Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 1812 The Invasion of Canada

If you’ve read previous posts in this section you know that some games require a little massaging in order to effectively use them in a classroom (even for their intended purpose). This is not the case for 1812: The Invasion of Canada. Like nearly everything published by Academy Games, 1812 is both a fantastic game on its own, but completely accessible in an education context for very bright middle school students or high school students.

The War of 1812 is a bit difficult for most Americans to get their heads around. Fundamentally misunderstood in the midsection of North America as a war all about Americans (it was really a side show in the broader struggle by England against Napoleon), and seen by Americans (to the degree they think about the war) as sort of a way-station on the development of American hegemony, it isn’t given nearly the credit it deserves for the way it transformed North America. This was was basically ignored in the United States, but it was one of the key formative experiences for Canadians and essential to the development of a Canadian national identity distinct from the United States. While the game doesn’t capture that national identity formation, it does make British regular troops and Canadian militia distinct for purposes of playing the game.

The straightforward rules set of the game is the first thing to the credit of the designers. The elegant, tense and fun gameplay are a real hallmark, even for players who have a limited interest in wargames. There are special cards in the decks that simulate developments in different parts of the world that have an impact in this war. What makes this a game worth your consideration is the sophisticated way in which it combines play elements to generate an understanding of the period. This gameplay would generate substantive reflective work on the part of upper division students.

Links and Ladders 7

Turning one form of content into another is a great experience for students and one they're naturally inclined to do in this mash-up culture. Here's a great story about novels that would make great video games. Could not agree more with these choices, particularly the suggestion about Iain Banks' "Culture" books.

When you're planning gamified learning experiences, what is the nature of the opposition? What do your players/learners have to do to overcome that opposition? Here's a story about the nature of oppositionin certain contemporary video games and why they need to improve.

A fascinating article about virtual realism. When thinking about creating simulations in classrooms, the depth of the realism of the experience matters. This is why many games built specifically for classrooms don't ultimately work.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 7 Wonders

A six-year old game that still feels as fresh as the day it was first published is exciting to encounter. 7 Wonders, published in 2010, is one of these kinds of games. Fun, compulsively replayable, easy enough to learn but with great complexity and featuring lots of paths to victory, 7 Wonders is both the sort of game that is useful to play in a classroom right out of the box and that gives of itself to the gamifying teacher. Its mechanics are straightforward. Take a card from a diminishing hand of cards and play it to your play area and then hand what’s left of your hand to the person on your left or right, depending on the game phase you’re in. Pretty simple, but because of the large number of different “suits” of cards you might have in your hand, the mechanical simplicity is made maddeningly fun because of the difficulty of planning.

Using the game right out of the box could be easily useful in a classroom setting. It’s a useful way to examine resource scarcity, for example, as there are only so many science cards to go around and they have to be grouped in a precise way or the player playing them is bound to lose. While all of the resources are affected by scarcity, in my judgment the science cards are particularly susceptible to it. Better still is the way the game can teach resource balance. I would think it a useful way to spend some class time to play 7 Wonders and then have students write reflective journals on the kind of society they built as a result of playing the cards they played. What sort of society maxes out the score of military cards and doesn’t build any civics? How about the society that prefers the commerce cards but builds no science? 7 Wonders simulates (but not in a hardcore takes six hours to play sort of way) the consequences of choices made by societies. An interesting way to begin grade 9 history or a course on human geography.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Campaign Manager 2008

As the United States election process continues its grind towards November, the pre-Labor Day campaign period is as good a time as any to conclude my short series on election-based games. And apologies for the delay, but since posting about Die Macher, I’ve moved from Pittsburgh to Orange County and taken a new job. Phew!

So, today’s game is Campaign Manager 2008. Designed by the same team that brought us 1960: The Making of the President (a masterpiece of design), gameplay in 2008 features a very nice, taut balance between the two players. 

By itself, it would be illustrative to reflect on the ways the two games simulate differences between the two campaigns. That would be an intriguing lesson for high school students interested in politics. The way the two games address media and how media works would be a meaningful lesson. Moreover, the way the game understands the relationship of candidates to states interests me. In 1960, states that were safe were safer for other reasons than what was safe in 2008. In 2008, factional interests had become so entrenched, that the game doesn’t even need to simulate the election in the better part of the country. That would make this the only game I know of that’s interested in simulating an election that doesn’t even bother to simulate the whole election.

