Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 4: Giving Students Meaningful Choices

A game is a series of meaningful choices

This post is a bonus post of sorts, since I only intended to write three posts in this series. But, as I was writing each, I was also designing the game that my fall FYC students will play and, as I was doing so, I began to really understand just how important having meaningful choices is in the games that I like to play. Even though I’ve been working to incorporate more and more games-based learning mechanics into my classes for a while now, I’m slowly building those mechanics one at a time (and also tweaking each iteration based on student feedback and my own feelings of whether my methodologies have been successes or failures). There are a lot of interconnected, interworking components to a good game and getting them all effectively integrated and tuned to one another is a difficult process. But as I move further along in that process, I’m realizing that choices, and the rules that constrain those choices, are really what drive a game and make some games more engaging than others (the more choices, the more engaging the game). So, I feel the need to revise my original argument in terms of the order of process for turning a class into a game to include giving students meaningful choices and making it second only to designing the experience. The key word in this step is meaningful. Far too often, teachers give students choices, assuming that choice alone equals autonomy (which, according to research, equals a higher likelihood of engagement). But are those choices truly meaningful? Of course, some choices can just be fun and I’ve tried to build some fun choices into my class, as well, but I’ve put considerable effort with this class into making sure my students have plenty of meaningful choices throughout the game.

Difficulty Levels

As I mentioned in my post on designing experience systems, levels are one type of experience system and difficulty levels are one type of level. It may seem complicated and time-consuming (both on the front end and during the course of the game) to have multiple difficulty levels, but I’m hoping that it will pay off in the end by allowing more students to work within their zones of proximal development and, by extension, be more engaged with the work they’re doing. A difficulty level is a meaningful choice because the student must decide which difficulty level aligns with both their current and potential skill level; they need to both complete the quest and maximize their XP (experience points) potential. Because my game also affords “do overs” if a student fails to complete a quest successfully, the consequences of making the wrong choice are lowered a bit: if a student fails at one level, they can retry it at a lower difficulty level (unless, of course, they failed at the lowest difficulty level, in which case they just need to try harder). This does not necessarily detract from the meaningfulness of the choice, though, as the ideal scenario is to complete each quest successfully the first time, as repeating quests reduces the time a student has to complete the number of quests required for the final grade they desire (more on this in the next section). Each difficulty level also has a different number of possible XP, so which level a student chooses to complete also impacts how many XP they earn, which in turn affects their overall experience level and how quickly they will be able to level up (and earn the achievements and advantages that come with doing so). So this deters students from constantly picking the easiest level just so they can complete the quest the first time, since the achievements and advantages earned for leveling up allow the student to play the game smarter and earn higher levels of bonus XP (and, thus, reach subsequent experience levels sooner and earn even more achievements and advantages).

So, how does this look on the ground?

  • Each quest (except for the boss quest) has three difficulty levels: easy, intermediate, and advanced
  • Each difficulty level requires a different skill level and provides less or more of a challenge in terms of critical reading, thinking, and writing
  • The level of challenge for each difficulty level goes up with each subsequent quest, so that even students who work at the easiest level have to increasingly improve in targeted skills
  • Each difficulty level has a different number of total possible XP (this number goes up with each subsequent quest)
  • A student must complete a quest and earn at least 50% of the total possible XP for the quest plus at least 50% of the possible XP for the major writing assignment associated with the quest in order to proceed to the next quest

The challenge for me will be to monitor and process 25 students working at different difficulty levels and on different quests. I’ve addressed this by keeping the work schedule the same for everyone every day. For example, every other Tuesday will be in-class peer review, so it doesn’t matter which quest a student is currently working on or at what level they are doing so, everyone will be peer reviewing their peers’ drafts and getting their draft peer reviewed by their peers.

Which Quests in What Combination?

A second way that I am introducing meaningful choices into the game is by including bonus quests and side quests that students can combine with the major game quests in various ways. Bonus quests are fun, voluntary quests that students can complete for bonus XP that they can add to their current major quest. This is a convenient expedient for any student who starts the game late and needs to catch up or a student who did not earn enough XP on a quest to move on and doesn’t want to lose the time available for completing future major quests. Side quests are also voluntary, but are complex, multimedia, research-based quests that must be completed with a guild. The XP earned for completing a side quest are simply added to a student’s overall XP, but the real advantage of completing a side quest comes in the ability to substitute it for the major boss quest if a student either wishes to not complete the boss quest or runs out of time to do so and earn their desired grade, since the number and combination of quests determines a student’s final grade, as indicated below:

A = 6 Major Quests

B = 5 Major Quests + 1 Side Quest

C = 5 Major Quests or 4 Major Quests + 1 Side Quest

By setting the game quests up this way, I am giving the students more control over their final grade and over their learning (more on this in the next section). Often, students seem to give up on a class right at the finish line. While these students typically disappear, leaving me with no feedback on why they did so, I can only assume it’s because they feel that they are out of choices when it comes to their final grade in the class: either they’ve made so many mistakes along the way that there’s no way for them to pass or they don’t foresee themselves making the grade they desire (at my university, anything below a C in FYC goes on record as No Credit; the student has to retake the course, but it doesn’t impact their GPA). By providing students with options that allow them to tailor the course to their needs and interests and that allow them to recover from mistakes in terms of failures or wrong choices made along the way, I am hoping to keep more students engaged and encouraged so that they feel that they are truly and meaningfully in control and, therefore, are less likely to give up.

