Video Game Design

Recently, Daniel Schneider posted this video of video game designer Edmund McMillen. In the video, McMillen talks through a few levels of a game, illustrating some of the design decisions that make the game intuitive, engaging, and challenging. I loved this video. I immediately watched it a second and a third time, thinking about the parallels between game design and lesson planning.

Both have cumulative skills, and require spiraling back to use those skills repeatedly.
McMillan says, “A couple levels later, I reiterate … to make sure they know how to do it because it’s important.”

Both can teach new skills explicitly but are more successful when putting the player/student in a position where they NEED that skill.
“Everyone in the world will see a problem and want to solve it.”

Both present opportunities for the joy of problem solving.
“You feel smart – like you figured out something yourself.”

Both ask the player/student to understanding the heuristic value of that skill.
“You also now for sure know how to do that from then on in the game.”


I got rapt up in the analogy and kept looking for other similarities, but I found that many teaching problems do not arise in video game design. For example:

Everyone studies math for a long time. An engaging video game can consume hours and hours, but I’ve yet to play a video game that lasts 180 days a year for 12 years. Math education is a long game, and if you get stuck or bored, you’re not allowed to quit. Video games are a voluntary, comparatively fleeting pursuit.

We have lots of students at once. Video games are often one player or two player, but classes are generally 20-25 students with different backgrounds and learning styles.

Our schedule is inflexible and unpredictable. A player moves on to the next level when they beat the current level, however long it takes. Classes have quarters/semesters, year longs plans, snow days, assemblies, standardized tests, and summer vacations.


I loved this video because I love thinking about how to solve the types of problems that game designers share with math teachers. But where does that leave me with respect to these other teaching problems? How do I overcome the gaps and negative experiences of the past 10-11 years of math class? How can I engage, challenge, and support ALL of my students at the same time? How can I plan ahead when there are so many unpredictable variables?

When there are so many problems to deal with as a math teacher, how do I make sure that I don’t just focus on the ones that I like trying to solve?

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