Insert Coin Series: Part 9 – Game On!

The Insert Coin Series has examined why and how one would attempt to gamify their classroom. We have looked at methods for creating student Identity in game. We have looked at common strategies for differentiating Challenge structures. We have considered the benefits and drawbacks of typical classroom Feedback systems. Now that you are ready to embark on your own gamification adventure, it is time to fully disclose that none of this is necessary.

You do not need to gamify your classroom to make it more engaging. According to Daniel Pink’s Drive, Intrinsic motivation stems from a combination of 3 factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.imgres Simply put, people are engaged and motivated when they have choice in their task, when they know they are doing well, and when they know why they are doing it. Gamification taps into all three of these motivational components. Consider the three categories of gamification elements previously discussed in this series: Identity, Challenge, and Feedback. When you combine any two of these you produce a component in Pink’s framework. Mix Identity and Challenge by allowing players to choose their own path and you get Autonomy. Give a player Feedback on the Challenges they choose and you get a sense of Mastery. When a player sees their character grow, they receive Feedback on their Identity, establishing a Purpose for playing.

Games are engaging in part because they activate the primary components of intrinsic motivation through a blend of Identity, Challenge, and Feedback. Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 5.57.04 PMHowever, this is not the only way to create Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in your classroom. Strategies like Project Based Learning, Making, Tinkering, Coding, Service Learning, Inquiry Based Learning, and really any type of student centered learning creates an engaging space for learners. As much as I love gamification, it really doesn’t matter if you actually use it or not, as long as you are doing something that gets your students engaged.

You do not need to gamify your classroom to make it more fun. I don’t know if I should say this, but… Gamification does not inherently make your class more fun. If done well, gamification can create a type of suspended reality, an environment where fun can grow.  That does not mean that the gamification creates the fun. Even the best designed games cannot make people have fun. In fact, nobody can MAKE anyone have fun. The best we can do is create environments in which fun can be had. In my article, 4 ways to Make School Fun, I describe four different types of fun which could easily exist in school if we allow them: Challenge, Exploration, Cooperation, and Making a Difference. 3557813915_3d832a2dca_oNone of these require gamification, but they do require an environment which allows for them. Gamification is one tool that helps create this space for playful teaching and learning. However, at the end of the day, as Ralph Koster states, “Learning is fun.” If your class is not having fun, you may need to ask yourself a hard question, “Are they not having fun because they are not actually learning?”

If you understand the fundamentals of student engagement, you quickly understand that nobody NEEDS to gamify their classroom to achieve a fun, engaging learning environment. That being said, if you think learning is truly fun, if you are ready to create a playful environment for your learners, if you are ready to step to the side and play along with your students… Game on!

Missed out on the previous Installments of the Insert Coin Series?  Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!

Insert Coin: Part 8- Your Epic Fail

In the field of gaming the term “epic fail” refers to a situation where you fail so dramatically that you can’t help but learn something from it. Even with the best designed gamified lesson plan, you are almost guaranteed to have an epic fail. Failure can be scary, especially in front of students, and most people want to avoid it. However, these failures are in fact they are the only ways that your game design will improve. Upon launching your first gamified experience, you will probably have a few unavoidable failures and here are some reasons why.

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 1.57.44 PMPlaytesting- Nearly every game that you see in a game shop has been playtested. Playtesting is a rigorous process of finding all of the problems of a game. Test players play the game over and over, trying to exploit as many flaws as possible. During this process the game designer takes careful notes and makes tweaks to the rules and mechanics of the game to try to find the perfect balance of challenge and fun. In the classroom, we do not have the luxury of playtesting. Our game environment is happening in real time. We only get one shot at this version of the game and the next opportunity to make changes may very well be next year. That means that your students are the playtesters, and you can be certain that they will be trying to find every flaw and exploit every loophole in your game design. This should be no surprise because they are most certainly already trying to do this to your regular classroom structure.  So, do what any great game designer does: take careful notes, make adjustments, and appreciate each failure as a way to improve your design.

Player Types- Despite their best laid plans, a game designer can never account for how players use the game to accomplish personal goals. Back in the early days of online gaming (we are talking text based games where you had to type in what you wanted to do), a researcher named Richard Bartles began to study how players used the game despite the designed intention of the game. He proposed that there were four types of players: Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers.Character_theory_chart.svg  Since then, other researchers have evolved this theory to include a few other types and change some of the terminology to fit more modern games. One of the more commonly accepted modern models is put forth by Andrzej Marczewski. His player type model includes eight categories like Socializers, Disruptors, and Philanthropists. If you think about your classroom, I guarantee you can picture the students who use your class, despite all of your best intentions, for socialization or for disruption. Be aware that just because you intend for your game to make your players behave in one way or another, there is no guarantee that they will. Each player has their own agenda and will leverage the game environment to achieve it. Guaranteed, you will fail to provide every player with what they need at all times.

