Competition, cooperation, and the loss of control

dmd_001I’ve noticed a few things that have changed over the months that we’ve been playing our game, prompted in part by an article from Karl Kapp about Competition and cooperation in gamification.  One is that who is on the top of the leaderboard remains a bragging point and a sought-after position, but isn’t a key driver or motivation.  Another is that gradually, my students are looking to the web and, even more, to each other as sources of solutions and information.  The last one is that I’ve lost control of the classroom and I love it.

Who is on the leaderboard has been a topic of conversation since the very beginning days of the game.  The coveted top position has alternated between several of the players over the months.  Any time a player manages to get a lead on the others due to extra work or a more thorough job, they count it as bragging rights and definitely let everyone else know, especially the player who they knocked out of that spot.  On the other hand, the way they talk about it, the focus of their trash-talk, shows that what they’re really proud of is the work they did to get that position, rather than the position itself.  They seem to inherently get that the position isn’t the value, it is what that position represents, the work that goes into becoming the top player, that matters.  I stay out of these conversations but am happy to notice this development.  I do intervene when the trash-talk gets out of hand, but that’s another story 😉

In the beginning, I was the ‘expert’ and provided much of the basic knowledge and content information for the class.  As rapidly as I could, I transitioned that to having students look on the web for the code, problem, or technique they were interested in or needing.  This took a bid of repeated modeling before they understood and incorporated into their own thought patterns, but gradually I’ve noticed that there are fewer questions to me and more viewing of examples videos, reading example code sites, and otherwise using the vast resources available through Youtube and Google.  A related trend, this semester in particular, has been to ask the other students for assistance.  I started pointing them at each other whenever they asked a question that I knew a peer had already solved.  Fairly rapidly, they figured out that they, as a class, probably had figured out most of the problems, if they just asked each other.  So they did.  And it just gets better and better.

Both of these changes have lead to me as the teacher loosing control of the class.  I set the general course with the assignment (and I’m pretty careful about what that course is, in consequence) but the students are steering themselves where they feel they need to go in order to fulfill that assignment.  Many days I’m starting to feel a bit superfluous during actual class-time.  I try to check in one-on-one with each student at least once a week, but sometimes I really feel like I’m imposing on them because I’m taking time away from their projects.  It’s a wonderful place to be as a teacher, though not nearly as comfortable as being in front of the class expounding ;-).

Rewarding Ideas / Powering Up

I was recently on a tweet-chat in which we shared ideas about rewards in our course games, specifically framed within the context of “Powering Up.”  This, we decided, is defined as a temporary, in-game boost to your abilities.  This is distinct from an in-game item, which the character can carry around semi-permanently, that also alters/enhances their abilities.  Power-ups may be known to players, but may also be surprises (at least the first time), which adds appeal for Player, Achiever, and Free Spirit roles all at once (from Anderzej’s User Types 2.0).  In some games you can save power-ups for later use (think potions from Legend of Zelda, for example) and in others they are time or place constrained (power balls in Pacman).

While I was on this chat, I was attending ASB Unplugged.  In several sessions, we had more discussions about this very topic.  Here are my collected thoughts about possible rewards to offer during a course-game.  Not all of these will work in every classroom, of course, but hopefully it will provide a good resource for brainstorming good rewards you can offer in your game.  Thanks to all the great folks at ASB Unplugged, #levelUpEd, and the many blogs from which I’ve collected these gems.

  • 1UP cards: can be earned in various ways and turned in to get another chance at a question or assignment
  • Cross-out: used on a test to remove some (or all) incorrect answers
  • Open book for X minutes on next exam
  • Choose your own teammate on the next group exercise
  • X minutes of free time during class
  • Use the same evidence as a classmate during one exercise
  • Ask the class (for use when at the front or otherwise singled out for performance)
  • Extended time for an exam/assignment/etc
  • Earn double XP (experience points), KP (knowledge points), etc
  • Unlock special skills
  • When doing certain challenges, allow access to restricted or better resources, references, or supplies
  • Use ipod or music device during work time
  • Add a song to to the class playlist
  • Control the class playlist for a period
  • Write a note-card for yourself for use on a test later
  • Get a hint on a Boss level
  • See questions for exam or other future work in advance
  • All questions answered by a player or a group w/in a specific time (could even be during a test) will earn XP
  • Players get an extra clue or two during a hunt/exercise/etc
  • Earning badges: students must earn one leader badge and 3 other badges in any quarter/semester in order to get an A (doesn’t earn them an A, but without those badges the highest they can earn is a B)

Rewards may also allow a player to benefit an entire class or their group, such as crossing out one question on the test for the entire class, or giving your entire group extra time for an assignment, etc.  One variation of the group reward would be a power-up that allows a player to turn an individual reward into a group/class reward.  Michael Matera mentioned that in his game the in-game items are usable by individual players, while power-ups (which he provides as Badges) are earned by individuals but help the whole class win the overall game.  If you have any additional ideas to add to the bank, I’d love to hear about them; add them to the comments.