The Boss Quest

The last quest of the game is the boss quest. This quest doesn’t have difficulty levels since the student, in collaboration with their boss quest guild, determines their own difficulty level because they design it. The boss quest is also voluntary; once a student reaches the boss quest, I give them the option to walk away or use a side quest as a substitute. I don’t want to reveal much about the boss quest at this point in case any of my future students find and read my blog, but the boss level is a chance to not only synthesize and demonstrate the skills they’ve mastered during the course of the game, but it also allows them to take meaningful action in a community. What that action is, which community it impacts, and how the action is carried out will be completely up to the student’s guild and will involve a series of very meaningful choices because they have consequences beyond the classroom.

Achievements

As I discussed in my last post, one of the achievements that students can earn for completing various quest-related tasks is either a green, purple, or blue potion, with each color potion related to a specific kind of task/skill. Students can combine these potions in order to unlock powers, which give them advantages in the game. Some colors are rarer or are harder to earn than others. Making decisions about how and when to combine potions gains meaning depending on the student’s current needs and possible future needs. Because students have to balance both expediency and planning ahead and because their choices are constrained by several factors, including which and how many of each color potion they currently have, which and how many of each potion may or may not be available immediately or later in the game, and the likelihood of them earning those potions, their choices take on a complexity that transcends the value of any individual potion and make managing their potions an exercise in critical thinking (but, hopefully, a fun one). Compare the complexity of these choices to some of the other kinds of “choices” that we often offer students and you’ll see why our students prefer the rigor and complexity of games to that of the classroom.

Fun Choices

As I mentioned, I’ve also tried to integrate some “fun” choices into the game. Games often use chance and the element of surprise to keep players engaged and on their toes. Easter eggs are one fun way to do this, but choices can also introduce chance and uncertainty. Since the game I’m developing for my FYC class is inspired by The Hobbit, I decided to introduce the kinds of chance occurrences and surprises that often happen to heroes during an epic journey. I did this by creating the Wheel of Destiny and the Cup of Fate. The Wheel of Destiny is a random name selector app that selects names via spinning a wheel much like the Wheel of Fortune wheel. The Cup of Fate is a red plastic Solo cup (hopefully, I can find a cup that fits in with the theme aesthetic before class starts) which contains various events and consequences related to those events. Once a week, I’ll spin the Wheel of Destiny and whichever student is selected will have to pull a slip from the Cup of Fate. Some events require the student to have demonstrated desirable behaviors and will reward them if they’ve done so. Other events, though, require the student or the student’s entire guild to make a choice. While the choices made do not necessarily have the ramifications of choosing a difficulty level or mixing potions to gain powers, they can change the dynamics of the student’s experiences in the class and, again, give them a level of meaningful control over their destiny in it. Again, I don’t want to reveal the events contained within the Cup of Fate, so I’ll outline this and other “secret” aspects of the game in a follow-up post once the fall semester is over.

These are a few examples of how you can integrate meaningful choices into the experiences that you design for your students. Remember that the key word is meaningful. Without truly meaningful consequences, choices are just an illusory autonomy. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t constrain those choices. Unconstrained choices are often paralyzing for students, especially those in introductory courses. And constraints are one way to make choices truly meaningful. But like the choices, the constraints must be meaningful. In my game, purple potions are rare because they require more effort. If I allowed students to progress to the next quest no matter how many (or few) XP they had earned, then difficulty levels and the quests themselves would have no real value. Rules are the defining characteristic of games. But it’s how games allow players to choose how to play in meaningful ways within those constraints that is the defining characteristic of a good game.

 

 

Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 3: Rewarding Effort

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In my last two posts, I covered two aspects of turning your class into a game: creating the experience and designing experience systems. In this post, I’m going to cover the third aspect: rewarding effort. In games, all effort is rewarded and failure is not punished. In fact, failure is built into games. No one ever plays Mario Kart or Assassin’s Creed without failing–multiple times. This, as has been pointed out by several GBL advocates, is one amongst several reasons why games get learning right and schooling gets learning wrong (or, at least, has poorly designed it). In addition to de-stigmatizing failure, games reward every effort on the part of the player. Every effort. No matter how small. No matter if the effort leads to ultimate success or abysmal failure. Not only do games reward all effort, but, as James Paul Gee points out in What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, they reward effort based on the amplification of input principle. In this design principle, a little input results in a lot of output. By rewarding the player with mega-feedback and mega-output, the game encourages them to put forth even more effort in the hopes of receiving ever larger and larger returns. Again, this stands in stark contrast to how schooling responds to effort. So, how can we apply these principles to the classroom? That’s the question I’ll try to answer in this post, though this is an aspect of games-based learning that I have only recently begun experimenting with myself, so what I’ll offer are some basic principles, as gleaned from well-designed games, and a few ideas based on things I have done or plan to do in my classes.

