Game-based learning: for Classroom, Inc. it’s more than a buzzword or trending topic on Twitter—it’s a mission worth believing in. Based in New York but with national reach, Classroom, Inc. is a nonprofit that helps students in high-needs communities develop literacy and leadership skills. They’re gearing up for their 25th anniversary celebration, and for the past four and a half years Christopher Spivey has led Classroom, Inc.’s game development efforts as Director of Production. He works every day with a talented team dedicated to improving the lives of students.

FableVision and Classroom, Inc. have collaborated on award-winning literacy games for the classroom, After the Storm and Community in Crisis. From day one, it was a mission-match.

“The core pillars of Classroom, Inc.’s mission are literacy and leadership so that students have the opportunity to connect school to career, because when students make this connection they begin to understand how success in school sets them up for success in life,” shares Christopher. “We create digital learning games and curriculum set in the professional world that foster students’ literacy and leadership skills and connect what they do in school to life in the workplace.”

Spend some time with Christopher, and it’s clear he embodies the passion and mission resident in Classroom, Inc. both in and outside the company. Hear about his empowering approach to pedagogy, instilling life skills through game play and development, and his globetrotting adventures through Europe—from the fortresses of Granada to the rolling streets of Lisbon.

"It’s important to note that we don’t try to trick the students into learning by hiding the learning objectives. Rather, we give the student agency and autonomy to control their own learning experience and in doing so we see a profound increase in engagement."

How do Classroom, Inc.’s guiding principles stand out as distinctive? How is that reflected in how you approach your work?
Our learning environments are based on our commitment to an immersion-based pedagogical model. We have the belief that hands-on project-based learning enhances students’ skills and prepares them for the workplace. We also believe that when students are given meaningful tasks with realistic consequences they are proud to own their learning.

Those principles carry through all of our work, we immerse students in all aspects of management, decision-making, and office policies. We empower them to “Be The Boss,” and to think critically and make decisions that influence the story portions of the game.

Classroom, Inc.’s learning games are used in school, extended day, after school, and summer school environments. How do you think gaming improves the way that students are learning in classrooms and informal learning settings?  
Game-based learning addresses engagement in a really elegant way, as engagement is probably the most difficult challenge that young struggling readers face. When a book is placed in the hands of a struggling reader the response is very different than when they are presented with agency and choice within an interactive experience, something which games are particularly great at doing! Our games engage the student, and while we have their attention and focus we address literacy and career-awareness simultaneously.

FableVision's Gary Goldberger and Classroom, Inc.'s Anne Richards at the After the Storm launch party in New York City.

How did Classroom, Inc. come to cross paths with FableVision’s?
That credit goes to our former VP of Product Development, the incredible Anne Richards. Four years ago when we were looking for a developer to help us create the particular type of experience we needed we looked at a lot of studios. FableVision’s motto “stories that matter, stories that move” really hooked us, because at the core of our games are stories. FableVision’s focus on storytelling and their long history of crafting beautiful experiences for kids made them the perfect partner to help us bring our stories to life.

What has your experience been like working with FableVision on After the Storm and Community in Crisis?
It’s been an incredible experience! Honestly we could not have hoped to have a better partner than FableVision. Games are an art form, and they should be seen as such by the teams who make them. All you need to do is look at FableVision’s portfolio to see that they know that better than anyone.

But more than just having an incredible aesthetic, a learning game has the additional challenge of efficacy. The game needs be easy to use, technically stable, and easy to support and maintain, then on top of all that a learning game also has to reinforce the learning outcomes. Those are tough challenges to solve, and FableVision has been there to help us to successfully navigate them every step of the way.

After the Storm and Community in Crisis put students in a rare decision-making role. Why is this leadership role so important, and how is it seamlessly tied to the literacy content?
We want students to have a first-hand experience as leaders in a professional environment. To tie the literacy content to leadership, we tap into one of the oldest learning modalities—that human beings learn through story. We do that by creating a narrative that immerses the student in the role of “the boss” such as the editor-in-chief of an online news magazine or the executive director of a community organization. In each game the students see themselves as in control and as a leader responsible for negotiating real-world challenges, and because these activities are created in the format of interactive fiction they are applying literacy skills in a way that doesn’t feel like a normal reading lesson. It’s important to note that we don’t try to trick the students into learning by hiding the learning objectives. Rather, we give the student agency and autonomy to control their own learning experience and in doing so we see a profound increase in engagement.

