At the ASU-GSV summit this year, I spoke on a panel about the transformative nature of games in assessment. Assessment of learner performance is closely related to learning, so when we spoke on the panel, we often drifted between the two topics.

Wikipedia defines the critical attributes of games as that which has goals, rules, challenge, and interactions.

Here are the notes that I wrote in preparation for this panel discussion.

Game-based assessment is nothing new. My son, a swim instructor, uses games in his assessment all the time in his lessons. Instead of asking his students to put their heads under water or blow bubbles, he plays “Find the Treasure” and can quickly assess whether his students have the skills he wants to assess. The game creates a context for why performing the skills is important. Using games as part of assessment and to drive learning is older than our species!

Games like Super Mario Brothers let you make choices and slowly and gradually scaffold the gameplay so that it increases in challenge but in a special way. The last level of any world is the hardest, but the first levels are easier and usually easier than the previous levels in the last world. Also, students can and do go back to levels they have completed over and over again because sometimes doing something better than you know you can do is more fun than struggling over and over again to complete a level you can’t yet do.

Digital games work partly because the game’s challenge level varies between easier and harder concepts, ideally moving up and down in a cadence that captures the learner’s interest and engagement.
3. Authentic:

We need to avoid game designs where students do some fun stuff, then pause and step out of the game to do some math problems, and then jump back into the game. This doesn’t lead to authentic learning and makes math a roadblock to having fun rather than part of the fun.

I designed a very simple graph game where students move a little stick man across a horizontal bar while trying to mimic a particular graph given on Cartesian coordinates. One axis is time, and the other is the distance the little stick person is away from their starting point. The game provides instant feedback that one has matched the graph by showing the position of the stick man in two places, one on the bar and one on the distance-time graph. It’s an extremely engaging and interesting little game, and it makes learning mathematics an integral part of the game rather than a side dish.

Not everything is a good fit for a game, but an awful lot of stuff we do is. We need to find ways to make the concepts we want students to learn authentically a part of the game and have a purpose for advancing the game. Often, these purposes can be drawn from our original invention of the concepts. When Descartes lay in bed watching the flies on the ceiling, he wanted a way to describe where the fly was on the ceiling, so he invented our modern coordinate system.
4. Depth of gameplay:

Really good games teach their creators, too. I once played a simple probability game where students placed ten tokens each on the numbers from 2 through 12. They take turns rolling the dice and taking off their tokens with the goal of removing all of their tokens before their opponent. After playing this for a couple of days, I built a simulation that allows students to place their ten tokens (or any arbitrary number) wherever they want and simulate playing this game 10,000 times. From this simulation, I learned that my intuition about the best distribution across the eleven numbers was wrong.
5. Enable connection:

We must not forget that digital games can and should enable connection between students rather than separating them all the time by screens while they work in their own environments. The best games are played with other people. Both of my sons always prefer to play their games with other people, often spending hours online playing Roblox or Minecraft. Collaborative learning is also known to be a very powerful learning experience. We should support this innate desire to connect with other humans.
6. Invisible:

Assessment should be invisible to the learner, but we should also give them control of the results. Every child who plays Super Mario Brothers knows which levels and worlds they have completed successfully and which ones they still have left to do, but they never stop playing the game to “take an assessment” before moving on—the game is the assessment.
7. Agency:

Learners should have agency. Education should be done with the learner, not to them. Games give their players choices, and these choices are part of what makes the game fun.