Game Life Cycle- All games must come to an end. Most games are usually over when the story comes to an end or when one player wins. However, in a gamified classroom, there is no winner and everyone is playing simultaneously yet at a different pace. So, when should the game be over? When a game extends over a long period of time, the game tends to be over for a player whenever they choose to disengage. Players disengage at different times for different reasons. Maybe the game is too easy, or too difficult. Maybe they have run out of challenges to accomplish or repeatedly cannot pass a certain challenge. Maybe they have assumed they cannot win and seek an alternative oasis for their ego. Maybe they have found a different game to explore.  The bottom line for teachers is that they should choose an appropriate time to end the game. My advice would be to quit while you are ahead, while most students are still engaged. Leave them wanting more. Letting a game run too long ensures that students will begin to disengage. This unknown time to student disengagement is a failure that will sneak up on you when you least expect it.

slipnslideGamification takes a lot of hard work and planning on behalf of the teacher. This is a big risk to take, especially considering the above challenges and all but guaranteed failure at some point in the process. I mention these not to frighten or discourage teachers from designing a gamified setting, but to allow teachers the space to fail gracefully. Even the best game designers need to deal with elements beyond their control. As gamified classroom designers we should expect failure especially on the first go. As teachers, we should welcome failure and model the failure process for our students, as it is truly the only way in which we advance.

Next up… Insert Coin: Part 9 – Game On!

While You Wait: Top 10 Gamification Fails

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series!Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!

Insert Coin: Part 7- Some Assembly Required

When you open up the box of a board game, like Candy Land, you will find that it includes all of the components needed for the game to work. Most board games include little player pieces so that people can keep track of themselves, an actual game board so that the pathway to winning is clearly marked, and an instruction book which not only tells the story but makes the rules clear so that everyone is on the same page. 5589183352_2f4627fbd2_oIf you were package your game in a box, what would be included? You would need a system for tracking progress, guiding game flow, and informing players. So, let’s open up the box and take a look at how you might accomplish each one of these objectives while incorporating Identity, Challenge, and Feedback to create a cohesive and engaging learning environment.

Pirate Character Sheet FinalTracking Progress with Character Sheets –Character sheets are just like those little plastic gingerbread dudes in Candy Land. A character sheet is a way for each individual player to keep track of their own progress. This character sheet utilizes identity elements like a drawn avatar which acquires “stuff” upon gaining each new level. It also indicates themed status levels, like “Deck Hand” and “Captain,”  which allow for character growth within the narrative. The character growth chart makes it so that player can always tell how many more experience points are needed to progress to the next level. On this sheet there is no place to display badges, but there easily could be. The beauty of a character sheet is that students can update it themselves, which makes the feedback immediate as soon as the teacher signs off on it. Gamification does not require technology, especially if the tech gets in the way of the fun! However, my favorite character sheet that I have seen lately actually uses Google Docs and incorporates student reflection for each mission. Read more on that in my upcoming article Interactive Character Sheets with Google Docs.

PirateMissionMenuforInnovationZoneGuiding Game Flow with Menus and Maps- This mission menu or adventure map is like your game board. This a key element of the gamified classroom because breaks down a larger goal into smaller, discrete, and attainable tasks. While character sheets are intended to be a private matter, mission menus or adventure maps could be displayed in public. The tiered menu suggests appropriate levels of challenge as it onboards players with easy missions at first and then offers more difficult ones later. To add more complexity, consider making certain missions only available to certain character levels or guilds. There is also a differentiated XP value for each mission depending on its difficulty. The mission menu or adventure map should be like any good game board, clearly delineating the path to the Candy Castl… er… success.

Informing Players with a Dashboard- The game “dashboard” is the term I will use to define the public space for displaying information about the overall game. Your game dashboard is like your instruction booklet. Dashboards can be posted anywhere that is public. Usually this means a website, but it could also be a bulletin board. Your dashboard should have your narrative theme running through it, a posted mission menu, perhaps a list of badges available, updates for all players, random events, new information and clues for solving quests, and perhaps even an individual or guild leaderboard.  Whatever is included and wherever it is, make it highly visible and update it often to help keep your players engaged with the game.