Campaign Manager 2008 does a very good job of capturing the essence of modern campaigning. The way in which states enter gameplay is highly reflective of the way the contemporary media environment goes local and then national and then local again. The way that the game handles the ebb and flow of issues is also intriguing. And also worthy of study.

If I were using this game out of the box in a classroom, I would want students to design a way to represent the unique economic conditions that prevailed in the 2008 election. It’s impossible to just create a straightforward election game in 2008 (or 1932 or 1860) when there are “elephant in the room” issues in the election. Also, my argument about 2008 and the collapsing economy issue intersects with the personality of the candidates. One candidate seemed smooth and steady. The other’s behavior was more erratic.

A worthy game for classroom use; more worthy still when paired with 1960.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Die Macher

Today is Iowa caucus day here in the United States, which means our national election process now has less than nine months to run its course! What a long strange journey it’s been. And much the same can be said here at Game Level Learn - the last three games reviewed have been games trying to simulate aspects of the American election system. They accomplish that goal with varying degrees of success, generally capturing one aspect or another reasonably well while leaving other critical parts un-covered or un-simulated. So as I’ve reviewed 1960 and don’t yet have a copy of Campaign Manager 2008 (which I will review later), it seemed prudent to leave our shores and visit another country and its election process. So, today’s game is Die Macher - a simulation of the German election process.

Die Macher is an exceptionally complex game. It richly simulates the nuances of German election politics by giving the players control over one of the major German political parties. The game then simulates elections in eight different German regions. Players compete with limited resources to secure victory in these regional elections. It is the management of these limited resources that gives the game much of its complexity. The game does a very good job of balancing media, money, party concerns and captures the feel (if not the exact reality) of Germany’s different regions very nicely. While it takes a long, long time to play the complexity of the game is deeply rewarding to the gamer who likes such things.

For the educator, Die Macher is a much greater challenge. Its complexity makes it totally outside the realm of possibility for anyone below grade 8. It’ll be hard for Grade 9 and 10 students to be honest. For a class that really wants to understand the parliamentary election process, though, it could be worth a play through. I would be most likely to use Die Macher in a class setting where I could teach comparative elections. In that context, I would teach one of the other election games I’ve discussed in this series and then teach Die Macher, asking students to assess the different assumptions present in each rules set.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Road to the White House

Election season continues here in the United States (as it does for uncountable months) and with it comes another investigation of a board game for use in the classroom. This week it’s 1992’s Road to the White House!

Road to the White House, unlike the previous two entries in this sub-series (Candidate and Campaign Trail), brings what to me is the critical dynamic in election games into the game - the candidates themselves. And with the candidates come positions that the candidate holds. Once this mechanic is present in the gameplay, the game is going to be a much more effective model for the American campaign process. I would contend that Road to the White House is a more effective model. It isn’t necessarily a better game than Candidate or Campaign Trail, however.

Once again, the game really functions more like a primary nominating season simulation rather than a general election simulator. Players have the opportunity to take a variety of actions on their turn as the game simulates the raising of money, the building of state-level organizations and the intrusion of new issues and ideas that come from events that are just part of the regular ebb-and-flow of an election season.

Where Road to the White House gets it really right from the perspective of the gamifying teacher is in its candidates. There are dozens of characters to choose from all of whom have really different perspectives on issues. These differences can combine sometimes in very lively ways (very much like a game of Cosmic Encounter’s tone is pretty dependent on the powers each player picks). It can be difficult understanding the relationship between ideas and issues, state-level thinking, candidate success in those states (as opposed to others) and the long-term approach candidates have to take to their campaigns. Road to the White House does a pretty good job of simulating these decisions a candidate has to make.

Road’s only real problem (but it’s a biggie from a teaching/learning perspective) is the length of time requires to play. You’ll need to set aside 4 to 5 hours to get through a single run of the game. I played this a lot in the 90s and it didn’t seem that brutal, but in this day and age, a 4-5 hour game is going to feel like a slog for many of your players.

Having said that, I think this game is best used in the classroom as a way to get students to think about candidates. After even an abbreviated run of the game, students could no doubt create their own fictional candidates. Even better…have your students create themselves as candidates and have their peers evaluate their qualities as candidates. How likely would it be that these students would win an election? An interesting way to help your students personalize the experience of the candidates running right now, who, after all, were at one point in their lives elementary school, middle school and high school students themselves.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Campaign Trail

It’s election year here in the US and for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to detail an assortment of board games with election themes that one might use in classroom settings. Nearly all of these games are going to work just fine in a high school setting. I don’t know of any election-themed board games that are appropriate as published for elementary school students.

