How to ‘Gamify’ Your Class Website

Homework[This is a guest post by Anastasia Salter, Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Baltimore in the school of Information Arts and Technologies. Her academic work focuses on storytelling in new media; she also writes the Future Fragments column for CinCity. Follow her on Twitter at MsAnastasia.--@jbj]

When Jason B. Jones wrote about “Gamifying Homework” in November, I felt inspired to try something new with one of my courses this spring. As an avid World of Warcraft player used to completing silly tasks for nothing more than a badge of completion, I definitely believe that motivation through achievements and other rewards systems works. But implementing these types of elements in a class can be a challenge. Games work best when they provide immediate rewards, but most of the traditional feedback in a class has to be delayed—grading, particularly in classes that demand writing and projects instead of multiple choice, takes time and reflection.

Achievements and leveling in games are inherently social, as they offer bragging rights and a way to compare progress to others. Grades are the opposite—and by law, are required to remain so. Yet the post mortem for Lee Sheldon’s Multiplayer Game Design class as MMO noted that students “wanted some sort of recognition for leveling up”—a near-impossible element to include in a class where leveling directly correlates to the grade.

I decided to search for a compromise. The longer process of grading is essential, but game elements could reward participation and engagement without directly correlating with a grade—and, ideally, without requiring my continual input. I wanted to automate the “game” as much as possible so that the site itself could provide some of that instant feedback. And since designing a new class is already a big task, I wanted tools that were easily configured and worked well in existing systems.

Your options for this vary with your choice of content system: Drupal has a group devoted to adding game features, but most of these are in early beta. Moodle has the potential, and perhaps even developer interest, but nothing solid yet. WordPress, on the other hand, has a number of plug-ins that can be used to add game elements to your class site. Here are a few that I found most useful:

  • BuddyPress — The foundation of a social class site, BuddyPress builds on the WordPress system so that it acts more like Facebook or Ning. I’d previously avoided BuddyPress because it seemed like it could decentralize the course. For a class aimed at developing those same elements, however, BuddyPress is ideal for putting out multiple options and encouraging organic development.
  • CubePoints with CubePoints BuddyPress Integration — In many ways, CubePoints makes use of information that’s already available in the system: who is checking the site regularly? Replying to questions on the forum? Adding links to interesting new content? CubePoints rewards users with points for all these actions and can keep a leader board with ranks unlocked. It’s all highly customizable: you can set the number of points for each action and add names and images to ranks.
  • Achievements — The Achievements plug-in lets you set rewards for particular actions. These can be automated, like a reward for posting a certain number of times to a class forum, or triggered by you. Achievements that require you to moderate their success can be more difficult to manage, but they give you a chance to reward behaviors that go above and beyond class requirements. (This can also work as a points system, though it does not yet integrate with CubePoints—the next version of both might fix that.)
  • BuddyPress Rate Forum Posts — The ability to rate posts acts as an extension of peer review and a check on excessive but meaningless contribution. If you’re rewarding high “scorers” in the class game in structural ways, such as with first choice of presentation dates or the ability to propose extra credit “missions” (two rewards I’m trying this semester), the voting system also asks as a way to encourage students to be their own community moderators.
  • BuddyPress Links — A plug-in for sharing links that is already integrated with CubePoints. If you have a class that involves a lot of current content, this is one way to build a space for the sharing of links to relevant material. There’s also a voting system on links that will help in tracking down dead or useless links.

I don’t know yet if making these sorts of changes to a class site will fundamentally transform my outcomes. However, when I built my Social Media and Games site, I added new ranks at every hundred points on CubePoints—up to 1000. Later that evening a student reached 500 points. I had to quickly rethink my system.

Are these rankings changing how students act, even when they know the points are not by any means a “grade”? One of my students observed in our Metagame discussion: “I think if anything the points system has forced me to participate in class more than I normally would…I don’t respond only to get points, but I actually enjoy responding to what I read. I like giving my point of view and hearing others.”

Jane McGonigal’s new book, Reality is Broken, points out many lessons to be learned from game design, including a point about difficulty: “Compared to games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.” Ideally, adding game elements means an opportunity to place more voluntary obstacles and allow for collaborative and personal engagement with the material in a different way. I hope to see students rise to some of these challenges in my class this semester even as they transform the space into their own playground.

Have you tried game elements in your classes? Do you think these kinds of integrated structures would change how your students engage with their work? Let us know in the comments.

Photo by Flickr user Svadilfari / Creative Commons licensed

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