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.

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.



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