I have written in the past about the importance of making failure okay, and indeed par for the course, in education. The fact that games make failure normal, acceptable, and even fun is one of the many aspects of play that has drawn me to game-based learning, gamification, and gameful teaching/learning. But even when I tell students that it is okay to fail and build in a do-over system into my classes, it is still a struggle to get students to buy into the idea that failure is an acceptable and necessary component of learning. I am currently re-reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken and have spent much time studying and contemplating her chapter on failure. McGonigal points out that there is a biological imperative to our avoidance of failure:
It’s to our evolutionary advantage not to waste time and energy on goals we can’t realistically achieve. And so when we have no clear way to make productive progress, our neurological systems default to a state of low energy and motivation. (70)
This would certainly explain why so many students choose avoidance over failure. But even when I believe that I have provided my students with clearly attainable goals and lavished them with multiple streams of formative feedback, sometimes even the most capable student will give up and become disengaged. It could be a problem with my perception of the assignments I am creating, the feedback I am giving, and the mechanisms for self-direction I have built into those assignments; perhaps my instructions are not as clear or the goals as obtainable as I believe them to be from the students’ perspectives. Perhaps it’s a problem with students’ self-efficacy beliefs or their ability to persist in the face of academic failure (which is certainly more life-threatening than virtual failures in a game). I can certainly try to address the former, but I am not sure what more I can do to remedy the latter. Another component that is within my control is the type of feedback that I provide students when they fail.
One of the reality fixes that McGonigal sees games providing is that of “fun failure:” “The right kind of failure feedback is a reward. It makes us more engaged and more optimistic about our odds of success” (67). She provides several examples of this in games and explains how studies have shown that players exhibit the most heightened positive emotions, such as excitement, joy, and interest, immediately after they have experienced failure. Why is this? McGonigal believes it is because games allow us to fail spectacularly and actively. In a game, failure is not something that just happens to you; it is not beyond your control. If you fail, it is because you did something wrong and you know it. And when you do fail, it is communicated to you immediately and usually in a way that is so celebratory (via sounds and visuals) that it renews feelings of positive engagement. According to McGonigal, the trick to accomplishing this magical failure reaction is pretty straightforward:
[Y]ou have to show players their own power in the game world, and if possible elicit a smile or a laugh. As long as our failure is interesting, we will keep trying–and remain hopeful that we will succeed. (67)
I am still grappling with how to achieve the first aspect of this method in my formative and summative feedback. But, in the meantime, I’ve decided to try to at least achieve the second aspect by attempting to elicit a smile or a laugh from my students when they fail.
I decided to start playing with integrating some positive failure feedback into my current short-term online FYC class. The easiest thing to start with, I decided, would be the quizzes, since Blackboard offers a way to provide immediate feedback to a student based on whether they answer a question/problem correctly or incorrectly. I had already added some positive feedback when students answered some of the most difficult questions correctly. This is something that seemed natural to me at the time that I was creating the quizzes. But I am not sure why it has never occurred to me to also provide positive feedback when students answer those questions incorrectly. For some reason, this seems counterintuitive to my teacher senses. But, if you think about it, it actually makes much more sense than providing feedback when a student gets a question/problem correct. If a student gets a question/problem correct, they don’t really need us to give them kudos: success should be reward enough. It is when a student has failed that they need the most encouragement. So, I decided to do this by trying to do two things: make light of their failure (it’s really not the end of the world that you got this question/problem wrong) and, by extension, make them smile or laugh (so, just dust yourself off and try again and, if you happen to fail again, you’ll get a good laugh out of it). I chose to do this by selecting .gifs featuring the minions from the Despicable Me franchise either failing miserably (and spectacularly) or comforting each other after such a failure. They are, after all, immediately recognizable, have a reputation for screwing up, and make us feel all warm and fuzzy because of their persistence and unfailing hope and happiness. I embedded the .gifs in the feedback box for incorrect answers on what I considered the most difficult questions in each test pool, choosing a random approach, since randomness is another way in which games reward the brain. My hope is that, should a student begin to become unmotivated in the face of failing to answer a difficult question correctly, a funny .gif will both make them smile and encourage them to try again with more confidence in their ability to succeed or, at the very least, get a good laugh if they fail again.
For future classes, I would like to try other ways of integrating positive failure feedback, especially with writing assignments. Even though students can attempt a writing assignment multiple times, for students who lack basic writing skills, it can often take anywhere from three to six attempts to get a piece of writing to an acceptable level and this can become extremely frustrating for them. If I can determine a way to make them feel more in control of their success and more empowered by their failures, I can perhaps keep them motivated and engaged.