Components like these are what hold your game together and make it visible. Choose wisely though, because a poorly designed component could actually break your game. For example, an online dashboard might seem cool, however the upkeep and maintenance of that site might be overwhelming. This lag could slow your feedback system down, thereby decreasing engagement. The trick is to design game components that do only what you need and no more. Don’t get too flashy! The engagement does not come from a great website, it comes from a careful balance of Identity, Challenge, and Feedback. Figure out exactly what needs to be in the box and close the lid.

Next up…  Insert Coin: Part 8 – Your Epic Fail

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series!Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!

Insert Coin: Part 6- Feedback Elements

Part 6: Feedback Elements

Previously, in the Insert Coin Series, we have covered the game design element categories dealing with identity and challenge. Now we move to the final category, elements that provide feedback. Feedback is any system which lets players know how they are doing. In this post, I address four for the most commonly used feedback systems in gamified classrooms, Badges, XP, Levels, and Leaderboards. These systems are some of the most effective feedback mechanisms because each one rewards players with in-game status, the most powerful of the 4 Ways to Reward Success in a Gamified Classroom.

imagesBadges- The feedback system that most people probably think about when it comes to gamification is badging. A badge is a visual representation of accomplishment.  The idea is that students get a badge when they show proficiency in a certain topic or activity.  When students do something noteworthy, they get a badge. At first, this seems like a very simple way to make learning fun and motivating.  However, creating an effective badging system is much more complicated than just making a bunch of badges and handing them out at the appropriate time. While it might be motivating at first, an improperly designed badging system can become downright laborious over time. For some tips on badging you can check out several of my other articles like A Botanical View of Badging and 5 Tips for Badging Done Right.

XP- Another common method of delivering player feedback is awarding experience points, or XP for short. XP accumulates over time as players complete challenges in the game. This type of system lets players quantify the exact amount of work for which they have been given credit. The trick to creating a good XP system is differentiation. The more difficult the task, the more XP the completion of any given task is worth. Would a player have any motivation to complete another task if every task, regardless of difficulty, was worth 10 points? Slowly increasing your XP awarded as the challenge level increases is the best way to go. One common mistake that teachers make is to grade students based on XP. While at first this may seem reasonable, as grades are a quantification of work completed anyway, upon further consideration it can go terribly wrong when it comes to motivation. For more this topic,  see my upcoming post on Why Grades and XP Don’t Mix.

Levels- XP is just one number, and by itself means very little. That is why many games also use a leveling system. This means that when a player accumulates a given amount of XP the character gains a new level, usually associated with a title or hierarchical role. The higher the level, the higher you climb in the hierarchy of status. For example in a “space” themed game, you might start out as a Recruit and then advance in levels to be an Ensign, Lieutenant, Commander, and finally a Starship Captain. Levels add descriptive milestone markers to the XP system and give meaning to the quantified growth. The key to creating a good leveling system is inflation. Each level should be more difficult to attain than the one before it. For example, a player may need to accumulate only 30 points to rise from level 2 to level 3, but should have to then gain 50 points to get from level 3 to level 4. This inflationary structure makes higher levels even more valuable by making them more difficult to obtain.

5718955698_8221b0457dLeaderboards- A popular way to keep track of XP and levels is with a classroom leaderboard. Usually this manifests itself as a list of all the students in class ranked in order by total XP. In theory, this seems like it would be very motivating as students scramble to get to the top. However, we need to be careful because leaderboards only operate on two motivators, Fame and Shame. The trick with leaderboards is how to engage the motivator of Fame without engaging the motivator of Shame. For tips on how to do this see my article 6 Tricks for Shameless Leaderboards. When you have mastered that concept and are ready to implement a shameless leaderboard, check out my post on Creating an Automated Leaderboard with Google Forms, Sheets, and Sites. This is a free solution that can help keep track of student XP on a website by simply inputting points into a Google Form.

So, which system is right for your gamified classroom? I have seen classrooms that utilize all four of these at once, and I have been in classrooms which use none of them and opt for less traditional ways to give student feedback. Whichever system or combination feedback systems you select for your classroom, make sure it is quick and responsive. One of the guaranteed fails in gamification is lagged feedback. Nobody wants to shoot a basketball and wait two weeks to find out if it went in the hoop. Choose a system that gives students specific feedback in a timely manner and it really will not matter which form it takes.

Next up… Part 7- Some Assembly Required

While you wait: 4 Ways to Reward Sucess in a Gamified Classroom, Botanical View of Badging5 Tips for Badging Done Right6 Tricks for Shameless LeaderboardsXP Calculator 2.0 with Guild Support

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series! Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!


