Principles and adherence factors
When I'd just started out in my current workplace, we were taught to follow the Orton-Gillingham principles. One of the them states that activities ought to be "simultaneously multi-sensory". Naturally, many games follow this principle.
The question left vague was, what kind of games could I implement in the classroom that would be: a) fun, and b) have some sort of learning value? I will straight up say that I'm not too keen on playing games that are too simple for extended periods of time. In fact, from experience, students had found games like Hangman and Charades fun, but only if played in short bursts on a once-every-few-weeks basis.
Those few thoughts only made the task of whipping up something that could be played over the long-term even harder.
That first step
Coincidentally, at the time I was already quite into tabletop gaming. I'd been a video gamer for most of my life, but it was only in 2011 that I started to delve into wargames, board games and RPGs.
I started to design my own RPG for the kids. It was to be a simple fantasy dungeon-crawler, a classless system where players would control characters capable of both magic and fighting. They would level up and be granted more health and damage, but that was it.
I mean it was a really simple game, but what made it unique was that players needed to syllabicate words to attack, or read words to cast spells; spelling words would enable players to disable traps or create runes.
It never took off, and it literally was for lack of trying lol. My focus changed along the way; there were more important things to do in class that would help the kids improve.
Still, this is an idea I'd like to re-visit someday.
The silver lining to come out of this, however, was this thought: what if I could use other RPGs to hone one's executive functioning skills? This led me further into other branches: would I be able to move away from existing games and create my own sub-genres that could specifically tackle certain kinds of learning difficulties; and, would I be able to use games as a primary medium for conducting whole lessons?
The answers to both questions were a very resounding "Yes!"
Discovering your objectives first (i.e. principles are overrated)
What the heading said... well kind of. The underlying problem is not so much the principles that we're dealing with. Instead, it's whether or not we understand what principles we're dealing with, whether they're appropriately applied in specific contexts. Otherwise, it becomes another buzzword that's being loosely thrown about, and it's moot to even think about what games to come up with.
Instead, I would think it wiser to consider the bigger picture before narrowing the scope down to the details, an objective-action approach if you will. Mind, I use this approach for any form of activity conducted, not just with classroom games.
The first game I'd ever GMed in a classroom setting.
(Image by The Impossible Dream via DriveThruRPG)
Foremost, think of what you'd like to teach, what you'd like to train. Is it executive functioning? We may incline towards an RPG. Emotive vocabulary? A deck-building, card-laying game could be the right fit. Don't just skim the surface either, otherwise your game would be no more than a proxy for a standard classroom activity. Games are and can be more than that. I'm not saying that replacing flash cards with Memory Match can't be fun, but why stop there?
Just keep asking yourself, "What is the objective?" and you'll be fine.
Suppose you can't find a game that resonates. You're coming up with your own simple game. That's cool. You'll therefore also want to infuse some sort of theme into your game. What differentiates Descent from Imperial Assault from Incursion from Claustrophobia, apart from some game mechanics? That's right, it's theme. There's got to be some sort of theme to your game or it just falls apart real quick. Even Hangman has a theme.
IMO theme is really the icing on top of everything, the fluff that gives the game much more appeal. I love games that are very thematic, but there's a reason why I could hack Interface Zero (which by the way is an amazing game) to fit a Deus Ex-style universe.
In the end, you'll probably have a game that really aligns itself well with your lesson and at the same time provides the kids with a lot of fun and memorable experiences. As far as gaming in the classroom goes, RPGs are my staple, but I've personally used games like Doodle Dice Monsters to fantastic effect (for teaching descriptive writing in the case of DDM).
I love this game!
(Image by Little Red Goblin Games via DriveThruRPG)
I hope this provides a brief summary of what it'd take to come up with meaningful and engaging activities. What are your thoughts? Have you had any cool ideas before that worked out really well? Let me know in the comments section below.