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 3: Theorycrafting Knowledge

Level 3? We got this...now wait a minute...this doesn't make sense...what are we doing here? How're we ever going to get to that boss if we can't figure out what's at the heart of this level? What is this designer trying to do anyway? 

I just finished reading Bonnie A. Nardi's My Life As a Night Elf Priest, a sophisticated piece of ethnography in the emerging literature on cultures formed and sustained primarily in digital spaces, in this case, by players and guilds within the game World of Warcraft. In this book, she has a chapter on a practice within the game that players call "theorycrafting." She defines theorycrafting in World of Warcraft as "the discovery of rules that cannot be determined by play." (175)

For the purposes of creating a gamified classroom, it is clear that what both teachers and students need to do is to think like theorycrafters. This might sound straightforward. It isn't. It does speak to the fundamental questions that confront us as educators trying to make sense of 21st century change, 21st century curricula, 21st century skills and the Dan Pink / Ken Robinson challenge. Both Pink and Robinson speak about the need to infuse creativity into learning and I don't disagree. But at the heart of my teaching practice isn't creativity the way that Pink and Robinson might define it (though maybe I'm wrong here?), but rather the creativity that lies at the heart of sophisticated thinking. 

In an earlier post, I alluded to the practice, as I understood it at the time, of constructing a system of levels which my students would use to learn in a 21st century, gamified classroom. I was teaching a course called America 3.0, which attempted to confront students with critical questions about the history of this country in the last 20-40 years. I was partially successful, though not completely so. As the creator of the system of knowledge that I wanted students to explore, I was attempting to create precisely that - a system that built layer by layer, like an onion, to expand students' capacity not to know these levels (because that was only part of the story, and not the most important part - after all, students didn't earn any points for knowing things), but to use that knowledge to answer critical questions (in game terms - to slay bosses).

I was not, am not and won't be interested in the knowledge that students acquire for its own sake. Society has moved on. This isn't something I want to measure. Rather, what can students do with knowledge that they have or that they find? This is where the theorycrafting comes in. What lies unstated in the knowledge? What does the network emphasize or obscure? What's buried in there that needs teasing out? This is the work of theorycrafters in the game, and the work of theorycrafting within a gamified classroom.

As a teacher planning a course, I committed myself in the planning stage to not give students only one approach through the knowledge of America's history since 1970. This is an example of a "rule that cannot be determined by play." I was imparting to my students an experience that reinforces my belief that knowledge is systematic, interdisciplinary and networked. Moreover, by not giving students the currency of the realm, points, for doing work in the knowledge trees, I was emphasizing this quality.

The level 100 boss in the Culture Knowledge Tree read: In the transition from America 1.0 to America 2.0, major disruptions in social relations and "social truth" led to the widespread adoption and embrace of fringe cultural practices. In many cases, these fringe practices died out (Fourierism), but in other cases, they survived into our own age (Christian Science). Trace the phenomenon of cultural resistance to the mainstream and/or the emergence of cultural anxiety in the transition from America 2.0 to America 3.0, and speculate based on reason and sound evidence about the likely survivability of at least three cultural expressions in 2100. Embedded within this question are notions of the mainstream and notions of the fringe, the Braudelian sense that history is conducted over larger temporal frameworks than students conventionally study in high school history, that social truth might be mutable and that culture has a social dimension. None of these ideas are expressed in the knowledge tree itself.

As a teacher, I tried to construct a learning experience that embedded unstated questions within the questions themselves. My students were therefore confronted with subtleties of criticality that they wouldn't have been had I centered myself at the nexus of learning. I was to the side - my students were at the center, with the KTs that formed the core of their experience. Sophisticated students seemed to get this almost at once and then it became, for them, a part of the game and part of the learning. The less sophisticated students realized that there was something more going on, and if they were partnered with their classmates effectively, they got something from that team. All students were given the opportunity to explore knowledge in different modalities, which was one of the goals of the course development process.

As a teacher thinking about gamifying curriculum, think of these things:

  • What's The Network?: What will your knowledge trees look like and what is embedded within them? What rules of your discipline will inform knowledge? How will your students make sense of what you've constructed?
  • Who's the Boss?: Central to the theorycrafter's task is trying to find the rules that are not explicitly stated. What is the knowledge that isn't explicitly stated? How can you point students to that knowledge in your boss questions?
  • Where's The Truth?:  Theorycrafters are keen to unpack assumptions and test them. Can you think of ways to structure questions to specifically validate the theorycrafting impulse and, as an added benefit, reveal the perspectives hidden within your questions?
  • Why Should I Care?: Well constructed levels should give students the ability to see connections between discrete fields of knowledge. How you encourage them to build this network of understanding speaks to the fundamental task of 21st century learning.

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!!

Learning Teams - A key to the gamified classroom

Towards the end of Sir Ken Robinson's thought-provoking discussion at the RSA (shared here through an awesome "animate" - a technique that is both awe-inspiring and just plain cool), he makes a critical point for anyone thinking about building a game-based curriculum and teaching in a gamified classroom. He says "...there's one answer, and it's in the back. And don't look. And don't copy! Because that's cheating. Outside schools, that's called collaboration. This isn't because teachers want it this way; it's because it happens that way. It's in the gene pool of education." And he couldn't be more right. Collaboration is a critical skill in the 21st century workplace and if our public discourse over the last few years teaches us anything, it is an essential skill that needs serious development in the American and global citizenry of the future. But how is that skill built in the gamified classroom?