Why Grades and XP Don’t Mix

One of the most tempting things for a teacher to do in a gamified classroom is to grade on experience points, or XP. This refers to when teachers set a level of experience points required to earn a certain grade in the class. The rationale is that they are already quantifying student progress in-game with XP and they do not want to use yet another tracking system. Why would anyone use one system for game progress and another one for school progress? Why dual report? Isn’t a grade just a quantification of student work anyway? I would argue that grades and XP are two vastly different quantification systems and that overlapping them can be both misleading and demotivational.

Grades based on XP can be misleading. While grades are a quantification of student proficiency aligning with an agreed upon standard, XP is a quantification of player accomplishment in the game. Just because a student has a high XP total does not necessarily mean that they have shown proficiency in a performance standard. It might be the case that the student has been busy completing low level tasks to earn points(This concept is usually referred to in the gaming world as “farming” or “grinding”) For example, let’s say a challenge which requires high proficiency in a standard is valued at 30 points. One player has completed the 30 point task because they are proficient at the standard, while another player also has 30 points because they completed three 10 point tasks requiring a lower proficiency level when compared to that same standard. Cumulative XP is misleading because, although it can correlates to student proficiency, it does not necessarily prove proficiency.

Grades based on XP can actually decrease motivation. When there is a target XP required to earn a specific grade in a class, students tend to figure out a minimum level of work they need to accomplish in order to receive a given grade. When they have reached their goal they will have no reason to keep playing. For example, setting 100XP as an A means that any further work will be meaningless. If there is no target to shoot for, students are more likely to continue playing in order to increase their in game status regardless of grade. For more info on Status and rewarding players in game see my posts on 4 Ways to Reward Success in a Gamified Classroom.

The fix here is more straightforward than you might think. Reward XP for missions accomplished. Grade the work quality against the standards. Regardless of which missions players complete, evaluate their submitted work in accordance to the grading standards. Just as you would with any other assignment in any other differentiated learning system. Another way to do this to create a mission map that reads more like a standards-based rubric. Take for example this mission menu from a high school history class.
The standards are listed vertically and the proficiency levels run horizontally. This teacher graded the students on the highest mission accomplished in every standard. They are welcome to play as many missions as they want to earn points for their team, but the only thing that counts for a grade is the maximum proficiency shown in each standard.MissionPoint Table WWII

Grading and XP are two different measurement systems and should be treated as such. Want to learn about other things to avoid when planning a gamified classroom? Check out my post on the Top 10 Gamification Fails. Or if you want the whole story, follow the Insert Coin Series that walks you through the fundamentals of designing a gamified classroom step by step.  

4 Ways to Reward Success in a Gamified Classroom

Games reward player success in many ways. Gabe Zicherman in his article Cash is for SAPS asserts that these rewards can be thought of in four categories: Status, Access, Power, and Stuff. As it turns out, not all rewards have the same effect on players. Some are more powerful immediately but wane quickly. Others creep steadily but are much more powerful motivators in the long run. In fact, these four category just so happen to be organized, in that order, along a spectrum of motivational power from Intrinsic to Extrinsic. Let’s take a look, in reverse order, at each one in turn and also how it might apply to an educational setting.

16523-illustration-of-a-slice-of-pizza-with-toppings-pvStuff refers to material things offered in response to positive player behavior. In a video game, stuff might be a cool new hat for a character to wear or money so that the player could buy something in a shop. In a classroom, “stuff” might be a pizza party or a small toy from a treasure box. We have all given stuff to our students and chances are they liked it. Chances are also that it did not have a long lasting effect on student behavior. Stuff activates our extrinsic motivation centers. Extrinsic effects are powerful at first but quickly wear off. The more stuff we get, the more stuff we want. In addition, the next reward needs to be bigger and better than the last or else the motivational effect can actually be diminished. The first pizza party is awesome but the third one is expected. Stuff can be effective for a quick motivational boost but is not the best strategy for long term engagement.  

spider400Power is the term given to any ability in a game which allows players actions to affect their environment, including other players around them. In a video game it might be increased speed  or even a new magic spell. In a classroom, power might mean the ability to choose their own groups or being able to award points to classmates for good behavior. Really anything that grants them agency compared to their usually subordinate status. Power is a bit more important to a player because its ramifications last longer than Stuff. However, when rewarding students power, remember what we all learned from the Spiderman comics “with great power there must also come–great responsibility”

Unlock-iconAccess is how a game grants players the ability to expand their horizons in a game. Video games often do this by opening up access to a whole new level or map or vehicle. Interestingly enough, usually access granted in games allows the player to pursue greater challenges. Access is motivating to players because it provides new opportunities to explore and challenge themselves. In a classroom, students might be granted access to moving along to the next chapter in a book, or the next set of math facts, or access to the 3D printer. These things are especially motivating. Access really boils down to freedom. It is the freedom to grow.

