Games in the Classroom (part 4)

DSC_0054 1Throughout this series, we’ve talked about why you might want to use games in the classroom, how you can find them, and how to start making your own. But games can also inspire us to rethink our classrooms at a structural level, and particularly as sites for collaboration and playful learning that can extend long beyond a single lesson plan. Game designers are pointing out the similarities between games and the classroom. Extra Credits, a video series by game designers taking a deeper look at the form, recently did an episode on Gamifying Education that provides a great starting point for a conversation on game-inspired classroom design.

For ideas on getting started, I recently spoke with Lee Sheldon, author of the recently released The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game (Cengage Learning 2011), whose book chronicles both his own and others’ experiments with taking the structures, terminology, and concepts of a massive multiplayer role-playing game and applying them to the classroom. You can check out Lee Sheldon’s syllabus at his blog on Gaming the Classroom, along with more of his reflections on the experiment, which divided his students into guilds and encouraged them to “level up” through the semester. After using the course model in its latest iteration, he reported perfect attendance. He also notes the value in his system of “grading by attrition”—students are not being punished for failing, but instead rewarded for progressing and thus less likely to be defeated early.

As a professional game designer teaching courses on game design, Lee Sheldon has a natural environment for innovation–but his concepts open the door for a conversation across disciplines. Lee Sheldon describes his model as “designing the class as a game”—so not just focusing on extrinsic rewards (the typical focus of gamification), but instead trying to promote “opportunities for collaboration” and “intrinsic rewards from helping others.” As game designers, like teachers, are focused on creating an experience, many of the strategies for building a class as game are similar to more traditional preparation. And he advises that these ideas can work for anyone: “You don’t have to a be a game designer…you can prep like putting together a lesson plan, but learn the terminology.” Lee Sheldon explains that one of the benefits of using games as a model is that a game is abstracted—it has to “feel real”, but you get to “take out the stuff that isn’t fun.” He also notes that “You can do just about anything in a game that you can do in real life,” and the wealth of games today is a testament to that range of possibilities.

Lee Sheldon and his team at RPI are now working on an experiment with their new Emergent Reality Lab that offers a possible future for courses as games. He explained their current project, teaching Mandarin Chinese as an alternate reality game, as a “Maltese Falcon-esque mystery” narrative—the class will start out as usual, in a normal classroom, but it will be interrupted and move into the lab as the students take a virtual journey across China aided by motion-aware Kinect interfaces in an immersive environment. Lee Sheldon said that his ideal outcome would be for students to learn more Chinese than they would in a traditional class.

Using games to inspire educational experience design is gaining in popularity. Rochester Institute of Technology will soon “unlock” a model for undergraduate education called “Just Press Play” inspired by the hero’s journey. Meanwhile, this year’s Digital Media and Learning competition is themed around Badges, a concept borrowed from game achievement systems and scouting medals, which is at the center of ongoing debate but will likely inspire some game-based projects. Other experiments are taking root in K-21, like the Quest To Learn school by the Institute of Play with a curriculum that draws on game design principles while also encouraging digital skill development.

The future of games in the classroom promises further possibilities for the integration of games and learning: have you designed a class as a game? What ideas from games might work for your classroom?

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Jessica Joan Wilson]

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