A Deck of Lenses - A Peerless Tool To Improve Game and Lesson Design

A Deck of Lenses for Learning - by Tim Handley

Given that the products of game design - games and game mechanics - are so useful to classroom curricula, why not go a step further, and use the processes of game design in the process of curriculum design? That is, why don’t we go about designing classes in the same way we go about designing games? The end result couldn’t help but be a usefully gamified learning environment.

When teaching game design, one of my favorite tools is Jesse Schell’s, Deck of Lenses (available as physical cards in a box, or for free as an app). Each card in the Deck of Lenses has a list of questions, and those questions offer a way of looking at an experience. This is important because both games and classes are experiences. This fall, I plan to take this tool for game design, and apply it to my classroom design.

Take Lens #76, The Hero’s Journey. The first question says, “Does my story have elements that qualify it as a heroic story?” As context, think about all the heroic stories that involve learning.

  • In the Harry Potter books, Harry has to dig into Voldemort’s past in order to figure out where Voldemort would have hidden his horcruxes - the keys to Voldemort’s apparent immortality. Harry needs this historical knowledge in order to move forward on his journey to defeat Voldemort.

  • In the original Star Wars trilogy, Luke seeks out Yoda for training, because he needs the skills of a Jedi to move forward on his journey to defeat the Empire. A similar thing happens in The Force Awakens, where Rey seeks out Luke for training.

So, does my classroom represent a step on the hero’s journey for my students? This question brings up issues of relevance and agency, and suggests ways to bring more relevance and agency into my classroom.

  • When heroes fail, it hurts. Maybe they get scarred, but there is always room for redemption. Could I implement some sort of test or assignment revision policy so that students can better recover from mistakes?

  • The hero’s journey is a journey, not a side-quest. Could I do something to create a stronger sense of progression in the classroom? Points? Levels? Badges? This fall, for my middle school algebra class, I plan to give my students a repeated assessment, and plot their scores on a timeline as a reminder that they really are progressing.

  • Heroes are transformed by their adventures. Could I add some transformational moments to my class? As an off-the-wall idea, I’ve been thinking about adding a fictitious student to my classroom sometime mid-year. Being a late arrival and an agoraphobe, he’d be behind in his studies, and unable to attend class in person. I could frame this event as a transformative moment, “You are now experts on first term material, which means you have the power to teach!” I would then ask my students to become student/teachers (multiclassing) and begin creating tutorial materials for this friendly figment - notes, feedback on homework and projects, etc.

The rest of the cards in the Deck of Lenses are similarly interesting, asking usefully reflective questions that also suggest strategies for improvement. I think that we, as multiclassed designer / educators, can get a lot of mileage out of this tool.


Gamification Level 0: Getting Started

Gamification and game-based learning are two terms that are often used interchangeably, but that actually refer to different educational strategies.  

Game-based learning:  using games in the classroom

Examples:  playing a Kahoot review game, playing Pandemic to model the spread of disease

Gamification:  using game mechanics to serve your learning objectives

Examples:  a tutorial quest designed to introduce students to class expectations and procedures, a chemistry unit where students play as a group of modern scientists and work together to defeat the evil Alchemist by using their stoichiometry skills


Both are valuable strategies for educators, but this series of posts will focus on gamification.  (For more on game-based learning check out the Game section of Game, Level, Learn.)


So...Where Do We Start?

Here are some suggestions to get you started on your gamification adventure.


  • Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

A great introduction to gamification.  McGonigal introduces us to the power of games and gaming communities and shares how we might use games in a variety of endeavours.

A learning guide to using gamification in education - fun and practical!

Play all the games!!  (Ok, play some games.)

Need some specific suggestions?  Check out this podcast where Jon and I discuss our top ten games for educators!

  • Board games

Try to play a variety of games that have different game mechanics:

Using the value of cards in a simple starting deck, players buy more advanced cards to level up their deck.  Collection, customization and replayability make Dominion a great intro deck builder.

As a Lord of Waterdeep you must use your agents to assemble teams of adventurers.  Your teams complete quests that result in treasure and power as you try to gain more control of the city.  In order to accomplish game objectives you have to place “workers” at various locations on the board.  Often, there is a limit to the number of workers that can occupy a location simultaneously.  

Hidden movement games usually pit one player against another player or against a team of players.  One player moves around the board secretly while the others try to determine her location.  A colleague and I recently used this mechanism to design a quick educational game about Ebola!

