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Classcraft makes the classroom a giant role-playing game — with freemium pricing

Above: Classcraft is updated live during lessons, with students able to use their powers and abilities on the fly.

Image Credit: Classcraft

Shawn Young has a class full of warriors, mages, and healers. Warriors get to eat in class, mages can teleport out of a lecture, and healers can ask if an exam answer is correct.

But this isn’t some Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy. This is education as it’s happening for over 7,000 kids in more than 25 countries right now. Young, a high-school physics teacher, has been developing and refining Classcraft, his classroom-based role-playing game for the past three years, and he says it creates a collaborative and supportive learning environment that can help turn around students who are failing.

Currently a free service, Classcraft will introduce a pay structure this fall that embraces the free-to-play model more commonly seen in mobile apps and online games like League of Legends and Runescape. It’s going to turn heads in an education system used to strict budgets and paying per-head for software solutions, especially when they realize that the students will be buying gear and pets for their Classcraft avatars on iTunes.

Playing in class

If you’re a gamer, being in Shawn Young’s physics classroom sounds like a blast. At the start of class, his students come in and check their stats on the screen projected at the front of the room. When the bell rings, its time for a random event, which could impact one or more players. It might be a disaster, like a pupil’s game character dying, or it could be something goofy like someone getting up to sing.

This helps focus the students, Young told GamesBeat during a video call, as “the second they get into class, they want to know what’s going to happen.”

The different classes in the game are balanced to encourage teamwork.

Above: The different classes in the game balance to encourage teamwork.

Image Credit: Classcraft

As the lesson progresses, Young will dish out experience points for good work and collaboration and will give hit damage to students who lack focus or misbehave. Students can gain powers specific to their character class by levelling up, and they can use these to help and protect their teammates (or themselves), activating them live as events that unfold in the classroom.

The teacher can track all this activity in Classcraft, or, as in Young’s case, the kids can use their laptops to interact with it in real-time. Come September, they’ll be able to use their smartphones to keep up with the game too, with an iOS app set for release and an Android version to follow.

Cutting class and eating chocolate

As the Game Master, Young’s students are playing by his rules, but the chance to turn things in their favor is always there. Some powers have potent individual and team effects, and the students can get pretty creative with them.

“There’s one power, Teleport, where you can leave the class for 2 minutes,” says Young, “so they’ll stack that and leave for 10 minutes. That kind of annoying, but at the same time it’s part of the game.”

Some kids also used the warrior’s power to eat in class as an excuse to bring in a chocolate fondue.

Young admits that the rewards on offer in Classcraft are often outside the normal rules of school, but he says that’s what makes them so appealing. “I’m like, OK, I’m cool — this is hilarious,” says Young. “It goes both ways. As the Games Master, you buy into that, [but] then when they die they get these horrible consequences.

“For them, their real life is going to school. And Classcraft is successful and significant because these rewards and punishments are significant for them.”

If a pupil’s hit points run out, they die. They then face a punishment that a roll of the die determines, which can include detention or copying out a five-page text.

“Typically, they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re mean, you’re giving me detention,’ and try and get out of it,” says Young. “Now, they’re like, ‘This is the game, it’s cool, I’ll go.’ You don’t even need to check if they’re going. They’re definitely going.”

“Students don’t typically respond happily to punishments. But they are. It’s weird.”

Students will be able to purchase items to customize their in-game avatar.

Above: Students will be able to purchase items to customize their in-game avatar.

Image Credit: Classcraft

Transforming the classroom through collaboration

Young had the Classcraft idea in his head for several years before acting on it.

Before making it, he tried various ways of getting kids to collaborate better in class, something he believes is important in a 21st century that’s proving a boom time for sharing, not least through social media.

“I did some other experiments before where kids would work in teams and get the worst grade of the four people in their team,” says Young. “It was a little too hardcore. [Laughs] A little too directly relating to their grades, so some of them felt it wasn’t fair.”

Going after that group mentality is key for Young, though, and he doesn’t think the education system values it enough. “Our whole system of [pupil] rewards is based on individual assessments,” he says, “and that’s not useful for them. What’s useful for them is seeing the value of your team succeeding as opposed to yourself, working together to make your collective level go up.”

Young points out that when somebody dies in Classcraft their whole team gets punished by losing hit points. “The game is very finely balanced — risk versus reward,” he says. “There’s a collective risk of somebody dying, but at the same time there are all these incentives to collaborate. That really transforms the classroom.”

The history teacher

Ricardo Higuera teaches seventh grade world history in a rural corner of Southern California called Thermal. Nearly all the students in his middle school are eligible for free or reduced school lunches. Higuera’s been trialling Classcraft for the past 4 months and he’s thrilled with how it’s making his students care about their grades.

“Academically, I have noticed quiz scores and class-participation increase,” Higuera told me via email. “Before, some of my more apathetic students wouldn’t care if they failed a quiz. Now, they’re more wary to because they know it affects their character’s level and team standings in the game.”

Classcraft has also helped with the flow of his lessons. “I pride myself in running a smooth, ‘fun’ classroom even before Classcraft, but I’ve noticed a huge tick in the pulse of the class since we began the game,” said Higuera. “Because our passing periods are notoriously short, I had a slight tardy problem — with some groups more than others — but now I have kids rushing to get to class on time.”

