Changing the Rules of the Game

by Randy Fairfield, 1/4/18

Middle school and high school was just a game to be won for me, with the end goal of getting the highest possible GPA. Each teacher’s class had different rules, and I took the easiest possible path to manipulate them to end up with the lowest possible “A”. I thought things like, “I already have a 96% in math and the teacher said the final can’t hurt my grade, so I guess I’ll just skip these last few homework assignments.” The only purpose learning about quadratic equations served was to help me get that “A.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t until halfway through my senior year that my mindset started to change. Yet given the rules of the game and how the adults in my life framed “winning,” my mindset and corresponding behavior was completely rational.

All things considered, the game ended up working out pretty well for me. After all, I did end up learning about quadratic equations, I got into college, and as I matured I began to understand that there is more to life than having a good grade point average. However, I also noticed that a lot of marginalized students seemed to just disappear during the course of the game. I wouldn’t see somebody for a few months and would think, “Oh, wow… I wonder what happened to so-and-so.” And for many of them, I’d never see them again. For far too many students, the rules of the game were preventing them from feeling like they had a chance to win, and so they decided to quit playing. Can we blame them? Too often we do because it means we don’t have to change.

Change is uncomfortable. It’s hard. Most people do not like change, even when it serves to make things better for themselves and for everyone else. A perfect example of a rule change that most people hate is, “no trade, reverse robber” in Settlers of Catan. This rule change makes the game become far more strategic and largely prevents people like Cody (see below) from going on suicide missions to take out the best player. Please be gentle, it was my first of many embarrassing attempts to go viral…

Rule changes aren’t always for the better. A teacher I once worked with made participation a full fifty percent of his students’ grades so that, and I quote, “If they’re acting like little s***s in my class I can just fail them.” True story.

I can’t help but consider: What “rules” can we change to make our schools and classrooms better, and how can we frame the conditions for winning in a different way so that everyone feels like they have a chance? I think I’m better at asking questions than I am at giving answers, but as a recovering video gamer and current board game enthusiast, this is one I have some unique insight into. I’ve been working on a keynote titled, “What Teachers Need to Learn from Gamers” that I’m dying to give. Dee Lanier (@deelanier) has some pretty awesome thoughts on “hacking learning” too. I’d also love to hear some of your thoughts on Twitter if you’re open to sharing! Just tweet me at @RandyFairfield and you’re sure to get a reply.


Randy Fairfield, MEd and MBA, is a Technology/Instructional Coach in the Richland School District in Eastern Washington. He is also a Google for Education Certified Trainer, Edmodo Certified Trainer and Hapara Certified Champion Trainer.

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