogame the other day, and I was struck by how hard he worked at cracking a particular level--he went back and played it again and again, very focused. And I thought to myself, that's exactly what I want my students to do. (I'm teaching a first year writing class right now that has a strong emphasis on process and revision.) I want my students to go back and puzzle over the material and change their strategies. How can we bottle that?

So, in the spirit of #FutureEd, this is my attempt to imagine a university that uses the lessons of videogames, particularly the big cooperative world-building games like Minecraft, Myst, etc.

In her MOOC, Cathy Davidson discusses how we tend to carry over old teaching methods rather than adapting to our changing world, which is particularly evident in (some) online courses. With all the hours people invest in virtual gaming and creative building, with all the writing and cooperative learning that happens on group message boards, why are so many of our online courses a talking head speaking to a camera, or some readings plus a few essay assignments? Where does conversation go in the online course?


Beginning the Game: Your subscription to Videogame University is paid for this semester, and you can start playing!

The first levels, which are largely automated, take you through the process of creating your avatar, building your house, and meeting your neighbors. Your house is pretty empty right now; you’ll earn decorations as you take more “courses.”

The game takes you through the process of setting your learning objectives, which are displayed prominently in your house. You decide you want to earn a B.A., but you’re not sure whether you want to major in Psychology, Poli Sci, or English.

Like many videogame worlds, you interact in real-time with other players through their avatars. To start, you’ve been randomly placed in a community with 20 other “freshmen.” You chat and get to know them and look through their houses. If everyone in the community makes good progress towards their learning goals, the community as a whole gains extra awards, so there’s an incentive to make sure everyone’s playing regularly and getting help if they need it.

Reward Unlocked: 101-Level Portals Open!

Your 101-Level Classes: You travel through portals to bustling towns; the equivalent of courses in different disciplines. In the towns, you wander where you wish, finding interactive puzzles and games in each building which introduce you to the conceptual frameworks of different disciplines.

In your Psych course, you interact with NPCs who are acting out the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and answering some simple questions unlocks a few videos of psych experiments. In your Political Science course, your avatar is swept into a lesson on Marx as you solve puzzles about the means of production. In your English class, you begin an interactive journey where you learn about different theories of critical reading and then apply them to texts.

Reward Unlocked: Group Message Boards Open!

In the Group Message Boards, you can get immediate help on any puzzle that’s got your stumped, read walkthroughs and tip sheets created by other students, and generally experience a heightened level of peer-to-peer learning. All Group Message Boards are moderated by Sages.

The Sages: You encounter many people on your wanderings. While some of the first puzzles are automated by the game, as you gain more and more experience, you will increasingly need Sages to complete your tasks. Sages, in real life, are professors and PhD students with a deep knowledge of the subject and administrator privileges, and thousands of them roam through the game, holding impromptu classes, answering questions, and pushing students to think about their topics.

In the English town, you meet a Sage who you like, whose schedule is compatible with when you usually play the game. She tells you that you can unlock English 202 if you write her an essay about Jane Eyre using one of the critical perspectives you’ve learned about in the game. In real life, you read Jane Eyre, regularly meeting with your Sage and her small group of followers to discuss and analyze the novel. You write your essay, which is read by your Sage and the rest of the “class.” (It’s fairly common that particularly rich videogame worlds lead to reading and writing outside of the game.) You revise your essay based on their comments, and…

Reward Unlocked: English 202 open!


What do you think? Is this something that you'd like to play, or would it ultimately still be too isolating? Would the design challenges be insurmountable, or could you imagine virtual puzzles and games working for the introductory material of your disciplines? Are games like this already in existence, and if so, what are they?



Whether through MOOCs, time online, or time in a library, on a job, or a team or a cooking dinner, people learn in many, many ways, including through games. Colleges and universities once recognized this kind of learning - often in churches, on farms, or in the military - and awarded degrees based on what people knew rather than how many hours they spent in chairs in lectures. Some - few - colleges are moving back to those roots, just as many schools and some colleges are re-discovering just-in-time learning that empowers learners to do better in more and more ways and fields. Choosing a game for institutional pleasure is more than a little self-serving. More to the point is for colleges to recognize what students know and award credits, regardless of where or with whom they learned it.


