Gaming the Classroom

I had previously heard about Lee Shelton‘s effort to turn a classroom into a video game-type experience from several sources, although I did not know that he had created a website for it until Professor Hacker pointed me there.

Before viewing his website, I was simultaneously intrigued and concerned about his approach. I was intrigued because games clearly have a quality that gets people to devote large quantities of time and effort to them for very little outside purpose. It would be great to create an educational situation which causes students to have sustained, near-obsessional interest.

I was concerned it seems like such a set-up could easily devolve into a series of external motivators that ultimately decrease the student’s intrinsic motivation for the academic subject. Since I believe that we should be fostering an interest in learning for its own sake—not just to earn points—I was concerned about how the class was set up.

I have now looked through the site. I have only skimmed it, and I am far from an expert on gaming. Considering this, please take this next sentence with a grain of salt: I now no longer feel intrigued nor concerned; I just feel a little disappointed.

Largely from looking at the syllabus, it seems to me that the main difference in this class is that everything has a cute, gaming-type name. There are no “quizzes,” but rather “monsters to fight.” There are no “points,” but rather “XP” (“eXperience Points,” for those non-gamers out there). “Groups” of students are “guilds,” and “doing well on a midterm” is “defeating the level Boss.”

One feature I like is that it appears to have some sort of 0-1 grading scheme (you either get the XPs or you don’t), although I cannot tell if there is a mechanism for re-doing work that students attempt but do not succeed on. My opinion is that this is an essential component of a 0-1 grading system.

Largely, I feel that I am missing something. In the words of a mathematician, this seems “isomorphic” to any other classroom. Please let me know why this class structure deserves all of the buzz it is receiving—I want to go back to being intrigued and/or concerned about it.

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22 Responses to “Gaming the Classroom”

  1. Tweets that mention Gaming the Classroomgy « Solvable by Radicals -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Derek Bruff and Derek Bruff, Bret Benesh. Bret Benesh said: New #mathblog post: Gamifying the Classroom […]

  2. James Henke Says:

    Keep in mind that the course is T366: Multiplayer Game Design. I’d suspect these students are all aspiring World of Warcraft software developers. If there was ever a course to structure in this way, this would be it. That said, I don’t see the point. Are traditional grading structures so abstract that we need to develop this as a way of connecting with gamer-students? Would you get extra credit if you come to class dressed as wizards? I dunno…this somehow falls short.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Jim,

      In short, I completely agree with you.

      Longer answer: I agree that this context might be marginally useful in getting WoW fans more interested in the class. However—and what I did not write in the post—I normally here this class being presented as an example of innovative pedagogy. Here, I agree with you that “I don’t see the point” of the pedagogy, beyond making it mildly more interesting for the WoW people. The main reason for the post was my high expectations going in, and my not seeing the point after.

      That said, just because I do not see the innovative point does not mean that one is not there. I think that Anastasia might help me see it.

  3. Anastasia Says:

    I suppose one element of this strategy that still has me intrigued is what can change once the framework is in place. The elements Lee Sheldon’s class uses–and I’ve been experimenting with–are just a structure. But I think interesting things can emerge once that framework changes. I like Jane McGonigal’s explanation that gaming is about overcoming unnecessary obstacles. There’s a good fragment about this topic at Gamasutra: To me, a gaming structure means embracing some of that philosophy, and pushing students to use teamwork and creative thinking to overcome increasingly more complex problems and in the end create their own experience. The structure is only the first step of that challenge.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Anastasia,

      It sounds like you might come to my rescue! As I said, I want to like this, but I just don’t see it yet. Would you mind connected some more of the dots to me? Here are a handful of questions:

      1. “Tackling unnecessary obstacles:” it seems to me that this phrase (from McGonigal) largely describes what school already does. Now, McGonigal might argue that the problem with school as it currently is is that students are not choosing these obstacles on their own. Since they are not self-chosen, students “resent that kind of work. It stresses [them] out.” However, it is unclear to me how the gaming structure in the class makes it their own self-chosen work.

      [Note: I am completely on-board with giving the students large amounts of autonomy in the classroom; I just do not see how a gaming structure gets the students any more choice than they could have otherwise.]

      2. “…what can change once the framework is in place.” What is it than can change? How are students more interested in overcoming unnecessary obstacles than before?

      3. I think that I might be missing something big. Since I am missing it, I cannot describe it. But it seems to me like you (and Sheldon) might be doing something radically different with, say, quizzes and exams, but it is not clear to me from the website. So how are the in-class tasks, homework, quizzes, and exams different from how they would be if you did not have a gaming structure.

