Gaming the classroom
Our thanks to the inimitable Adam Webb, who agreed to adapt this academic exploration of his forays into game-blended learning for our hungry minds.
As a former Level 70 Dwarven Warrior known for his propensity for late night raiding and all day grinding I have experienced the pull of a world full of feedback. When feedback loops were shortened, outcomes were known and measurable and progress was clearly outlined and consistently made I behaved exactly as B.F. Skinner could have predicted, bashing my electronic levers in hope of a shiny reward.
So, when I first encountered motivational problems in my teaching career I applied these ideas to my situation and created highly visible student progress charts, with progress clearly defined and routes to success clearly highlighted. Within the context of a BTEC qualification, these trackers have proved effective across the 5 classes that I know to have employed them. This is demonstrated by increased submission rates and an improvement in prioritising and time management skills within the students, alongside the increased engagement with their own progress. The motivational effects that these simple systems yield is easily under-estimated.
Research has demonstrated some qualitative gains using self-regulation and monitoring strategies in small groups of students with distinct special educational needs and in wider, more representative samples. Applying an operant perspective to the theories of self regulated learning you could argue that all self-regulating learning behaviours are ultimately administered by their performance criteria - their external reward or punishment contingencies. My own performance as a teacher will ultimately be judged by how well my students do, in nationally measured criteria, compare to national averages and their own expected progress.
“If learning is a game, it is one in which the way to make progress is too rarely, and too poorly communicated to it’s players…”
Teachers are known to have said “I’m just playing the game/system” or “It’s the fault of the system” when arguing a case but if this is a game, and education could be argued to meet some of my personal descriptors for a game, it is one in which the way to make progress is too rarely, and too poorly communicated to it’s players.
Salen and Zimmerman define a game as ‘a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’. Working with this, I based my own design for a classroom game on the following defining factors;
- The game must be based within a system
- The game must involve player interaction with this system
- The game must maintain a boundary between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ life
- Conflict and competition are central to game design. Games should be challenging.
- The game must be bound by rules
- The game must have quantifiable outcomes that are known to the players
By placing learners in a small, virtual world prone to their influence I hoped to improve confidence, resilience to failure (in both thinking and learning) and agency regarding their work. Within an educational game I felt that students should be ready to fail and learn from experience, which led me to ask how games could address some of the fundamental issues I was facing when trying to teach students new concepts and terminology.
A major problem was the prevalence of poor literacy skills among students. This exacerbates the lack of engagement and motivation within the classroom as it severely hampers students ability to process and store new content effectively. My own focus on cognitive theories led me to consider cognitive load and information processing theories.
Further reading on cognitive load theory in game design:
‘Take a load off: cognitive considerations for game design’ - Chris Lawrence.
‘Instructional Game Design Using Cognitive Load Theory’ - Huang and Johnson .
I felt that the literacy issues experienced by many of my students created cognitive demands greater than the working memory could effectively process. This was leading to issues in the ‘data bank’ storage system of the long term memory as the interactions between low lying elements (and even conceptualisations of those low lying elements) were often ill conceived and poorly developed. Higher order interactions (i.e. Involving more elements or high interactivity elements) were often unreliable and poorly defined.
To counter this I created a small game environment which was centred on pricing and production decisions and the subsequent impact upon sales, costs and profits. The game relied upon small group interactions, team work and everybody being involved. For motivational purposes, a chocolate cake was also involved.
The initial run of this lesson engaged learners and led to far greater average success rates within the group when attempting subsequent assessment tasks based around the concepts covered within the game.
- 94% of my KS4 learners completed 3 out of 3 tasks successfully at the first attempt (an increase from a yearly average of around 60%)
- 100% of my KS5 learners were able to complete their tasks successfully (compared to a yearly average of around 65%).
Girlie C. Delacruz’s presentation at the 8th annual games for change festival demonstrates the benefits of a shortened feedback loop and the close ties between tasks and games, lesson objectives and game outcomes.
The game lesson was utilised twice more with a greater emphasis on immediate player/learner feedback with further success. Disengaged learners were enthusiastic and more involved learners tried to partake in corporate espionage activities to maintain their lead, further enhancing the game environment and opening up this area for class discussion.
Research in schools is obviously flawed, with so many variables to account for. The influence of peer pressure and social norms is strong and time-frames or sample sizes are often small. However, even at a basic level there is evidence that games engage in a way that few other mediums are capable of. A full and rich game, designed around specified learning outcomes/objectives, has the potential to provide a learning experience beyond the remit of ‘standard’ teaching as learners are freed to engage with enquiry and risk taking in a safe, virtual environment where outcomes are known and form the basis for accumulating knowledge, ideas and skills.
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Keep Me Company Company is built on the +sum framework and like +sum, KMCC was conceived as an engine for visualising, raising and sustaining an area's Jen ratio, a measure of the social well being of an environment designed by positive psychologist Dacher Keltner. Unlike +sum, KMCC provides a simple narrative frame to ease the player into the game, and a solid set of game play goals.
KMCC casts players as executives in company which profits from the social feats performed by it's employees. Those playing collect points ('bucks') which accumulate in a central pool to bolster the companies share in a fictional market, against competitors such as UnSociable inc. The game ends when the company has gathered 100% dominance of the market place.go back
The Keep Me Company Company is a radical non profit adventure in giving more value to doing positive things.
At playlab we are big fans of the idea that a game framework is a potent tool for affecting our behaviour. We created +sum as a technical framework which supports that goal.
+sum allows for the delivery of missions to players, and the ability for players to receive points, give points, share messages and collaborate on completing those missions.