One way that games reward effort is, of course, with points (XP). This is usually the first thing that people think of when they think of GBL and gamification: giving players/students points for doing things. But points are only one way in which games reward player effort. They also reward effort via achievements. Achievements can be almost anything that has value within the game: tools, clothing/armor, virtual money, powers, bonus content, advantages over other players/NPC’s, etc. In general, there are two types of achievements in games: measurement achievements and completion achievements. Completion achievements are earned simply for completing a task, while measurement achievements are awarded based on the degree and/or proficiency to which the task is completed and are evaluative in nature. A good example is the star rating system in Angry Birds, in which the number of stars you receive for destroying the pigs’ structure in each level depends on how well you did so (evaluating aim, accuracy, speed, and number of projectiles you used). In The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Karl Kapp recommends awarding completion achievements for boring tasks and measurement achievements for challenging and interesting ones.

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Achievements can be expected or unexpected. Expected achievements, according to Kapp, encourage goal-setting and self-evaluation, as players seek to earn achievements that they know are available. Unexpected achievements, on the other hand, encourage exploration and creative gameplay; as a player discovers an unexpected achievement, they become curious about other achievements that might be hidden in the game and actively seek them out. A good example of unexpected achievements are Easter eggs, which I discussed in a previous post. Kapp recommends using unexpected achievements sparingly, but I’m not sure that I agree with him. I think that using both expected and unexpected achievements as much as possible will allow you to target and encourage both types of behavior, and unexpected achievements will offer more challenges for those students who crave them.

There are four general types of achievements in games: status (badges, character classes, etc.), access (to places and items that other players don’t have access to), powers (extra abilities and advantages), and loot. There are several types of loot, including money, goods, bonuses, and time. Money can be used to purchase apparel and tools/weapons for your character or items within the game world. Awarding players money encourages autonomy, creativity, and problem-solving, as they must consider what items to purchase based on both their current and future needs. For example, in the game that I designed for my argumentation and debate class this past Spring based on classical Greek institutio rhetorica (schools of rhetoric), teams of students earned (virtual) gold for participating in in-class activities; they could then use this gold to purchase “favors” from their patroness (me) such as the ability to select which side they debated in an upcoming debate or what order their debate would be held in. In the “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” game that my English 102 students played, they earned money for completing writing assignments and for helping out their guild members with their “cases”; the players could then use this money to purchase virtual investigative tools for their character. The number and cost of the tools their character owned determined their character’s status within the world of the game in terms of renown within their field.

Goods are a second type of loot. The investigative tools that my students purchased in “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” is one example. Goods can be used to personalize and/or strengthen a character or allow the player to play “smarter.” In my upcoming FYC game, players will earn potions for various efforts (peer review, attendance, commenting on peers’ blog posts, etc.); there are three different colored potions, each earned for a different type of effort, some completion-based and some measurement-based. The potions can be combined to attain various kinds of powers, which give the players advantages within the game (extended deadlines, bonus XP, skipping tasks, etc.), with each power requiring a unique combination of potions–the more advantageous the power, the more complex the potion combination required. And once a potion has been used to attain a power, it is used up, so, with some potions scarcer than others, the students will have to think carefully about which powers are most needed at the moment and which might be needed later on. So, like money, goods encourage creativity and problem solving, as well as goal-setting.

Bonuses are also effective ways to reward effort, whether in the form of bonus points or items, because they often allow players to catch up with other players or recover from an especially debilitating failure. A good example of this is found in Mario Kart, where the best weapons are often dropped at times when and in places where the players at the back of the race can pick them up. Students who start a class late (either literally due to late registration or figuratively because they chose to ignore early assignments due to lack of interest or competing commitments) or who get behind later in the term may become demotivated if they feel that it’s impossible for them to catch up with everyone else or make enough progress to pass to class. Having bonuses that allow these students to get back on track may help keep some of them from giving up. I’m attempting to address these students in two ways in my upcoming FYC class game. For one, a couple of the powers that can be attained by combining potions include earning double and triple XP on quests and the ability to skip certain tasks. I have also designed a couple of bonus quests that students can complete, adding the bonus XP earned for doing so to their current quest XP in order to help them level up to the next quest (one of the rules of the game is that players have to earn at least 50% of the total possible XP for a quest in order to move on to the next quest). Like bonuses, time can be used as a way to gain advantages over other players or over the game, again allowing players who get behind a chance to redeem themselves by either slowing down or speeding up the game for themselves or for others.