"Our students live in the real world and they and their families face real world challenges every day that are reflected in our games, and kids really respond positively to that kind of authenticity."

Classroom, Inc. provides resources for educators to empower students to take charge of their learning. What changes or reactions have you seen from students and educators since using the Read to Lead suite of games?
Visiting a classroom that’s using one of our games is always a treat. Seeing the kids’ responses when they play our games is rewarding and inspiring. I’m encouraged each time I see these young struggling readers lean close to the computer screen, parsing out the words of a piece of dialogue between their character and a virtual co-worker in order to consider and choose a response that they feel will best move the story forward.

For most of these kids, reading is a challenging, a sometimes embarrassing activity but when you put reading in context of an activity that kids want to pursue that’s when magic can happen and you see non-readers get excited about reading.

What are you currently working on that you’re excited about?
This summer we’re going to launch our third game made in partnership with FableVision. It’s called Vital Signs and focuses on health care. The game places the player into the role of a Medical Director of a community health clinic. They’ll encounter challenges such as patient care decisions as well as operational questions about how to keep the clinic running smoothly.

"FableVision’s focus on storytelling and their long history of crafting beautiful experiences for kids made them the perfect partner to help us bring our stories to life."

For instance, in one situation a student might need to decide whether or not the clinic should accept patients who do not have health insurance but have urgent medical needs. This would require them to speak to a needy patient about possible choices for their care, consult with their administrative director on risks to treating the uninsured, review clinic budget guidelines, and then determine what the clinic’s policy should be.

Classroom, Inc. has never shied away from representing the real world in our games in an age-appropriate way. Our students live in the real world and they and their families face real world challenges every day that are reflected in our games, and kids really respond positively to that kind of authenticity.

You were a mentor for the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), helping expand the global community of game developers. Can you tell us a little about that work?
I’ve been a member of the IGDA for almost 10 years now. When I noticed a call for mentors I jumped at the chance to give back. I most recently participated at the IGDA Mentor Café at GaymerX last fall, which is an annual LGBTQ-focused gaming convention. I was able to sit down with aspiring artists, designers, programmers, and producers about their interests in joining the game industry.

I’ve been in the game industry for over a decade and as I listened to their questions I reflected upon my own experience to offer support, advice, and encouragement. I spoke about my career as a game developer, and I spoke about my experience of being gay in the game industry. I’ve been in the industry for so long at this point that it’s difficult to recall the trepidation and anxiety I had about how I might be accepted and received when I first started my career in games. I wanted to take the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with these aspiring young developers who are just starting their own journey into games.

We hear you take an international trip every New Year – what an adventure! Where would you recommend for someone who has three days to travel? How about seven days? How about ten?
There’s a running joke in our office that if there’s a long weekend coming up, I’m headed out of the country. For the past five years, a small group of friends and I choose a city in Europe to meet in for ringing in the New Year. This year it was Venice, and in previous years it’s included Berlin, Vienna, and Madrid. Here are my recommendations:

  • Three days: Lisbon – Walk up and down the rolling streets, ride the cable cars, and enjoy views of a red suspension bridge that stretches across the bay all while reminding yourself you didn’t take a wrong turn to end up in San Francisco. Also don’t miss the opportunity to visit a Fado café while the staff serenades you with their mournful tunes, and take a day trip out to Sintra to see the summer palace of the Royal Family.
  • Seven days: Madrid – Spend three days in Madrid exploring the city and eating your bodyweight worth of tapas, then take one day and a bullet train to see an ancient city set on a hill, Toledo. And for the remaining days travel south to Granada and wander the grounds of the grandest palace and fortress of the Moorish monarchs, the Alhambra.
  • Ten days: Rome – The Eternal City demands a week at a minimum. See masterworks of art and architecture in galleries and museums as well as in tiny churches tucked away down quiet streets. Eat every meal in this city like it’s your last meal. Walk the cobblestones of a city that the Romans thought would go on forever.

Christopher Spivey leads the development teams and game production efforts for Classroom, Inc.’s online products and services. He is a producer and designer for innovative and accessible games and services for the web and mobile. Prior to joining Classroom, Inc., Christopher led production efforts for Callaway Digital Arts, social games developer Zynga, as well as Area/Code Entertainment and Large Animal GamesLearn more about Classroom, Inc. and the work they do on their website.