 

What’s good about this week’s game - Campaign Trail, published in 1983 by GDW and long out of print - is that it would be totally accessible to a middle school audience. In fact, it’s probably better for middle school students than for high schoolers. To its credit, it is just about the right length for what it is. It shouldn’t require much more than an hour to play this all the way through.

Campaign Trail, as a roll-and-move game, simulates the grinding quality of campaigns very effectively. It also does a good job of representing the value of successful planning. Its gameplay is very straightforward. I played the heck out of this game in the 1980s and enjoyed it because it did reward planning.

The game features a number of random event cards that captures pretty well the vicissitudes of a national campaign. Unlike Candidate, it isn’t very good with representing money in American politics and it doesn’t care at all about issues, identity or ideology.

If you can find a copy of Campaign Trail, you might use it in your classroom to:

  • help your students understand the sheer size and scope of the United States and how easy it would be for a candidate to struggle to get his/her message to be understood across the full breadth of the country. It doesn’t hurt that the game makes air travel somewhat exotic and can serve to help the student understand the nature of retail politics before the air age was fully emerged.
  • investigate how candidates had to position themselves near larger cities in order to maximize their votes.
  • help students understand rudimentary polling. As candidates win states based largely on their visits to those states, a candidate needs to be able to discern how close they are to their opponents in a variety of states and determine whether that state could be won.
  • provide a framework in which to jury rig part of the game. One could have students create candidates that would give the game greater subtlety and personality, for instance.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Candidate

It’s election year here in the US and for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to detail an assortment of board games with election themes that one might use in classroom settings. Nearly all of these games are going to work just fine in a high school setting. I don’t know of any election-themed board games that are appropriate as published for elementary school students.

The problem with election games lies in the complexity of what they’re trying to represent. Elections in the United States are vexingly complicated and long. There are intersections of questions about money, policy, character and history in play as well as sometimes significant differences region-to-region and state-to-state. These differences are quite difficult to model. As a result, games generally ignore them. This leads, unfortunately, to a situation where the game is really only modeling one aspect of the broader election experience. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s worth noting.

Candidate, published in 1991 by Avalon Hill, does a good job of modeling two aspects of the campaign: the importance of money and the transitory power of scandal to temporarily derail a campaign. The object of this and nearly all election games in the United States is to get to 270 electoral votes. This one is no different. It plays quickly and is pretty engaging, even though it is not a particularly thorough representation of federal election politics. It’s closer in some respects to a simulation of the primary process if the primaries were held according to the same rules that elections are held under.

I would use Candidate in the classroom:

  • to give students a feel for how the money race in American politics works. Sometimes it really is a matter of simply having enough cash to hold on through rough patches and to wait for the news cycle to break against your opponents.
  • to give students a very general feel of the rough-and-tumble of a campaign season. Each player has 5 cards normally to play in a particular context (there are rules by which a player gets more cards, but most players have only 5). How to manage those cards, this resources? If you blanket the campaign with scandals in the first pass, will you inadvertently create an opening for an otherwise weak opponent?
  • to help students understand the relationship between lower electoral vote states and higher ones. Because this game pays no attention to issues or ideology, it’s useful to understanding electoral politics as a purely numbers game. It’s more like a primary simulator in this regard as well, as it comes closer to capturing the flavor of Barack Obama’s 2008 primary win (by cobbling together delegates from lots of smaller states).

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Betrayal at House on the Hill

When it came out, “Betrayal at House on the Hill” was so unlike most other games that one's first play through was astonishing (even if the Haunt turned out be sort of meh…). Even now a decade after it was first published, playing “Betrayal” is still a refreshingly different game experience, two games essentially, a light fun haunted house exploration game until the story pivots, one player becomes the bad guy and we’re in that race to victory where the players are struggling to figure out how they can manage a victory against a classic haunted house trope or villain. It’s not a perfect design. Some of the Haunts aren’t, really, all that fun. Some of the mechanics can interfere with each other in a really unhelpful way. But from the perspective of using it in a classroom, it’s an easy to teach and broadly elegant design that is actually usable in a classroom (unlike something like “Mansions of Madness,” much more complex, arguably no more fun than “Betrayal” and much harder to set up).