Whatever types of achievements you design to enhance the experience of your players/learners, have what game designers term a trophy room–a place where students can (re)view and relive their glory, whether virtually or physically. And try to tie achievements to activities that are rewarding in and of themselves. Too often, teachers believe the lie that we have to purchase student effort by assigning (subtractive) points to everything. This practice creates a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein students begin to buy into the idea that only things with points attached to them are worth doing. And that is ultimately the message we send when we attach rewards to some things and not to others (these things are worth doing, these are not), even though we scream about how lazy students are because they won’t read the assigned textbook or essay (but we haven’t designed any explicit reward system for doing the reading, while everything else is replete with punitive, external motivators). Within well designed games, rewarding effort is not about attaching extrinsic carrots to everything. An excellent example of this is the “student in peril” component of the Lego Harry Potter franchise. In each level, there is a student hidden somewhere; if you manage to find that student, the game rewards you by playing special music, having the student dance around while other students cheer, and providing you with a celebratory announcement. That’s it. No points. No extra powers. If you happen to rescue all of the students in peril (there are 50), then you earn the status of having rescued all of the students in peril. There’s no real extrinsic value in doing so. Yet, I have dedicated more hours than I really wish to think about trying to locate and rescue all of the students in peril, even replaying levels I’ve completed in order to do so. Why? Because it is a challenge (the students aren’t easy to locate, so it takes effort and skill to do so) and it feels good knowing that I have the potential to overcome this challenge the more I engage in the process (once you’ve located one student in peril, the chances are good you’ll be able to locate another and then another). And the fact that I’m not getting anything out of it actually makes it even more motivating, strangely enough (although Daniel Pink has proven this is actually not that strange).

 

An achievement is just that–a) a thing done successfully, typically by effort, courage, or skill; and b) the process or fact of doing that something successfully. In order to be most effective and to encourage intrinsic motivation, achievements need to be part and parcel of an experience in which the effort, courage, and skill required to do something successfully and the process and fact of doing it successfully are the rewards most valued, both by the teacher and the students. If you think about it, I am, in fact, receiving something for rescuing the students in peril in Lego Harry Potter: positive acknowledgment and feedback from the game (reward for effort) as I engage in the process of locating them and the pride and self-confidence that comes with doing so successfully. Points are not the only, or even the most powerful, form of rewards available to teachers. Positive feedback, acknowledgement, pride, and self-confidence are all types of achievements that belong in any classroom, whether it’s been designed as a game or not.

What do you think? How can achievements be used most effectively in the classroom? What kinds of achievements work best in the classroom? How can we best balance extrinsic and intrinsic rewards? These are questions that I am considering as I begin the process of integrating achievements into my classes and, I believe, some of the most important ones to consider as we turn our classrooms into game spaces.

Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 2: Experience Systems

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Warning: Designing effective experience systems is not easy!

In my last post, I began a discussion of how to turn your class into a game by addressing the most important component of a game: the experience. In this post, I’m going to focus on designing and integrating effective experience systems into that experience. Experience systems are what many people think of when they hear the term gamification: experience points, leaderboards, etc. But truly effective experience systems are so much more. I’ve discussed these systems and my struggles to integrate them effectively before (see “Experience Points in the Classroom: Back to the Drawing Board”), but I think that it’s important that the discussion about how best to use experience systems in the classroom continue. These systems are often viewed as not only a ready-made and easy-to-install substitute for traditional grading systems, but a way to automatically increase student engagement and motivation, neither of which is true. So what are experience systems, if not a game-based version of grades, and, if they increase gamers’  engagement and motivation so effectively, why are they so hard to integrate into the classroom?

Firstly, experience systems are methods for tracking both player progress through the game and their accomplishments and skill level. It’s important to remember that players don’t play the game to earn points, loot, or skills; rather, points, loot, and skills are byproducts of engaging in the experience in which the game immerses the player. This is why you should start the game design process by first designing the experience, then considering your experience systems. There are two major types of experience systems: experience points (XP) and levels. XP are a form of extrinsic reward system that are most often utilized in gamification and many teachers who are attempting to gamify their classes make the mistake of simply replacing grades with XP or adding an XP system to the class that is indirectly tied to grades (I’ve been guilty of both). This is a mistake because game designers don’t rely on XP alone to drive player motivation; instead, they purposefully and thoughtfully utilize both XP and levels in ways that aim to trigger both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Another mistake teachers may make is using XP as a substitute for traditional grades, but doing so in a way that simply turns XP into grading by a different name. The key characteristic of XP is that they are additive rather than subtractive. In other words, whereas traditional grading systems punish failure or a lack of effort by subtracting points from a predetermined grade (such as 100 points on an exam), players start a game with zero points and earn XP for every effort (whether it is entirely successful or not). Using XP in the classroom requires a reconceptualization of assessment that recognizes all effort and does not punish failure, one that reflects the degree of correctness and not absolutes. You should also balance the difficulty of the task with the amount of XP that the students can earn for attempting it. In the language of traditional grading, instead of all exams being worth 100 points, the number of points possible on each exam should become exponentially larger as the difficulty of the exams and the amount of knowledge, understanding, skills, and effort required to complete them increases. And when it comes to assigning XP to tasks, think BIG! Instead of 100 points, make something worth 1,000 points! The value of each point is still only relative to the points system itself, but you would be surprised by the difference in response from students when you raise the number values within that system. Lastly, for XP to be truly effective, you should update them immediately and frequently; one of the ways in which games reward the brain is via clear, immediate, and frequent feedback. The more rapid the feedback (whether it is XP, achievements, or narrative), the more likely the student is to link the feedback to an action/behavior on their part, synthesize and analyze the causal relationship between the two, and make adjustments accordingly.

