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Appendix B: So You Want to Design a Game

Published onApr 10, 2020
Appendix B: So You Want to Design a Game

When I share my experiences with the alternate reality game Ask Anansi with educators, some are immediately ready to dive in and run the game with their students and ask how they can get a copy. Others are exhausted even thinking about doing this extra work: “I’m a teacher, not a game designer. It’s nice that you were able to funnel your own geekery into the classroom, but this isn’t sustainable work for all of us.”

With both of these sentiments—the interest in replicating the game and the wary sense that it is not a feasible task—my response is generally the same. Ask Anansi was a game for a particular time, place, and gathering of individuals. I knew my students and the ways this game would fit into our specific classroom community. As I have stated through this book, your own interests, those of your students, and the foundations of trust and community in your classroom will drive what is needed. More broadly, however, a few guidelines might help you get started with game play and game design in classrooms, so I offer a few suggestions and resources below. At the end of this appendix I also offer my original 900-word game design concept for Ask Anansi. You’ll notice key differences between the game concept and its actual execution, and I encourage you to read this document as an overview for a curricular unit plan or inquiry challenge. Although this does not spell out each activity or daily lesson of the game, it offers a way to consider the broader steps of designing meaningful play in classrooms. I encourage you to consider the suggestions in earlier chapters to help guide your own thinking about using this document for your classroom.

Additional Resources

Before diving into guidelines for game design, here are other resources I encourage teachers to check out:1

  • The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell: This is one of the most accessible books on the key processes of game design. The supplemental deck of cards is also a great resource for classroom use.

  • A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Ralph Koster: This book’s title speaks to what it offers—several activities to spark your passion as a game designer.

  • Grow-A-Game by Tiltfactor: This deck of cards and free app are helpful for instant iteration and idea generation. I regularly use these cards when presenting game design ideas at workshops.

  • The Educator’s Game Design Toolkit: A Game Master’s Guide and Player’s Guide for Teacher Professional Development by Antero Garcia and Chad Sansing: My colleague Chad Sansing and I developed this guide as a resource for classroom teachers looking to collaborate and play in classrooms. It is structured around several activities that can be done individually or with other teachers.

Start Small

Long before launching Ask Anansi, I instigated playful moments in my classroom (such as the unsuccessful exercise in student-led desk arrangement noted in chapter 5), designed other alternate reality games, and co-ran an after-school gaming club on campus. As you begin to think about gaming in your classroom, it is okay to start small. It is okay to start really small. Many English classrooms use trivia games (digital and nondigital) to review class material. Can you consider how such work could become even more playfully tailored for your students’ needs? Similarly, could you see ways to use the collaborative story writing game “exquisite corpse” in your class? (In exquisite corpse, popular during the surrealist movement, each participant adds a line or an image to a story without knowing what was written or drawn before his or her turn.)

Your confidence and capabilities as a game designer will grow with time, so don’t worry about experimenting and trying small things first!

Think Like a Game Master

A game master (GM) is the person in a tabletop roleplaying game who facilitates play, guides storytelling, and plays and controls any character that is not played by one of the other players at the table. In the classic role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons & Dragons, for example, several players may converse with royalty, seek gossip-like clues in a tavern, fight a pack of wolves, and come face to face with a vile dragon. The characters and the descriptions of the story that moves the players to these incidents are all controlled by the GM (in Dungeons & Dragons, the GM is called the dungeon master). In a recent book chapter, I discuss how teachers can adapt the role of the GM for their classrooms.2 What’s particularly important—as you look at the experiences of Ask Anansi and your own game design decisions—is that you will need to be flexible and respond to the interests and needs of your classroom. But thinking like a game designer and game master are not that different from thinking like a good teacher.

In discussing the needs of GMs in role-playing games, writer and designer Robin D. Laws describes six different kinds of players that are commonly seen around the table—the power gamer, the butt kicker, the tactician, the specialist, the method actor, and the casual gamer.3 These gaming tropes are not unique to role-playing games and are not limited to the types Laws describes. You can see some students taking on tactician-like roles while hiding clues in Ask Anansi and other students wanting to find all of the solutions as classroom “power gamers.” Perhaps the most important type of player for teachers to consider is the “casual gamer.” Translating this role for the classroom means considering the students who may not be intellectually roused by alternate reality, technology, or games. There is no panacea, and what enthralls some will not magically transform your entire class.

The secret to good classroom gameplay is flexible teacher game mastering. If something isn’t working, you should be ready to adjust and readapt at a moment’s notice. This should feel similar to the flexibility to classroom teaching. They are connected practices.

General Guidelines for Design

  • Consider your instructional goals. What do you want to convey, and what do you want students to have learned and accomplished by the time they finish your game?

  • For longer games like alternate reality games, build a narrative hook. What is the story you want students to experience?

  • Keep it simple. You’re not George R. R. Martin. You don’t need byzantine plot structures and complex backstories. If it’s not a simple story, it’s probably not a compelling story for your students to unpack.