Mr Higuera's history class  creating their Classcraft characters.

Above: Ricardo Higuera’s history class creating their Classcraft characters.

Image Credit: Ricardo Higuera

So far, Higuera is the only teacher in his school to try Classcraft. Some of the other staff are unsure of what it actually is and how to make it part of their teaching. Being the Game Master is a big part of that.

The game, like anything else in education, depends on how it’s used by the teacher,” said Higuera. “Like role-playing games of old, the game depends a lot on the Game Master. He or she holds the power to engage players and make the game come alive.”

Higuera already thinks Classcraft will be part of his teaching arsenal for years to come.

“I do think Classcraft is ideal for the age group and subject matter I work with,” he told me. “Middle school, medieval world history … I mean, how cool is that — to play a World of Warcraft-like game as you’re learning about samurai, knights, and the Aztecs? I’m like a kid all over again, playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends.”

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28 comments
`Brian caruso
`Brian caruso

I like Noschese's comment against gaming in the classroom; “It’s very behaviourist. Training the kids to do what they’re doing because they get a reward.”


If that is his thinking, I assume he doesn't give the ultimate school reward:  grades?


I would be shocked that kids are in his class simply for the joy of learning physics. The "modern" industrialized education system simply isn't  built to promote a joy of learning.

Alan Bronstein
Alan Bronstein

I'm still trying to figure out where the content comes in.  Did I miss that in the article?  Where are they learning, e.g., F=ma?  Where do the gas laws come in?  How is the curriculum brought into the game?

Sandy Morley
Sandy Morley

Does Noschese appreciate that traditional teaching is also behaviourist? It teaches kids to learn to pass tests; it doesn't teach kids to learn. Actively wanting to engage is a massive step forward for many students... it sure beats revising for exams.

Dallas Literal Johnston
Dallas Literal Johnston

And...I have problems with Common Core, too. My daughter is fairly advanced for her age, and she is forced to hold the hands of other students, who, according to her, have zero interest in the material or succeeding in anything other than gaining popularity through SnapChat. Why punish the smartest and most-motivated students?

Dallas Literal Johnston
Dallas Literal Johnston

Completely in agreement. I have never endorsed lecture-based impartation if knowledge. Engagement is key, just not sure WoW-esque gamification is the most effective means for all parties involved.

Derrick Dixon
Derrick Dixon

My biggest problem with American public education (and I now have a high school son and elementary aged daughter) is the fact that the students are still "taught at", and not "engaged in". Lectures may work for the college level environment (although I'm still not a fan), but a move toward interactive classrooms where student work together and are involved in tracing along with learning builds more long term skills and sparks more interest. We have a new push for "common core" which does de-emphasize the lectern and lecturer and focus on groups of students working through the material together. It has done hour if it is embraced.

Derrick Dixon
Derrick Dixon

Dallas Literal Johnston, school was tedious, laborious and boring for you....And you all but checked out, (so did I, not judging) however you have succeeded very well in the real working environment. I'm surprised you would be against a more engaging school environment. I think the younger Dallas may have been more active in school.

John Baker
John Baker

Now this is the way to get them engaged and motivated!

Gwen Macpherson
Gwen Macpherson

Here's the key: "Currently a free service, Classcraft will introduce a pay structure this fall…." Let's see--the at risk kids are probably mostly economically disadvantaged, going to economically disadvantaged schools, and they are the target of this game. How will they pay for this?

Michael Donovan
Michael Donovan

The deadening of education, and I agree with Mr. Johnston.

Dallas Literal Johnston
Dallas Literal Johnston

Why are we increasingly conforming education to the seemingly ever-growing ADHD, patience of a feral cat crowd, as this is simply *not* how the real world operates! There are activities, projects, etc. that will be boring and laborious at times, and if you are not willing to push through because it is not as fun or exciting as WoW, you will be worthless to employers.

Cristian Garcia
Cristian Garcia

Nice....but then it's just the SAME educational system, only more Pavlovian. This guy should adapt it so there is no need for a teacher, because learning is not about doing what the teachers says (or else), it about exploring possibilities.

Eric Heilman
Eric Heilman

This would be way better than having to administer the spreadsheets I have for the game I have been running my algebra 2 class.

Dave Meeker
Dave Meeker

That's more like making a game than gamification, but interesting.

Jean-Nicolas Proulx
Jean-Nicolas Proulx

Some children are good in a skill-and-drill contexts, because they trust that it will lead them to accomplish their goals and have success later in life. Other children have no such trust. Nor do I (Gee J. P. 2007). The idea is not to punish your "smart" kid, it's to give motivation to all students in order to facilitate the learning process for everyone "Children must be motivated to engage in a good deal of practice if they are to master what is to be learned. However if this practice is boring, they will resist it." (Gee J.P. 2007). 

Stephanie  at Classcraft
Stephanie at Classcraft

Kristie's spot on. Gwen, we'll also be continuing to support our basic Free version so that schools, regardless of their financial situation, can play.

Kristie Lauborough
Kristie Lauborough

If you read further, you'll see it's going to a standard free-to-play model. What that means is the game is still free, but non-essential equipment which is optional can be purchased. Usually this is an aesthetic item or an object that doesn't severely impact the game mechanics.

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