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Rensselaer Professor Offers Educational Lessons Taken From Game Design

June 21, 2011

Rensselaer Professor Offers Educational Lessons Taken From Game Design

The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game

The Multiplayer Classroom:
Designing Coursework as a Game


New Book Details How To Pattern a Classroom After a Multiplayer Video Game and Help Every Student Become a Winner

In Lee Sheldon’s “multiplayer classroom,” each student is a player who starts the semester game with zero “points” – a level that corresponds to the letter grade “F.” With each move they make, the students rack up points, and their grade goes up. Rather than fret about losing an A, as the semester progresses in Sheldon’s classroom, the grades only get better.

The grading scheme is one example of the fresh perspective games offer in the classroom, according to Sheldon. A pioneer in applying game design to education and co-director of the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Sheldon describes the benefits to education in his new book, The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game, recently released by Cengage Learning.

“This is a different way to approach the classroom,” Sheldon said. “It’s not about video games in the classroom; it’s not about technology in the classroom. It’s about how game design techniques can be used to engage students.”

His book is the first detailed guide to teaching classes – from middle school to universities – based on principles of video game design, specifically multiplayer game design. Written for teachers and the general public, the book introduces game concepts and vocabulary, and explains how teachers can incorporate the techniques in their own classroom. It includes syllabi, instruction in game design, examples of successes and failures, a step-by-step template of the entire design process, and a guide to additional resources. Sheldon said the model can be used to design any structured learning experience as a game.

Sheldon’s book draws from his own experiences as professor in four multiplayer classrooms, as well as eight additional case histories of multiplayer classrooms on a variety of subjects from math to history.

In the multiplayer classroom, students start the semester with a clean slate and gather “experience points” or “XP” as they complete tasks.

“Just like in a game, they are adding XP and leveling up – there’s no falling back,” Sheldon said. “They know what their goals are and they work toward those goals.”

Much of the students’ work is completed in teams, or “guilds,” and the accomplishment of any given member of the guild, according to Sheldon, often boosts the overall score of each individual member, building camaraderie and respect for efforts within the group. Many of the assignments involve presenting material to other students; their success assures mastery of the material, with Sheldon sitting as judge or “game master” of the process.

“I grade them on clarity, and originality, and creativity, so they can be as innovative as they want, but they still have to get the material across to the other students,” Sheldon said. “They really have to know the material, and I sit in the back and say ‘that’s not quite right’ or ask them questions to keep them on track.”

The approach is a risk-free motivator allowing students to reach for their personal best while supporting classmates in their own “quest.”

The results from his own experience, Sheldon said, speak for themselves.

“The average class grade went from a C to a B, using the same materials,” Sheldon said. “Attendance is now near perfect. People come early and work – even if they don’t have an assignment – on various quests before the class.”

Rensselaer’s Games & Simulation Arts and Sciences program has been named among the top 15 out of 150 undergraduate game design programs in the United States and Canada, according to a survey from the Princeton Review. The program graduated its first full class in May 2011.

Sheldon previously taught game design at Indiana University, Bloomington, where his unorthodox style of patterning his classes as a multiplayer game has earned praise for its success in exciting students and improving classroom learning. He is the author of Character Development & Storytelling for Games , a standard text in universities all over the world.

In addition to his successful teaching career, Sheldon has written and designed more than 20 commercial video games and massively multiplayer online games for companies such as Microsoft, Disney, Cyan, and Dreamcatcher. He is currently design consultant and lead writer for Star Trek: Infinite Space, a multiplayer game to be published by Gameforge. Prior to his work in the games industry, Sheldon earned more than 200 credits in popular television – including Star Trek: The Next Generation, Charlie’s Angels , and Cagney & Lacey – as a professional Hollywood screenwriter and producer.

Additional information on the book is available at the author’s listing on Amazon at

Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146


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