2000px-Lieutenant_Commander_rank_insignia_(North_Korea).svgStatus is a representation of player accomplishment. In many video games status takes the form of experience points, badges, levels, or rankings. Regardless of the form it takes, status in games is always quantifiable, highly visible, and cumulative over the duration of the game. It lets a player know how far they have come, how far they have left to go until their next milestone, and even how they stack up against other players. Of the four categories discussed here, status is the most powerful reward that can be given, yet is the reward that is most often avoided in the classroom. Perhaps that is because status is a differentiator, and in education, there is a tendency to treat everyone as equal. The concern here is that educators often have difficulty celebrating the achievements of certain students for fear that it will make others feel bad. However, the danger of rewarding status in the classroom comes, not from the celebration of status but, from outright comparison or competition of students with different backgrounds and ability levels. However the solution is simple, individually celebrate everyone’s status accomplishments all the time. Gamification done well, celebrates the achievements of individual students while avoiding broad comparisons of performance across standardized assessments. This is a tricky thing to accomplish but, with tools up one’s sleeve like differentiated learning maps, collaborative leaderboards, and a thoughtful badging system, it can be done. 

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation- Looking at all four of these categories, stuff is the most extrinsic motivator while status is the most intrinsic motivator. There is a common misconception that status is extrinsically motivating because the students are working to get the points, that the points actually count as stuff. However, status truly is an intrinsically motivating reward because those points are worth absolutely nothing outside of the game context. They are any valuable to the student who watches them accumulate as they achieve their goals. Some teachers have created shops where students can buy things like homework passes with the points they have earned. In my post Top 10 Gamification Fails, I hint at the dangers of allowing students to trade their status for stuff and deeply examine this issue further in Status: The Ticket to Intrinsic Motivation 

A well designed game or gamified lesson utilizes all four of these reward categories to activate the full spectrum of motivational elements. Games are an excellent model for how to reward the successes of our students in class. However, let’s not forget that rewarding success is far less powerful than celebrating failure. More on that topic in my next article(coming soon) 4 Ways to Celebrate Failure.

Status: The “Ticket” to Intrinsic Motivation

When I was a kid my family would sometimes go to a rodent themed pizza restaurant. Along with the animatronic entertainment and the mediocre pizza, there were a lot of games to play. One of my favorites was Skee Ball. Skee_Ball_Ice_BallThat was the one where you roll the ball up the ramp so it would land in target rings of varying size. The smaller the ring the more points you earned. If you played well, a chain of red paper tickets would roll out of the machine. The coolest thing to do was to just let the tickets stack up on the floor. There was no light, or bell, or noise in the arcade that would get you more attention than a really long chain of tickets.

In his article, Cash is for SAPS, Gabe Zicherman has classified four ways in which games reward their players: Status, Access, Power, and Stuff. Status is a showing off what one has accomplished. Access means being able to go somewhere or do something you previously could not. Power is the ability for your decisions and actions to influence the functioning of the game world, or even other players. Stuff is either currency or items available for purchase in the game. Furthermore, he asserts that these operate in a hierarchy which follows that exact order. Status is the most powerful motivator in games while stuff is the least. For a more detailed examination of what those four categories might look like in a classroom see my upcoming article 4 Ways to Reward Sucess in Gamified Classrooms.

While each individual score on the Skee Ball game could be considered a form of status, you couldn’t take it with you and it was erased as soon as someone put another quarter into the game. The true measure of our Skee Ball status was the steadily growing pile of tickets coiling at our feet. Our tickets were quantifiable, cumulative, highly visible, and worth absolutely nothing outside of that arcade. In a gamified classroom, those are the exact qualities teachers should be aiming for when giving students feedback on their progress. Game status, whether you are rewarding XP, letting students level up, or awarding badges, should be highly visible, easy to quantify, and cumulative so that students can see and feel their growth as the game progresses. This type of feedback is in stark contrast to the feedback we are used to receiving in schools, a letter grade in a private envelope at the end of the semester.