I would love to hear readers’ thoughts and ideas on ways to provide positive failure feedback to students.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One aspect of gamification that I decided to try to integrate into my Fall classes is that of Experience Points (XP), which involves using the same kind of points system that games use to help players feel rewarded for completing certain tasks and to allow them to advance to different levels of experience, providing them with a goal to attain (the highest level) and a visual measurement of their progress toward that goal. I’ll be honest, I don’t think that I integrated XP into my classes very effectively. I will outline how I integrated XP, which aspects of that integration were mistakes, and how I plan to do it better next semester.
First, I determined the maximum amount of XP that a student could earn simply for doing all of the required assignments in the course. Using this as my baseline, I assigned XP to each assignment, with the difficulty of the assignment determining how many XP it would be worth. I also determined which assignments would receive XP based upon completion and which would receive a variable amount of XP based upon quality of work and effort. I created a spreadsheet for students that listed each assignment and the number of XP that could be earned for completing them and included the possible XP earned on the instructions for each assignment.
Next, again using my max. XP as my baseline, I created five levels, with each level corresponding to a letter grade on the 4.0 grade point scale. I gave each level a name that related to our course theme and included a list of the levels and the XP needed to achieve each on the syllabus.
Since I needed an easy way to keep track of XP and to allow students to visually monitor their progress and current level, I decided to use Blackboard’s grade book tool, even though I loathe Blackboard. The most important determining factor for me for using Blackboard was the fact that a colleague who is also interested in games-based learning had created a leaderboard block that can be placed on the homepage of a class’s Blackboard course shell that is tied to the number of points a student has in their Total column in the grade book tool.
I decided that I did not necessarily want to tie participation XP because I have found that by designating a certain number of comments to make on their peers’ bog posts, I encourage students to see participation and commenting as a hoop to jump through and they will resort to focusing on quantity rather than quality. So, I developed a holistic rubric for participation and made the participation grade 1/3 of a student’s final grade, with their level making up another 1/3, and their final portfolio finishing out their grade.
Where I went wrong
Firstly, I believe it was a mistake to allow students to see how many XP each assignment was worth. In reality, a player doesn’t begin a game with a spreadsheet of actions and how many points they’ll earn for completing them. A player doesn’t know how many XP they will earn for completing a task or puzzle until it’s completed; this increases the element of uncertainty that, according to Tom Chatfield, is one of the ways in which games reward the brain. This uncertainty motivates players to complete as many tasks and puzzles as they can because they never know what kinds of rewards each will provide.
Also, while students responded very positively to the leaderboard and found it to be a motivating factor, the fact that their XP were recorded in Blackboard’s grade book meant that, rather then receiving 50 XP for an assignment, for example, a student would receive 50/70 (or whatever amount the maximum number of XP available and earned), transforming XP into a grade. Rather than feeling rewarded for earning 50 XP on an assignment, students began to focus on the fact that they didn’t earn the maximum amount of XP and would often want to talk with me about their “grade” on an assignment. Because XP were situated within a context that students identify as relating to grades and because Blackboard required me to enter a total number of possible points for each assignment, thereby redirecting students’ focus towards the points they didn’t earn, by the middle of the semester the novelty of XP and the leaderboard had quickly worn off and students saw themselves as being at the mercy of their XP rather than seeing themselves as on a quest to earn as many XP as possible.
I believe that this feeling was reinforced by the fact that I had aligned levels with a letter grade, which may have devalued the game for those students who began to fall behind in XP. I cannot be certain that these students gave up because they viewed all of their effort as directly related to a certain grade or if they were already among those students who, statistically, are predetermined to disengage and/or disappear.
What I’ll do differently next time
For one, I will not advertise the number of XP that can/will be earned for completing assignments and tasks. While I will keep the method I used for determining XP and levels, I will increase the uncertainty for students by keeping that information a secret that will need to be discovered through effort. Levels will remain aligned with XP, but will not aligned with a letter grade.
I will also not use Blackboard to track XP and levels. Instead, I will use Google Drive’s spreadsheet tool to create a system for tracking each student’s XP and create a leaderboard chart based on the column for their total XP. Because XP and levels will no longer be tied to grades, I can give students access to the chart and embed the leaderboard on the class website (I will have students create an alias in order to maintain anonymity).
