I was ten when Donkey Kong came out on the Atari 2600. My little brother had flunked kindergarten and some doctor, bless his soul, told my mom he might have a hand-eye coordination problem that a video game system might help him to overcome. It might have been the first time I really openly loved my kid brother. Like many in my generation, I devoted hours and hours to mastering the double-jump, the quick up-down ladder climb, and learning just how high off a girder I could be and still survive a fall. While I did occasionally rescue Daisy momentarily, she was always recaptured in the next stage, and I never was able to ultimately defeat Donkey Kong in any permanent way. This left us with points as the only measure of our success, so we ran with it. My friends and I would write down our nightly scores and hurry into school the next day to compare point totals and crown one of us the best at the game. I was best for awhile, then it was Adam’s turn, I’d win it back, and then Mike would come out of nowhere with a score far beyond what we had thought possible. So we’d go back home to our consoles and hammer away trying to get points in a game that couldn’t be won.
School was the same thing. I was just like Mario, learning the moves, passing the stages, and most of all, collecting the points. When I was a kid and teachers would accuse me of “gaming” their classroom, I wore it as a badge of pride. It seemed video games were a pretty good learning tool after all. Extra credit? I knew the value of bonus rounds. 5th grade? I’d been to level 35 on Missile Command, a feat I knew none of my teachers even understood. All of us gamed school. And it isn’t much different now, truth be told. Except now their worlds don’t match up as seamlessly as my points-based childhood. The kids are still playing for points in school, but at home they are heroes in stories bigger than most of the novels we serve up for point consumption in our classrooms. They have an alternative to points. They have quests, missions, and adventures that are global, meaningful, and rewarding.
The Legend of Zelda came out when I was fourteen. Our family got a Nintendo for Christmas that year, all pretense of medicinal intent having been dropped when my mom and grandfather were caught mapping out Atari’s Superman game with construction paper on our living room floor. The cartridge had a totally new feature: a battery. What this meant is that we could save our games. At first this didn’t seem like much of an advancement past the “pause” button. With the advent of The Legend of Zelda we came to know a much more powerful aspect of the “save” feature. It meant that games could get long. For much of the previous video game history, a game might last, at most, several hours. Zelda could last for days, and video games made a giant leap away from points and towards something way more meaningful, actual accomplishment. (all arguments concerning actual vs. virtual accomplishment are noted, and ignored.) No longer was our villain going to show up on the next level with our captive heroin once again his captive awaiting rescue by a plumber who’s real goal was scoring points. No longer would we care about how many extra lives we earned. The Legend of Zelda relied upon how much life you had. The goal was to stay alive long enough to save the world. And saving the world was a totally doable, if not frustratingly difficult, goal. I can’t tell what it meant for this pimply 14 year-old to feel like a hero in a time when I felt way less worthy of the title everywhere else but in Zelda‘s world of Hyrule. I didn’t care about points, I wanted to actually achieve something.
In school though, it was points, points, and more points. Just because I had found Zelda I hadn’t lost my “gaming” skills. I cheated a bunch and it was just like in the video games. I put in the cheat code, I got tons of points, but they didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t all bad. I had a few teachers who were tapping into the hero in me. My 9th grade Advanced Earth Science teacher, Mr. Meinke, once asked us to observe the night sky for a month and use our observations to prove that the Earth was not the center of the universe. This was pre-internet, mid I’m-too-lazy-to-look-it-up, and post finding any excitement in the classroom. But that assignment felt more like a mission than a high score exercise. I don’t think I got the answer right at the end of the month, but I sure did value a teacher who put me at the center of a mission. Just like in the video games, for a little while, points didn’t matter at all. Today the most popular video games all tell a story that puts the player, our students, at the center of a quest, an adventure or a mission. Hardly anyone plays for points anymore. Except in classrooms. Everywhere. Still.
In an age of unprecedented possibility for adventure in learning, missions in waiting, and quests to be had, I wonder why points have yet to be supplanted by progress in our widespread education model. It’s time for us to switch the “game” of education away from the Donkey Kong version we’ve been playing for the past several decades and embrace the potential that The Legend of Zelda uncovered by promoting how much life is gained in our classrooms in pursuit of achieving world-saving goals.