Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 8 - Competition

Level 8 - time for a little PVP…

One of the core notions in game design is competition. What opposes the player? Is it a fearsome boss at the end of the game like in Diablo? Or is it a mental challenge, like in Portal 2? Perhaps what opposes the player isn't at all clear...like in the game Journey, perhaps the opposition doesn't really exist, or is so abstracted, that it might not exist at all.

In the gamified classroom, one of my biggest challenges was setting up the systems of opposition and challenge to motivate learners/players and to sustain their motivation/learning. The literature on game design is frequently focused on theory associated with these questions, because we all know what happens when we play games where there is little opposition or challenge. Candy Land, anyone?

This question vexed me throughout the process of designing and then teaching America 3.0 and in fairness, I don't think I ever really hit on the answer. There were two major problems that I encountered. The first problem was the question of the game versus the players. How difficult was the game/course? For many students, merely understanding what was expected of them was so difficult, that they struggled, even months later, to move past this point, despite regular explanation. I discussed this challenge in a previous post. For other students, the course was easy enough to understand, but they challenge facing them wasn't structured as well as it might have been. As a result, they would bog down very early in a problem that I thought was straightforward, or at least doable, which they found difficult or impossible. Hence the practice of "nerfing" the experience. The lesson for me and for you if you are thinking of gamifying your classroom is to be mindful of the challenge you establish for your students/players, and how essential it is that these challenges be structured so that students can manage them. Be prepared, particularly in the first year, for this challenge. Interestingly, the younger your students, the less likely this will pose a problem.

The bigger challenge that I am going to direct myself to next year is the idea of competition between students/players. Earlier this year I emailed with Mark Hendrickson, a former student of mine, about this question (he studied this idea in graduate school). In response to a question I wrote asking for his thoughts on the spirit of competition, he wrote:

"...defining the "spirit of competiton" on a sociological level may help: a rivalry between two or more persons or groups for an object desired in common, usually resulting in a victor and a loser. This, of course leads to more questions. How is "object" defined in the classroom? What do students in grade X desire to achieve in the classroom that could result in a friendly rivalry if subdivided into individuals or groups? What kind of rivalry or competition in the classroom would not result in only one side winning?"

Next year, I will be teaching a course on the federal election in the United States. Clearly, my intention to divide the students into an Obama staff and a Romney staff will give me a chance to explore these ideas some. Providing ideas and work to their side that has a measurable impact on their candidate's success (within the laboratory setting) would be a great "object," but it doesn't go far enough. He then wrote:

"One of the examples in gaming with the MMORPGs, as you pointed out, were the boss battles. These boss battles could be done individually or with a team. I think your spirit of competition ideal could spawn from these battles. In other words, what better way to provide competition than defeating a boss, or seeing what individual or team could beat the boss most effectively."

And this is where it gets interesting. In the MMORPG setting, teams of players are opposed by the game itself - the boss is a construct set up by the game designers. I do not know of an MMO that injects a player-versus-player (PVP) element into this kind of encounter. And this is what Mark is suggesting here. Constructing a boss battle that is clearly defined and static, but which two different teams could approach, struggle with and overcome. As the teacher, I would have the opportunity to measure their successes according to a single rubric, but the students would have the opportunity to explore what "effectiveness" would look like in that encounter. He concluded:

"Also, the "random encounters" idea in the other teacher's classroom would be a good place to start. One random day per week, you could divide the students into any number of individual or group combinations. These groups would compete to answer questions in your "modeling" form, and if you chose, winning these random encounters would have no impact on their level or grade. What is the purpose of a random encounter in an RPG? For me, it has been to fight weaker monsters to be able to beat the stronger bosses through stat increases. What is the purpose of a random encounter in a gamified classroom? To apply my current knowledge  to be able to effectively challenge and solve a larger issue or problem through confidence increases."

Take a look at that last sentence again. Application of knowledge...this is at the core of great games, gamified learning and game-designed courses. By structuring the student's experience effectively, this would give the student the opportunity to demonstrate mastery of a skill or a content concept. By structuring it like a random encounter, it generates the "spirit of competition" that most of the game literature suggests is critical for successful game-based instruction. It reminds me of the Food Network program "Sweet Genius," in which the contestants are given a baking/candy making challenge and then part way through the challenge, have an additional obstacle put before them in the form of new ingredients that have to be incorporated into the mix. I am very much looking forward to incorporating these ideas into my class next year.

Mansions of Madness - an example of a boardgame featuring competition and cooperation.