I also plan to hide more Easter eggs throughout the game in the form of bonus XP as a way of rewarding desired behavior, such as using the Writing Clinic and significantly revising and/or editing their drafts before publishing them. I’ll let students know that these opportunities exist, but they’ll have to work to figure out which behaviors they’ll be rewarded for.
Because their XP and level will no longer be aligned with a grade, I will need some way to determine how these aspects of a student’s gameplay impact their final grade in the course. I’ve decided that rather than imposing a weighted system for each major component of student behavior, I will use the portfolios that students complete at the end of the semester as a way for students to summarize and evaluate their gameplay, looking at XP and level, participation, and their progress as a writer in order to determine what character class they feel they fall into. Each character class will represent certain attributes and will be aligned with a level of gameplay. While I won’t explicitly link their character class to a grade, I will ask students to argue for the grade that they feel they deserve in the course based on the evidence they use to assign themselves to a character class.
Gamification involves trial and error, just as any instructional method does. While I am dissatisfied with the fact that my FYC students began to focus on grades to an extent that I have been able to avoid for the past few years with a switch to a portfolio assessment system, I still believe that using XP and levels can have a positive impact on student motivation. It is especially helpful to those students who have difficulty transitioning away from a focus on grades and who need a way to visualize their progress and standing in the course. I hope that by integrating the changes outlined above, I can use XP and levels more effectively.
Have you had success integrating XP and levels into your classes? If so, I’d appreciate you sharing your experiences and/or techniques with me and my readers.
After a much needed summer hiatus and a rather hectic start to the Fall semester, I am finally carving out some blogging time. It’s been such a hectic start because, not only am I teaching an overload (for a total of 3 composition classes, one of which is 100% online), but I spent a good deal of my summer and start-of-term trying to gamify my FYC classes. As with all new methodologies, I am taking baby steps with this, but it was still a major undertaking. I’ll be writing a series of posts that deal with various aspects of how I gamified the course, including building a “game lore” and gamifying assessment. For this and the next post, I want to focus on one aspect of the class that I feel has been the most successful: gamifying the course readings.
The theme for my FYC classes this term is “How to Tell a True War Story.” The university’s freshman read this year is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, so I decided to use the book as a springboard to consider and explore the kinds of war stories we tell and how the lines between fact and fiction blur and often disintegrate in the process. In addition to the O’Brien book, we are also watching three war films: Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and Restrepo. After watching each, students can select from a list of related texts (articles, videos, photo essays, etc.) to read. While the films are extremely high-interest and I knew I would not have difficulty with students not being engaged with them, I wasn’t so confident about the O’Brien book and our other assigned nonfiction book, the graphic memoir War Is Boring, or the companion texts for each film. So, I decided to try to gamify the class readings.
I found inspiration from John Hardison’s “22 Power Cards to Revolutionize a Class,” in which he describes how he gamified literary analysis by pitting teams of students against each other in a Q & A showdown that involved power cards similar to those in popular role-playing card games like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon. I liked the idea of turning close reading of O’Brien’s book into a competition, but I wanted to develop a more simplistic set of game rules and power cards, since students would only have half of a class meeting to prepare for the battle. I decided to divide the class into two teams and allow the two students with the most XP to be team commanders and select the members of their units. Each student came to the battle preparation meeting with an open-ended question about the book and the units worked to select, refine, and finalize ten questions to bring into battle with them. For the battle itself, each unit had 30 seconds to select a question and a defender from the other unit to answer it; the defender then had two minutes to consult with their unit on the answer before answering. As judge, I awarded the defender points based on the quality of their answer. The unit with the most points at the end of the battle won and all members of the unit received 40 XP.
For the power cards, I decided to allow each unit to go into battle with five defensive and four offensive tactical weapons. The defensive weapons included:
Walkthrough: allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to the novel and use it when answering the question
Cheat code: each unit member is allowed to prepare a one-page set of crib notes; the cheat code allows the unit 2 minutes to refer to any or all unit members’ crib notes and use them when answering the question
Glitch: allows the unit to re-use one of their discarded defensive weapons, pass on a question, OR recall one of their previous defenders
Pause: allows the unit an extra 1 minute to formulate their answer
The offensive weapons included:
Grenade: the unit may select up to three members of the defending unit to be removed from the answer formulation process
Seige: forces the defender to formulate their answer without help from their unit
Blitzkreig: reduces the defending unit’s answer formulation time to 1 minute
Raid: if the attacking unit has received a score of 4 on three or more answers, they may take away any of the defending unit’s remaining tactical weapons and add it to their own arsenal
These power cards forced the units to act strategically both before and during the battle, from preparing crib notes to sizing up members of the opposing unit to decide who were the weakest and strongest members.