This is amazing! I'm a 24 year old student with School Craft College, I'm also enrolled in the MOOC and well aware of how boring the class room could be. I personally am not a fan of online courses, well the TRADITIONAL online courses that is. I love this concept and the creativity behind it. Not only is it creative , but extreamly well planned and intellegent. Students now pick and choose assignments according to the time they have to work around it. According to my School Craft Professor Steven L. Berg he states in his Blog Posting But It's Only Worth 10 Points, "many students have begun to calculate the cost-benefit ratio for doing homework based on the number of points they will earn and not on the type of knowledge they will learn.  For them, earning 10 points is not worth the effort of locating a journal article in the library databases."

In this type on educational gaming, there is no skipping assigments, i mean unless you dont want to get to a new level that is. You state in your blog " I was struck by how hard he worked at cracking a particular level--he went back and played it again and again, very focused." This is EXACTLY what this generation needs to use towards learning and #FutureEd. Its the future for a reason, we arent living in stone age. Back then writing and drawing in caves and on walls was very impressive and seriously taken work. We have technology!!! This is one benefit we have in the 20th century and it has barely made its full use. Education is what it needs to be used for. Not for teenagers to abuse it and most of all not for parents to be afraid of it. Just like the internet, many things in this world have risk factures, even most medication. If medication can heal a sick individual, why can't the internet heal education? 

Teenagers have this URGE for competition, to win, to be the best they can be. Yet this world can be so judgmental , for most its hard to come out of that shell. So your concept of having them socialize and compete with others from the comfort of their own home, to strive to be the best at what they are good at and used to. This is GENIUS! You can count me in for enrollment! I cant wait to see this actually happen. Super cool! 


Suzane M. Hakim


Beth, I love your vision. Your fantasy is similar to one of my own- I'm botanist and in true plant geek style, envision my course as a botanical garden where people walk up to a certain plant and open a game world that explores whatever aspect of biology is tagged to that item.
I know lots of others have the vision too, and am getting itchy to get started making it happen. But I need others to come on the journey too. Want to join?


Suzane, thanks for your enthusiasm, and Joe, thank you for your useful reminders about the important things here! Kristina, I'd love to join in a project like that. I can absolutely see botany beginning with the space of the botanical garden--probably where botany got its start!

It's interesting to think about how different disciplines might imagine their spaces. Somehow I have always envisioned literary theory as a series of meandering tunnels underground... I don't know what that says about literary theory.


Not to be the only negative view here (I love the concept and would happily test out something like this), but I do want to talk a little about how feasible it is. 
The concept has certain possibilities within MOOC culture, but the vast majority of that work is not available as for credit. If we do want students to be able to use their learning in a way that has social capital behind, we still need to integrate it into credit-bearing structures (at least at this point in higher education where degrees are tied fundamentally to employment opportunities, whether we like it or not). 
If we were to try to move this into traditional university structures, it would likely become accommodated to the system (something like a 2 week introductory exploration phase where students get to take short classes). This would unnecessarily limit the concept and truncate exploration, once again pushing students into a single time period of work while also limiting their real ability to explore.
Further, I’m also curious about students’ response to this kind of instruction. Do they see it primarily at traditional classes? Do they still approach it with a goal only of meeting the expectations of the teacher? My experience in MOOCs suggests otherwise, but I’ve also seen people use these structures as little more than a minimum effort environment (one where they can coast easily). Only a limited number of students seem to display true engagement in these open courses, which might suggest that it isn’t serving particular populations well.
The biggest positive I see in your description is the focus on social simulations (environments where students can test theories in situated manners) and exploration (there’s a great recent article by Michael Callaghan on how he used similar means in an introductory Electrical Engineering Course). But I still begin to wonder about that last move to the paper on Jane Eyre. How do we get students to see that we’re not just trying to “trick them” into work? How do we get them to see this serious and hard work as integral? How do we get them engaged in the exploration involved in writing such a paper?
And finally, I’ve got to open the big can of worms: who is this system going to serve? How can we make it engaging and effective for students who are typically underserved by the current structures? Is it going to be accessible for nontraditional students? For students from impoverished backgrounds? For students without strong gaming literacies?
I say all of this as someone who encourages similar structures in my own course, as someone who teaches first year composition through an inquiry-based, social, and gaming pedagogy. But I see your post as a great way to open further discussion. Sorry to unload all of my thoughts and concerns haphazardly. And thanks for sharing your concept.