Mansions of Madness - an example of a boardgame featuring competition and cooperation.

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 7: "But I'm Not Learning..."

Level 7 - wait a minute...this isn't what we signed up for. We're not making any progress...we don't get it!

The most important feedback I received from my students at the end of America 3.0 was one idea split in two parts. Many acknowledged that the way the class was organized felt radically different from what they were used to and that they enjoyed that. Many of these same students (and some of the others who didn't explicitly acknowledge the first part) said point-blank that they felt like they "didn't learn anything." A few of them at a conference attended by my head of school a few months after America 3.0 ended confirmed that there was this sense that while the mechanics of the game-based classroom had merit, there was something so different from conventional instruction that some students simply couldn't process the difference.

What my students didn't understand through the process of taking this class (and which I take the lion's share of the responsibility for) is that the way they had been taught throughout their education had shaped their capacity to experience America 3.0. I had never intended them to experience the class as a typical or conventional learning experience. The one's who were most risk-tolerant, curious and free-thinking were able to see the course for what it was, namely, an opportunity to use pre-existing knowledge and skills to reinforce learning in American life and letters and skills that relate to the job of the professional historian (reading and writing, primarily). Those were were risk-averse, conventional or credentialist saw the course less as an opportunity to build on what they already knew and more as an experience that was fundamentally bewildering.

And lots of reflection followed as I observed my friend and colleague trying the same method with his 8th grade students at a charter school in Detroit. Much to my delight, the data he generated from his students' experiences were quite different from my teaching experience. His students didn't report that they hadn't learned anything. Rather, they felt that for the first time, they had been given autonomy to learn and as a result had learned much more.

So for those of you thinking about gamifying your classrooms, consider the following:

  • The older your students and the more conventional their previous education, the more scaffolding you will need to provide to maximize their experience.
  • Be explicit that your intentions and objectives in the course are different from their previous experiences. I wanted students to learn more about how historians work, how collaboration generates knowledge and how technological tools can enhance learning and collaboration. I didn't explicitly say this...as we all know, don't make assumptions…
  • Remember that learning by doing requires students to be active learners, directing their learning and owning their decisions. For many young people, this is a frightening place to be in school. Teachers have to support student experimentation without setting up a learning environment that is so unusual that disengagement becomes the order of the day.
  • Don't give in to requests to make it more conventional - at the end of the day, your students will get out of your class what they're willing to put in, no matter the form of the class. If you're going to gamify, at least you're maximizing the expectation of engagement.

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 6: Cognitive Load

Level 6 - Fall back! Fall back! We're in over our head!!!

The term cognitive load speaks to an evolving theory on learning, memory and instructional design that identifies three factors (called intrinsic, germane and extraneous load) that influence learning. Intrinsic load describes the inherent difficulty in a learning process, question or scheme (reading The Lorax is inherently easier than A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu). Germane load speaks to the work the mind does when it is learning, organizing information and making sense of complex concepts. Extraneous load is that load that requires memory, mental resources, effort or energy that might otherwise have been used to deal with the germane load of a problem (there's nothing you can do as an instructor, teacher or lesson planner to alter the intrinsic load inherent in a particular question). In essence, intrinsic load is fixed, germane load is what you as the instructor is looking to maximize and extraneous load is what, by skillful design and classroom management, you are trying to manage.

If only I had understood this in August when I was designing the America 3.0 course, I could have avoided some potholes!

What's frustrating from a curriculum design and game-based learning perspective is that  I knew all of this in August but didn't really make the connections I needed to in order to understand that the design of the learning experience would have the kind of influence over the learner's experience that it would have. Being a gamer, it should have been clear.

Anyone who has played video games would recognize everything I said above about cognitive load. I will speak to this through my experiences playing World of Warcraft, but I think you're likely to find that these experiences speak to other video games as well. 

In WOW, intrinsic load speaks to how inherently difficult it is to complete a game task. Farming minerals to make gold is not at all difficult, and people have been known to do it almost robotically. Killing mobs in the world or "trash" in an instance is likewise not very difficult. 5-man instance bosses are intrinsically harder, heroic 5-man instance bosses harder still, building to raid bosses which are the most intrinsically difficult bosses in the game to learn how to vanquish. The germane load of killing trash mobs is so low that it can barely be measured. The germane load of killing a complex raid boss is generally so high that even good teams of players can suffer TPKs (total party kills or "wipes" - where every player's character is killed before the boss is defeated) numbering in the hundreds before they succeed. In the case of World of Warcraft, extraneous load would refer to the design of the user's experience: how they play the game, the information the game presents to them, how they use the interface to play the game. Blizzard Entertainment (WOW's publisher) is very sensitive to user criticism about these extraneous detail problems. Every piece of visual information has to clearly and unambiguously inform the player about what is happening to their character. When that doesn't happen, players' inability to play the game requires rapid correction. When the game's germane load is too high, which it sometimes is, Blizzard executes a change in the program itself to lessen the load. Gamers call this process "nerfing," and now I fully understand what nerfing is because of my design decisions in America 3.0.