The battle was exciting, fun, and frustrating for students all at the same time. Those who had not read as closely were obvious hindrances to their unit and those who were more competitive in nature had to learn to cope and recover when their ill-prepared peers failed to earn a lot of points or when the opposing team used a power card to out-manoeuvre them. On the flip side, very few students seemed ill-prepared and, out of 40 plus students, only one student could not provide at least a partial answer to a question. Both the highly competitive and quieter students could excel in the game, as their unit could use all members to help formulate the answer (unless the opposing unit used a power card that prevented them from doing so). I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of reading and analysis required to answer the questions that the students posed during the game, but the majority of students did not have difficulty answering them and providing examples from the book to support their answer. And even though they were allowed to use the book or their notes once each during the game, one team declined to do so, and while they lost, it was only by a margin of 2 points. The takeaway from this is that by forcing the students to both collaborate and compete, I saw evidence of closer reading and deeper analysis of the assigned text from every single student who played the game (only four students total out of both classes did not show up on the day of battle). And they seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves and have fun, even when losing.
I have decided to use the Q & A battle again with our other book, War Is Boring, and will post about the results at the end of the term. In my next post, I’ll describe how I’m using collaboration to gamify the companion texts that students are selecting and reading in conjunction with each of the movies we are watching this term.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your own ideas for and/or experiences with gamifying assigned readings and making analysis and discussion of those readings more effective and fun.
For me, the standout resource from the second week of the Games Based Learning MOOC was Tom Chatfield’s TED Talk “7 Ways Games Reward the Brain.”
Chatfield’s seven aspects of gaming align with many of the same aspects of gaming that were addressed during our discussion of fun, flow, and fiero during the first week, and I think that a consideration of his arguments regarding not only how but why games are so rewarding will help shed even more light on the issues I addressed in my last post regarding how games-based learning continues to trump classroom-based learning, despite how (poorly) gamified school already is (see my post on bad game design for a more thorough discussion of this). But understanding why/how something works is just half the battle; the most difficult part of design is putting that knowledge into action, so I’ve placed Chatfield’s talk alongside Greg Costikyan’s “I Have No Words and I Must Design” in order to highlight the practical ways in which game design elicits these rewards.
The Relationship between decisions and experience
Chatfield’s first reward is experience bars measuring progress. He argues that it’s important for players to be able to see how close they are to their long-term objective, as well as how far they’ve come since they started the game. While Chatfield qualifies explicit progress measurement as an experience bar, various games demonstrate progress in different ways, but the one thing that all games have in common is that progress is a result of decision-making on the part of the player: good decisions allow them to progress, bad decisions prevent them from progressing. In terms of design, Costikyan argues that games make players’ choices meaningful by giving them resources to manage. Often these resources are experience points, which unlock new levels or other types of resources. If the game has more than one resource, then players’ decisions become even more complex: interesting decisions make for interesting games. But the resource(s) must have a function within the game; in other words, the resource(s) must allow the player to progress and play smarter/stronger.
This is where classroom design often falls horribly short. Often, the only resource students have any control over is their grade (the ultimate progress bar in the game of school). While educators may argue that decision-making plays a role in a student’s grade (don’t do the work or don’t do it well enough and you don’t make the grade), if a grade is the only resource a student has to manage, then the decisions they make regarding their learning are far less interesting. We could argue that students also have to manage their time, their textbooks, our instructions, etc., but often students don’t see how these resources are relevant to the game, or their grade, because we don’t make those relationships explicit the way games do. Also, students’ progress is not always made a central aspect of their learning; they may receive progress reports periodically or, worse yet, only twice during a term (as is the case in college courses), but we rarely provide them with an ever-present experience bar or cache of experience-related resources that they can constantly look at and to. I’ve argued before that we need to teach students how to be more meta, but we must give them the tools to do so and an explicit and constant visual reminder of their progress is one way to do that.