In my previous post Top 10 Gamification Fails I warned about the practice of trading Status for Stuff. I have seen a trend in many gamified classrooms to take points earned for in class activities and trade them for things like extra bathroom passes or pencils or “get out of homework free” cards. While this may be motivating for some students, all of these rewards generally fall under the category of stuff. Stuff operates on extrinsic motivation, which means it has immediate value in real life, yet the motivational qualities of stuff are short lived.  In contrast, status rewards like experience points and levels have zero worth in the real word but have a much longer lasting motivational effect on students. Status operates on the principles of intrinsic motivation.  If the goal of gamification is to increase intrinsic motivation of our learners, should we be allowing students to use their XP to buy things in a classroom store? There may be times when some extrinsic motivation has a place. But whenever I see this practice it makes me think back to what happened next at the arcade.

482042741_7e3e9548c3_bAt the end of the night we took all of our tickets over to this counter where they attendant would weigh our tickets to see how many we actually collected( even though we had already counted them like three times). Behind the counter there were a whole bunch of cheap little toys that we could purchase with our tickets. This process was not fun for anyone, especially the person working behind the counter. How many times did they have to listen to a kid be disappointed about being one ticket short of a plastic frog? None of those prizes ever made me feel as accomplished as that stack of tickets. In fact, it usually made me feel worse because I was upset about all the stuff I couldn’t buy. Eventually, my brother and I figured out that it was much more fun to just take our tickets home and save them in a big bucket. I don’t remember any of the toys I ever got but I still remember that bucket of tickets in the corner of my room.

It is my personal opinion that creating a marketplace, which allows players to essentially trade status for stuff, diminishes the the intrinsically motivating power of awarded status. It also puts the teacher in a position where they have to create items to buy and keep track of purchases and points spent by each student. If you think that buying items is essential to your game, I encourage you to create a separate currency system to be used in the shop. However, before you set up a market, consider how much effort it will take and understand that all of this work will go into a system that only activates extrinsic motivation. I would rather spend my time and energy on creating intrinsic motivation by cultivating player status.

In short, don’t let your learners trade in their hard earned tickets for trinkets. Don’t let them trade their status for stuff. Don’t trade intrinsic motivation for extrinsic motivation.


Designing the Player Journey

Unlike video games of the past, which were more likely a linear tale as players progressed from level one to level two, some of the most popular modern games allow players to explore their virtual world in a more organic way while still being able to progress through a larger story. For example, one of my favorite video games, Borderlands, allows players to travel anywhere within the world of the game, gradually uncovering the story as they complete challenges of increasing difficulty. Players can either advance the main story by choosing “story missions” or they can earn more experience, money, better weapons, etc. by completing optional “sidequests.” The game will only supply a set of new missions once the player has shown a certain proficiency indicating that they are ready for a greater challenge. This balance of story missions and sidequests is very carefully designed so that the player can always be engaged in the game, either exploring areas of their own interest or taking on the main objectives of the game.

 3 Principles of the Player Journey- Gamification aims to bring this type of engagement to our learners. If we wish to do so we must purposefully design our mission structure to simultaneously allow for exploration and forward progress. In Part 5 of the Insert Coin Series on Challenge Elements, I briefly discuss two options for creating a structure for our differentiated learning tasks, menus and maps. Either method requires careful design in order to keep our learners moving through the objectives. To do this we need to consider three principles which coincide with the player journey: Onboarding, Exploration, and Chokepoints.

Onboarding refers to the process of having players complete very easy missions in order for the player to learn a new skill. Well designed games rarely need an instruction manual because the game teaches the player how to play through the use of onboarding missions. For example, in some video games one of your first quests is often to go buy an item at the local shop. This is not challenging, but it is very important so that a new player knows how to collect money, navigate the map to find the shop, and interact with with the purchasing menu. In a classroom, we onboard students all the time.  Personally, I had to design a lesson specifically to teach my students when it was okay to use the pencil sharpener. This was not a challenging lesson, but it was important to the functioning of the classroom.  An adventure map or mission menu for a gamified setting should include onboarding missions which help students learn how to play your game. Give them a few easy missions which run them through how to turn in work, how tolevel up their character, or how to access your classroom resources.  Onboarding is crucial to habit formation. Taking the time to onboard students at the beginning of the game will reduce the number of procedural questions you have to answer in addition to getting everyone started out feeling successful.

Exploration is the phase in the game where everyone is now on board and ready to set out on their own.  While onboarding missions should be mandatory for everyone, the missions that follow should allow for player creativity and interest based pursuits.  This phase begins after the onboarding missions at the point where the path splits ways for the first time. Exploratory missions can involve any type of work that a student would like to engage with. They may prove their learning in a variety of ways.