When you are engaged in gamifying your own classroom, be highly mindful of the questions raised by cognitive load theory. This was a big mistake that I made in my initial design. I was far too ambitious, believing that the structure of the course was within my students' capacity to understand and work within. The work itself was entirely doable, but the way in which I structured the rules of the work was beyond a number of students' capacity to even understand.  In order to create a framework for student success, I had to nerf the structure of the course twice, once to make the KTs more manageable and then to lower the number of required achievements. I don't think that this experience means my gamified classroom was unsuccessful. Rather, it was a matter of having to make some critical changes in the middle of a class.

My sense of this is that younger students, by virtue of not having spent more time in conventional classrooms, will actually encounter less extraneous cognitive load in a gamified classroom than their older colleagues. The experience of my colleague Mike Irwin at Detroit's Henry Ford School for Creative Studies and the experience of the ClassRealm students speaks strongly to this.

http://www.southalabama.edu/oll/mobile/theory_workbook/cognitive_load_theory.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 4: Theorycrafting Doing

Level 4 - new territory. We've figured out the basics (at least we think we have) but to this point, we haven't been put to the test. There's the road - out of our safe home. The road that leads to new places, new adventures and the real challenges that will push us to the limits of what we know and can do.

In my previous post, I discussed how theorycrafting (a practice gamers use to understand unstated realities and rules in videogames by vigorously studying data derived from playing the game) can be applied by teachers in developing gamified curricula. Specifically, I wrote about knowledge. In this post, I will expand on the idea of theorycrafting by looking at "doing."

In constructing the course my students experienced last semester, I was concerned not just about what students would know about America's history after 1970, but what they could do with that knowledge. When it comes to the notion that we live in a world where what knowledge is has fundamentally changed, I don't need to be convinced. I'm onboard. Having said that, I am not (and wasn't) arguing that there is no need for students to know anything. Rather, I am no longer interested in them knowing content for its own sake.

What is at the heart of the gamified classroom is this next step. OK - you know something. So what? What are you going to do with it? That is where the "doing trees" for this course came in. As a teacher of seniors, I thought that I could make the doing trees highly open-ended, giving the students the opportunity to make choices about what skills they'd like to demonstrate mastery of. There were two problems with this fundamental assumption: 

  • Capacity - some students, confronted with the number of choices I offered, shut down and needed regular guidance to make decisions. Some students were essentially paralyzed by having to make choices. Others did better with the notion of choice, but had to be cajoled to go outside their comfort zone.
  • Choice-Aversion - some students had what I can only call "choice aversion." Confronted with the requirement that they make decisions about how they wanted to demonstrate mastery, they would prevaricate between one, two or many. These students, once they made their decision, would treat their decision to write and deliver a speech or to make a Twitter feed as though it were a delicate and precious orchid. No intellectual rough-and-tumble here, which is what I was expecting and designed the course to facilitate.

 The same rules that apply to gamifying knowledge apply to gamifying 21st century skills. What do you want your students to be able to master over the time they're with you. In my case, I gave too many choices in too many hierarchies. It overwhelmed my students ability to make good choices. This reality was reinforced in my colleagues' work on gamifying their classrooms. Too many "doing trees" shut down student experimentation. This has to be balanced with a core concept in gamification - namely, that choice and self-direction is to be valued for its ability to generate flow in the learning experience. Not an easy task.

In my next post, I will discuss one of the key take-aways I had from my experience gamifying my classroom, namely, the critical role an achievement system played in bolstering student choice, self-direction and enjoyment of the learning game.

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 2: Students and Self-Direction

Who knew getting to that final boss would be so hard? Once we got out of the start zone, there were so many different directions in which we could go. Our team got sort of lost. It really took some effort, and the realization that that final boss wasn't going to kill himself, to get us on the road!