Chatfield’s next point is that games provide both short and long term goals so that players can choose between different tasks or complete tasks in parallel that all point them towards a larger, ultimate objective. Goals are, as Costikyan points out, one of the defining characteristics of games and they are what make games worthwhile, but achieving the goal must involve a struggle of some kind in order to trigger intrinsic motivation. It is the opposition that players face as they attempt to meet their short and long term goals that lies at the heart of the game. As others have pointed out, if the goal is too easy to attain, then both it and the game lose their value. Tension, Costikyan reminds us, makes for fun games:
Ideally, a game should be tense all the way through, but especially so at the end. The toughest problems, the greatest obstacles, should be saved for last.
In my last post, I addressed the need to match player with challenge and how classrooms fail to be as effective at this as games. There may be several reasons for this related to how we address short and long term goals and tension. While games establish the players’ objectives, they also allow a lot of wiggle room for player autonomy. Players usually have multiple short term goals they can choose between, often with varying degrees of difficulty. For example, in Minecraft, I can choose to gather more resources so that I don’t have to spend so much time and energy on short term survival, or I can fritter away the day spiffing up my digs. Each “day” I have to make complex decisions about how to spend my time and energy and balance my resources against my long term goals.
As educators, we obviously have to establish learning objectives for the students. But how much wiggle room do we give them in terms of how to meet those objectives? And how often do we allow them the autonomy to decide which short term objectives to work on at any given time based on their own feelings of efficacy and motivation? And how often do we force them to make complex decisions about their own goals and those established for them? As I’ve argued before regarding game-based rules and goals:
While the rules of the game may be very rigidly defined, how the player chooses to interact with those rules is really what playing the game is all about. If games were standardized experiences for every player, no one would play them.
When we expect all students to meet standardized goals in standardized ways, we create standardized experiences. This is especially problematic when you consider how many of our students are gamers, used to autonomy and complex decision-making within ultra-responsive, randomness-filled environments that are constantly testing their individual thinking and responsiveness. The tension we are creating for our students is not a struggle to meet learning goals, but tension between what they’re capable of and what we ask/expect of them.
Effort determines destiny
Chatfield points out that, in games, all effort is rewarded. Failure is not punished. According to Costikyan, a player must feel a sense of control over their own destiny:
[I]t shouldn’t be ridiculously difficult to find what you need, nor should victory be impossible just because you made a wrong decision three hours and thirty-eight decision points ago. Nor should the solutions to puzzles be arbitrary or absurd.
How often do our students feel a sense of hopelessness because a series of failures have significantly reduced their chances of winning the game (i.e., making the grade)? How often do our students struggle with feelings of helplessness as they watch their more motivated and/or game-savvy peers maneuver through complex puzzles that seem arbitrary or irrelevant to them? How often do we make it harder on our students in order to teach them a lesson (about turning work in on time or attendance or following the rules or picking up hidden clues we drop to see how well they’re paying attention)? Too many educators confuse “rigor” or difficulty with the tension discussed above.
Chatfield’s fourth reward is rapid, frequent, clear feedback. He maintains that people learn by linking consequences to actions; the further away the consequence, the harder it is to link it to an action. This function is served by the resources that games provide players. In Minecraft, if I am not vigilant enough, night time will catch me unawares and I won’t have enough time to return home; if this happens and I don’t shelter in place, I’m likely to fall victim to creepers or zombies; if I die, I lose all of the resources in my inventory, but if I’ve planned ahead and stored some resources in my supply chest, then dying is not as detrimental. Eating replenishes my health. Planning ahead pays off. The best resource to have is a bed (so you can skip the dangers of night time). Games provide players with rewards based on how smart or hard they play. Get too lazy or become less engaged, and the game will motivate you to change your behavior via immediate and clear feedback.
How rapid and frequent is the feedback our students are receiving? As I mentioned above, often feedback is periodic or infrequent and students are receiving it so long after the actions to which the feedback applies, that they have lost the thread that connects the two. And, as mentioned above, students are often only receiving one type of feedback (grades), whereas game players often receive multiple forms of feedback for any given action. For example, completing a boss level may gain you XP as well as allow you to level up, which means survival and may also mean new powers and/or resources.
Even our providing various forms of feedback may not be helpful if that feedback is unclear. Again, timeliness is key here so that students can see the causal relationship, but clarity and relevance are essential, as well. If students receive feedback and then have no clue as to how to apply it to future goals, then you might as well not provide any feedback at all (unclear feedback may do more harm than good). In games, there’s always a clear connection between an action and a consequence and the game underscores that relationship with the type of resource it provides (use information correctly and you’re likely to get even more helpful information; learn from deadly mistakes and you’re more likely to survive the next time that situation arises; use weapons and armor effectively and you’ll probably unlock even better weapons and armor, etc.). And, by providing multiple forms of feedback, the relationship between smart/hard gameplay and more/better resources is intensified so that the more feedback a player receives, the more motivated they become. So, our work is not just providing immediate, clear feedback in multiple formats, but also making sure students know how to use that feedback to play smarter/harder.