Dan Slaughter, on his blog Have a Go, has written up his experience building a set of badges.  While it’s not directly applicable, since the badges are for XP rather than Power Ups, his descriptions of each are definitely good examples of flavoring them with his game story.

Some of my favorite quotes during the tweet-chat:

  • “…School could be the biggest power up of them all.”  – Michael Matera
  • “Sometimes that student that comes ‘late to the game’ needs that P-up to feel like she can succeed.” – Kamie Fulz
  • “Since using “power ups” Ss see more ways to achieve & discover their strengths. Each power up given is feedback to the class.” – Michael Matera
  • “…if the goal is to make learning [engaging], P-ups are hugely equitable because it’s 1 more way to reach the reluctant learner.” – Josh Gauthier
  • “Useful power-ups require a clear lesson objective. Usefulness can be temporary, but is directly applicable.” – Michael Roush

Have you used Power Ups in your class?  What are your thoughts about them?

The problem with my badges (and what I’m going to do about it)

Stormtrooper likeness copyrighted in USA by Lucasfilm

Stormtrooper likeness copyrighted in USA by Lucasfilm

Although I was really excited about badges when I started creating the game for my class, I soon discovered that after the initial enthusiasm, there was little interest in the badges (with one exception, that I’ll discuss below).  Initially, I wondered about this, but soon put it aside in the constant flow of what was working well, and forgot it until recently.

What brought it back to mind was a series of posts I ran across over the last week.  First, I was reminded about a couple of posts I’d read before but hadn’t put together well before:

In the former, Andrzej explores several reasons why badges can fall flat on their faces, as mine did.  For me, the essence of his message is that badges should be tied directly to an accomplishment the player is already striving to achieve.  Otherwise, they celebrate something the user doesn’t care about and thus, fail to be valuable.  This is an exact description of the problem with over half of the badges I created.  My intention to build badges to encourage and celebrate players who engage in helping behavior, explored, and so on failed because the badge by itself is nothing but a little picture.  Certainly nothing that a player would be motivated to achieve…on its own.  The key is making it represent something the player cares about achieving.

The second article reiterates this point (and refers to Andrzej’s post) and expands on it with specific strategies to make badges work, including tying to achievements, aesthetics, linking them to social interactions / status, and making some revokable.  My take-away here was that in addition to tying directly to achievements, I could improve my badge use by linking them into social conversations, making them more visible, and other actions that link the badges into the social interactions in the class and the game.

Finally, today I was the recipient of a gift from Dan Slaughter (tho he didn’t know he was giving me a gift 😉 when he posted in detail about certain aspects of the game he’s created for a unit in his business class.  In particular, he describes how he will be using badges in his class.  He’s done exactly what Andrzej described by building the badges as marks of achievement of various quests, as well as assigning an XP value to each quest.  I expect that he’ll find his badges work well and am eager to hear how they are perceived by the students.

In my games, I don’t feel putting a badge on each quest is sustainable (I plan to include a large variety of quests, to allow students to choose a path that suits them).  However, I see them working well in a few different capacities:

  1. Some will continue to be used from the current class.  These are the badges that denote the level a player has achieved.  In these specific cases, the badges in my class have been consistently well perceived and appreciated.  (Given that they’re the only ones tied to a specific achievement the players are seeking, this makes good sense.)
  2. I’m going to introduce some side-quests next year, to include aspects or goals I feel are worthwhile, but not valuable enough to build into the main path of the game.  These will add variety and choice for the players.  Some of these, especially ones with significant but tangential importance, will have badges associated with completion.
  3. Some badges will celebrate a certain number of quests, or a level of variety, or depth within a certain strand, and other achievements that will celebrate aspects players are already achieving but may not have thought to celebrate, on their own.  In this, I’ll be following in the steps of other gamified platforms, such as Adobe Education Exchange, Farmville, Trade Nations, and many, many more.

Finally, I’m planning to make sure the badges are much more visible this year.  They’ll appear on the leaderboard (if I can manage that – technical details to work out, still), player profiles, notices celebrating achievement on the main site news, etc.  Each badge will link to a description of what it is and why/when it is awarded (again, pending technical implementation) in order to facilitate discovery and urge others to earn it, too.