If you're a gamer, you know what I'm referring to above. Unless the game you're playing is rigidly scripted, any degree of the open sandbox can entice you to spend time noodling in the sandbox and less time working on the objectives of the game. There's really only one way to play Frogger. There are many, many strategies to playing a great board game like Acquire, but there's only the one rule set. A game like BioShock is meant to be played in a particular way, despite a certain flexibility of approach, because there's a master narrative. A game like World of Warcraft (or indeed any MMO) has no right way to play because, essentially, there is no winning it. As it goes with these games, so it can go with the gamified classroom. What are you trying to accomplish in terms of student experience. 

I will be writing another post with my colleagues Mike Irwin (who used gamification to teach middle school students) and Nick Holton (who used the method in a tenth grade class) in which I drill much more deeply down into this notion of self-direction and show some powerful student data on this point. When considering whether and how to gamify your classroom, be advised (and I think all three of us would agree here) that student motivation and student capacity for self-direction are things that will need to be high on your list of concerns.

Why does thinking about self-direction and student motivation need to be such an important part of your planning process? Because it figured prominently in all three of our classrooms. In my classroom of twelfth graders, I experienced the following qualities related to student self-direction that needed managing:

Obsession (or, get out of the sandbox!): Students with a high ability to work in a gamified classroom (as demonstrated by the quality of their leveling, their pre-class research capacity and their pre-existing critical thinking skills) could nevertheless find themselves suffering from the "sandbox effect." Becoming overly focused on one aspect of one level and getting stuck was something I observed many times in my students. Many of my early individual interventions were of this variety - helping students make decisions about what could "count" as an example of a particular level, rather than encourage them to stay fixated on one part of one level. This was probably a function of two qualities, one under my control, the other not. First, the way the level structures were assembled made it more likely that students might obsess about details (because the levels were loaded with detail). Second, high school seniors were probably more able to drill down than lower grade students and if their critical thinking short-circuited their decision making to some degree, it would look a bit like obsession.

Low Autonomy: The second problem comes with students who, for whatever reason, have limited experience with self-direction of any kind. There were a handful of students who understood how a game-based classroom worked (they could explain it, for instance) but never really developed much capacity to make decisions within it. It might be that they had only a limited interest in the course content (which I can understand), but it seems far more likely that what I saw was the manifestation of a childhood and adolescence lived under careful observation by parents and my colleagues and where students were not expected to make many decisions. So, when they were put into a learning environment that required decision making (and indeed, success came in large measure from deciding), they had limited capacity. Interesting is the fact that seniors had the most difficulty here, then the tenth graders and then the middle school students. A take-away for me is that the best time to train students to self-direct is probably middle school and that a gamified classroom is one of the very best ways to develop self-direction.

Inconstancy: There were some students who, when asked to work under their own direction, fell victim to laziness, indolence or who took the easiest route forward. I will be considering this point later in this series when I write about competition. I gave myself very few effective tools to manage student inconstancy. And there were examples where excellent students dropped to a lower common denominator when I would have anticipated that they would cause their groups to rise.

Poor Self-Awareness: Some students came to my classroom with a very low awareness of themselves as learners. They didn't know what they found interesting in American history, couldn't make connections between disciplinary branches within history (like between cultural history and political history), couldn't make connections between history and other disciplines and had poor research habits. Be mindful that these students came to their senior year with uniformly excellent grades in history. The problem seemed to be that those great grades were a result of my colleagues measuring very different qualities than I wanted to measure.

If you are going to undertake the gamified classroom in your own practice, make sure you've given some thought to these potential challenges. You'll be the better for it.

In the next installment, "theorycrafting" knowledge and skills.

Teaching in a Gamified Classroom Level 1: Formative Assessment

Once we were n00bs - rookies - green. Level 1; we didn't know all that much...we needed a lot of practice just to execute the basics. We progressed from start area to start area, doing what we needed to to buff our skills and improve. We figured out how to get the job done by ourselves and as a team. We had to keep learning, over and over again sometimes. Falling back, figuring it out. Step by step the bosses fell, but rarely on the first pass...and they were little bosses. The big ones were coming. And when we encountered them, they were challenging. Many of us fell; we wiped a lot. But we learned from what didn't work and again, we improved. At long last, we learned enough to progress to the final boss and with skill, knowledge, teamwork, collaboration and hard work, we prevailed!