The element of surprise
Chatfield’s next reward is randomness. He argues that uncertain or surprising awards are more enjoyable than those that we expect (ahem, grades, ahem). According to Costikyan, randomness provides variety of encounter. Some questions that game designers ask themselves that educators would do well to adopt are:
What things do the players encounter in this game? Are there enough things for them to explore and discover? What provides variety? How can we increase the variety of encounter? (Costikyan)
Variety of encounter provides emotional and/or intellectual stimulation. If our students walk into a scripted class meeting every day so that they know exactly what is going to happen and when and how, then there’s little to stimulate their sense of adventure. While there’s comfort in routine (the main argument used for such classrooms), our job should be pushing students outside of their intellectual comfort zones, not helping them to cocoon deeper within them. As mentioned in some of my previous posts, cognitive disfluency is a prime component of learning. How often do you surprise your students? During class, are they truly awake and alive, emotionally and intellectually, or are they no better than automatons, going through the motions of routinized behaviors that look like learning?
Gazing out of windows
Chatfield notes that, through billions of points of data, games have been able to zero in on a player’s window of enhanced engagement (what educators would call the zone of proximal development). The two elements Chatfield mentions as essential to this window are memory (give them information when they’re most primed to remember it) and confidence (game play and rewards make people braver and more willing to takes risks). What Chatfield means by the window of enhanced engagement is what Costikyan refers to as a game’s interactive nature. A game, Costikyan argues, is truly interactive because it demands participation. A game player cannot be passive. They must interact with the game. They cannot sit and gaze out of the window, as our students often do, because without player input, there is no game. The game stops. It is a game no more. Just as, when our students tune out, there is no more learning. Learning, like games, is interactive. It requires learner input. Once the learner stops participating in the learning, learning stops.
Some questions that Costikyan prompts game designers to ask regarding player engagement are:
What can you do to make the player care about his position? Is there a single game token that’s more important than others to the player, and what can be done to strengthen identification with it? If not, what is the overall emotional appeal of the position, and what can be done to strengthen that appeal? Who “is” the player in the game? What is his point of view?
These are important questions to ask because, if the player does not care about their position, then they become less and less likely to interact with the game. The novelty of the struggle to attain the game’s goals, the immediate feedback provided during that struggle, and the variety of experiences the player encounters along the way will wane and become routine if the player does not, at some point, begin to truly care about what happens to them in-game. Variety alone is not enough to engage students because even variety must be meaningful. Do your students care about what happens to them as learners? Do they truly understand their position as learners? How are you helping them to both understand and care about who they are as learners?
The social fabric
According to Chatfield, social interaction and collaboration are the biggest drivers of motivation in game play. Jane McGonigal terms this the social fabric of games. Costikyan encourages game designers to allow opportunities for diplomacy during which players can assist each other, perhaps directly, by sharing resources, or perhaps by combining forces against a common foe. He prompts designers to ask the following questions:
How can players help or hinder each other? What incentives do they have to do so? What resources can they trade?
How often do you consider ways to encourage students to build a social fabric? Do you integrate opportunities for diplomacy? Or even competition? For example, John Hardison gamifies class discussion of assigned readings by encouraging both diplomacy and competition. It’s not enough to throw students together in groups and expect them to collaborate. You have to create a narrative that encourages cooperation and the cooperation must serve a purpose within that narrative. In weighing the needs/requirements of the group against their own needs, students often opt for self-preservation. If self-preservation becomes inextricably intertwined with the needs/requirements of the group or if collaboration means being able to work smarter, then students are more likely to value building a social fabric.
If there is one take-away for me from the second week of the GBL MOOC, it is the primacy of meaningful decision-making in both games and learning. According to Costikyan:
Decisions have to pose real, plausible alternatives, or they aren’t real decisions.
In considering how this relates to and connects with what I’ve learned about fun, flow, and fiero, I can’t help but pick out the common thread of autonomy. If we wish students to be engaged, (inter)active learners, then we must allow them the autonomy to make real decisions. Only in freedom to decide between plausible, relevant alternatives can we experience the fun, the flow, and the fiero that games–and meaningful learning–allow players to experience.