A Copywriter’s Blog

Take a second to realize just how quickly this digital gaming thing has grown. Before the Atari, there was no “gaming”. The whole concept didn’t exist. Then it became a thing the kids did with their neat little nintendo boxes. Then it was something nerds did who had an easier time interfacing with those boxes than they did women. Then it was something everyone did, as long as they didn’t do it too much, or seem too enthusiastic about it, or played games with words like NFL and NBA in the title.

And then came the Wii and Facebook.

And casual gaming was born.

So now it’s ok, this obsession with digital games. You can admit in public that you enjoy playing them. Terms geeks coined- like RPG, n00b, pwned- these are everyday words now. Which is why you get articles like this one.

The short version is- a professor at Indiana University replaced grades with an RPG system of leveling. He’s observing higher-than-normal interest levels among his students, and a marked increase in the amount of effort put into the class.

If you look at the comments, a lot of people aren’t sure what to think about this. Some think we’re giving too much credit to games. Some think this will only work with a game-related class. Some think this is exactly what schools need and are ready and willing to go to class dressed like an Orc.

I think they’re all missing the point. It’s not about whether or not your class should be a game. It’s about how game mechanics can improve your class.

This quote from the article talks about work, but it applies in the classroom as well:

Many specifics of game design could also be directly applied to the workforce, he said. These included: clearly defining goals for workers; providing incremental rewards; and balancing effort and reward.

Clearly defined goals. In this case the emphasis is on the “clearly”. You know what I always hated about those classes where there’s only a midterm and final? You get two shots. You screw up the first, you’re doomed. It sucks because the rules aren’t explained. Sure you’re told what they are-a big test in the middle and a big test at the end- but you don’t really know what the midterm is like until you see it. It’s technically defined, but not clearly so. Having a chance to see how the teacher thinks in the homework and in smaller tests makes it easier to anticipate and prepare for the huge tests. It’s a time-honored tradition in RPGs to go kill giant rats before you work your way up to dragons. This is part of why.

The balancing of effort and reward. World of Warcraft made infamous an aspect of RPGs called “grinding”. This is the practice of repetitively performing an action in-game until you reap the reward you want. It could be hitting things over the head until you level up, or hitting things over the head until they drop a particular item you’ve been searching for. In most cases it’s monotonous and shoot-yourself-in-the-face boring. So why are so many gamers willing to hit things over the head until their eyes bleed?

Think about it. When was the last time in life that you knew- beyond all shadow of a doubt- that if you do X for long enough, Y will happen? I’ll be good, and good things will happen…usually. Maybe. I hope. I work hard at my job, so I’ll get a promotion…right? I spend hours at the gym, so women will find me more attractive…in theory. Life is uncertain. In World of Warcraft, no matter how many hours it takes, you are certain of one thing- hit enough things on the head, and you’ll get what you want.

If a student tries to pass a test and fails, they failed right? In traditional classes, yes. In a class set up like an RPG, if they fail, they just try again. And again. And again. Until they get it right. Isn’t that what we want our students to do? Teachers out there- tell me this isn’t a fantastic idea. The student will do whatever extra work is necessary because he believes he can succeed if he keeps trying. This is ten times better than the student who shrugs because they failed the unit and resolves to “make it up on the next one”.

Providing incremental rewards. It’s the other thing good about grinding. You do get something along the way. Even if the things you hit in the head take a while to give you a specific item you want, you might level up in the process. Or get a new weapon. Or unlock a new area to explore. In RPGs, almost everything grants you experience, which means that nothing you do ever feels like it’s wasted. In other words, in a class run like an RPG you wouldn’t hear anyone say “why should I read the whole book if all this material won’t be on the test?” Sure it might not be on the test (ie-slay the big dragon) but it might give you another benefit, such as the opportunity for extra credit (side quest).

Games can be won- There’s another aspect of gaming that isn’t mentioned in the article, but I think it might be the best reason of all to turn classes, jobs, and even cancer research into a game: People approach games with the belief that they can win.

Not that it will be easy. Not that they know how. Not even that they will win. But they believe it has been designed in such a way that winning is possible. Whatever the challenge, there is a way to overcome it. They just have to find it.

The enormity of this psychological benefit was shown in an exchange between a reporter and a game developer. The reporter- who clearly thought “game” meant “toy”- asked how anyone could possibly consider a game as an appropriate way to educate children about world hunger and ways to solve it. The developer replied “People approach games with a belief that there is a way to win. That already puts them in a different mindset from 99% of the people who have tackled these problems before.”

That’s huge. Ever read Ender’s Game? If you haven’t, we can’t be friends. So go read it. The rest of you probably just gained a new appreciation for the idea behind that book.

So let’s review shall we? We’re talking about setting up a class where the goals and challenges are clearly defined. Every action is made beneficial for the student in some way- so that they are inspired to take it all in, rather than only those parts they perceive as being required. We’re talking about setting up a psychological environment where students A) believe they are capable of excelling and B) are not just encouraged but rewarded to try repeatedly until they master the lessons.

This isn’t about a generation gap. This is about building a better mousetrap. We stopped teaching in one room school houses because splitting up classes by grade was more effective. Let’s stop grading and start leveling for the same reasons.

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