It is important in planning diversified activities to consider the different player types you may have in your class. The theory of Player Types essentially states that there are personal motivators which drive player actions within the game. We know that even if we intend for the objective of our class to be be “calculating the area of a triangle,” there will be some students who compete, some who cooperate, some who socialize, some who doodle, and some who just want to cause trouble. They will use the game to achieve their own personal agendas because most game experiences, especially in the classroom, are social. For more on player types see my post on Player Types(coming soon!).  In short, exploratory missions should, as much as possible, include the interests of all of the various players in your classroom. Hopefully catering to these players can channel this energy into the missions.

Chokepoints, sometimes called “boss levels” or “gatekeepers,”  are not always mandatory in games but they do offer a way for the player to prove their learning and enter the next phase of their adventure. A chokepoint is any mandatory mission after an exploratory phase. These missions require all players, regardless of type or interest, to accomplish the same task. Sometimes these missions take the form of a test or a major project. On an adventure map this will look like a convergence of paths. On a mission menu, it may look like a restriction where players must complete A, B, or C before they continue to the next tier of the menu. Regardless of the form it takes, it serves as a chance for the teacher to check a student’s performance against both a standard and the performance of other students. Once all of the players’ journeys have converged at the same chokepoint, don’t miss the opportunity to ONBOARD the students again to get them ready for the next cycle of the game. This onboarding/exploration/chokepoint cycle may repeat as many times as needed to guide your players through their adventure.

Nothing New- Although these concepts in a game context might seem new to most teachers, I guarantee that every teacher has benefitted from the cycle of isolated skill acquisition, followed by incorporating that skill with previous knowledge, and finally assessing that skill according to a standard. So perhaps gamified lesson planning is not as foreign to us as we initially thought.


Insert Coin: Part 5- Challenge Elements

Insert Coin: Part 5- Challenge Elements

304317777_0cf4d98181Well designed games, especially video games, are excellent delivering a consistently increasing level of challenge as player skill increases. If a game gets too challenging before the player is ready, the game could get frustrating. If the game fails to offer a sufficient level of challenge, the game may become boring. However there is a narrow zone, right between frustration and boredom, where players feel truly engaged.
Originally proposed by psychologist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this state of optimal experience is commonly referred to as “Flow”. Game designers are constantly using challenge elements to keep players in flow, otherwise they know that players will stop playing.

Flow in the Classroom- Educators can also use challenge elements to keep learners in flow. We can tell when students are out of flow because they either want to give up or don’t care about the task at hand. There are also those beautiful moments when students find flow in the classroom. They are interested and motivated because they are operating at the upper limit of their ability while at the same time not being overwhelmed. One goal of gamification is to create more of these moments of flow by delivering the appropriate challenge to each student at the exact time they are ready to succeed.  One of the best ways to generate more flow in a learning environment is through differentiated learning. This makes sense because differentiated learning means that everyone should be getting appropriate challenges at the appropriate pace.

MissionPoint Table WWIILearning Menus- Perhaps the easiest way to offer differentiated learning activities is through a menu system. Offering students a variety of tasks at different challenge levels will help them select the challenge that is right for them. Learning menus work well when organized from least to most challenging objectives. It is also nice to have a requirement for completing one or two missions on each tier before moving on. This example of a gamified learning menu is from a high school unit on World War II. In this menu system, the teacher has arranged the tiers of the menu to align with the content standards for the unit. Students actually got to choose at which level of depth they wanted to engage with each standard. In essence this learning menu can actually double as a rubric for student performance on the content standards!

AdventureMap_BAdventure Maps- Another way to move students through a differentiated learning experience is by using a learning map. Playmaker school uses adventure maps as the base of their interest driven curriculum. Each mission along the pathway covers a given skill or standard. But the students also have choice in the direction they want to go. Adventure maps accomplish the same task as learning menus but have a bit more linear flow. They can also layer a bit more fun as a map can match up with your narrative framework.

Resource Management- While Menus and Maps are a great way to have students select their own level of challenge, don’t forget that teachers can adjust the difficulty of each task by either adding or taking away available player resources during missions. Player resources include such things as art supplies, reference materials, technology, time, teacher assistance, and even other students.  For example, allowing students to cooperate on tasks is probably the biggest advantage you could give them. However, limiting the time allowed to complete a mission can add challenge to an otherwise simple task.

