The high school that I teach at doesn't have the best reputation. We have low test scores and a grade of D from the state. Even though we have some award-winning teachers whose students do magnificent things, it feels like nobody every talks about the good stuff.
But if you were to visit my classroom, you would immediately notice that my students are intelligent and charming. They can be rowdy, but don't let that fool you. The trick—and I still struggle with this every day—is to be engaging enough to draw their attention away from the drama of being teenagers. Unfortunately, few of my lessons are that good, because I am old and boring (I'm turning 30 in June, and to a teenager, that is ancient).
My school's game club, however, always fills me with hope. One of our biggest issues school-wide is that many of our students are weak readers. Very few of my students read for pleasure, and most see reading and writing as agonizing punishments. I make my College Prep kids write a practice SAT essay every week, and they still grumble about it as though I am trying to tear off their fingernails.
Despite all of the reading/writing hate, two of our biggest hits at Game Club are Once Upon A Time and Gloom. That's right. Many of my students claim to hate books, but they LOVE storytelling games!
Once Upon a Time is a game in which the players tell a story together. Every player will have a starting hand of cards that contain various story elements, as well as one card with a secret individual ending. While you are narrating, you play your cards by incorporating them into the tale. If someone else is narrating and says a word that is printed on your card, you can interrupt and take over as storyteller. The ultimate goal is to play all of your cards and guide the tale towards your secret ending.
In our most recent round of OUaT, we slowly revealed the saga of a fairy who lived in a well, went too deep, and ended up reaching a sewer that contained the lost city of Pooplantis. (This is what happens when you play with teenage boys, and I wouldn't have it any other way.) The absolute joy my students take in asking leading questions, in trying to interrupt each other, and in making each other laugh is priceless. Even students who are normally a bit shy about playing games enjoy OUaT, because although there is a win condition, there isn't much competitive pressure. The game truly is about having a good time telling a story together.
Gloom is also a particular favorite with my students, especially the ones who like to feel a little bit wicked. The object of Gloom is to take control of a family—possible members include a creepy clown, evil twins, and a "disturbing handyman"—and play status cards that make your family as miserable as possible before they die horrible deaths. You can also annoy your fellow players by making their families happy and successful. As you play the cards, you read the flavor text and tell a story about what happened. Over the course of a game, you and your friends create a communal tale of despair, and it is hilarious.
What I love about Gloom is that my students know the text on the cards is going to be slightly transgressive. As a result, they will devour it, even if it contains words they aren't fully familiar with. The desire for new information drives them to take joy in reading. And both Gloom and OUaT help my students to connect with words and to pay attention to something other than a smartphone screen.
When I see these things happen, I wonder: Would it be possible to extend an experience like this to a full classroom of kids? What concepts could I take from games to help my students focus and actually retain some material? I haven't fully figured out the answer yet, but I do know this: My students respond so much better to play than they do to our current system of standardized testing and endless preparation for it. They are quicker to learn strategy when engaged with a game, even if it's complicated, because they are motivated. And once I have played a game with a student, our relationship changes for the better. I think it's because we've actually had fun together and connected as people. Shouldn't school be that way more of the time, and not just on Game Club afternoons?
P.S. If you would like to see footage of Once Upon a Time and Gloom in action, they have both been featured on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop. Just click the links to be taken to YouTube.