Interview with Shawn Young, CEO Classcraft Games

During a week long trip with my family to Quebec this past week, I was able to meet up with Shawn Young, CEO and Co-Founder of Classcraft Games in Sherbrooke, Canada.

Shawn’s insight into gamification in education helps inform my classroom practices and use of games with my students. As I continue to plan for this upcoming school year, I share the the knowledge Shawn divulged about technology, building (life long) skills, and the future of gamification in education.


Michele: What does gamification mean to you?

Shawn: Gamification has become a bit of an umbrella term in the last few years – people apply the term to anything where you can gain points or badges. Not surprisingly, seeing gamification  from this lens leads to experiences which can feel stale, boring or lack meaning.

For me, gamification is much more than that. In fact, I prefer the term ludicization : “To create a situation from which play can emerge”. In this sense, gamification becomes the art of crafting experiences in which many of the components of games can be applied (autonomy, competency, social relationships, randomness, feedback, etc.) to create a state of playfulness. Using these components leads to genuine fun (with a purpose) from which intrinsic motivations can stem. Simply put, good gamification is applying extrinsic motivators that will be internalized to produce intrinsic motivation.

Michele: As a former teacher, what do you see as the benefits of gamification for teachers and students?

Shawn: This depends on the approach, really. With Classcraft, we help teachers gamify the experience of coming to school, rather than gamifying content, like you would see with math or language games. From that perspective, the benefits on classroom culture are huge: students are taking ownership of the way the classroom is run and are significantly more engaged, even with the rote day-to-day tasks that occur naturally from class life. The game is very collaborative, so they gain a team that’s looking out for them and face challenges together. They also get much more positive reinforcement than they are used to, which has a big impact on their perception of self-worth. Obviously, this is great for teachers, who feel like they are working with students, not against them.

Michele: How did you first get involved in gaming for education? When and how did Classcraft come to fruition?

Shawn: Classcraft stemmed out of my own unique background as grade 11 physics teacher, web developer and gamer. I have been playing board games and video games since I was kid and that continued on into my adult life. As an educator, I was able to relate culturally with my students – indeed, we were playing the same games! I had a poor school experience growing up, often feeling like I was wasting my time, so my main focus as a teacher was making sure that coming to school was pertinent for students and that they felt that it was.

It dawned on me that the experience of coming to school would be much more satisfying if it was like an RPG, so I made a quick prototype and started playing with my students. I fine-tuned the game over the course of 3 years before making a little website to share with other teachers what I was doing. Overnight, the website attracted 150 000 visits – seems like a lot of other people were interested in doing the same! I then teamed up with my brother, Devin, who is a designer, and our father Lauren, who has 35 years experience in business and accounting, and Classcraft was born. Since then, the platform has evolved tremendously!

Michele: What are the elements from (classic) video games that can benefit teachers and students for gamification purposes?

Shawn: When thinking of this question, people tend to look for tropes – ”Should I use XP + levels?” “Do students need an avatar?” or “Should I lay this out on a map?” are typical questions that come up from these types of questions. At Classcraft, our focus is more on the fundamental psychology of self -determination theory and how it applies to video games. There is a reason gamers are willing to spend hours repeating the same boring task to complete an objective, but aren’t willing to spend 5 minutes doing math homework: games fulfill 7 fundamental motivational needs (autonomy, competency, relationships, discovery, surprise, feedback, storytelling). These are the elements we lifted from games to design a playful experience and they are outlined on our blog.  


Michele: What life skills and Common Core Standards does Classcraft and gamification address?

Shawn: Classcraft is very customizable: it can be used to develop any “soft”-skills by identifying behaviors that show mastery and giving points for that. For example, if you want to develop grit in your students, you’ll identify behaviors that are indicative of grit, like persevering in the face of adversity, and give students points for those behaviors, thus encouraging explicitly to internalize them. Because all of these behaviors are logged in the game, you’ll be able to assess development of these skills by looking at the per-student behavior analytics in the platform. That being said, Classcraft explicitly foster meaningful teamwork, ownership of learning, prosocial skills and perseverance. In terms of CCS, Classcraft doesn’t gamify curriculum, it gamifies the experience.

Michele: You have said that “when playing video games, kids feel a sense of empowerment.” Can you talk more about this. What do you mean?

Shawn: In a video game, the player inherently knows that they can succeed. Even in the face of the most difficult challenges, they can try as often as they like and develop their skill. Often times, they can tackle problems in several ways and make meaningful choices about their trajectory within the game. All of this leads to a sense that the player can shape their destiny and build mastery for success.

Compare this to the school experience: kids often have only one set way to complete their journey through a course and only get one chance to demonstrate mastery of given piece of content.  It doesn’t feel very empowering.

Michele: As the Gamemaster for Classcraft, what are you dreaming up and working on now for teachers to benefit from you gaming platform?

Shawn: We’ve got a lot of things coming🙂 One thing we’re focused on is integrating with more platforms and partners. We’re already integrated with Google Classroom and Microsoft’s Office 365 and we want to create more opportunities for teachers to be able to gamify the entire student experience, no matter which platforms and tools they are using. We are also looking at building more game features, like self-correcting quizzes students can complete for XP and storylines they can play out throughout the year.

Michele: What has the best thing about creating Classcraft and sharing it with teachers all around the world?

Shawn: This may sound hokey, but it’s been really great for everyone on the team to see the profound positive impact we have had on teachers, students and parents. Every day, we receive videos, pictures and testimonials from people using Classcraft telling us how it has changed their lives for the better. From the shy fifth-grader who wrote us to tell she had finally been able to make friends because of Classcraft, to the burned out teacher who has found the love of teaching again, to the parent who is raving about how motivated their child is, all of these testimonials act as fuel to keep us imagining new ways to make the classroom a better place.

Michele: Since gaming and gamification is continuously evolving, where do you see it going? What do you see as the future of gamification for educational purposes in the next year, 5 years, and even 10 years from now?

Shawn: Who knows!?🙂 It’s definitely an exciting time for the field. Tech is changing faster than we can anticipate and opportunities like VR and augmented reality will definitely have an impact on the field. I’m certain we’ll see it become much more prevalent than it is now, as educators see success stories and jump on board.

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