At Indiana U., a Class on Game Design Has Students Playing to Win

Lee Sheldon wanted to find a way to engage students in his class on multiplayer-game design at Indiana University at Bloomington. So, the assistant professor thought, why not use the course’s subject?

Mr. Sheldon’s class introduces students to design elements and production requirements for online games. He decided last semester to format the course itself as a multiplayer game.

Class time is spent completing quests (such as presentations of games or research), fighting monsters (taking tests or quizzes), and “crafting” (writing game-analysis papers and a video-game concept document). The 40-person class is divided into six “zones,” named after influential game designers, in which students complete group tasks.

Mr. Sheldon says last semester’s students performed a full letter grade better in the course than students had under the traditional approach — the class average was a B instead of a C.

“They are more engaged,” Mr. Sheldon said. They are “the gamer generation, they are the social-networking generation, so this class is couched in the terms that they understand.”

The class incorporates other elements found in video games, too. Mr. Sheldon occasionally rolls dice to decide presentation schedules or who will answer quiz questions, to add an element of chance to the class. Students last semester “farmed” for errors in their textbook, similar to the way that some players “farm” for valuable items in games.

Instead of receiving traditional grades, students earn “experience points” for completing assignments. Mr. Sheldon says that points system not only feels more like a video game, but also lets students feel like they’re earning points for getting things right instead of losing them for incorrect answers.

Mr. Sheldon says he’s already seen interest in the concept from colleagues. About 50 instructors have contacted him because they are interested in starting a similar course, and on Monday, Mr. Sheldon started a blog for those instructors called “Gaming the Classroom.”

He has also talked to his publisher about switching his latest book project, planned to be called “Practical Game Design: A Toolkit for Researchers, Educators, and Developers,” into a book exclusively about this model. He said it would be up to his publisher whether or not to make the switch.

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