Cooperative gaming: A path to being human

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, teacher Aaron Kaio discusses how he used a class on cooperative gaming to help students build real-world skills.

I teach at an alternative school in Madison, Wisconsin. Students often have trouble engaging with school and come to us looking for something new to help connect them. So this quarter, I decided to focus a class on cooperative gaming. I did a little research to pick the games, wrote a grant to pay for them (thanks, Alliant Energy Foundation!), and then made a plan.

To provide some academic content for the class, I used the book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and its accompanying workbook. The book is a fable about dysfunctions told through a story about a CEO trying to turn a company around. Yes, the book is targeted to CEOs and corporations, but it provides good advice and ideas on how to teach teamwork. It focuses on five themes: trust, commitment, conflict, accountability, and looking at the results. Not all of the material applies to school, but it is easily transferable to the classroom.

Students playing card game.
Photo credit: Aaron Kaio

Each week, we would spend the first two days reading from the book and focusing on one of the themes through discussion or cooperative learning activities. For example, in the trust section, students took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality quiz and used it to discuss the strengths and weaknesses that they would bring to the games.

The next two days (our 50-minute class took place four days per week), we would practice and then play one of the games. Here are some of the challenging games we used and what they taught us:

The Mind, Pandasaurus Games
Photo credit: The Mind, Pandasaurus Games

The Mind

This is a fun game of trying to order cards without communicating. This was helpful as a way for us to talk about trust and being vulnerable with each other. This game calls on players to occasionally take risks, and you have to be ready to make the wrong call and trust that your teammates will support you.

Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, Gamewright
Photo credit: Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, Gamewright

Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert

In these games, you have to move around a changing game board collecting items before your time runs out. Each player gets a special power that changes how they approach the game. This allowed us to really dig into conflict because there were so many disagreements on how to proceed. We focused on trusting your teammates to hear your ideas and to still be a part of the team even when your ideas are not chosen.

Hanabi, Abacus Spiele Z-Man Games
Photo credit: Hanabi, Abacus Spiele Z-Man Games


This is a difficult game that requires concentration and communication. This game gave us a lot of trouble. During this game, we were creating our class goals and had to really commit to upholding our rules about cell phones, being tardy, and staying focused to reach our goal of winning each game.

Pandemic, Z-Man Games
Photo credit: Pandemic, Z-Man Games


We played this game on the hero level, so it was very difficult as well. It forced us to hold each other accountable to the commitments and look at our results. We played this game for more than three weeks because we couldn’t beat it. However, each time we reflected on our results to prepare us for the next time. Although we never beat the game, we came within one turn of winning the campaign and we all felt good about that.

At the end of the class, I felt like the challenge level was way too low and that my students didn’t get much out of it. So I asked them to share their thoughts and here are some of the responses.

What we learned

“This class teaches you to be more social and to be able to communicate with each other. I was able to really get to know the people in the class. I find that what I learned in this class will be more applicable to real life than what I do in most of my classes.”

“This class did things in a different way. There is a lot that goes into these games like planning ahead, being patient, negotiating with each other. We weren’t learning these things specifically, but we were learning something larger.”

“I don’t think students at a regular school could pass this class. It takes a lot of focus and teamwork to win these games. We also held each other accountable for being in class and paying attention.”

I was struck by their feedback, they felt like they really got something out of the class. I tend to be hard on myself as a teacher, so I had thought the class was a total failure. However, after receiving that feedback, I thought back on what we had accomplished and pulled out a few key findings in what we had done.

  • Belonging: Students freely shared personal stories of their backgrounds during the trust section of the class.
  • Trust: Students felt safe enough to share their weaknesses with each other after taking the MBTI personality test.
  • Communication: Students engaged in conflict using the tools and reasoning they learned from the book study.
  • Focus: Students discussed ways they could improve their results when they couldn’t beat the game Hanabi or Pandemic. This included a conflict over having cell phones out and being tardy to class.
  • Pride: Students volunteered to teach games they had played for our school’s final Celebration of Learning, a day when students create presentations for work they are proud of.
  • Service: Students volunteered to work with one of my other classes that were struggling to come together. They taught the games to the other students and shared their thoughts with me about other ways I might connect with that class.

Although these aren’t necessarily examples of social studies standards, they are examples of required non-cognitive skills that students will need in their future.

I plan on continuing this class. I know I’ll still teach research papers, DBQs (Document-Based Questions), and essay writing. But I believe teaching students to collaborate and to think about how they work and play games together, is just as important. It also just might be a quicker path to helping kids grow into wonderful humans.

Photo credit: Jaciel-Melnik; unsplash

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