Ep 056 Greg Toppo of Inside Higher Ed and The Game Believes in You

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Greg Toppo is a senior editor for Inside Higher Ed. Before that, he spent 15 years as the national education reporter for USA Today. A graduate of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., he taught in both public and private schools for eight years before moving into journalism. His first job was with the Santa Fe New Mexican, a 50,000-circulation daily. He worked for four years as a wire service reporter with the Associated Press, first in Baltimore and then in Washington, D.C., where he became the AP’s national K-12 education writer.

Toppo also co-led the USA Today team that in 2011 looked at educator-led cheating on standardized tests. The paper’s series prompted the Washington, D.C., inspector general to investigate high erasure rates in D.C. schools. Toppo was a 2010 Spencer fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a 2016 Yale University Poynter Fellow. He is the author of the book The Game Believes In You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter (April 2015). In 2017, he became president of the Education Writers Association.

Picture by Lisa Meloni Photography.


A regular day for Greg, who is a journalist, includes a lot of reading, phone calls and reporting. He is currently working on higher ed, which is totally different from his previous work that was about K-12. As a journalist, he loves the fact that he basically gets paid to learn new things on a daily basis.

Early in his career he was reporting and made a “stupid error,” he mischaracterized something and the editor called him to the office and it was obvious that Greg was feeling pretty bad about what happened. The editor told him “you know, this should be fun, we should be having fun.” This has stuck for over 20 years especially because it is something quite easy to forget! It’s a nice place to fall back to, try to remember the very reason why you started on the path you did. Greg also reminded us that fun is not always “ha-ha” fun, it is more about losing track of fun. We also talked about the theory of flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

One of his favorite studies of gamification and the use of games in classrooms is from a social studies teacher in Minnesota who invented a game to teach specifics on world history. She basically gamified reading the news, it was sort of a fantasy football game but with countries, so they had countries and every time their country appeared in the news they got points and, of course, they were actually reading the news to find their country. At some point, she says, the students were actually running the game and “she became obsolete.” Perhaps, in my opinion, what she meant is that the traditional role of just lecturing was becoming obsolete. Greg mentioned also that the “students taking control of their learning” is sometimes misused, and he highlighted that in a game the player is actually in control, it is something we as humans love, perhaps the reason why the device used to interact with games is called the controller.

At a certain point, Greg started to think a lot about tech and the role it was playing in our lives. He was worrying with his children about screen-time and similar. He realized that as adults they were getting it all wrong, so the problem was not about the screen but about what needs they are fulfilling with video games. He didn’t have much of an interest in games but it was a topic that was not going away for him, so he decided to dedicate a few months to researching and writing and see what happens. That is how his book  The Game Believes In You came to be! We went into certain depth with regards to the difficulty in games and how only in games we actually want them to be difficult! It is also in games where it is ok to fail, learn from it and improve. We also went into Nicole Lazaro’s “The 4 Keys 2 Fun” and how her theory relates to this topic.

A good practice in gamification is that the players feel that their time is well spent, that it is worth their time to engage with your design. As an example, Greg cited the Speed Camera Lottery which lead me to remember the Taiwan Receipt Lottery as well. Regarding games, he mentioned the dice game LCR which he recently played with friends and family and found gripping. It is for him a clear example of how the magic circle can work with something really simple.

Greg would love to listen to Jesper Juul on Professor Game, also of course Jane McGonigal and Raph Koster. A book for a wide view of these topics would be Jane’s Reality is Broken, if you want more on how important it is to fail Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games and if you want to read about why we have higher standards for games than other media, The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us—And How They Don’t by Nick Yee of Stanford.

We can find the web for his book here: gamebelieves.com. It was certainly “hard” fun for him! A final advice when thinking about young people and games is to think about what they get from them, think about what you could do instead of looking at it with hands folded, you might even play with them, learn things about your kids and have some fun.

We can connect with Greg through the book’s website, on Twitter through @gtoppo or @gamebelieves.


There are many ways to get in touch with Professor Game, you can go to my Twitter @RobAlvarezB, my Instagram, our Facebook Page, subscribe to our email list and even ask a question to future guests!

Looking forward to reading or hearing from you,


2 Replies to “Ep 056 Greg Toppo of Inside Higher Ed and The Game Believes in You”

  1. Pingback: Ep 047 with Valary Oleinik the superhero of curiosity in gamification – Professor Game

  2. Pingback: Matthew Farber and constructivist gaming | Episode 065 – Professor Game

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