Completing missions for rewards is a core mechanic in many video games, including best-sellers like “World of Warcraft,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “Fallout” and “Skyrim.” Quests are diverse and optional, and players can undertake them on their own schedule. Unlike their plastic and cardboard counterparts, digital games leverage a computer’s power to manage elaborate player profiles and track complex, dynamic and personalized task structures. Now that students have increased access to computers and smartphones, the powerful digital engagement system can be put in the service of education.

Taking a page from the video game book, Dr. Chris Haskell and Dr. Lisa Dawley, from the education department at Boise State University, saw the potential for integrating quests and other game elements to deliver coursework. Six years ago, they developed 3D GameLab, a Web-based learning management system that helps run classes in a gamelike, quest-based format.

“A good quest-based curriculum meets the needs of many students by offering a multiplicity of choices that cover standards,” said Haskell.

He emphasizes that the word “quest” is not merely a superficial renaming of “essay” or “assignment” to make it sound more exciting. Rather, it marks a crucial structural shift in how students undertake schoolwork. Students can choose from a variety of tasks, work at their own pace and unlock new options as they progress. The system also encourages mastery, as quests are accepted only when completed to the highest standard. If a submitted task is not up to par, students can rework and resubmit until they get it right, rather than simply settle for a low grade and move on.

“We began looking for ways to meta-game curricular activities,” said Haskell. “We built 3D GameLab to allow us to deliver any curriculum with game-based mechanics. If we were inspired by anything or anyone, it was Blizzard and Cryptic Studios and their approaches to delivering quests within the construct of a universe.”

3D GameLab lets educators track experience points, use leaderboards, badges, achievements, awards and, most importantly, quests. Haskell reports that more than 1,000 teachers and 20,000 students are currently using the platform.

One of those teachers is Steve Isaacs, who uses a quest-based system to deliver his entire Grade 8 game design class at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.

“First and foremost, choice in learning paths provide students with opportunities to find their areas of interest,” said Isaacs. “In my course, learning goals are covered through a variety of paths. There are coding quests that teach computational thinking, coding, problem-solving, etc. There are also quests that provide opportunities for students to use a variety of tools to create games.”

The quests have led Isaacs’ students to create everything from sophisticated Minecraft mini-games to paper towel flutes.

When he first waded into quest-based learning, Isaacs created one central quest path that his students followed at slightly varied paces, and he added some optional side quests that could be completed for extra credits.

“What I noticed was that kids would come in and start a quest they wanted to work on, only to be stopped by me a few minutes into class to return to my agenda,” remembered Isaacs. “After some thought, I realized that I had kids excited about learning based on choice. This was very powerful, and I got out of my own way and provided students with more autonomy over their learning.”

Playing School

Peggy Sheehy, a middle school teacher and librarian at Suffern Middle School in Suffern, New York, has drawn international attention for her use of “World of Warcraft” with her students. Sheehy worked with Lucas Gillispie, a North Carolina district tech coordinator, and lead teacher Craig Lawson to develop curriculum around the game, which is now available on their website as a free Creative Commons download.

The popular sword and sorcery video game makes extensive use of quests and quest mechanics, which Sheehy and her colleagues reworked to align with Common Core standards. Hearing about their work, the researchers at Boise invited her to pilot 3D GameLab, and she has been using it every since.

Sheehy has a wealth of stories about struggling students who flourished once they approached learning through the lens of games and quests.

“Reluctant or disenfranchised students are very likely to demonstrate renewed interest and engagement when presented with the game-infused option,” she said. “Once the kids were granted some agency in the trajectory of their learning, they really wanted to succeed.” But she also recognizes that games may not be for everybody.

“If we associate quest-based learning with games, there will always be a few kids who are not interested. They are usually the kids who have mastered ‘playing school’ and excel at the textbook, notetaking, worksheet learning of which they are so familiar,” said Sheehy. “But even those kids, when quests take them to a video and then a quiz or request research and a short paragraph, appreciate the ability to retry, the ranks and badges, and the freedom to quest from home, thereby granting them multiple opportunities to advance at their own pace according to their own schedules.”

With quests titled “Random Acts of Epic Kindness” and “A Better World Online” that encourage reflection on online behavior, Sheehy not only seeks to nurture better students but also better digital citizens. The option to choose is fundamental to freedom, democracy and consumer culture, but there is little choice offered in the schools and classrooms that endeavor to prepare students for participation in society. Managing choice through decisions is a skill that requires practice, especially for a future that, if nothing else, will involve a deluge of information. The challenges produced by managing choices in the form of quests are important rehearsals for future decision-making.

One reported downside of quest-based learning sounds curiously promising.

Many who shift a traditional module-based class to a quest-based approach discover that many students complete coursework very quickly,” Haskell said. “If they are not prepared to give them additional experiences within the curriculum, it can be disruptive. It’s a great problem to have, but it exists.”

  • Peggy Sheehy

    Thanks for the great article, Paul! I think it’s important to state that it was actually Lucas and Craig who designed the very first WoWinSchool quests/curriculum— an entire year for an 8th grade ELA class— thereby providing us with a great template foundation for future courses! Most of the courses I have designed since include some of those original quests–as they are fundamental to the concept of learning using an MMO. Lucas has always been concerned with changing the culture of school and has recently developed many quest based courses for Minecraft and other games. But, understanding that the teacher must be a willing participant in successful gameful learning, he has also designed quest-based professional development for teachers: EPIC Teacher Academy! Talk about a “MINDSHIFT!” Here is his description of the EPIC Teacher Academy:
    EPIC stands for:
    Engaging – Our learning quests are designed to, on the surface, expose you to new technology and ideas for your classroom, professional development, and even personal growth. If you wish to do so, you can pursue these tools further, going deep with your own customized learning and, of course, getting rewarded for your efforts.
    Playful – We want to take a playful approach to professional development. Try new things! Ask the question, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if ____?” Failure isn’t stigmatized here. It’s an opportunity for learning!
    Innovative – The approach of this program is designed to be different than what you’re accustomed to. This isn’t your grandmother’s dusty old workshop. This is your opportunity to try something entirely new!
    Connected – Good learning doesn’t occur in isolation. Together we can build on each others’ strengths. Here, you’ll be encouraged to connect to other educators who are doing really cool things too. It’s all about community. Who knows what we may come up with, together?

    This is a vital step toward creating a culture of gameful or, dare I say, playful learning. Hats off to Lucas and to you Paul—for the learning innovation you have modeled and shared so freely! See you at SXSW Edu!


Paul Darvasi

Paul Darvasi is an experienced educator whose research, speaking and writing explore the intersections of learning, technology, narrative and games. You can follow him on Twitter: @pauldarvasi

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