Profiles For Playful Learning

This article is the original version of an article that was modified to appear on EdSurge as part of their larger discussion on personalized learning.

As a special education teacher, I work with students who struggle academically and generally have a low tolerance for frustration—but the same kid who gives up after trying a math problem once will watch Super Mario fall into a hole a dozen times and try again a thirteenth time to get it just right. Why is that? And why isn’t learning the same way?

I know this sounds like some trite aphorism, but every learner is unique. Each one has a unique combination of strengths, hopes, and fears innately tied to their individual history, which means there can be no singular means of instruction that will be equally effective for all of them.

Having worked with students with disabilities for over 13 years, I can attest that the adage “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met but one person with autism” holds true about the individuality of all learners. I’ve always found it crucial to know my students academically and personally so  I can modify instruction to be as effective, engaging and rigorous as possible. That is why I spend every year crafting personal learner profiles for my students that go beyond their IEP goals and basic personality surveys.


History of Learning Profiles

Working with students with special needs, I am familiar with a variety of educational concepts regarding uncommon learners. Those most commonly advocated in special education are differentiated instruction, behaviorism, learning styles, and Theory of Multiple Intelligences. While these concepts allow for adapting instruction and affecting behavior through training and reward systems, they are, on their own, insufficiently effective for genuinely knowing and instructing students individually. In my practical experience, I have had students with strengths in multiple areas, but they still struggled if I differentiated based solely on modality or skills. I found greater success, when I accounted for their interests, personality, and background and created projects and problems tailored to those experiences.

I came to recognize that I would need to account for a means to engagingly address academic essentials while recognizing individual student thought processes and interests. I found overlap for many students though when it came to playful learning, open challenges, and social experiences which allow for vibrant and effective learning experiences. Many of the students, like myself, chose to spend their time outside of school playing games (often digital), but my moment of inspiration came when I recognized they were playing different types of games with different motivations and, if I could tap into that, I could find success.

Gamer Personality

There are a number of reasons I enjoy using games for instruction, but the most compelling ones are the power it has to shift student incentives and redefine failure. As far as motivation, students might begin being drawn in by scoreboards and badges, but their attention is maintained through the challenge, fun, and social aspects of the game. I work with students who struggle academically and have a generally low tolerance for frustration, but that same kid who gives up after trying a math problem once will watch Super Mario fall in a hole a dozen times and try again a thirteenth time to get it just right. Why is that? It’s because the game is engaging and meaningful to them. Learning should be the same way.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 8.47.52 PM.pngI wanted to bring that kind of motivation to my classroom so I transformed it into a learning environment where nearly all elements are part of a larger game. After initial assessments, personal surveys, and al-about-me activities to learn about my students both academically and personally I worked towards creating a system to improve their interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. The system permeated all aspects of the classroom so whether we were creating keynotes about historical figures, playing math games, or creating a digital story, students were doing it playfully in the context of knowing more about who they and their classmates were.

This began in a concrete way in 2010 which meant every student created a character persona for the game (class) and created trading cards that listed their attributes based on those prior assessments and surveys. It tied into a behavior and curriculum system where their characters earned points (instead of grades), digital badges, and rewards based on their completing quests (assignments). They would level up which would earn them special in-class privileges. And we would also continue to play actual games within the larger context of the class game. I began to gamify my classroom before I had ever even heard that word.

My original intent with this shift in practice was to get to know my students in a deeper way. Not just whether they preferred math or history, or whether they learned better through reading or listening—I wanted a complete picture of my students including their motivation, personality traits, academic and non-academic strengths and areas for growth. I didn’t get all that from gamifying my lesson plans. But my efforts were met with immediate success as student behaviors improved and they mastered increasingly complex skills.

In terms of understanding my learners more deeply, I still had work to do. My next step was to create functional learning profiles that students could relate to. That meant I needed a means for easily grouping students based on their motivations and goals determined through those early evaluations.

Developing Gamer Profiles

Early in 2012, a structure based on Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of player types. I took a framework created to improve digital game design and applied it since I was essentially creating a game made up of my classroom. Bartle’s work was intended to serve as model solely for text-based adventures and multiplayer online games, but I noticed that it has a lot in common with other universally recognized temperament scales like the Keirsey’s Four Temperaments and the related work of Meyers and Briggs Personality Types.

DELETE They are not perfectly symmetrical, nor are they intended to be), but the correlations are difficult to ignore—and I’m not the only one to notice similarities across temperament scales. The structure has evolved over time to combine elements of all three models and the diagram below is something I now use in a few ways to get to know my students and to help them get to know themselves and each other.  

This work began with me first creating my own diagram to improve my understanding and then improving my student measurements to include more of the whys and whats of student’s play preferences. That way I could include their gamer personality with their character cards and the students and I could use that to inform how we engaged in the game (with the class material).

Gamer Types new

The diagram includes four main categories and eight subcategories of player profile types. The geek in me is inclined to draw comparisons to other fantasy works like the four houses of Hogwarts and how Rowling must have also recognized some universal truth about personality types and our need to identify ourselves as part of a subgroup within a larger society. How players (students) choose to group themselves depend on how they choose to act upon or interact with the world and other players. Then we can break it down further depending on whether the students are initially driven by explicit motivations or more powerful implicit drivers.

Bartle defined the four main categories as achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers. As an educator, the term killer problematic so I tend to use the term griefer, which in the gaming community, refers to a player who deliberately provokes others in order to spoil their enjoyment. Each category is driven by unique goals and thought processes.


Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 6.48.24 AM.pngMany teachers tend to prefer this group as they are the ones most likely to be motivated by good grades alone. They want status and to achieve the goals set forth in the rules of the game/class as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is the group seeking out the treasure whether it is gold, grades, or knowledge. If they get the medal for a task that was sufficiently challenging, they are content.

If I’m to be honest, this group of gamers (students) tends to wear on me as they tend to be the high-achievers who only seek to comply and rarely seek to create. One student who I found was often eager to please could be effectively instructed by creating ever-more-challenging but achievable goals. By making those challenges open-ended it required the student to stretch their creative muscles.

Within this category are the opportunists and the planners. Opportunists want to master tasks and learn new things to help them overcome challenges and prefer an easier route and look to avoid any obstacles if possible. Planners always have an objective and every small task is in service of the larger goal. They are motivated by rewards for each task they accomplish. Planners require little other than support crafting ever-evolving goals and occasional support if a task becomes overly frustrating.


Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 6.48.36 AM.pngThis group seeks novelty and grows weary of routine quickly. They want to find something new and journey to a location or learn information that hasn’t previously been explored. These are your diggers and archeologists who will take your lessons to new depths. They want to gain knowledge and poke and prod any ideas presented. Sometimes they work collaboratively, but they frequently prefer solitary efforts. They want to know how it all works together.

I really enjoy these students both because they are naturally inquisitive and drawn to learning new things and because I personally relate to this inclination. The particular challenge with some of these students (and myself) is on-task behavior. So even in units where we had to stay on a particular topic for some time (i.e. narrative essays), I gave these students the opportunity to explore various methods (digital stories, movies, and machinima) to demonstrate mastery of the topic. 

The explorer category includes hackers and scientists. The hackers let intuition lead them to create and explore their world at a deeper level. Scientists begin to test their ideas about the world around them. There is always a method to their efforts. In games, they enjoy discovering a loophole for a reward, but more than that, they like explaining how they did it. My advice: don’t ever make anything to simple for this group. Their struggle is part of the draw for them, so give them reasons to dig deeper into whatever you’re working on.


Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 6.48.51 AM.pngSome kids are only there for the relationships with their classmates. You can use that to a positive end. This group is looking for friends and connections to greet others and share their stories. Winning is insignificant if it’s in isolation.

It took a shift in my thinking to recognize that socialization could enhance instruction instead of being a distractor from it. I took my students who wanted to chat and created group activities like designing and programming a robot to accomplish a task which required each person to play a role and discuss the ways they could resolve the challenge.

This group includes friends and networkers. Friends want to form deep, lasting connections that can help them survive whatever struggles they encounter in the world. Networkers enjoy interacting with others and increasing their personal profile amongst their peers.

Give these students a variety of opportunities for collaborative work where success requires ongoing communication. Developing learning experiences that build upon social media-style communication can maximize their engagement.


Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 6.48.16 AM.pngRebels want to win at almost any cost and love to do so directly in opposition to their peers. They are often most excited when tampering with the game and other players. They are genuine competitors who love to challenge others to contests of skill whether it is even innately part of the game and their tactical and creative inclinations usually lead them to victory.

These students are rare, but I had one set of rebels like this who took a class civilization initiative and turned it on its head. Instead of attempting to prosper in the world we created, they overthrew it to become its new leaders. They soon learned though that becoming a leader is a far simpler task than leading your subjects and keeping them content. While these players can be frustrating when railing against your rules, they can also be the revolutionaries and artists who will be the true innovators and instruments of global change if instructed to focus their energies.

Griefers – These players are motivated by a sense of purpose and, though it isn’t always altruistic, it can be. When it’s not though they can be incredibly confrontational with a fearsome reputation as their general goal.

Politicians – This group can be more subtle in their manipulation of others with rewards in mind. They also value reputation but will put forth a facade to maintain popularity amongst their peers.

To succeed with this group of students it is important to give them leadership roles and tasks where they can act as a guide. You also need to create exciting and meaningful challenges that will require struggle on their behalf.

Using the Gamer Profiles

pexels-photo-735911.jpegAs explained in the sections above you use the profiles to determine methods for differentiating instructional content, learning processes, or student products. In addition to the observations, conversations, and modified assessments discussed earlier created using tools like Google Forms there are additional methods I’ve used to gather student information as I’ve worked to fully integrate student game profiles in the classroom. To gather additional data on student temperament and interests. I have used Thrively student interest surveys and there are a Bartle Test, Meyers Briggs tests, or Kiersey surveys for students who are capable.

I use the information to guide my interactions with students and the types of goals and activities I allow within my lesson framework. In one particular example, a student we’ll call ‘K’ was struggling with aggressive behavior in the aftermath of a family tragedy. He was a griefer with some opportunist leanings. I set forth path of leadership for him where he could take his team of adventurers (class group) to accomplish achievable mastery goals earning him badges and recognition for his team (and him). He began to embrace that leadership role and achieve higher academically as well as improve socially and behaviorally.. By incorporating game-based learning throughout class I drew him back in and the profile (both for his character and for him as a learner) helped him feel confident in his own skin.

From Gamer to Student to Lifelong Learner

No model of human behavior or experience can be perfect as human beings are too complex and their motivations, while generally calculable, are sometimes erratic and misunderstood even by the person acting. There are some universal connections through which, human beings in general, and my students, more specifically, can form a common thread. The use of learner profiles helps fuel personalization of student learning which allows students not only to learn in the ways that are most comfortable for them while demonstrating both their uniqueness and connections to their peers. It also illustrates that hey can learn in their chosen manner beyond the school’s walls. It helps them to transition from being students to becoming lifelong learners.

Creativity, problem-solving, critical and analytical thinking, decision making, risk taking, all found in game-based learning.

– Mark Grundel @MGrundel

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