      4. What is the level of inter-student (or inter-guild) competition in these classes?

      5. Is there anything that it appears I am missing?

      Thanks for the discussion. Again, I am looking for reasons to like this, so I hope you take these questions in a friendly manner.

  4. Derek Bruff Says:

    Here’s a different approach: prediction markets. Just yesterday, I blogged some ideas for using prediction markets in teaching. I can imagine posing a series of questions for students, questions that will have definite answers by the end of the semester, and asking students to bet fake money on those answers within a prediction market. The market then becomes a great structure for fostering discussions (in-class and online) about the content of those questions, and the “let’s try to win fake money” component provides a motivation for students to engage.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Derek,

      This is interesting. What sorts of (play) wagers would you have students make in, say, a mathematics class?

      • Derek Bruff Says:

        I’m not sure, Bret. During the workshop, it occurred to me that in an engineering course, you might have students bet on the best design for some kind of project, as measured by some particular outcome. I wonder if something along those lines might work in a math course, one that’s more project-based where there are multiple ways to approach those problems.

  5. Joss Ives Says:

    I had a good discussion about gaming the classroom with one of my Physics Education Research buddies at a recent conference. We came up with a few ideas that could work in the context of an SBG-assessed course.

    XP are earned by completing assessments. Perhaps for somebody using the 0-4 point scales those translate directly to XP. Or perhaps there is room for grinding where you can also get XP by doing some other tasks as well. The important thing here is what is the draw to “level-up”? You need to get some sort of new abilities in the context of the classroom, and this is what are discussion focused on. I didn’t do the best job of coming up with multiple examples for each of these things that could be considered abilities that you earn through leveling up:

    1. Black-boxing: There are lots of things that we expect students to show us that they can do them by hand before we want to let them use a black-box to do them. Integration in mid- and upper-div physics courses is the first one that jumps to mind where the black-box is some sort of integration software.

    2. Short-cutting: Not having to write up certain sections for lab reports. Having to hand in fewer “written-up” solutions to accompany web-based homework submissions.

    3. New assessment/re-assessment methods: students get to submit screen-casted solutions once they hit level 3. They can write a paper or do a project once they hit level 5.

  6. bretbenesh Says:

    Hi Josh,

    Okay—now we are talking! Your suggestions of “prizes” are much, MUCH closer to what I was hoping to find out about.

    Now that you have done the hard work, I will ride your coat-tails with another suggestion (this suggestion might be a horrible idea, though—we need to think about it): moving up levels grants them access to weightier assignments. For instance, the first level of assignments might be on a 0-4 scale; people who have advanced to a second level might have access to assignments that are weighted on a 0,2,4,6,8 scale, thereby allowing them to move up to other levels faster. I would imagine that these problems might be meatier, too—perhaps require them to do thinks like synthesize.

    This also offers a great advantage to the teacher: why would you need to grade, say, integrals of students who have demonstrated that they can consistently do them? Isn’t the teacher’s time better spent on something else (like, say, making sure that the OTHER students become proficient at integration?). In addition to the cool, possibly motivating aspects of a game structure, your suggestions might have very practical uses, too.

    I still have one concern: I don’t want the students to lose intrinsic motivation because I am dangling the extrinsic motivator of “the next level” in front of them. But at least I think that this is interesting and has potential, though.

    • Joss Ives Says:

      So you’re thinking of the equivalent of being able to slay bigger monsters that are worth more XP once you are at a higher level? I think for many students the fact that you are withholding the meatier questions until they have leveled up is going to make them want to have access to them even more. The gaming is working already!

      I also really like the practical side of the idea that you can get the student to have shown you enough times that they can integrate that you trust their integration skills and no longer require them to show their integrations. So instead of a course-wide “you no longer need to show integrations, just use Maple/Mathematica” after the first month, the students that still need the practice will still be “stuck” in a position where they need to do more practice before being relieved of the burden of having to show their integrations. It’s like some sort of objective trust system, where each student knows exactly what has to be done to earn your “integration trust”.

