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Why Gaming Part 1: When Students Rewrite the Rules

March 2, 2013 by Josh Caldwell

Rules, Rules, Rules

I love getting the chance to chat with like-minded educators at conferences, and since I left NCCE last week I’ve been processing all of the great discussions and ideas. At the conference I presented about some of the classroom gaming I’ve been doing, but I also got so see a few other presentations on similar topics. It’s clear to me from the discussions I had after these sessions that the concept of gaming in education makes sense to a lot of educators, but often the parallels between gaming and learning are not immediately obvious, particularly when trying to make the argument for classroom gaming to school leadership. To help other educators understand and articulate the value of gaming in the classroom (both through gamification and playing games) I thought I’d write a few articles to focus on some specific benefits of gaming. My hope is that you can use these as discussion starters in your schools and districts to help get the gaming ball rolling. Given my track record of updates to this blog (read: I’m bad at updates), I don’t know how many of these I’ll do. Baby steps.

Rules Are Fun!

One of the prime reasons that we play and enjoy games is the constraints of their structured rules. It may seem counterintuitive to say that rules are fun, but rules provide players a framework within which they can strive for success. No rules means there’s nothing to challenge your progress. No challenge means no sense of achievement. In other words, we need rules and constraints for our successes to have any meaning. So why do the rules of a game produce an enjoyable and engaging experience that encourages progress, while the rules of school often produce a de-motivational experience that shuts down student progress? It all comes down to the perceived potential for success.

Are You Set Up to Win or Lose?

When I pick up a new game, there’s an assumption that I can, if I strive, win that game. In fact, I know that the game can be won – it was designed to be won. Even if I find it incredibly challenging, and seemingly impossible, I always know that there must be some way to win. I never lose the potential for success. There’s no certainty that I’ll win, but it’s always a  possibility, and that’s what makes the struggle enjoyable and the eventual outcome satisfying. Regardless of how often or catastrophically I fail, I can always pick myself up and try again. When failure looses its long-term punitive aspects, it becomes a powerful to for learning and exploration.

When a struggling student enters the classroom, they don’t necessarily have that same perceived potential for success. The rules of their game don’t seem to be designed for them to win. Even though as educators we believe that we’re creating a framework for students to be successful, often our schools are unknowingly communicating to students the opposite. Failure in school is a punishment, and often a punishment that incrementally diminishes a students possibility of success. How can we expect a student continue trying when that student has dug a whole so deep that it’s a mathematical impossibility that they’ll succeed. Expand out from a single class to an entire educational career and it only gets worse. We can tell a high school student with a low GPA to “turn it around,” but it’s hard to get really motivated to do so when you know that your previous failures have lowered your chances for future success.  When faced with this game that seems impossible to win, you’re left with two alternatives: quit, or change the rules.

Changing the Rules Changes the Game

One evening I was playing a soccer video game with a friend when I chose to change the rules. I don’t know much about soccer, and I was struggling with constantly being called off-sides and getting yellow and red cards. I was playing a game that I didn’t feel I could win. Certainly with enough time and effort I could probably learn to succeed, but given that I was only able to play this game with my friend for a few hours (an additional rule, though one imposed by life and not the game) I was facing a scenario where success did not seem to be an option. At that point, I chose to change the rules. I reframed my version of success so that I was back to playing a winnable game. I decided to strive for the most extreme and egregious fouls – I turned a game of soccer into a game of red card collection and ridiculously comic fouls. I was losing according to the game’s rules, but I felt like I was winning, and I was definitely enjoying myself. This is a tactic that many of our students choose when faced with the un-winnable game of school. Students who feel like they’re losing instead strive towards goals of socialization, subversion, attention seeking, or just survival and invisibility. These behaviors we try to remedy with more punishment, but they’re no longer playing the same game, and are therefore no longer affected by the old rules. In fact avoiding those rules and their punishments becomes the challenge that makes the new game fun to play.

So what can we do? We change the rules first – we create a game that students perceive as built for winning from day one by adopting some ideas from video games. One of the most powerful tools that video games use to motivate players is the progress bar. A progress bar simply keep track of a player’s points (often called Experience Points) and provides a visual reminder of the progress a player has made. As the progress bar fills, new skills or awards may be unlocked, providing some tangible rewards along the way to ultimate success. This helps reinforce that the player is building up towards success, even when times seem to be tough. Even the smallest of achievements will add a few points to that ever-growing progress bar. Compare this to the standard identifier of progress in school – the letter grade. Where the progress bar starts at zero and builds up, we start our students with 100% and then hope that they maintain it. Far more often than I’d like to acknowledge I’ve started the semester with the (supposedly) motivational refrain “you’ve all got As.” For many students that will be the last time they have an A. Starting from 100% the only way to go is down, and we are again unwittingly communicating to students that they are playing a game designed not to win, but to lose. Starting with 0 and ending at 7500 XP out of 10000 possible certainly seems to me like more of a success than starting with an A and ending with a C, even though they are technically identical.

Changing your class grading from a traditional grading system to a progress bar style system is a great first step to help communicate to students that we expect them to win, and it doesn’t require that you change the way you teach. There are certainly challenges associated with the change, including parent expectations and school or district grade reporting requirements, but communicating the value of this approach to concerned parties is the place to start. The solution I’ve adopted is to report grades to students using just the amount of XP earned, while reporting my online grades as the XP earned out of the total offered at the time (which is essentially how traditional grades work anyway). Ideally I’d like to ditch the traditional grades altogether, because I think parents too can benefit from this shift in perspective, but at least it’s a start. If you’re looking for a tool to help with this, check out 3D Game Lab, a nicely packaged web tool for classroom gamification. If you’re using progress-bar style grading, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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