I might use “Betrayal” as a learning tool in the following ways:

  • Understanding character and narrative: The creative team behind “Betrayal” offers a dozen different characters with four different statistics/qualities defining those characters. Why? Why not just a handful of characters? Why these statistics? How do they connect to classic horror themes/tropes? Should they connect? What about connecting those characters to critiques of those classic themes? There are all sorts of ways to understand character and narrative.
  • Criticism: Ask players to design a scenario that makes use of the game mechanics but subverts them in some way, like the movie “Scream” did in the 1990s. Because the game is all about tropes, this gives students a chance to treat the game as if it were a film, novel or other source.
  • Decision-making: Because “Betrayal” is a cooperative game, it is a great opportunity for groups to study and assess the nature of decision making. How do groups function? Why do they function the way that they do? What do characters do to shape the way decisions are made?
  • Like all storytelling games, “Betrayal” is a perfect game for understanding on a straightforward level the principles of mimicry that form the foundation of what games are.

And besides, “Betrayal” is super fun - get out there and play!

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Beowulf, The Legend

Over the course of the last twenty years or so, a handful of German game designers have stormed the world of board gaming offering a host of interesting, fun and fiendish mechanics that were hitherto essentially unknown to North Americans. One of these mechanics, is the “auction” mechanic, in which players much bid something (currency, power, knowledge) to take actions. While not a classic example of this mechanic, “Beowulf: The Legend,” designed by Reiner Knizia and published in 2005, is a good example of the auction-based game mechanic (which I think is one of the most enjoyable of all German/Euro designs). Moreover, “Beowulf: The Legend” is a great game that you might use in your classroom out of the box to help your students understand the development of narrative excitement through a structure based on choices.

I heard an interview with Russell Banks recently in which he discussed the writing of short stories. He described the process for him as, essentially, a series of choices that restrict the narrative step-by-step until you’ve only got one choice remaining. In gameplay, “Beowulf: The Legend” works much the same way. Your journey through the game and through the story of Beowulf is based entirely on the choices you make, the risks you take and avoid and the way you interact with the environment of Anglo-Saxon England. A criticism of Reiner Knizia games is that they are little more than abstract game engines onto which have been slapped themes. This is less fair for this particular game, but it is not entirely wrong. The fact that it isn’t entirely wrong works to the advantage of the teacher who wants to integrate a game into the teaching of narrative, narrative structure, the building of a story arc and the hero’s journey.

Simply stated, while the theme of “Beowulf: The Legend” is Beowulf’s many adventures in Anglo-Saxon England, it would be simple as can be to reskin the theme to the American South, the Canadian frontier, Victorian England or whatever you like. Characters are always making choices, confronting challenges, grappling with complex relationships and growing or choosing not to grow.

This game would work especially well for high school students but would also work for strong middle school students.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 10 Days In Africa

For a time in the mid-2000s, there was hardly a game day that didn’t feature one of the “10 Days In X” hitting the table. Whether the game was “10 Days in Africa” (my personal favorite because the map is pretty strategic to manage, making the game a little more engaging for adults and strategy-minded players), “10 Days in the Americas” or one of the other variants, these games consistently got played because they were fun (naturally), harder than they seemed and were really engaging to the puzzle-solving, pattern-making brain. Engaging to the adult, equally engaging to the child it seems to me.

All the games in this series could be used by teachers without modification to help students develop a sense of spatial relationships within the continent in question. In an American setting, many students don’t know that Egypt is in northern Africa, Guinea is in the west, Tanzania the east and Namibia is in the south. Simply knowing this could be the spur to curiosity that we need to see more of in American education. Students would, of course, benefit from having exposure to all of the different continents on offer in this game series.

But more than straightforward geographic awareness, what might a teacher of students between grades 3 and 7 do with a game like this?

War and Chaos: the teacher could introduce the study of war by showing how it disrupts lives. Every four or five turns, for example, students playing a regular game of “10 Days” might be told by the teacher that all routes that went through a certain country or region were no longer eligible to win because they were too dangerous to cross. The teacher could then assign students to study these areas of war and chaos as part of a more comprehensive learning objective.

Travel and Cost: Travel isn’t cheap! Students could build a route in the game and then do a project afterwards to understand what would actually be required to travel on that route in real life. This might include pictures of airports, airplanes, ground transportation and a budget worksheet. They could then act as travel agents selling their route and why its the best.