 It's been a few weeks now since my first experiment in building a fully gamified classroom came to an end. Now that I've had an opportunity to consider the experience, both from my own perspective as a teacher but from the students' perspective (through interviews and discussions after the class ended), I have 10 take-aways that will help you as you consider gamifying your own classroom. Like any classroom experience, some things went quite well, others less so. These reflections come directly from these experiences. My philosophy of instruction is design-based...we're never going to learn anything about curriculum and instruction unless we're making research-based consideration of new approaches and learning how to "fail up." In this series of reflections, I will look at the following topics:

  • Level 1: Formative Assessment
  • Level 2: Student Self-Direction
  • Level 3: Theorycrafting Knowledge Trees
  • Level 4: Theorycrafting the Intregration of Knowledge and Skills
  • Level 5: Achievements
  • Level 6: Cognitive Load
  • Level 7: Thoughts on How Students Value and Perceive "Learning"
  • Level 8: Competition
  • Level 9: Scope, Timing, Scale
  • Level 10: Slaying the Boss

There's hardly anything about a gamified classroom that works the same way as a method or approach would work in a non-gamified classroom (constructivist or behaviorist). The single best reason to use a game-based planning model is in the area of formative assessment. We all know how important formative assessment is in understanding what one's students know and can do. We also know how difficult it can be to formatively assess. There is a long tradition in American education to focus our assessment efforts on end-of-unit or end-of-year summative assessments. Moreover, formative assessment is made harder the larger one's class is, the most complex the skill in question is and whether there are technology tools available to help the teacher conduct formative assessment. Formative assessment's purpose is to inform the teacher and the student on a class by class (or indeed minute by minute) basis as to their growth and performance. Very difficult to achieve.

Easier to achieve, though, in the gamified classroom. Easier to achieve not by happenstance or good luck but by design. There are three reasons why you should consider gamifiying your classroom if you're interested in formative assessment:

  • The Nature of Levels and Leveling: Because the gamified classroom structures the ways in which students learn knowledge into clear and explicit levels, each of which builds on the other, it is incumbent upon the teacher and the student to measure student understanding much more regularly. There's no reason a student should move to level 2 until they have demonstrated command of level 1. In this regard, a gamified classroom works very similar to a game. Players make regular decisions based on the second-by-second feedback they get in game and they are required to demonstrate mastery of a particular piece of knowledge or skill before they're allowed to go to the next area.
  • Student Accountability: Let's face it. One of the challenges in building formative assessment structures in classrooms is simply how hard it is to manage an effective system. In a gamified classroom, students are personally accountable for their progress through the course and the curriculum. They need you, but they don't need you every minute. They need your guidance when they need it, not when you want to give it and they need you accessible. Rather than being a distant figure, in a gamified classroom, you as the teacher assume a role closer to that of Yoda or Gandalf - the older and wiser guide. The more explicitly you place yourself in that role, in fact, the more apt students will be to cast themselves as Luke Skywalker or Frodo - in short, as the hero.
  • Student Engagement: What makes gamers love gaming? The regular feedback I mentioned above. There's a real sense of achievement when you outrace your opponent and cross the finish line first or are the first person on your server in a big MMO to kill a big boss or accomplish an otherwise brutal task. The way that games give players feedback builds commitment on the part of the gamer to continue. The same is true in a gamified classroom. Students responded to the realization that they'd accomplished something when they completed a level, particularly a boss level.

In the next installment, I will look more closely at how the gamified classroom devleops student self-direction.

It Isn't the Game, It's the Gamification, Part 1

This is the first in a two-part response to "How Video Games Are Changing Education," an infographic from Online Colleges. 

video-games-are-changing-education.jpg

Have you seen Online Colleges' infographic about how video games are changing education before? Easy to understand, visual and accessible, it nevertheless paints only a part of the picture that should matter to someone interested in gamifying classrooms, curricula and education.

The infographic argues that video games enhance student skill development in six areas: problem solving & negotiation, judgment analysis & strategic thinking, communication skills & networking, narrative skills & transmedia navigation, non-linear thinking patterns and improved attention, vision & cognition. Some video games will certainly help learners (be they K-12 age or older...video games aren't just for kids!) in these ways, though I would argue that all sorts of games might do this, not just video games. Moreover, in some cases, non-video games would do a better job of teaching these skills than video games would. For instance, there's really no better game than "Diplomacy" to help students understand and develop their problem solving, strategic thinking and negotiation skills. But this masks a essential problem in the argument and in the development of the gamified classroom; this problem is manifested in the second section of the infographic.