  • Consider the kinds of play students will engage in. Center the story and game around one or two fundamental activities. In Ask Anansi, this was a scavenger hunt. In a previous alternate reality game, it was Capture the Flag. Consider what it looks like to readapt a game like checkers, Crazy 8s, or Hungry Hungry Hippos. (Such adaptations do not have to be literal. Start with a game mechanic, and build from there.)

  • Pace yourself. Things usually take twice as long as you intend, so don’t be afraid to slow down your design and implementation.

  • Embrace the fact that things could (and likely will) go badly. It’s okay if things feel like they are falling apart. On the one hand, it’s probably not as bad as you think. On the other hand, this is an instructional experience for your next design!

Ask Anansi: An Inquiry-Based Alternate Reality Game of Tricks, Riddles, and Spiders


Ask Anansi is a community-centered alternate reality game. In this game, students engage in inquiry-based problem solving by communicating with and helping to unravel the stories they are told by Anansi, the trickster spider god of West African folklore.

Anansi, the story-wielding spider god, has answers and solutions to any question students can imagine, and fortunately, these students have recently received a means of communicating with him. Students pose community-centered inquiries to Anansi via his progeny: it’s common knowledge that spiders can relate questions to Anansi if you ask them nicely. A classroom spider will help students initially communicate with Anansi.

Anansi’s responses, however, are not always clear: he likes tricks, riddles, and befuddlement. As a result, students will require critical literacy skills to unravel the web of Anansi’s hints and instructions. Some clues are found outside the walls of the classroom and may appear as posters, barcodes, or phone calls. After a question is asked, it cannot be unasked, and Anansi is known to grow impatient with small children who do nothing but waste his time by not solving his puzzles. Who knows what would happen to their teacher or their classroom materials if they dawdle?

Each Anansi question will take a group effort to answer. However, be careful. Anansi is never satisfied with simply finding the answers to the many questions students ask. He often requires that students work toward resolving the problems they discover.

Concept Outline and Scenario of Sample Play

The goal of Ask Anansi is to guide students toward collective inquiry around a negotiated topic and civic engagement by addressing the underlying causes of these topics. For example, a class may investigate why the food at their school is unpopular. Through doing research on nutrition, budgeting, and distribution of food and by doing qualitative surveys and ethnographic analyses of student perceptions of school food, students may determine that a lack of variety of food due to budget and contracting constraints as well as a social perception that the food is “bad” are preventing students from receiving adequate nutrition during the day. Next, students may determine that one course of action is to develop a coalition of concerned parents and students, speak at school board meetings, and even stage a cafeteria sit-in. Students will reflect on their efforts, discuss changes they have made, and record these steps in text messages, videos, and mapping applications on mobile devices.

Although the main product of this game is problem-positing critical thinking and civic participation, the goal of the game is based in the alternate reality game’s fiction: they must satisfy the insatiable need of Anansi for a good story. Asking Anansi a question seems innocuous. A comment is fed to the class’s spider to communicate to Anansi: “Why is the food at our school so bad?” A day later, the class receives a cryptic response—the coordinates to the loading dock for the school’s food shipments and a riddle guiding them to photograph and blog about the nutritional information they can ascertain.

The game’s initial premise of asking a simple question has significant repercussions. Anansi will not simply provide an answer. He tricks, confounds, and teases students. Anansi’s messages are often shrouded as riddles, QR codes, or even latitude and longitude coordinates that need to be determined and visited. Like the media messages that students are challenged to assess critically, Anansi’s dialogue with students challenges power, dominance, and agency in a capitalist environment.

As students gain more information, Anansi’s responses become more demanding. Students will regularly dialogue and blog about their experiences. Anansi may hack or edit their information in an effort to further a good story. After a particularly intriguing development (an interesting plot development for Anansi and a useful analysis of data for student inquiry), students will be given goggles to view a situation through the eyes of Anansi. This eight-eyed mask will guide students to analyze media, their actions, and the information they gain through various theoretical lenses—reader-response, historical, marxist, feminist, postcolonial, psychoanalytic, ecological, postmodern. Students may continue to use these “goggles” in the class long after their initial encounter with Anansi.

After students have completed their initial research and analysis, Anansi tells them that they have the pieces of a great story but need to weave them into action. Students need to work toward a course of action around the information they have received. Collective action and models of engagement are examined by the class, and a strategic plan is developed and enacted.

Students will develop an evaluation mechanism to determine the effectiveness of their plan and will revise with further iterations as encouraged by Anansi.

Anansi confesses at the end of the game to having tricked the students in places with his difficult clues. He suggests that students should recruit others to continue the story they have woven together. After all, Anansi will remind players, a story never really ends. We may continue to tell what happens until the next series of adventures. An inquiry and efforts to improve food quality at a school are ongoing endeavors that students can continue to work on.

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