The next type of experience system is levels and there are three types of levels: experience, progress, and difficulty. Again, all three of these types of levels should occur simultaneously. Experience levels are tied directly to XP and establish both short-term goals (leveling-up to the next experience level) and long-term goals (reaching the highest experience level). Players usually earn both status and external rewards of some kind (bonus XP, loot, etc.) when they reach a new level. When integrating experience levels, have a way for students to visualize their current level and how many XP they need to earn in order to level-up. Again, this is a type of feedback, so it needs to be updated rapidly and frequently. Progress (sometimes called game) levels help structure the game narratively and establish short-term goals for players, as each level presents new information and a new set of skills to master before moving on to the next level. This is just the game version of scaffolding or organizing learning into units, something most teachers are probably already doing. The difference with game levels is that the player’s progress is visible at all times (via a progress bar), allowing them to easily measure and visualize how far they’ve come since they started playing and how far they have left to go in order to win. Again, progress through the levels (or units) is a form of feedback that helps students develop metacognition (self-monitoring of effort and learning progress) and should be kept up-to-date.

The final type of level is difficulty levels. There are generally three difficulty levels: easy, intermediate, and hard or advanced. Having multiple difficulty levels allows you to differentiate learning; increases student autonomy; improves the chances of achieving the zone of proximal development (because each student can select the task that best correlates with their current skill level); and increases the re-playability of the game (if students can re-play a level at different difficulty levels). I’ve heard teachers say that, given a choice, students will opt for the easiest task, but, in my experience, that is not true. Though some students may do so (those trying to avoid failure, for example), most students are very accurate judges of their current ability level and relish a good challenge that will push them beyond that level if the classroom environment supports risk-taking and and if they are engaged in an experience that is relevant and interesting to them (both of which are present in effectively-designed games). It may take extra effort on the front end to develop different tasks of varying degrees of difficulty for each game level and then keeping track of which level each student is working at, but it will be well worth it if it means that more students are working in the zone of proximal development. And not all game levels have to be diversified; you could taper off explicit difficulty levels so that, eventually, all students are working on the same task, but one that is designed in a way so that each student can work at their own skill level (such as a problem-based project). If a three-level system is too complicated to schedule or difficult to design, then you could just use a simple two-level system: normal gameplay for the majority of students and advanced gameplay for those who want/need a more challenging task/quest (like those extra credit projects that students are always begging us to let them do). Either way, having different difficulty levels for students to choose from will increase the motivational and engagement factors of your game and is an important component of a well-integrated, multi-tiered experience system (experience points, experience levels, progress levels, and difficulty levels).

Because the most effective game strategically integrates all of these components, designing your experience systems is a difficult and potentially time-consuming task, especially when you factor in creating spreadsheets that allow you to update the experience systems so that students can see and monitor their progress. I have found it to be a trial-and-error process, with failure almost certain (either in terms of quality of design or in terms of how effectively your systems impact student motivation). It’s important to keep an open dialogue with students about the effectiveness and impact of your experience systems so that you can make any necessary changes quickly, before they have the potential to become a de-motivating factor that cancels out all of the hard work you’ve done in designing an engaging learning experience. But implementing experience systems into your game is essential to providing students with rapid, frequent feedback; to encouraging them to set and achieve short- and long-term goals; and to inspiring competition, whether it’s player vs. player, player vs. self, or player vs. the game. Students must have a way to visualize their current status in the game environment, how much progress that represents, and how close they are to winning.

I certainly don’t have all of the answers when it comes to designing effective experience systems, but I am more than willing to share my own ideas and experiences, if you have questions.

Next in the series, I’ll address different methods for rewarding effort in games.

 

Turning Your Class into a Game, Part 1: The Experience

Last week, I had the opportunity to evangelize about games-based learning and gamification in the classroom at the 2nd Annual CoRE Academy at my university. My audience was a wonderful mix of PK20 teachers and, from the nods of approval during the presentation and comments, questions, and requests for more information I received afterwards, I think I convinced some of them. Because my workshop was only an hour long, I had to cram a lot of complex information in. Really, each aspect of gamification that I discussed could have benefited from its own workshop. But since that was not possible, I’ve decided to create a series of blog posts that address each in a bit more detail. You can view the entire presentation to get a preview of all of the components I’ll be addressing and how they all fit together.

Games are, first and foremost, experiences. I’ve argued before that no matter how many fancy bells and whistles a game has or how robust the rewards system, a game that does not immerse the player in an experience that intrigues them and that they enjoy being part of will not be played for very long, if at all. My son, who is an avid gamer, gives a new game about an hour of gameplay; if he’s not hooked within an hour, he’s done with the game, no matter how many points he’s managed to earn. And a game that is not being played ceases to be a game. Just as a student who is not learning is no longer a student; they are a body taking up space. Just as game experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting, learning experiences need to be worthwhile and interesting.

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Assassin’s Creed is a game that has successfully created an engaging experience for players.