  • Pattern recognition (Example:  Zendo)

The scientific method made easily accessible.  Zendo asks players to determine a universal rule by building structures out of different colored plastic pyramids.  A rule master identifies whether each structure obeys the universal rule.  Pattern recognition is an important skill for learning, especially in the sciences; Zendo lets students explore the skill and may inspire teachers to create their own content-specific version.

To be fair, 7 Wonders is more than just a tableau builder.  But it was the first game that I played that had the tableau mechanism and it’s still one of my favorites.  Each player controls an ancient wonder (Giza, Rhodes, Alexandria, etc.) and uses cards to build a tableau that represents their empire.  Is your empire focused on its military or on scientific endeavours?  There are about a million ways to earn victory points and a lot of tough decisions to be made.  It can be tricky to get the hang of 7 Wonders; play this one more than once!

The list goes on and on.  The more mechanics you have experience with, the more tools you will have for classroom use.

  • MMO

Massively Multiplayer Online!  (If you’re unfamiliar, think:  World of Warcraft.)  There are a lot of different MMOs out there and a number of them are free to play.  Pick something that appeals to you and play long enough to level up a few times.  At their heart, MMOs are rich learning communities that encourage players to work together to accomplish challenging, complicated goals.  There is an enormous amount of new information to learn and new skills to practice as you level up your character, but it never feels unmanageable or boring.  Dungeons and Dragons Online (DDO) has a good amount of free content.  Send me an email; I’d be happy to show you around!

  • Role Playing

Don’t get me wrong, Dungeons and Dragons is great, but there are a lot of role playing game options out there.  Playing in a campaign is rewarding and fun, but also time consuming.  Hit up a role playing night at a local game shop or library!   Or try a shorter, lighter version like Fiasco if you can’t commit to regular play.  My first experience with Fiasco found our group role-playing teenagers at High School High.  Shenanigans quickly ensued as we attempted to resolve the crazy situations and relationships that we found ourselves in!


I did my first escape room in 2015.  We were trapped in a mad scientist’s lab and had 60 minutes to find the secret code to unlock the door.  Though filled with wickedly clever puzzles and riddles, at their core, escape rooms challenge players to cooperate.  There is much to do in 60 minutes so everyone has to contribute.  Poor communication is a recipe for failure, but a team of people listening to each other and working together has an excellent chance to succeed.






Bring Some Moguls To Your Teaching Practice

A few weeks ago, a colleague (high school Science teacher) sent me the following thought by email: "I'm watching the middle school boys play a ball game incorporating the dirt pile on the green - how much more fun would professional sports be to watch if the fields were non-planar .... and changed randomly from game to game requiring improvisation on arrival ….."

She and I talk a lot about education and most importantly educational practice. Classroom method. Lab practices. What works and what doesn’t? What do students in 2016 really need that makes them different from students in our classrooms ten years ago. That sort of thing.

Now from a gaming perspective, this email was awesome! My response was: "I can't even tell you how much I love this! A quick bit of game-design theory: every game is defined by its own "magic circle." The magic circle is composed of the rules, equipment and physical characteristics of the game...these things separate gamespace from realspace. You could take almost any physical sport and incorporate a non-planar element and you'd change the magic circle and hence the game. Think about the difference between skiing with or without moguls, for instance."

From a teaching practice perspective, it is in some respects even more intriguing. What factors/qualities make up the “magic circle” of your personal practice as a teacher? How does a student know the difference between being in your class and being in a colleague’s class? The students know this. Bet on it. Do you? Perhaps you should investigate this, if only to sharpen your own perception of what you do and why you do it.

What might you do differently with your students tomorrow that would shake up their expectations? How will you make your fields non-planar?

Experience Points The Peer-to-Peer Way

Those of us who remember the old days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or the even more classic editions predating AD&D) can’t help but marvel at the roleplaying renaissance that’s been going on for at least the last ten years or so. In that time, one of the most innovative of these new independently-published RPGs has to be Numenera. Set in the “Ninth World,” (essentially an Earth so transformed by technology and change as to be unrecognizable…but still fundamentally Earth at the same time…you have to play to see what I mean) Numenera brings a host of innovations to the table that old-school gamers could really appreciate.

This article isn’t about the play experience of Numenera, though. Rather, it’s about one mechanic in the game that could easily be ported into your gamified classroom. Useful in any gamified classroom setting, this particular mechanic is uniquely suited to a classroom where you’re using avatars, skill systems or other forms of mimicry.