Personal Narrative: Students could play a game of “10 Days” and then use the journey they create as the skeleton for a story they would write about a character who might have travelled as they did in the game.

Interest in regional studies, economics, social justice, literature and history could all be enhanced by a round or two of this game right out of the box. It’s a great model for gamifying instruction as well, but that’s for another day.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 1960 The Making of the President

Happy Monday, gamer teachers? Or should that be teacher gamers…something to think about.

This week’s game of the week is a fiendishly tricky 2-player game published a few years back called “1960: The Making of the President.” Despite the fact that “1960” is a 2-player game, it is surprisingly suitable for use right out of the box in a classroom context where learning about the election process is the order of the day. It might also serve the purpose of helping students learn to accomplish a goal in a large, complex team. My sense is that it would be a great fit for any high school grade and potentially a solid fit for grades 7 and 8 with high interest / high ability students. The complexity of the game mechanics would not align with students below grade 7.

Published by Z-Man Games in 2007, “1960” quickly rose in the estimation of gamers due to the sophisticated manner in which the game depicts the shifting landscape of an American presidential campaign. Moreover, because the nature of American politics means that campaigns last months or years, the game engine has to keep shifting that terrain over the course of the game. The skill with which the game pulls this off is one of the reasons why the game is so effective (and so effective in a classroom context).

The biggest challenge facing you in using “1960” in your classroom centers on the fact that it’s a 2-player game. You are going to have to create teams of players to represent each candidate’s campaign. I believe this is actually a better representation of the complexity of managing a “media age” political campaign. The fact that different forces might be at work in a campaign pulling it in one direction or another or pushing it towards consensus is actually the way things work. Diminishing the omniscience that is embedded in a 2-player game actually helps. But you will have to do it yourself. Perhaps you divide your class into teams of 4 or 5 and assign them to represent the Kennedy campaign or the Nixon campaign. Teams of 4 or 5 are ideally suited to the game as the game is played over 9 turns. This would allow each player to have at least one and sometimes two turns where they could be placed in the position of "campaign manager” - breaking ties on the team, having responsibility for allocating resources or however you saw fit to sort out the responsibilities.

While the game is an excellent representation/simulation of how the political process works (or doesn’t) and how the ebb and flow of daily change can swing a state back and forth between candidates, it is even better as a source for understanding highly time-bound events in American history. The game’s authors have given very careful thought to the salient events in the campaign. One could almost read the card deck  used to power the game as a rich historical source in-and-of itself. Students could be encouraged to keep a running journal of events they choose to play and at the end of the simulation they could be asked to reflect on their particular series of events and how that series helped/hurt their candidate. Individuals might be asked (as an assessment) to more deeply research one of the cards their candidate played. Maybe the final assessment (in addition to the reflective essay that I think is a natural for this learning experience) is to design a new card that might fit in the context of the game?

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Machi Koro

For the past six months or so I’ve been playing Machi Koro as many times as I can get it to the table. The charming art goes a long way towards making it a game I’d like to bring to the table again and again, but in reality, the simple yet complex game play is probably what brings me (and I bet many others) back to the game over and over again.

Machi Koro is a game of city construction. Players are trying to gather wealth (from an assortment of city buildings they choose to buy over the course of the game) by rolling a six-sided die (or two, if the player’s city is sufficiently advanced) and having the die match wealth generating buildings in their city. The object of the game is to build four particular buildings called “landmarks,” namely the Station, the Shopping Mall, the Amusement Park and the Radio Tower. Once a player has built all of these landmarks, that player wins. Simple, strategic and with a healthy dose of luck.

Teachers, particularly teachers of elementary school age children, could use Machi Koro in their lessons in a number of different ways.

Consumption and Production: Buildings in Machi Koro represent different kinds of resources. Students studying the game as an artifact would be able to use its abstractions as a springboard to a deeper understanding of resources for consumption and those for production.

Wealth and Wealth Creation: a simple social studies unit on capitalist economics could be enhanced by playing just a couple of rounds of Machi Koro and having students then discuss how the different buildings worked, the effect of luck on their success and what buildings they might have purchased to have greater success.

Local Models: Students are often asked to think about what makes their particular part of the country special. Students could play a few games of Machi Koro and then redesign/reskin the game based on their interpretation of their own city and what makes it special. For example, I live in Pittsburgh. The four landmarks for Pittsburgh might be: Union Station (trains), CONSOL Center (hockey venue), PNC Park (baseball stadium) and Heinz Field (football stadium). Students could then share their different versions of their cities with parents who could be taught how to play the game. Machi Koro is so straightforward, it can be taught in two minutes.