So the first step to turning your class into a game is to create the experience. Ask yourself what kind of experience would both engage your students and mesh with your discipline or lesson topic. And then begin brainstorming what roles your students might play within that experience, what the aesthetics of that experience might be, what environment(s) it might incorporate, and what kinds of interactions with that environment and with other players and non-player characters (NPCs) your students might have. I just finished reading Dave Burgess’s inspiring book Teach Like a Pirate (which I highly recommend to anyone who teaches), and he had an entire chapter on how to draw inspiration from the world around you to fire up your creativity and your classes. One of Burgess’s tips is to use your hobbies as a source of inspiration and it really works. I tend to get my inspiration for the experiences I design for my students from literature, movies, and video games. You can mix things up to make it even more fun. My second semester FYC class played a game I called “Murderers and Mad(wo)men,” which combined elements of Sherlock Holmes and Call of Cthulhu, and the game I’m working on now combines elements of The Hobbit and World of Warcraft.

As you draw on and combine various inspirations, you can make note of the aesthetics that you might incorporate. “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” had a steampunk aesthetic, for example. In The Multiplayer Classroom, Lee Sheldon recommends reinforcing the game lore (the story and aesthetic) whenever and wherever possible. This includes class environments (both physical and virtual), materials, and presentations. The syllabus is a good place to start since it is typically the first class-related item the students come into contact with. When you orient your students to the class on the first day, try to immediately immerse them in the game aesthetic to really drive home both the “this is a game” and the “this is not a game” (TINAG) dichotomy. By not presenting the class in a traditional way, you send a clear signal that your class is different and that students will have to adjust their thinking about what to expect and how to behave in the class. They know how to play games, so by mimicking the kinds of alternate realities that games create, they’ll quickly pick up the cue that this is a game-like environment and they need to play a certain role within that environment. At the same time that you want to clue students into the game-like nature of the class, you also want to, like games, create a sense of immersion. The best games are those that immerse the player so effectively within the game environment and their role within that environment that they almost forget that they’re playing a game. So, if you want your students to experience what it’s like to be scientists working to solve an epidemic, when they walk into the classroom on the first day they should walk into a science lab. And throughout that first meeting, they should receive clues that orient them to why they’re in a science lab (they’re scientists), what’s going on outside of that lab (there’s an epidemic), and what they’re role in this environment is (solving the epidemic). You can communicate these things via the syllabus (perhaps it could a memo or a brief on the epidemic), your introduction of yourself and the course (perhaps you’re the head of the CDC and you’re orienting them to the Center’s policies and procedures and what your role will be during the crisis), and activities that you have them do (I’ll leave that to your imagination). Now, I’m not a science teacher, but I very quickly came up with this example and the ideas for how to present it to students because I like zombies and almost every zombie movie/TV show involves scientists trying to figure out what’s causing zombieism and how to cure it. My love of zombies provides me will all kinds of ideas about aesthetics for a game like this. As Dave Burgess points out, inspiration is all around us; we just have to start paying attention and thinking outside of the box.

Once you’ve decided on the experience and the environments and aesthetics of that experience, you can begin outlining what role students will play. My students have taken on roles such as war correspondents (or at least armchair versions); cold case detectives; psychologists; attorneys, witnesses, and jury members for a cyberstalking trial; and members of an ancient Greek senate, just to name a few. For a more detailed discussion of how I’ve used role-play in my class, you can read my article “Alter Egos, Avatars, and Analytical Writing: Immersive Role-Playing in the Composition Classroom” in Virtual Education Journal. The goal is to have students play an integral part in driving the story the experience tells. They must become the main characters and it must be clear that without action on their part, the story does not get told. As I mentioned, I’m currently designing a game for my first-semester FYC loosely based on The Hobbit. The students are reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, so I decided to use the story of the hero’s journey as a basis for the game. It’s a story that they’re all familiar with since it’s an integral part of our culture, from comics to movies and novels to video games. I’ve re-contextualized the process of learning to write college-level essays into a journey that students must take through a perilous realm. They don’t know much about the journey or how they’ll reach their destination (college-level writing proficiency) when they first start out because, as their guide The Vagabond explains, their destiny is in their own hands. If they don’t complete each quest that they are presented with, they will go astray, lose time and perhaps their way, and risk never reaching their goal. Through the compositions that are the last part of each quest, they tell the story of the game–what they discovered during that quest. In the example of the epidemic outlined above, if the students don’t work to solve the riddle of the epidemic and figure out a way to stop it, then the epidemic continues and the story of how we defeated the zombies (or whatever the disease is) never gets told. We assume that everyone becomes a zombie, but we’ll never truly know. If students want to know the ending to the story, they’re more likely to take part in it. And the best way to make them want to know the ending is to have the experience centered around a conflict. Conflict is the driving force of games and overcoming the challenges that the conflict presents is what motivates people to play games. We can’t all be heroic in real life, but games give us an opportunity to defeat seemingly undefeatable foes and become virtual heroes (and the bragging rights of winning a difficult game makes us heroes in real life, too). In order to motivate your students to take on the challenge that the conflict presents, the conflict shouldn’t be too easy or too difficult. You can help to make sure that you’re creating a zone of proximal development in the experience you create by using experience systems, which I’ll address in my next blog post.