In every roleplaying game there is a system by which characters earn experience points (XPs), gain levels (reflecting that increased experience) and generally gain abilities to interact with the game world with greater and greater success. These experience point systems make it possible for characters to defeat challenges that in an earlier stage in the game would have been impossible. 

Experience systems always begin and end with the evaluation of the player’s work in that particular game session by the gamemaster. Every game has some rubric, (usually not very sophisticated) that helps the gamemaster make decisions about the awarding of experience. Experience points are a highly valuable commodity as they determine the speed at which characters progress.

Numenera has this kind of experience point system, but it adds a twist…there’s also a way for players to award experience points to the other players. That, from a gaming perspective, is revolutionary. In certain circumstances, the gamemaster in Numenera can offer a player what’s called an “intrusion.” In an intrusion, the gamemaster does something or changes something that alters the course of the game or interferes with players’ decision making in some way. Players don’t have to accept an intrusion, but when they do, they earn an experience point for themselves and an experience point that they have to give away to one of their fellow players. In this way, the players themselves are always part of the process of rewarding excellent play.

Envision a class experience where your students have created avatars to represent themselves.  Over the course of the unit/course, the avatars in question are going to gain experience through defeating obstacles and gaining knowledge and skills (sound familiar?). You could create a list of skills that are of interest to you…that you want your students to gain mastery in (like using punctuation correctly, understanding the difference between parts of a cell or synthesizing non-fiction reading) and give your students the capacity to recognize these skills in their peers. Perhaps there are some skills that an avatar can level only by gaining experience from fellow players.

In this way, you help your students understand the particulars of the learning objective. Moreover, you help them see the value of these particulars and to see the value contributed to the class as a whole by different classmates. This can, with thoughtful management by you, help develop a positive classroom culture.

The First Rule of Classroom Gamification

Wise or Otherwise Pieces, from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dharma_for_one/3235061625/in/photolist-5VSx7z-rHFE-5WM12L-pwStB6-fcCSLi-cFUM2y-eDvHC9-xw5LB5-59Nxjk-c1dVzU-4Gtttm-bfZvUP-24CP72-cFVrNQ-2vNrQ-bkaEoA-4jDwjv-cFUG9Q-aGqZ2H-6Yit7c-e4mYUP-6DSVH-7R7ShG-9gLAeH-dhX7FY-9htLHE-orZx3i-7pbSgc-bsAXsX-9CWspY-86iMTZ-dsyiG4-s9ZvLJ-fFtsZV-tTAnFo-9hqGiX-59SEYW-hmU8EG-8vjevX-uaihn-9Zhj8f-NLV8Y-AbDY4-bdFiX-cFVvYw-qxSwhj-dz9p2B-5Xk9NB-bAfABf-35ueu

Wise or Otherwise Pieces, from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dharma_for_one/3235061625/in/photolist-5VSx7z-rHFE-5WM12L-pwStB6-fcCSLi-cFUM2y-eDvHC9-xw5LB5-59Nxjk-c1dVzU-4Gtttm-bfZvUP-24CP72-cFVrNQ-2vNrQ-bkaEoA-4jDwjv-cFUG9Q-aGqZ2H-6Yit7c-e4mYUP-6DSVH-7R7ShG-9gLAeH-dhX7FY-9htLHE-orZx3i-7pbSgc-bsAXsX-9CWspY-86iMTZ-dsyiG4-s9ZvLJ-fFtsZV-tTAnFo-9hqGiX-59SEYW-hmU8EG-8vjevX-uaihn-9Zhj8f-NLV8Y-AbDY4-bdFiX-cFVvYw-qxSwhj-dz9p2B-5Xk9NB-bAfABf-35ueu

A great article from a few years back makes a case I’ve been making for years. When thinking about gamification in education, it is a mistake to focus only on the games themselves. As I have begun to argue in the GAME section of this blog, games can and do have a role in your classroom. That role, however, is limited and must be carefully monitored. The game doesn’t serve its own purpose. It has to serve your learning objectives and your deeper goals for your students. Sometimes a game is uniquely suited to those deeper objectives. If it is, by all means use it! As I argued about the game Zendo, it is a particularly powerful tool to have students not just think about critical thinking abstractly but to actually do critical thinking (and to do it in a way that is meant explicitly to be fun…they can then apply the skill learned in the game in contexts that aren’t necessarily meant to be fun).


