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.