It’s also important to carefully consider what kinds of interactions student will have with each other and NPCs. There are two main kinds of interactions that drive gameplay: competition and cooperation. In terms of competition, there are three types: player versus player, player versus game, and player versus self. I prefer to focus students on competing with themselves, as this promotes goal-setting and self-assessment, two critical skills for 21st century learners. But some of our students truly thrive off of competition with others or with systems and you can address those kinds of players with things like leaderboards, character classes, and achievements. The best games actually incorporate all three types of competition so that all player types are being targeted. I’ll provide an example of how you could integrate all three into our zombie epidemic example in a bit.

But first, I need to address cooperation. Games use several different methods for encouraging cooperation among players. One method is by allowing or forcing players to work in guilds, which are small groups that must work cooperatively to complete quests or quest-related tasks. Another is by tying some achievements (which I’ll cover in my next post) to working cooperatively. And finally, some games allow players to trade/barter resources. All of these are excellent methods for promoting cooperation among students. I integrate guilds into all of my games, though I also allow for individual play, recognizing that, for some students, working cooperatively is a challenge and/or de-motivating. For example, in the game I’m currently designing, players will have a writing guild, which will meet for informal idea-design discussions during the pre-writing phase and to provide feedback on drafts during the drafting phase. The guild is a support system to help aid students on their journey, but it’s up to the student to do the work necessary to take part in that journey and their experience level is based solely on their level of gameplay, not their guild’s. I do plan to encourage quality guild work via achievements and uncertainty (which I’ll address in my third and final installment). But, I’ve found that the best way to motivate students to work together effectively is via cooperative competition; that is, having guilds compete against other guilds. I have found that this method increases intrinsic motivation and the quality of the cooperation among group members. When using cooperative competition, I would recommend rewarding the winners with achievements, rather than points, since achievements tend to be more intrinsically-oriented than points and you don’t want to risk decreasing the naturally-occurring desire to win with an extrinsic reward. For an example of how I’ve used cooperative competition and the amazing level of engagement it inspired, see my post “Using Power Cards to Encourage Power Reading: Gamifying Required Texts.” To give you an idea of how all of this might work on-the-ground, let’s use our zombie epidemic scenario. You’ll want to encourage students to compete with the game, of course (ending the epidemic before time runs out),  and with themselves (via experience systems), and perhaps even with other students (via a leaderboard). You could also have students work together in guilds to encourage cooperation. Perhaps each guild is responsible for a specific aspect of investigating and ending the epidemic and they must not only cooperate within their guild but with the other guilds, as well. Or perhaps each guild is trying to end the epidemic and the challenge is to either be the first to do so or the guild to come up with the most effective solution (if you want to present a challenge in which quality is more important than efficiency). There are various possibilities for how to structure both competition and cooperation and the best games involve as many of those possibilities as makes sense within the context of the experience.

Lastly, I want to address interactions with NPCs. NPCs are often part of games and I’ve been trying to integrate them more fully into the experiences that I create for my students. You are obviously an important NPC and you’ll need to decide what your role will be in the game and how you will interact with the players. Are you a boss, a guide, an enemy, a colleague, an unknown entity? You can also add fictional NPCs into your game via physical or virtual communications (text-based, audio, or video). So far, I have two virtual NPCs in the game I’m currently designing. Professor Percival is their teacher during the first two quests; he provides them with instruction in the writing process, sends them on virtual scavenger hunts to help test and hone their technical skills, teaches them how to be active readers, and provides feedback on their first writing assignment. Once they graduate from the professor’s apprenticeship, they meet The Vagabond, who is their guide on the journey through the perilous realm. Players in the “Murderers and Mad(wo)men” game received regular correspondence from an NPC who was a colleague who needed to consult with them on especially perplexing cases. If you’re teaching history, you could have historical figures become NPCs in your game. You can also have live NPCs in your game. Guest speakers and colleagues are two options. For example, in designing the zombie epidemic game, perhaps you could convince an epidemiologist to do a Skype interview with your class, only position it as part of the game: as director of the CDC, you’ve arranged for a conference call with an expert who has experience with a similar outbreak. If the expert/speaker/colleague is especially receptive, you might even be able to convince them to play the part and help reinforce game immersion.

The experience is the most important and motivating aspect of a game. Nothing else should take precedence. It’s vitally important to create an experience that hooks students immediately. Give careful consideration to where and how you’ll place the rabbit hole and the bait that you’ll use to lure them in. We often try to create these kinds of hooks for students: a thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information to pique their curiosity and get them listening. But getting them interested is only a tiny portion of the challenge. Keeping them engaged and curious is equally important. If we follow that thought-provoking question or intriguing bit of information with a 45-minute lecture, we’ve lost an opportunity to truly engage students and motivate them to begin thinking about and acting on their interest. Following up that awesome first-day introduction to the zombie apocalypse with homework that includes reading 50 pages from a textbook sends a specific message: the orientation was just a superficial trick you used to get their attention. The icing might have been delicious, but the cake is going to be stale and tasteless. If you want students to stay interested, you’ve got to make the entire class an experience that is intellectually and aesthetically stimulating and in which they are the key ingredient.

Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how to create an immersive experience for your students. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them and I’ll try to answer them. And if you’re interested in all of the other ingredients necessary to make that experience rewarding and fun, the next two posts in the series will be appearing soon.

And if you’re interested in the CoRE program, I encourage you to watch this video.