Rather than focusing on the games, focus on the gamification. What does this mean? A quote from the article gives a direction. “…gamification isn’t about games, but about game mechanics. Users don’t need to win or lose an entire game experience to become involved.” This is where gamified instruction has unique potential benefits. Every great game (and I mean this without exception) is an involvement engine first and foremost. Games want to be played! And great games make playing easy, richly rewarding and highly engaging.


The first rule of gamification in the classroom: it’s not really about the game. It’s about how your learning objectives can be served by one or more game mechanics.

"Level Up!"

This site is a community for gamers, teachers and students to learn from each other and to make games and game-based methods a bigger part of their learning and their work. This section of the site is devoted to teaching practice, lesson plans, ideas, hacks and debate about the bigger questions that center on game-based teaching and learning - in other words, leveling up your teaching!

What follows is a blog post I wrote a while back in which I gave some thought to competition as a concept. It was based on experience I had teaching a fully gamified class and some of the challenges I and my students experienced.


COMPETITION...or, it's time for a little PVP

One of the core notions in game design is competition. What opposes the player? Is it a fearsome boss at the end of the game like in Diablo? Or is it a mental challenge, like in Portal 2? Perhaps what opposes the player isn't at all clear...like in the game Journey, perhaps the opposition doesn't really exist, or is so abstracted, that it might not exist at all.

In the gamified classroom, a big challenge is setting up the systems of opposition and challenge to motivate learners/players and to sustain their motivation/learning. The literature on game design is frequently focused on theory associated with these questions, because we all know what happens when we play games where there is little opposition or challenge. Candy Land, anyone?

A while ago, I emailed with Mark Hendrickson, a former student of mine, about the question of designing competition into learning (he studied this idea in graduate school). In response to a question I wrote asking for his thoughts on the spirit of competition, he wrote:

"...defining the "spirit of competiton" on a sociological level may help: a rivalry between two or more persons or groups for an object desired in common, usually resulting in a victor and a loser. This, of course leads to more questions. How is "object" defined in the classroom? What do students in grade X desire to achieve in the classroom that could result in a friendly rivalry if subdivided into individuals or groups? What kind of rivalry or competition in the classroom would not result in only one side winning?"

In the fall of 2012 I taught a course on the federal election in the United States. I divided the class into an Obama staff and a Romney staff. This gave me a great opportunity to see how well competitive framing encouraged the work of these teams. It was strongly motivating. They did not want to give one speck of ground to the other team.

He then wrote: one of the examples in gaming within the MMORPGs were the boss battles. These boss battles could be done individually or with a team. I think your spirit of competition ideal could spawn from these battles. In other words, what better way to provide competition than defeating a boss, or seeing what individual or team could beat the boss most effectively.

And this is where it gets interesting. In the MMORPG setting, teams of players are opposed by the game itself - the boss is a construct set up by the game designers. I do not know of an MMO that injects a player-versus-player (PVP) element into this kind of encounter. And this is what Mark is suggesting here. Constructing a boss battle that is clearly defined and static, but which two different teams could approach, struggle with and overcome. As the teacher, I would have the opportunity to measure their successes according to a single rubric, but the students would have the opportunity to explore what "effectiveness" would look like in that encounter. He concluded: also, the "random encounters" idea in the other teacher's classroom would be a good place to start. One random day per week, you could divide the students into any number of individual or group combinations. These groups would compete to answer questions in your "modeling" form, and if you chose, winning these random encounters would have no impact on their level or grade. What is the purpose of a random encounter in an RPG? For me, it has been to fight weaker monsters to be able to beat the stronger bosses through stat increases. What is the purpose of a random encounter in a gamified classroom? To apply my current knowledge to be able to effectively challenge and solve a larger issue or problem through confidence increases.

Take a look at that last sentence again. Application of knowledge...this is at the core of great games, gamified learning and game-designed courses. By structuring the student's experience effectively, this would give the student the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a skill or a content concept. By structuring it like a random encounter, it generates the "spirit of competition" that most of the game literature suggests is critical for successful game-based instruction. It reminds me of the Food Network program "Sweet Genius," in which the contestants are given a baking/candy making challenge and then part way through the challenge, have an additional obstacle put before them in the form of new ingredients that have to be incorporated into the mix.

So, in thinking about the application of knowledge in a competitive framework, what's one thing you might try?