Over the last two years as a regular classroom teacher, I’ve been on the hunt for new ways to rev motivation. The answer I stumbled upon, it turns out, is a simple one: Create an alternate plane of existence.
When I last left my Grade 7/8 students , they were wandering around the island of Effeti – a tropical setting off the western shores of Dragonshead province. Home to that poetess of renown, Mandolyn, the entire isle radiates the power of the spoken word. Our adventurers have not yet met the bard herself, as they’re presently busy with the preceding quest to help Uncle Heyday to bring the Bookwyrm Inn back to its former glory by learning about and writing odes to hang above its mantelpiece.
In prosaic pedagogical parlance, the above describes our Poetry Unit. More accurately put, our class now represents the sheer exultation of imagination.
Back in September I had students create trading card versions of themselves. Honestly I thought the project would last a week or two. I volunteered to take their draft versions home and spruce them up a bit on the computer. The results looked pretty cool. Everybody loved ’em.
In many cases, the powers their characters had reflected the students’ inner natures to a T. One very quiet one gave herself the power of Invisibility, flipping the feeling she often has of going unnoticed into a strength. I thought, why not find a way to have them build on these Avatars? It’s English class, after all, and character development is something we study in stories anyhow. But such lessons can be short-lived. What if we made the WHOLE CLASS a story, and watched as our own characters grow over the year?
To keep things interesting, we instituted a currency I called Blingblings. Kids earn these for doing assignments and other things of merit. We don’t take tests anymore. Instead, we battle fearsome monsters. Test scores do damage, and monsters have higher or lower Hit Points based on their difficulty level. I carry a 6-sided di in my pocket everywhere I go now for important decisions that need settling.
Play occurs within a Guild-style structure. Four Guilds exist in The 8th Dimension (Grade 8) and two in the 7th. These are: Simulutunum, Team Squaaaaa, The Dark Lighters, Something; Storm Breakers, and of course, The Desert Riders.
Unique Guild shields find pride of place above Dimensional Chambers (i.e. respective classrooms).
In addition to Avatars and Blingblings, lots more cards enter into play: We’ve got any number of fancy weapons, armour, potions…you name it. And every Friday, students receive a visit from POPOLI! (The exclamation point is his actual last name.) An exuberantly friendly merchant, Popoli travels between dimensions gathering merchandise from far and wide to sell to Guilds for major competitive advantages. Since the wisest course of game action is always to save one’s money in order to Level Up at the Training Academy, Popoli offers only the rarest cards and some sweet deals that players have a hard time turning down for strategic reasons. We’ve seen some downright vicious bidding wars.
However exciting, none of these concepts are 100% original. They fit snugly into a certain contemporary trend towards gamification – the application of principles from game systems to various domains, education in our case.
I became acquainted with the theory about a year ago while sniffing around for ways to make material more relevant and exciting. Long before this, though, I was a tabletop role-player. Having spent most of my teenage years as a Dungeon Master, I acquired significant experience making maps, scripting extensive world lore, and weaving fiendish tales to unleash upon geeky pals. Who knew it’d get to be the day job?
The key aim of gamification is to heighten motivation. We’ve been playing the game for just about a month now, and questionnaire data I gathered last week shows self-reported increases of motivation and attention at an average of 8.5/10. Not bad! But as a counterpoint, a frequent criticism of gamified environments is that they get people motivated quickly, but chiefly encourage extrinsic, surface-level drive, instead of intrinsic, sustained investment. It’s true that my students are ALL about the Blingblings now, and ask me regularly whether this or that action is eligible for payout; but as part of a balanced game design (something we discuss in our analytic ‘Metagame’ classes), random chance has a big part to play in thwarting expectations that lead to greed. Money is a part of things, but in the same way as it is in the real world. Risk is involved. One must venture to hope to gain anything…and you don’t always get what you pay for.
That said, in RPGs, collecting loot is all part of the fun! What I really hope to inspire more than anything, though, is love for simply playing the game, and moreover, love for the underlying creativity without which our shared game world could not exist.
Speaking of motivation, it’s not inconsequential that I, too, find myself far more stoked to “do my homework” (a.k.a. lesson planning) these days… Last year it was all I could do to get familiar with the nuts and bolts of the Ontario Ministry curriculum. Learning curves were steep. This year shows much more promise for innovation. To be frank (and with my posting history as evidence), in 2016 I barely felt like an artist, despite teaching my subject on an unprecedented schedule. Finally, through gamification I feel I’ve found an idiom native to my brain! I enjoy logic but don’t think in sequences. It’s a real mush up there. I think in stories, in colours. It makes much more sense to me to craft a dream than planning what logically should follow a week’s worth of grammar stuff.
It’s an ongoing project with exciting next steps. I’ve employed a Special Initiatives task force to work on a website for the game right now, which counts towards our curriculum’s Media stream and as part of a broader commitment to teaching 21st century skills. As soon as it’s up, I’ll post the link! The site will have up-to-date info on game world events, along with specific intel on Avatars and Guilds.
On this blog site, “The Interdimensional Classroom” will also be featured as a short series. (Next up: All aboard the WORLDBUILDING EXPRESS!!!)
Now, off to enjoy a delectable cup of Yimihachika Honey Drink. Made by the finest robot bees.