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.

New discoveries and waning enthusiasm

Whoops!  Didn’t realize I’d skipped out on writing about the final couple weeks of our term.  We spent the last few class periods of the semester building a larger project, with specific components required and the design completely up to the students.  It’s a small class, so there were two groups working together.  One created a nearly function-complete replica of the ’80s game Asteroids and the other created an interactive soccer goal kicker / goalie one-or-two-player game.  Pretty nice stuff for a group of kids that had no prior coding experience.

On the course game front, we’ll be returning to the world of Gnimmargorp this semester, specifically back to the Sea of Yarra and the Port of Noisrucer.  (arrays and recursion)  There seems to be a bit of a wane in enthusiasm for the storyline, so I’m planning to record some videos to spice things up a bit and throw in an unexpected quest or project, with perhaps an easter egg hidden or two in there.  No firm plans yet, but I need to enliven it a bit as arrays and recursion can be a bit of a drudge.

I’ve been excited over the break because I discovered Mike Skocko and the Game On community in the Adobe Education Exchange.  Mike and his team have created and are very actively developing a WordPress-based framework for presenting your game as a class.  I’ve adopted it (and am helping, already!) and will be using it for all my game classes next year.  It’s pretty sweet, very flexible and very powerful.  If you are interested in hosting a course-long game, I highly recommend you check it out.

Finally, I’ll be hosting the Twitter #GBLchat this coming Monday at 8:00pm EST; we’re going to discuss course-long games and how to design, support, and evaluate them.  I invite you to join us!

Building the points ladder

I’ve been spending a lot of skull sweat the last couple weeks, working out a revision to our points ladder (and related points distribution between assignments).  The initial ladder I developed worked OK, but there are several things I noticed as we’ve played through the game this year that I want to adjust to improve the game flow for the next revision:

  • I knew enough of game design to make the first few levels quite easy to achieve.  But I didn’t pay enough attention to the progression past the first 3 levels.
  • I didn’t even consider the spread between semesters, which my students were quick to notice as we began, the first couple of days.
  • The later levels should be harder to achieve than the earlier ones.
  • I stopped my ladder at a point equivalent to an A+…I want at least a couple levels higher than that, for anyone who gets there before the end of the term.
  • I initially built the ladder to reflect a 1000 point distribution, to easily map onto the A-F scale used at school.  <shudder> a bad idea.  (more on this in another post)

My initial ladder looked something like this:

Level XP Level XP
N00blet 1 20 L33t 11 670
N00blet 2 60 GoSu 12 700
N00b 3 110 GoSu 13 730
N00b 4 170 GoSu 14 770
N00b 5 240 Beast 15 800
N00bLord 6 320 Beast 16 830
N00bLord 7 410 Beast 17 870
N00bLord 8 510 Boss 18 900
L33t 9 600 Boss 19 930
L33t 10 630 Grandmaster 20 1000

If you’re paying more attention than I did at first, you’ve already noticed that the point spread between individual levels varies radically, from 20 to 100 points.  By itself, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (the spread should increase as the levels do).  But the randomness with which I changed it is a problem.  Having to earn 100 points to go from level 7 to level 8, but then only needing 90 for the next level and only 30 for the level after that?  Bad game mechanics.

So, as the course progressed, I noticed these things (sometimes with the help of my students) and have been modifying my ladder to reflect the more sophisticated understanding of the mechanic that I’ve developed.  😉  I’ve made some changes to the current ladder, but I didn’t want to completely wreck the current game, so not all the changes I want have gone into this year’s iteration.

Here’s the plan for next year:

Level XP Spread Level XP Spread
1 N00blet 15 15 11 L33t 500 75
2 N00blet 40 25 12 GoSu 575 75
3 N00b 75 35 13 GoSu 650 75
4 N00b 110 35 14 GoSu 730 80
5 N00b 150 40 15 Beast 810 80
6 N00bLord 200 50 16 Beast 890 80
7 N00bLord 250 50 17 Beast 1010 120
8 N00bLord 300 50 18 Boss 1130 120
9 L33t 350 50 19 Boss 1250 120
10 L33t 425 75 20 Grandmaster 1400 150

The Spread column indicates the difference between the previous level and the listed one.  This progression is much smoother, though I’m still not quite happy with it.  I think the distribution should jump more between levels 13 and 14, for one thing.  But in conjunction with this progression, I have to assign points to the various quests and craftings (assignments) that the students complete.  Coordinating this with those has been a bit of a struggle.  I think this will be a much better flow though, because

  • Jumps between levels are low enough at the beginning to allow for rapid progression
  • Jumps quickly become more difficult after the first few levels, allowing for more challenge to keep players engaged
  • The ladder extends well beyond the credit students achieve for the basic quests and craftings; to reach levels 18-20 they’ll have to do a substantial number of optional quests and to reach level 20 requires very careful planning and truly excellent execution
  • The difference between semesters is still substantial, but for the game mechanics to keep the challenge high as students progress, that’s required.  I’m debating whether to tie the grade to the points earned next year.  Right now, I’m leaning toward figuring out some indirect way to assign grades, because I haven’t been happy with the direct link results at all.

Do you use a level ladder with points?  How has yours worked?  Any lessons to share?

Story is essential

I’ve come to believe more strongly in the need for a storyline as our semester has developed.  Originally, I only had an instant feedback system plus what amounted to ‘tack-on’ elements of games (score sheet with points instead of grades, revised names, etc).  It looked at first glance like a course most games-based-learning advocates would shudder at and hold up as an example of the worst practices in “gamification.”

However, the feedback mechanism alone has been very motivating for my students.  It allows them unlimited re-do until mastery, a key component, in my opinion.  It also provides instant feedback, so they can work as long as they want, whenever they want, until they ‘get it.’  This one component has substantially changed the interaction in my classroom.  Because they can get feedback independent of me, and because the feedback doesn’t reflect on them until mastery (ie: no consequence for failure other than needing to retry), they have no fear of trying repeatedly until they get it.  My class has changed from a lecture and work drudgery to a highly engaging self-reinforcing…dare I say fun…activity.  I get to coach, instead of having to lecture.  

However, I’ve been working on a storyline, too.  What I’ve found is that the more storyline I put into the work–no matter how corny or ridiculous it seems to me–the more the students are enjoying it.  This week I added a video in which one of my co-workers posed as a ‘Loremaster’ in the storyline and delivered a message to the class.  It was the highlight of the class and will definitely be repeated.  Although it was unessential to the process or content of the course, it seemed to enhance the students’ ability to move into the game environment.  I’ve also posted a big hand-drawn version of the electronic map on our classroom wall and am posting small pictures of each area from the map in the appropriate sections of the course materials on Moodle.  Each bit I add seems to allow the students more room to imagine themselves in the world I’m creating.  

My next big challenge is to figure out a way to allow them the opportunity to do some world-building along with me.  I think creating a way for them to help make the world with me will be greatly engaging.  I want it to fit the game-flow and enhance the content, though, so it is going to need careful thought.  Anyone have any experience with this sort of addition? I’d love to compare notes.