Gamifying Education - Theory and Practice

In recent months, stimulated by provocative books like Jane McGonigal's "Reality is Broken," numerous blog posts and my own experience as a board gamer (think "Fresco," not "Monopoly") and massively multiplayer online roleplayer (MMO) in World of Warcraft, I have become more firmly convinced that course design (and indeed curriculum design) could be and should be informed by the same thinking that makes games so powerfully motivating for their players. This thinking is already in evidence at schools like Quest to Learn, where the curriculum is intensively gamified.

In the coming year, I will be testing this hypothesis in a class I teach called "America 3.0,"  a course in which high school seniors study the history of the United States, more or less, from 1970 to the present. In the past, I have structured the learning experience of the course conventionally, with me setting the learning expectations, directing students along a single, narrow path and telling only one story. For the coming year, I will be gamifying the students' experience, bringing lessons from the board game and MMO world to bear on students' learning. My intention is to open the study of American history to student choice, allowing them to develop a core understanding of the period while requiring them to make a deep commitment to learning a particular facet of the American experience. I make the following assumptions going into the course design experience:

Choice: As the course designer, my responsibility is to provide a meaningful, understandable and compelling structure that will stimulate and engage. Once I as designer have constructed the system, all subsequent choices are made by the students themselves.

Facilitation: If the design is effective, I have fundamentally and unalterably changed my own role in the classroom. If each student could be (and is likely to be) exploring a different "quest line," it is not possible to use my comfort zone mode (lecture/discussion) for classroom instruction. Rather, I will need to be a "benevolent guide," helping students understand and interpret what they are learning, so that they can make better use of it as the progress along the quest line they have selected.

Leveling and "Quest Lines": A critical component of the MMO experience is leveling. Players level by completing clearly defined tasks in clearly defined quest lines that become progressively more difficult as players gain skills, knowledge and capacity to play their character. In order to be successful, the students' experience in class has to be based on leveling as well.

"Level Bosses": A key component of video gaming is the "boss kill" or "boss win," - a big challenge that comes at the end of a series of smaller challenges. The leveling experience of the course had to have "boss wins" that would stimulate integrated and critical thinking.

Knowing and Doing: The core misunderstanding in our national obsession with high-stakes testing is that it places most of its values in the realm of knowing, rather than balancing knowing with doing. I entered the design process for this class seeking balance, but frankly valuing the doing more than the knowing. I argue that knowledge in a vacuum doesn't do anyone much good really. Rather, once students understand something, what can they do with it? I will present students with the following formula: Knowing levels ask students to demonstrate that they know X about Y. Doing levels ask students to demonstrate that they can acquire knowledge X in a particular way or transmit or pass on their knowledge X  of Y in a particular way Z.

Level 100: The students' end-goal in the course is no longer to "get an A." Rather, the object is to achieve level 100. Students reach level 100 by completing  objectives in two quest lines: knowing and doing. My hope here is to explicitly decouple the experience of being in class and learning with the high-stakes reality of grading. By stating the object of the course in this way, I hope to provide incentive to students to work hard and skillfully, while providing a space for students with lower self-efficacy to achieve at the highest possible level, with the highest possible claims on their own motivation.

In developing the students' leveling experience, I have made a number of decisions that about the structure of the course:

Knowing: The six branches of the knowing trunk are: Social Change and Reaction, Culture, Politics in the Age of Reagan, Foreign Policy (Facing Down the Soviets and the Discontents of Hegemony), Economics/Finance/Labor/Industry and Technology. Students will have the opportunity to level each of these knowing trunks from 1-100. The course requires that they level all areas to at least 10, 3 of the 6 to 20, 2 of the 6 to 50 and 1 to 100. Students do not earn any "gradable points" for the work they do here. Rather, they use what they acquire on these quests to "do."

Doing: The doing trunk also branches six ways: reading, critical writing, critical speaking, modeling, collaborating and integrating. Students will earn achievement points by completing doing tasks/quests that are progressively more difficult. I define reading as the principle process by which one attains knowledge (and that lots of things can be treated as "reading," like studying architecture, conducting interviews, etc. - that which is read is that which is cited). Critical writing, speaking and modeling are examples of where one cites (modeling is defined as non-written modes of non-speaking expression, like infographics or photography). Collaborating asks students to form ALTs (accountable learning teams) by which students will work together to solve complex problems (like level 90 and 100 boss wins), construct shared group learning identities and hold each other to appropriate standards. Integrating asks students to mashup or meld learning from multiple branches of knowing (like studying how the foreign policy and culture strands of knowing might be mutually reinforcing) or multiple branches of doing.

 In my next post, I will share the first ten levels of each of the knowledge branches and an example of a level 100 boss win.