Teachers interested in very straightforward urban studies could use this game as a model for thinking about cities. What makes them function? What’s missing in this game-utopia version of city life? Where are the people? The workers? Where are those things that make living in a city problematic? 

Machi Koro is an example of a game that gives great game play and immediate in-classroom application at all levels K-12.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Zendo

A few weeks ago, a colleague (high school Science teacher) sent me the following thought by email: "I'm watching the middle school boys play a ball game incorporating the dirt pile on the green - how much more fun would professional sports be to watch if the fields were non-planar .... and changed randomly from game to game requiring improvisation on arrival ….."

She and I talk a lot about education and most importantly educational practice. Classroom method. Lab practices. What works and what doesn’t? What do students in 2016 really need that makes them different from students in our classrooms ten years ago. That sort of thing.

Now from a gaming perspective, this email was awesome! My response was: "I can't even tell you how much I love this! A quick bit of game-design theory: every game is defined by its own "magic circle." The magic circle is composed of the rules, equipment and physical characteristics of the game...these things separate gamespace from realspace. You could take almost any physical sport and incorporate a non-planar element and you'd change the magic circle and hence the game. Think about the difference between skiing with or without moguls, for instance."

From a teaching practice perspective, it is in some respects even more intriguing. What factors/qualities make up the “magic circle” of your personal practice as a teacher? How does a student know the difference between being in your class and being in a colleague’s class? The students know this. Bet on it. Do you? Perhaps you should investigate this, if only to sharpen your own perception of what you do and why you do it.

What might you do differently with your students tomorrow that would shake up their expectations? How will you make your fields non-planar?

Bring Some Moguls to Your Teaching Practice

A few weeks ago, a colleague (high school Science teacher) sent me the following thought by email: "I'm watching the middle school boys play a ball game incorporating the dirt pile on the green - how much more fun would professional sports be to watch if the fields were non-planar .... and changed randomly from game to game requiring improvisation on arrival ….."

She and I talk a lot about education and most importantly educational practice. Classroom method. Lab practices. What works and what doesn’t? What do students in 2016 really need that makes them different from students in our classrooms ten years ago. That sort of thing.

Now from a gaming perspective, this email was awesome! My response was: "I can't even tell you how much I love this! A quick bit of game-design theory: every game is defined by its own "magic circle." The magic circle is composed of the rules, equipment and physical characteristics of the game...these things separate gamespace from realspace. You could take almost any physical sport and incorporate a non-planar element and you'd change the magic circle and hence the game. Think about the difference between skiing with or without moguls, for instance."

From a teaching practice perspective, it is in some respects even more intriguing. What factors/qualities make up the “magic circle” of your personal practice as a teacher? How does a student know the difference between being in your class and being in a colleague’s class? The students know this. Bet on it. Do you? Perhaps you should investigate this, if only to sharpen your own perception of what you do and why you do it.

What might you do differently with your students tomorrow that would shake up their expectations? How will you make your fields non-planar?

Experience Points Peer-to-Peer

Those of us who remember the old days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (or the even more classic editions predating AD&D) can’t help but marvel at the roleplaying renaissance that’s been going on for at least the last ten years or so. In that time, one of the most innovative of these new independently-published RPGs has to be Numenera. Set in the “Ninth World,” (essentially an Earth so transformed by technology and change as to be unrecognizable…but still fundamentally Earth at the same time…you have to play to see what I mean) Numenera brings a host of innovations to the table that old-school gamers could really appreciate.

This article isn’t about the play experience of Numenera, though. Rather, it’s about one mechanic in the game that could easily be ported into your gamified classroom. Useful in any gamified classroom setting, this particular mechanic is uniquely suited to a classroom where you’re using avatars, skill systems or other forms of mimicry.

In every roleplaying game there is a system by which characters earn experience points (XPs), gain levels (reflecting that increased experience) and generally gain abilities to interact with the game world with greater and greater success. These experience point systems make it possible for characters to defeat challenges that in an earlier stage in the game would have been impossible. 

Experience systems always begin and end with the evaluation of the player’s work in that particular game session by the gamemaster. Every game has some rubric, (usually not very sophisticated) that helps the gamemaster make decisions about the awarding of experience. Experience points are a highly valuable commodity as they determine the speed at which characters progress.