      I also share some related to point chasing, but my thoughts are as follows. I don’t think students that came in intrinsically motivated are going to lose that and become extrinsically motivated point chasers.
      Students that come into the class being motivated to work as hard as needed to do well will be just fine with it as long as their regular strategies for success will work as they always do (of course we are both non-traditional teachers so often their standard strategies for success weren’t going to work anyway, but that’s another story). These are typically the students that do every single “for credit” thing that you give because they are trying to soak up every mark possible. The point chasing in the gaming system would potentially have enough marks to be chased that they will be happy to play your game as long as it gets them the marks they “need”. The students that showed up and were basically guaranteed an A because of a decent work-ethic (some decent level of intrinsic motivation) and high aptitude within the discipline will also do just fine because they can “be taught by a brick sitting on top of the podium and still get an A”, plus they have a good chance of finding it fun. Where I picture this extrinsic motivation to be an important motivator is for many of the underachievers. It won’t work for all of them, but our classes are usually filled with those students that do tjust enough work to get them through, but probably get at least a full letter grade below what they would get if they just put into the class even a modest effort. I don’t know how many of these students will end up being motivated, but I would even take just one!

      • bretbenesh Says:

        Hi Joss,

        The psychology literature would disagree with your statement “don’t think students that came in intrinsically motivated are going to lose that and become extrinsically motivated point chasers.” I don’t know if this would happen in a single semester (particularly if they have already withstood 13+ years of extrinsic motivators), but the studies say that extrinsic motivators decrease intrinsic motivation of people of all ages. So I am very wary of this—even if my class is only a drop in the bucket of their education.

        That being said, I am continuing this conversation. I think that it might be possible to devise a system where the benefits outweigh the danger of the overjustification effect.

        Back to devising a gaming system: I see one slight concern with our black-boxing prize. I think that we need to be careful about how we set this up. For instance, continuing with the integration example, it is possible that a student could accumulate a lot of XPs on questions that have nothing to do with integration. There is a danger that we could design a course where this student, with no evidence that they know how to integrate, gets the ability to use black-box integration. This seems like a bad thing.

        This is not an impossible barrier, but it just needs care. Perhaps we could make these prizes “quest-based” rather than based on XPs. For instance, perhaps a student needs to get a certain number of XPs on integration problems before they are allowed to black-box on integration problems. In this scenario, a student might be able to black-box on integration, but not be able to black-box on, say, differentiation.

        In fact, making it “quest-based” sure sounds a lot like SBG.

        In fact, this sounds similar to what I do already. My version of SBG is that once students completely answer n problems on a given topic, they are allowed to skip question on those topics in many situations (note: I am still concerned with the overjustification effect here, too).

        Keep these ideas coming.

      • Joss Ives Says:

        Brett and I have decided to take this conversation over to a collaborative document and will make sure to let folks know what our system looks like once it has been a bit more hashed out. Stay tuned.

        On a side note, my knowledge of the psychology motivation literature is nil, so take everything I said with regards to motivation as anecdotal and conjecture 🙂

  7. bretbenesh Says:

    Hi Joss,

    But I linked to Wikipedia! That should be utterly convincing!

    • Joss Ives Says:

      Well now you’re getting my wheels turning thinking about student assignments regarding looking at credible/reliable vs non-credible/unreliable wikipedia articles.

  8. bretbenesh Says:

    I was about to make a joke about Wikipedia being unreliable, but I find that it is quite good for mathematics.

    How do you get the students to understand which articles are good?

    • Joss Ives Says:

      The physics articles are usually quite accurate as well, but tend to have very short explanations for the novice and jump into the higher level stuff quickly.

      I’ve never tried to do a wikipedia-based assignment, it was just one that occurred to me when you brought up wikipedia. In terms of not good/non-credible/unreliable, I have certainly seen many physics articles that have the “citation needed” tag. It could then be on the student to find some appropriate citations. If the instructor was willing to put in some leg work, it could be interesting to find some articles where the citation given doesn’t actually support what is said in the article and have a group of students fix it.

    • Joss Ives Says:

      I’m 67% talk and 33% action!

  9. bretbenesh Says:

    I’d actually be quite happy with those proportions.

  10. The Science Learnification Weekly (April 10, 2011) « Science Learnification Says:

    […] Gaming the classroom: Bret Benesh and I start strategizing how to gamify our classes in a way that would give rewards with classroom value in exchange for “advancing in the game” or “gaining experience points”. These rewards included ideas such as no longer having to demonstrate basic skills (such as integration by hand in upper-division physics courses) or gaining access to new types of assessments. We have now taken the discussion over to a collaborative document between the two of us and will report back when we figure out some more of the details. […]

  11. The Science Learnification (almost) Weekly (May 8, 2011) « Science Learnification Says:

    […] Video Games: A New Frontier in Pedagogy: Pamelia Brown guest posts on sciencegeekgirl and gives a very nice overview of video-game inspired education, a topic which Bret Benesh and I have discussed in the past. […]

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