 

Teaching Revision vs. Editing

image courtesy of Alex Pang http://flic.kr/p/8AJ566

image courtesy of Alex Pang http://flic.kr/p/8AJ566

My most recent post dealt with postmortems on student writing. In a related line of thinking, I have been considering more effective methods for teaching students the differences between revising and proofreading/editing a piece of writing. I often hear composition teachers express frustration with students because they insist on conflating editing with revision, despite the teacher’s best efforts to teach students the difference. It’s an issue that I have also struggled with and it is probably the one aspect of writing instruction to which I have yet to find a satisfactory solution. This term, I am teaching the first-semester course of my department’s First-Year Composition class. Since it is Spring, and this course is generally taken by students in the Fall term, the students in my class are taking the course out-of-sequence, meaning they have either failed the class once (or more times) before or were required to take our remedial writing class in the Fall. Both scenarios indicate that these students are, generally speaking, weaker writers than those who take the course in sequence in the Fall. Since weak compositions are, in my experience, more a reflection of lack of effort and revision/editing skills than lack of ability or writing proficiency, I decided to focus on teaching the students better revision/editing skills.

I decided to try to get to know more about the students in the class by having them write a literacy narrative as their first piece. I hoped that the literacy narrative would provide two things: some insights into the students’ experiences with and feelings about writing and a platform for explicitly teaching the writing process by requiring multiple drafts that focused on different writing processes.

The overwhelming majority of students chose to focus their literacy narrative on negative experiences with writing, either at the secondary level or at the college level. These experiences, while painful for the students to write about and, sometimes, for me to read about, were, I believe, cathartic for the students and extremely helpful in showing me, from the students’ perspectives, what methods do and do not work. One common factor among these negative experiences were feelings of inadequacy as a result of being singled out or overly criticized by their writing teachers. One student told a story of being unable to even begin writing an impromptu essay in their high school English class and feeling overwhelmed by being the only student in the class who was struggling to get started. They were then called on by the teacher to share their essay with the class and decided to improvise, despite not having a single word written down. When the teacher called the student out for not having written anything and speaking extemporaneously, the student broke down in tears and experienced what she termed “permanent writer’s block.” Another student wrote of their first college writing class, describing a grueling essay assembly line of in-class writing with no opportunities for revision after the pieces were graded. They elaborated on one incident in which the teacher marked off because the student had used “you” in their essay; in an effort to not make the same mistake, the student spent extra time on the next essay, making sure not to use “you,” only to receive deductions again for using “you.” When the student approached the instructor and pointed out that they had not used “you,” the teacher responded, “You implied it.” With experiences like these, it is easy to see why so many of our students see their composition classes as either a nightmarish torture chamber or a game filled with arbitrary rules, which they have no hopes of winning.

The thing is, most students did not write this openly or use these kinds of illustrative examples the first time they wrote their literacy narrative. Typically, most students submitted bare bones pieces, some no longer than a paragraph, full of vague and abstract generalities. Normally, I would spend the majority of my feedback addressing this lack of content and the need for examples and supporting details and use the minimal marking method to mark but not correct errors in grammar and mechanics. It would be up to the student to address these issues in a second draft that would, normally, be their final draft. The result is very rarely a second version that meets both the needs for more fully developed content and corrections in grammar and mechanics.

But this time, I did things differently. Students ended up submitting four versions of the literacy narrative. The first version was their rough draft. When reading and providing feedback on this draft, I focused only on content and organizational issues. The class completed a playlist on Blendspace that focuses on revision and we discussed and practiced some revision in  class with their initial drafts. For the second version of their narrative, I asked students to focus only on addressing the content/organizational issues pointed out in my feedback. Once they had submitted this second version, I marked grammar and mechanical errors and we repeated the same process as we did with revision, this time focusing on the proofreading/editing processes. Once students had submitted a third version that had been proofread/edited, I did a final read-through and addressed any additional issues with content or grammar/mechanics and they submitted their fourth and final version for a summative, holistic assessment.

I found that students did significantly better when it came to both revising and editing their narratives by following this method. What started out, for many, as a skeleton of an essay eventually blossomed into a fully realized piece that was fairly devoid of major errors in grammar/mechanics. In their self-assessments, many students mentioned the positive impact that multiple drafts had on the finished essay and how the process of writing the essay helped them in overcoming some of their fears about writing. I feel that the quality of the essays also proves that poor writing is not necessarily the product of lack of writing ability, but rather a lack of  understanding of the writing process and/or a lack of effort to produce a quality piece of writing, either through apathy, fear of failure and/or criticism, or low self-efficacy beliefs.

Unfortunately, I will not be able to repeat this multiple-draft process with the rest of the pieces that students will be asked to complete this term due to lack of time. My goal now is to figure out a way to make this multiple-draft process workable in the next iteration of the course because I feel the results, both in students’ responses/efforts and the quality of their pieces, are too extraordinary to ignore or neglect due to time constraints. My job as a writing instructor is to find a way to make what works doable. And that’s what I will do.

I would love to hear from those who have identified other methods for effectively teaching the revision and editing processes and those who have found a way to effectively integrate a multiple-draft process into their classes.