Numenera has this kind of experience point system, but it adds a twist…there’s also a way for players to award experience points to the other players. That, from a gaming perspective, is revolutionary. In certain circumstances, the gamemaster in Numenera can offer a player what’s called an “intrusion.” In an intrusion, the gamemaster does something or changes something that alters the course of the game or interferes with players’ decision making in some way. Players don’t have to accept an intrusion, but when they do, they earn an experience point for themselves and an experience point that they have to give away to one of their fellow players. In this way, the players themselves are always part of the process of rewarding excellent play.

Envision a class experience where your students have created avatars to represent themselves.  Over the course of the unit/course, the avatars in question are going to gain experience through defeating obstacles and gaining knowledge and skills (sound familiar?). You could create a list of skills that are of interest to you…that you want your students to gain mastery in (like using punctuation correctly, understanding the difference between parts of a cell or synthesizing non-fiction reading) and give your students the capacity to recognize these skills in their peers. Perhaps there are some skills that an avatar can level only by gaining experience from fellow players.

In this way, you help your students understand the particulars of the learning objective. Moreover, you help them see the value of these particulars and to see the value contributed to the class as a whole by different classmates. This can, with thoughtful management by you, help develop a positive classroom culture.

The Unassailable Rule of Classroom Gamification

A great article from a few years back makes a case I’ve been making for years. When thinking about gamification in education, it is a mistake to focus only on the games themselves. As I have begun to argue elsewhere, games can and do have a role in your classroom. That role, however, is limited and must be carefully monitored. The game doesn’t serve its own purpose. It has to serve your learning objectives and your deeper goals for your students. Sometimes a game is uniquely suited to those deeper objectives. If it is, by all means use it! As I argued about the game Zendo, it is a particularly powerful tool to have students not just think about critical thinking abstractly but to actually do critical thinking (and to do it in a way that is meant explicitly to be fun…they can then apply the skill learned in the game in contexts that aren’t necessarily meant to be fun).

Rather than focusing on the games, focus on the gamification. What does this mean? A quote from the article gives a direction. “…gamification isn’t about games, but about game mechanics. Users don’t need to win or lose an entire game experience to become involved.” This is where gamified instruction has unique potential benefits. Every great game (and I mean this without exception) is an involvement engine first and foremost. Games want to be played! And great games make playing easy, richly rewarding and highly engaging.

The first rule of gamification in the classroom: it’s not really about the game. It’s about how your learning objectives can be served by one or more game mechanics.

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Ultima IV and Ultima V are among the most intriguing of RPG designs ever offered. Centering gameplay in the development of one's moral character (or responding to the ways such moral systems can actually become perverted), they push players in unexpected and intriguing ways. This great essay on these games is a reminder of their power.

Played Journey yet? It's free in September!

A succinct article from Alice Leung on Makerspaces and play, because it never hurts to remember that gasified learning is playful learning.

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Aesthetics form the basis of so many game experiences. The best board games have equipment that enhances the experience of gameplay because of something neat about the design (like the red train cars with the giraffes in the 10th anniversary Ticket to Ride or the art in Machi Koro or the ship in Riff Raff). In video games, one of the most important aesthetic qualities is music. When you think about great games, great music should pop right into your head. I've played a lot of World of Warcraft, and the music of Northrend is one of the reasons I liked that expansion the best. Here's a list of the Top 100 game soundtracks. My only complaint? Journey is better than #18!

Are you playing "Super Mario Maker?" You ought to be. From the perspective of a gamifying teacher, it is a powerful tool that can help you understand some of the nuances of experience design. I know that its lessons are one's that I can bring back to the classroom. Check it out!

And now for what NOT to do if you're doing gamified teaching. A fun story on the infamous backstab from Dark Souls...a game I've been too chicken to even try to this point!

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Achievement systems are a major part of gamification for a big reason - they help the user/player/learner chart his or her progress through their journey with concrete milestones tailored to their personal experiences. They're critical...and wickedly difficult to construct. Some thoughts on the X-Box's system and problems it experienced.

Are you a gamer AND a data nerd? Join the club! Here's a great study of the chess board and the survivability of chess pieces on that board. I've never looked at the game quite this way before.

Anyone out there playing Elite: Dangerous and using its play engines to create gamified experiences? I understand that this wildly huge open sandbox is bigger than anything in our past experience as players, but don't know how difficult it is just yet. Still, I'm looking forward to playing it and learning from it.