The Player Journey- Whichever style you choose for differentiation you should consider these three phases of the player experience: Onboarding, Exploration, Chokepoints. These three concepts are explored in depth in Designing The Player Journey but for our purposes I will briefly describe them here as well. The first few missions in your game should actually teach your players how to play your game. These initial onboarding missions are more about habit forming than they are about the learning of the content. they might focus on things like teach them how you want them to turn in assignments or update their character sheets or to check their point totals. After those habits are  formed, then players are ready to select challenges of varying difficulty and explore the game environment. This is where your differentiated learning opportunities come into play as students self-select ways to show their learning like creating posters, or poems, or videos, or songs, or comics, etc. Eventually, there may be a chokepoint, a challenge ALL players must attempt when they are ready and they may not move on until they have proven their worth. This is your chance to standardize your data collection and compare side by side how players are performing.  Many video games use similar mission flows although they might call it tutorial levels, quests, and boss levels or something similar to those terms. Considering the player journey when creating your learning map will help keep your players in flow by making sure they have what they need before they go, allowing them to self-select challenges, and putting them through a rite of passage when they are ready.

The key to creating flow in the classroom is to provide every student with the appropriate challenge at the appropriate time. A well designed differentiated activity structure is a great first step in this process. The students can select the challenge they are ready to tackle and the teacher can modify the difficulty of each mission by either adjusting available player resources. If this activity structure and expectations are well laid out in a mission menu or adventure map, the students can progress at their own pace. If all of this can be accomplished while staying true to the narrative framework or theme of your game, you are well on your way to creating a fun and motivating gamified experience for your learners.

Up Next: Insert Coin: Part 6- Feedback Elements

While you wait: Designing the Player Journey

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series! Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!

Insert Coin: Part 4- Identity Elements

Insert Coin: Part 4- Identity Elements

Who are your students? Who do you want them to become? Student identity is something that, intentionally or not, teachers contribute to creating everyday. One of the greatest rewards of gamification is that it gives the teacher a chance to temporarily modify the identity of the student and in doing so, hopefully modify the behavior of the student, at least within the game context. There are several ways that a teacher can influence student identity within a game by utilizing a variety of game elements. In this post, I will highlight three that are commonly seen in gamified classrooms.

The first, and possibly easiest to implement, is a narrative framework. Simply put, a gamified classroom can be more than just a set of rules and points; It can be an adventure. Perhaps your class will be settlers on a new continent, or deep sea explorers, or even UN diplomats.  Whichever story or theme you choose will determine the flavor of the rest of the game. A narrative framework not only helps put the students’ work in context, but also gives the whole class a fun, common language when discussing classroom rules and objectives. For example instead of calling quick assessments “quizzes,” in a detective themed narrative, they might be called “mysteries.”

There are many ways to create a narrative framework. A common method is to create a themed website that tells a story. A great example of this is “Clockwise” a site by Mr. Daley.  If you click around you will realize that his class is nothing more than an literature based ancient history class. However, his narrative structure allows the students to be time travellers who use literature to travel back in time. A more complex narrative framework is that of an alternate reality game. This type of narrative framework involves incorporating different media, such as social media, to continually advance the story. Twenty Twenty is an alternate reality game created by “The Teched Up Teacher.” In this example,  a Twitter feed is utilized to send students clues and information as the story or game unfolds. Of course the simplest way to tell a story is just by telling a story. It is as easy as saying “You are all meteorologists and we are going to be predicting the path of hurricanes in order to plan an evacuation route.” The only requirement for a narrative framework is creating an alternative, collective reality in which you and your students can play.  

3047085444_7ee4308a19Another way teachers can help students find identity in a gamified classrooms is through the use of avatars. Avatars are a representation of the player in the game. These representations can range anywhere from a nickname to a 3D online character. Some teachers write off avatars as a waste of time, but if used well, avatars can help students take chances in the classroom by creating a small buffer between the student and their failures. For a more in-depth analysis of avatars in the classroom, please read my previous article on the  3 Dimensions of Educational Avatars.

6972091704_a714310d16_bThe concept of guilds is yet another commonly utilized identity element. A guild is a group of individuals who combine their strengths to achieve a common goal. The biggest benefit to the guild system in a gamified classroom is that a teacher can simultaneously create an air of both cooperation and competition. Guild members can cooperate with each other while they compete with other guilds. The use of guilds increases the intensity of the collective success while alleviating the stress of failure by making it slightly less individualized. Guild members can share in their successes (and failures) as a team.

The art of identity creation is often overlooked in the classroom but it is one of the most important elements of the gamified classroom. In his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee encourages teachers to help students create an “identity of success.” It doesn’t matter if they are a CEO or a swamp monster. Just make sure that they feel successful.

Up Next:  Insert Coin: Part 5- Challenge Elements

While you wait:   3 Dimensions of Educational Avatars.

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series! Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!