One of the challenges facing a teacher who wants to build a collaborative culture in their classrooms is the simple fact of creating teams. Any teacher knows that grouping students is fraught with difficulties. Good teachers ask (but struggle to answer) questions like: Should I group students of like ability together or group students so that students with differing abilities work together? Should I group hard working students with students who are not? How do I measure the work the students do? Grade it? Can I group students and issue the group a grade? And if not, how do I grade individuals? What does it look like to grade an individual working in a group? And so on. Many great teachers resist having students work together not because it's educationally unsound (it's not), but because these questions resist easy answers.

In America 3.0, my solution to it is to create a systemic approach to student-created groups that they can work in (if they wish) to solve complex problems like Boss questions together (and submit work together for group leveling and group doing.) I call these groups ALTs, or accountable learning teams. Students who enroll in an ALT must complete an ALT charter in which the students create group norms that they agree to adhere to and which they police (with my assistance if necessary).

 The beauty of this system (I hope, no students have yet formed an ALT) is that students are self-accountable and that the will of the group should maintain a certain quality of work and effort so that the group continues to level and do good work. I believe this system is possible because this classroom doesn't have grades, per se, and therefore, all of the morass of grading cited above doesn't enter into the discussion.

I include below the "team charter" instructions that students have to address themselves to before I will allow them to submit work as a team. I owe a big debt to Dr. Linda Rose and the Educational Leadership Program at UCLA for this team charter. It is essentially the team charter that Dr. Rose uses in her Action Research class with graduate students. As a graduate student, I was in an action research team and used this team charter with my fellow students with great success.

 

ALT CHARTER

An accountable learning team (ALT) is one of the ways you can productively collaborate in America 3.0. By design, an accountable learning team gives you as students a cohort of like-minded students who have agreed to work together according to a set of rules to which you all agree. Before you can do any work together as an ALT, you must submit an ALT charter to me, discuss it with me and get it approved by me. If you do, you can then submit work to me as an ALT.

To charter an ALT, you must come to a common understanding of your goals and ground rules. Groups can consciously create common understandings and norms. The purpose of the charter is to give your group the most potential for success by developing these common understandings and norms. Write this charter as a group and submit it to me for consultation.

Answer the following questions:

1. What is your ALT's name?

2. Who is in your ALT?

3. When and where will you meet outside of class? Who will organize these meetings?

4. Will you have an agenda for these meetings or for how you use in-class time? If so, who is responsible for developing it? Who will keep the minutes? Who will keep track of action items?

5. What will you do if a team member is responsible for distractions during a meeting?

6. What is the procedure your ALT will use to deal with members who miss meetings, don't read email or Schoology or are late?]

7. How will you make decisions? By consensus? Majority voting?

8. What will you do if a member does not fulfill his or her ALT responsibilities? What will you do if the work of one of the team's members does not meet the standards of other members?

9. How will you resolve conflict within the group? What resources do you have and how will you use them?

10. What steps will you take if a member of your group commits academic misconduct or behaves unethically? Consider the full range of ethical issues.


Why Achievements Are Essential to Gamification

By design, students in my America 3.0 class this year have to earn achievements (special awards for reaching certain milestones, taking unusual approaches to their learning, doing an important or interesting thing a number of times or for building a portfolio of learning/doing in a compelling way). Unlike the acquisition of knowledge or the development of an assortment of  "do's," I haven't published what the achievements are. Students have to think outside the box, experiment, try new modes of thinking and new ways of demonstrating mastery. All of this points to one of the key qualities of the gamified classroom: student self-direction.

In the gamified classroom, students have to take responsibility for their own learning, just like a player has to take responsibility for their strategy or their approach to a game. In World of Warcraft, for example, players can reach level 85 (the maximum possible level in the current iteration of the game) in an almost bewildering number of ways. Most players level through a few core mechanics (questing, 5-man instances), but there is nothing preventing a player from leveling exclusively through crafting (using in-game materials to make in-game items that confer some benefit) and never playing whole parts of the game. In the game, though, there are achievements, special rewards, that form their own metagame within the game. Achievements give structure, sometimes, to the game work that players do and lend direction to the efforts that players want to undertake. Some achievements are really quite easy to earn, others are vexingly difficult (because they represent doing something that's just plain hard to do or because they require "grinding" - doing one thing hundreds of times over and over).

I set up the achievements requirement in the hopes that it would stimulate creative thinking in the context of student self-direction. Today, in our fifth class, I had the evidence that the achievement system was going to have the desired effect (at least with some students).

I arrived to class and a student was tuning her violin. Her classmates were attentive to what she was doing, but weren't obsessive about it. I cocked an eyebrow and the student said "I want to earn an achievement!" I nodded and asked her to explain what the violin had to do with anything! After all, a player doesn't earn an achievement for something random - it has to mean something. It has to connect. The student said "Janis Joplin." I asked her what level she was talking about, just to be clear. She said, Culture, level 1. I said "I'm not sure where you're going with this, but let's hear it."

She played for about 90 seconds with skill after which I asked her to make her Janis Joplin point explicit. She cited the story about Joplin's free spirited approach to life at the University of Texas and remarked that Joplin carried an instrument around campus in the event that she wanted to play. We discussed free-spiritedness as a quality of the culture of the 60s, as compared to the more "square" (her word) culture of the 50s. Her classmates nodded with understanding.

And I gave her a class first achievement for using a prop to illustrate a point and told her to keep leveling.