Part 2 of the infographic presents dozens of video games interconnected through a complex "tube map" that suggest relationships and benefits that aren't really there. I'm not sure, for instance, how far you can reasonably push the argument that Minesweeper is a "logic" game. I love Sid Meier's Civilization series of games but the one thing they are not is a "history" game. I can offer no argument whatsoever that Sim City, another game I enjoy, is a game that develops "communication" skills. Games are never required to serve an educational purpose. When they do, however, so much the better! Minesweeper, at least nominally, can help with problem solving and judgment analysis. Civilization is a great game for developing improved attention and strategic thinking. My experience of Sim City always seemed better if I was able to break out of conventional thinking into non-linearity. But at the end of the day, this "tube map," and the facts and statistics that follow it, present more problems than solutions for educators interested in game-based learning when we discuss GBL with our colleagues and the general public.

So, what should we do?

  • Focus on the Learning, Not The Games: We all agree that games are cool! We love playing them! But that doesn't mean that I as a teacher, am ever going to offer Civilization as a substitute for learning history. Ever. Rather, my responsibility as a teacher trying to gamify my classroom is to investigate how Civilization works and incorporate THAT into my classroom. How does it motivate? How does it create the flow-state that's at the heart of game-based success stories?
  • Experiment Thoughtfully: I argued above that Diplomacy is a great game to help students develop their problem solving, strategic thinking and negotiation skills. A lesson about how diplomacy and diplomatic systems in Europe prior to World War I contributed to the war's beginning would definitely be enhanced by playing a few turns of Diplomacy. But it wouldn't make much sense if the game took place before students had some kind of sense of what the game was simulating.
  • Believe: Ample and growing evidence strongly endorses the game-based learning approach to curriculum development, graduation requirements, classroom structure and management, student-centered learning and the creation of learning experiences. It is to these ideas that I will turn in the second part of this series.

Gamification Sounds Cool But I Don't Game...Where Do I Start?!

I have been getting some very helpful and constructive feedback from colleagues, students, friends and the wisdom of Internet communities as I work to build a gamified classroom. On more than one occasion, I've gotten a note that reads like this: "I understand how play might motivate students and I know my students play games, but I don't play games. Where do I start!" 

The best place to start is by doing a little mental inventory. Surely nearly everyone has played tic-tac-toe, checkers, chess or backgammon. I bet you've played Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders or Uncle Wiggly. You've probably also played other great games of the American golden age of games like Monopoly, Sorry, Clue, Careers. If you've played them, you've got a good start on the basics of game mechanics and game-based motivation.

From there, let me make some suggestions (and if you haven't played these games, find a 5-year old and break out Chutes and Ladders...a far better game than Candy Land, if you ask me…).

Got a smartphone? Try Words With Friends (which I play and would be happy to play with any of you - my WWF id is joncassie) and Angry Birds (which I don't play, because I know I'll get sucked in and never get back out). They are pretty good examples of mobile play. WWF is asynchronous, which is a feature of a lot of games these days.

If you've graduated beyond Monopoly and Risk, I would start with one or two games, generally considered "gateway" games to the more complex German-designed boardgames. The first is called "Settlers of Catan," in which you harvest and combine resources to build a settlement on the island. Simple rules; complex strategy. The other is called "Ticket to Ride," in which you are building a railroad network across the country trying to link up certain cities (which you have in a hand of cards) while your opponents are trying to build their own network. I like "Ticket" a lot more, but "Catan" is a classic. Or visit your friendly, local game store (just about every city and town has one) and get their suggestions. They may have better ones. If you're interested in 2-player games like checkers and chess (abstract strategy), see if you can find a copy of Dvonn or Zertz. Both are 2-player abstract strategy games, highly accessible and very, very fun.

If you've got a gaming console (a PS3, Wii or Xbox), I would heartily recommend games like Super Mario Galaxy (for the Wii) as a definitive example of what Wii is about or the Wii sports games that make such great use of Wii's special motion controllers. I have heard outstanding things about games like Assassin's Creed and L.A. Noire has received enthusiastic and well-deserved praise.

If you've got a desktop or laptop computer, you can't go wrong with Portal 2, an insanely fun puzzle game with a deep story element. I have long been a fan of The Sims franchise as well and Sims 3 doesn't disappoint. Directing the lives of your avatars (sims) as they grow up and live their lives is totally addictive.

The final frontier in gaming commitment might be the MMO. I play World of Warcraft and, now that the first twenty levels are free, you could get a sense of how the game works without taking the big plunge. Other MMOs are much smaller and I don't have any experience with them, but I'd love to hear from players of these other games.

 So - go play and report back!!