Classcraft is a role-playing game designed to increase collaboration and engagement in the classroom. Now with a companion app for iOS, it is even more accessible than ever. We spoke with creator and CEO of Classcraft, Shawn Young about the development of the system, the app, gamification and more.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I’m a physicist, and I have a Master’s in education. I’ve been teaching grade 11 physics for almost 10 years. Physics is a great subject because it allows for a lot of hands-on stuff. It’s pretty interactive. I’ve implemented different teaching methods like the flipped classroom and project-based learning.
While I was doing that, I was also a freelance web developer for the past 10 years, so I worked with our co-founder Devin on some pretty big projects. We worked with big partners, like Chanel and Microsoft.
I’m also a big gamer. I’m mostly into RPGs. I play on my iPhone and PS4.
What's the origin story behind Classcraft?
There is a real need to make the experience of coming to school more fun and engaging for students. The idea for Classcraft had been sitting at the back of my mind for a while and then I had a bit of a lightbulb moment four years ago with a student where I said, “Oh, you should get XP for that!”. I sat with my students to see what would be interesting to them as powers. Then I just made it. I played with my students over the course of three years, fine-tuning the rules, and then I made a little website to talk about it. Within one week, a quarter of a million people came to the website, so it was really clear we needed to do something with it.
Then we got funding from the Canadian government. Fast forward to last September, when we launched the official version, and now we’re in 75 countries with hundreds of thousands of people using it.
Have you had any particular success stories that you're especially proud of?
I’m really happy with the positive impact it’s having on kids and teachers. We’ve had teachers say it’s completely changed their careers and they’ve found the joy of teaching again. We’ve had kids writing us on Facebook telling us how Classcraft has changed their lives. So for me, it’s really amazing that as an educator I can better the lives of people all over the world.
Where you always a fan of gamifying teaching? Had you employed any other strategies before launching Classcraft?
Yes and no. I think gamifying teaching is a very large thing; you can gamify assessments, you can gamify content, or you can gamify the learning situation as a whole, which is what Classcraft is doing. That track of gamifying situations was always interesting to me. I find that when you gamify content, sometimes there are limitations. The game isn’t complex enough or it gives students a simplistic worldview. If there are problems within the core fundamental concepts of the game, it teaches them falsehoods. So to me gamifying content was always very interesting as a gamer, but also a bit of a risky thing.
Something that’s really important in Classcraft is collaboration. Once in my early days of teaching, I taught remedial math. And I made it communistic. So kids were paired in teams of two, and they got the worst grade of both the students on their exam. So if one student had 80 and the other student had 65, then both their grades would be 65. The idea was to push them to help each other out.
It worked alright for a while, but then some kids saw they weren’t able to progress. Some of the poorer students gave up, and then the stronger kids were frustrated, so I stopped the experiment. Classcraft is different in that it creates a space where they can make mistakes safely and try again. It’s fun and they are in control of their destiny.
What would you say are the key elements of the game that engage students?
There are a lot. We actually reverse-engineered most of the elements that make video games interesting and tried to put them in the game. One of them is immediate feedback for all their actions so they’re able to set short-term goals. Another one is competency, the idea that they have control over their own destiny and that they can get better through their own efforts in the game.
I think the team aspect is very strong, too, in engaging meaningful collaboration and social relationships with the kids. Also, being able to express their creativity through their characters, so having a digital avatar that looks awesome and makes them feel really powerful. Having real-life risks and rewards is really important, because the game has meaning within their real lives. And just elements of surprise related to random events and random things in the game.
Do you feel it is best suited to a particular age group or teaching stage?
Actually, no. We’ve seen teachers using it across all kinds of spectrums. I didn’t necessarily think it would work across all those spectrums originally, but now we’re having success stories from people in elementary school, people in high school, people in middle school, people in college. We even have people using it in different situations like homeschool or with special needs students. Because it’s so customizable and because it’s built on the fundamental human psychology that makes life fun and motivating, I think it can be adapted to almost any context.
How important was it to include customisation options that allow teachers to personalise the game?
It was absolutely, 100 percent fundamental. Something like Classcraft wouldn’t work if you weren’t able to tweak the rules for yourself. People aren’t necessarily comfortable with some of the default powers, so it’s really important that they can change them and put something that makes sense for their students but also for themselves. I think that was always part of the core when we built Classcraft. It was in there right from the beginning.
You've recently launched the Classcraft app on iOS. What does this bring to the game?
We actually released the iOS app back in September. It really adds to the game because it allows for teachers to walk around the class easily and continue to manage the game so they’re not tethered to their computer. Also, in a one-to-one context, having students being able to interact with the game makes it instantly more engaging, so that’s really important also. Just to mention, we also have an Android app, which was launched in December.
What's next for Clascraft? Are there any updates in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
One of our goals is to integrate parents, by giving them access to see their kid’s progress, being able to give kids Gold Pieces for doing homework at home, that kind of stuff. Another thing is multi-class integration, so teachers across different classes are able to have the student evolve in multiple classes. Having one’s avatar live across multiple classes is really going to drive engagement to a whole new level.
Then we’re bringing out more game features. One of them is the ability for kids to team up and fight bosses. Another is fleshing out a Story Mode for richer narratives in the game.
How can people keep up to date with you and all the latest developments at Classcraft?
There’s different ways. One is to create an account and be part of our online community, which is very active and has great moderators and community managers helping out teachers from all over the world there. We’re also really active on Twitter and on Facebook. You can also check out our blog at blog.classcraft.com.
Thanks for taking time out for us Shawn. We absolutely love Classcraft and hope to see it go from strength to strength.