Lessons Learned in Playful Game Design

Go to college, pay $200. Get job, get $100.

[This is a guest post by Anastasia Salter, 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]

Several months ago, I wrote about my plan for gamifying a class website. In many ways, I had the ideal environment to play with this sort of experiment. As the class topic was social media and games, the space was a realization of the same interactivity we were studying. I wanted to bring my students into the debates surrounding “gamified” experiences and playful uses of social media firsthand. I also hoped that the space would encourage conversations that could extend past more narrowly defined assignments and encourage meaningful collaboration.

As the semester got rolling, I realized that I’d made a new course preparation into a potentially life-consuming task. The amount of activity on the site, particularly in the first half of the semester, produced more content than I’d ever seen in one of my course web spaces. Not all of it was of equal value, of course, but sorting through it became a part of my day akin to checking Facebook or Twitter. The site was strongest at the beginning of the semester for a range of reasons, one of them no doubt being that for some students the novelty did wear thin over time.

And of course, building the space was only the beginning. The site reflected my commitment to designing the class assignments around collaborative mission-based tasks that would increase in difficulty level each week and reward multiple paths of completion. Each week I tried to think beyond discussion topics and create playful mechanics–the real challenge of harnessing gameplay, which no site can provide on its own–and some weeks it was hard to escape giving assignments that would never feel playful. One of my favorite assignments, the Midterm Raid, asked students to work with the same Buddypress extensions as the class site was based on to build their own games encouraging creative action. (Here are some resulting projects).

When the semester came to an end, I asked students to reflect on what they thought of this experiment: Are points really motivating? Achievements? Or is social interaction and knowledge motivating in itself? The answers on that varied wildly, but I learned that many of the students appreciated the greater sense of collaboration. I in turn was impressed by the quality of what they produced, particularly in some of the more challenging exercises of moving from theory to practice.

I felt fortunate to be teaching about something that was highly visible in the media all semester, so there were always brand-new discoveries for my students to find and bring back into the conversation. One of my students speculated during the course of the semester: “Gamification could be the next reality TV in the stage of technological consumption. [It] could be what makes games relevant to everyone and not just a misunderstood crowd.” Other students were not as impressed. But even as my students were arguing among themselves, the debate on gamification was heating up around the web. Ian Bogost escalated his anti-gamification campaign with a Gamasutra article that explicitly mentioned how the rhetoric of gamification is drawing attention from educators to a trend that threatens “to replace real incentives with fictional ones,” among many other sins. The piece even inspired Darius Kazemi to build a Chrome extension that replaces “gamification” with “exploitationware.”

These are legitimate concerns, and as an instructor in a game design program I was particularly aware of them. The intersection of learning and games holds many interesting possibilities–and none of them are without their flaws. From edutainment titles that amounted to repackaging of classroom drills to simulations that favor particular structures of reality, games as they stand are learning experiences we’ve started to understand but are still trying to harness in the classroom.

I see this experiment as a first step: next semester, when I revisit this same course, I hope to use the BuddyPress site as one component in a class-based Alternate Reality Game. Using the CubePoints plug in as currency will give me the opportunity to reward online participation and extend its consequences into the classroom while also strengthening the gameplay of the semester. Assigning guilds based on interests ahead of time might also help to deal with the fragmentation of the space that happened throughout the semester while still allowing for flexibility and collaboration with different students from week to week. With luck, I can keep the collaborative and challenging elements my students found most valuable while incorporating new opportunities for playful learning.

So with the summer almost upon us, I’ll be taking my notes from this semester and working on crafting a more playful, collaborative iteration for the fall. What experiments in class design did you try this semester? What playful ideas are on your mind for next year? Let us know in comments!

Photo by Flickr user jbj / Creative Comments licensed.

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