The stars were aligned! GIE was in town. Wow!

I can’t believe my good fortune in having the Games in Education conference arrive not only while I was taking this course, and not only in my own town, but actually at the point in my gamification activities where I needed every piece of information I got  from every session I attended. The Games in Education conference was held at Troy Middle School, just down the hill road from HVCC, and right at the point I was wrapping up Module 5 building activities. On both days, although I had signed up for some longer afternoon hands on activities, I found I had to leave right after lunch to go home and immediately apply what I had learned in the morning sessions. Wow – the stars were definitely aligned.

Of primary use to me were the sessions on Alternate Reality Games in the classroom and Pervasive Games. Both of these include online and offline activities, linking the game components to real life. I think that this is a great model for a class build, and with an online course the domains can be switched around. The online course is the online game component and their offline work is the reality. These structures appeared to be engaging and successful and I went home and combed through my designs to find where I could build up this dynamic.

But most revelatory was the idea of storyline. Tuesday afternoon I went home and brainstormed what storyline I could use to hold my gamification concept together. The obvious storyline for me was “student learns art history” – but I knew that was going to have limited appeal beyond a few. After much thought I went in and rewrote my welcome. It now reads (in part):

How can Quests and Badges help you learn? 

It is possible that you are totally devoted and addicted to the process of being a student and learning everywhere you go from everything you do. If so, you might not care about the badges so much, but you should really enjoy the Quest for knowledge and understanding of Modern Art History. Your story line is “A student who loves to learn, explores and masters Modern Art History and learns to think like an Art Historian with new classmates”.

It is also possible you are taking this course to fulfill a requirement and perhaps it is even a bit outside your usual realm of experience. Your story line might be “An explorer in a new world, discovers the important principles, skills and facts about the world of Modern Art History, and with others on the team, starts thinking like an Art Historian.

It is also possible that you are totally devoted and addicted to learning, but struggle with time management, organization, motivation, reading, writing, asking for help, or other aspects of learning, and you need more assistance in some or all of these areas. Your story line might be “A brave soul ventures forth to new and challenging worlds, and with the help of others on the team, keeps up, works to their personal strengths and starts thinking like an Art Historian.”

Do any of these story lines sound like your story line? Do you know what your story line is? Whatever you bring or do not bring to this major Quest, there will be activities and tools to help you succeed and an entire team of fellow explorers sharing the journey. Badges are awarded for the required student work done well, and also for optional activities that might better play to your strengths or help you acquire new strengths. Did you get a perfect score on your “Teach the Class…” Challenge? No? Well, go find a badge activity to make up for those points – called XPs (experience points). There are lots of small manageable badge challenges that build up points quickly while helping you and others in the class start thinking like Art Historians. You can move through 5 levels of 3 different types of badges in this class – that is a lot of opportunity for success!

In his Tuesday keynote, Lee Sheldon, who teaches at RPI, asserted that it was important for writers to write and programmers to program. I had wondered why Koster had been so adamant about the storyline concept in his book, and this clarifies it for me. Apparently, in game development circles, there are a lot of juvenile and underdeveloped storylines and both Sheldon and Koster are writers who see the importance of a good, sophisticated storyline to the success of a game. I could see that I needed to create a storyline – or several – in my course. Based on what I was incorporating from Koster in regards to “fun” I didn’t think that I needed to create a fantasy storyline. If fun was hard work, mastery, and reward in well designed interaction, then I just needed to identify the storylines that my students were bringing to the course. I also wanted to create a storyline for the student who struggles, so they would not see “noise” and get frustrated.

I also like the idea of the narrative because it presents a context to students when they start a class – a reason for engaging, and a map of sorts in that if they know the story they are in, they will have a sense of how they should be acting and what they should be doing.

I also created all my badges in this module. I had the idea for them, and still had not produced any visible designs. I needed to have them in the very beginning of the course so had to design at least the first level. I located the mozilla plugin for making badges and was able to produce all 15 in one afternoon. This is a fantastic tool – find it here: OpenBadges.me

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I can build it – but is it FUN?

At the beginning of Module 5 I had pretty much decided how the course was going to be laid out, and what activities would contribute to badges and how students could level up with points. The Moodle tools were challenging and I had experimented with many, discarded some, kept others, and just when I thought I had found the correct combination of tools, wound up changing it yet again. But a rhythm was clearly there, the feedback loops were tight, the concepts in place, and I thought I had a good foundation.

But I was concerned that something was missing. What if it wasn’t fun? I thought it was fun, but how would I know if students would find it fun? During this module we had extra time to build because there were no discussions so I took that reading time to explore some additional game design concepts I had not yet focused on. After reviewing a few sites on game design principles that were way too specific to building video games, I stumbled on an archived presentations on the theory of fun in games by Raph Koster.  Searching the HVCC eBrary site I found a short book by him that helped me identify the important structures I needed in a game environment. His book also helped me wrap my head around what fun is, and when and how things become not fun. I can’t link to the book but here is a link to his website that includes some presentations based on the book. Raph Koster Website. Also an excerpt from the book can be found here.

Most notable for me was the idea that if a game is too hard, if the “patterns” presented read as “noise” to the player, they will give up. Koster states “When we meet noise, and fail to make a pattern out of it, we get frustrated and quit” . To me this means, in a gamified course, that there needs to be a student sense that they can see what is going on and they can succeed. Also that the tasks initially should be simple and have a quick reward to start the pattern of the rest of the course. I decided to make the first badge awards based on successfully entering the game/logging in to the course.My concerns about how fun the course would be as a gamified environment were alleviated when I read the following:

“Fun is all about our brains feeling good – the release of endorphins into our system. The various cocktails of chemicals released in different ways are basically all the same. Science has shown that the pleasurable chills that we get down the spine after exceptionally powerful music or a really great book are casued by the same sorts of chemicals we get when we have cocaine, an orgasm, or chocolate. Basically, our brains are on drugs pretty much all the time.
One of the subtlest releases of chemicals is at that moment of triumph when we learn something or master a task. This  almost always causes us to break out into a smile. After all, it is important to the survival of the species that we learn – therefore our bodies reward us for it with moments of pleasure. There are many ways we find fun in games … . But this is the most important.
Fun from games arises out of mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.
In other words, with games, learning is the drug. “(Koster, p 40)

Reviewing my course, the structure, the feedback or reward loops, I think that mastery can be visualized with my process regularly. There are multiple journeys through the “game”, all of which present challenges. Lots of small challenges (vocabulary, study guide questions, quiz questions) help build up skills for larger more mastery level challenges (Teach the class, annotate an image, Final Project). I believe the material is broken down in ways that it will not appear as “noise” unless a student is significantly underprepared for college level work. And in those cases, there is a team structure within the course to support them. They can use the collaborative tools to get peer explanations and help them build their own skills.

I think this course will be fun. I will have to assess that by surveying my students at the end.

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Koster, Raph, and Will Wright. Theory of Fun for Game Design. New York: Paraglyph, 2004. Web

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