Hopefully, all this will substantially increase the engagement factor of badge use in my game next year.  One more aspect to help make it fun for some students (some, like me, will tend to ignore any badges, no matter what).

Have you had successes or failures with badges?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

When they don’t want to play…

bored-studentIncredibly, the time will arrive when some of your students are not interested in playing the game you’ve spent so much time developing.  All the work you’ve done with your leaderboard, scaffolding, graphics, and engaging activities simply fail to catch them.  What to do at this moment really depends a lot on the students themselves.  You’ll know your students better than anyone and will likely have a better feel for just what might re-engage them than I ever could.  But here are a few suggestions I’ve used when this has developed in my classes.

Inject more story

One technique I use is to add more story element to the class.  Earlier this semester, I felt engagement was starting to slip.  After class, I grabbed a willing accomplice from my colleagues and recorded a quick video introducing the next section of our course game.  We framed that one as a plea from the character for help.  Hints were dropped about the student’s growing fame in our game world as well as the dangers of the quest he was describing.  It took us about 45 minutes to put together a 2 minute video.

First thing in the next class, I played the video for the students.  They re-engaged right away and were discussing the video for the next 2-3 class periods as they worked through the materials related to that section.

Add, or reveal, an easter egg

When you’re building your game, try to include an easter egg (or several).  These hidden areas/quests/jokes/etc can be extra content that isn’t within your usual sequence but is relevant, or it can be entertainment only.  When interest in the game is flagging, you may be able to re-engage students simply by dropping hints.  During the use of your game (ie: over the course of the semester/year) if you notice a section in which interest is commonly flagging, you can build in an easter egg there, specifically for use in re-engaging the students.  (I’ll be doing this next year in one section of my content that is over-long.)

Use a change-of-pace mini-game

I wrote about my recent use of this technique last time. Build a mini-game or two based on your content, that are non-sequence specific (ie: that relate to your content but can be used any time during your course; the sort of stuff you might build for an emergency substitute).  Add in a story-appropriate wrapping.  In my case, for my pseudo-medieval world of Gnimmargorp, in which my students are studying programming, I built a couple of algorithm related exercises.  Then I wrote a narrative about a dragon picking them up and dragging them off to his lair and the adventures they had there (all around solving the algorithm exercises).  This sort of change of pace can be highly invigorating for student interest.

Make comments about the leaderboard, badges, accomplishments, etc.

A simple comment showing you noticed someone’s score advancing, badge earned, or quest finished can often help bolster their interest, especially if it’s framed within your story/world.  If your world is semi-medieval, use old fashioned language; if it’s semi-military, use military-speak; and so on.  The flavor of the comment can help re-engage students in the story of the game.

Show your interest

Make it undeniably clear that you are interested in the subject and the game, regardless of what the students do or express.  This is called the Lonely Dancer effect.  Here’s a great video about it (you may have seen this already, it’s apparently been on the rounds more than once before.)

I hope this helps, next time you notice the beginnings of a loss of interest in your game.  What other tips do you have for re-engaging interest?  I’d love to know.

[This post was inspired by Victor Manrique’s similar post over at EpicWin]

A change of pace

Dragon_by DavidRevoyBased on the waning enthusiasm I mentioned in my previous entry, I decided to change the pace this week.  When the students arrived, I allowed them to get started as usual, then shut off the lights, put a picture up on the projector and declared “As you are working your spells in the Sea of Yarra, a dragon swoops down, grabs you and flies off.”  Then I presented a scenario in which the dragon drops them in a specific location and described what they find there.

What they found was a letter from a desperate wizard the dragon had captured earlier and dropped into a maze.  Their task was to get the wizard out of the maze using a specific set of instructions.  Then a bigger maze, and a bigger one.  After that the dragon got bored, looked at them closely (showed a picture of a dragon eye here) and presented them with new tasks and puzzles, related to the game of battleship (and structured as common search and sorting algorithms, though I didn’t tell them that until the end). The overall task was related to algorithm development.  We eventually consumed two whole 85-minute periods covering this material.  (The dragon ended up dropping them back on their ship, declaring “You’re to clever by half to have hanging around…begone!”)

As a change of pace, it was entirely successful; as a curriculum element, somewhat successful.  For next year, I plan to do more role-playing of the dragon and provide fewer instructions and hints.  I think they could have gotten to the answer with less information from me, which would have been more powerful in the long run.  But I’ll definitely include a few dragons or other pace-changers in the storyline next year; it was quite fun to present and the students declared it quite enjoyable, too.