By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
A little over a month ago, I reported on my efforts of gamifying my class. That post explained the what, the why, and the how of Zombie Survival: English 102 Style. To sum it up, I created a team-based game in which the players’ progress depends in part on their success in the course. Survey data revealed that the vast majority of the class enjoys the game and recommends it for future courses.
In this post, I want to report on some of my own observations of the game now that it’s been underway for a bit. I’ve noticed some successes and some failures, and I want to share those insights so that anyone else interested in gamification doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Why I Don’t Offer Extra Credit
Except for a few times early in my teaching career, I’ve never offered extra credit. I’m sure my reasons will draw some criticism, but, in a nutshell, I think that extra credit opportunities fail at the two purposes they ordinarily serve.
The first purpose of extra credit is that of a safety net. These are extra credit assignments meant to boost student grades. I’m not fond of this type of extra credit because it could account for a student passing a course when they really haven’t achieved the learning objectives.
For example, a student fails a test on trigonometric functions, but manages to pass the class due to a few extra credit points earned at another point in the semester relating to a completely different objective. In a well-designed course that employs the principles of mastery learning, safety extra credit shouldn’t be necessary.
The second common purpose of extra credit is that of a carrot. For example, an instructor offers two points of extra credit on the upcoming exam to the winning team of the Jeopardy review game. Or maybe an instructor offers a few bonus points to any students who attend an optional student life event. The problem with carrot extra credit, or motivational points, is that they can inflate grades by giving students credit that is unrelated to course objectives.
One of the primary benefits of my gamified course, however, is that I finally have a means by which to incentivize activities without threatening the integrity of course grades or learning objectives. Instead of extra credit, I dish out supplies or population or barricade. You see, Zombie Survival has an economy of its own. Teams need supplies to buy upgrades; they need population to earn points; they need barricade to hold back the zombie hordes.
When we do a review game in class, students don’t compete for extra credit.
They compete for survival.
Low Stakes Teamwork
Employers want employees who know how to collaborate. Obviously, then, school is an ideal place to learn those skills. But students hate group work, and, more often than not, instructors hate assigning group projects. They bring to the forefront all sorts of questions that are easier just not to think about. Who is responsible for what? How will I assign grades? How will I form groups? What if one student doesn’t do any of the work? What if one student does ALL of the work?
These questions are hard to answer for group projects especially because a grade is at stake. Now, I’m not saying that gamifying a course eliminates our need to teach collaboration skills or assign group projects, but I have witnessed several ways that transforming my class into a team-based game has provided opportunities for students to develop some of these skills in a low stakes environment.
As I mentioned before, the players’ success in Zombie Survival is directly impacted by their success in the course, and the game is designed so that a team’s success is the sum of its members’ success. Because of this, I have witnessed students encouraging their teammates to get work done on time and done correctly.
Additionally, every week, each team gets to choose one mission to undertake in the zombie apocalypse, such as scavenging for supplies or thinning out the zombie hordes at their gate. Teammates must agree on the mission they will undertake, and so it is not uncommon for my students to remain for a few minutes after class in order to discuss this strategic decision.
They might not think of it as group work, but Zombie Survival is teaching students to collaborate without the high stakes pressure of the dreaded group project.
A Good Game Provides Immediate Feedback
And, in this sense, Zombie Survival is not yet a good game.
You see, in a well-designed video game, players know right away if they have made the correct decision or clicked the right button at the right time.
They earn experience points, they see the bad guy’s life meter drop, or they otherwise get immediate feedback on their progress in the game. This is a core principle of game design. Immediate feedback allows losing players to self-correct, and it allows winning players to be rewarded and thereby motivated to keep playing.
In my game, I’ve got the reward thing down. Students earn experience points for completing assignments. They level up and get in-game bonuses as they make progress in the learning objectives.
What I’m lacking is immediacy and player awareness of feedback. For example, one of the mechanics of the game is that when that a student gets all of their assignments in on time for the week, they earn their group a reward (such as bonus supplies). However, in my current setup, students don’t get immediate notice of their rewards. It just happens behind the scenes when I update the spreadsheet that I track everything on.
Ideally, as soon as a student completes the required task, they should get the reward, and get recognized for it. This is hard with the way I’ve set my class up this semester, but I’ve got some ideas for next time around. My plan is to have students complete a Google Form whenever they have completed each week’s assignments. This would provide them with a sense of closure, and the Google Form could be set up to automatically edit the spreadsheet on which I track game statistics. If I put the spreadsheet in the same section of Blackboard as the form, students would then immediately SEE that their hard work has paid off.
A Good Game Lets Players Make Decisions That Matter
I play Dungeons & Dragons.
If you aren’t familiar with D&D or other roleplaying games (RPGs), the best description I’ve heard to explain them to a non-gamer is that an RPG is like a movie in which the players write the script as they are acting it out. The game master (or GM) is like the director. The GM might have a general plot line in mind, but one thing RPG players never like to feel is railroaded, or forced into one direction regardless of their decisions.
This makes sense if you think about the fact that autonomy is regarded as a powerful intrinsic motivator. People want to make their own decisions, and they want their decisions to matter. If the choices that a player makes in a game don’t have any actual effect on the outcome of the game–or if they don’t have an opportunity to make choices–then the game isn’t as motivating as it could be.
I’ve noticed this problem with Zombie Survival. I mentioned before that every week, each team gets to decide one mission to undertake, but let me go into a bit more detail now that it’s relevant. Each team chooses to do one of the following:
- Grow their population
- Scavenge for supplies
- Kill zombies
- Gather food
The problem with the first iteration of the game was that after about the third turn or so, almost every group was always deciding to kill zombies because by that point they had accumulated so many zombies that any other mission would leave the team in open season for brain eating.
In the second run of the game, I’ve curtailed this a bit by limiting the maximum number of zombies that any team can have and also by making the payout on some of the other mission slightly better. I doubt that my work is done, though. Any game will go through multiple iterations during play-testing before it can achieve balance.
I could go on and on with lessons I’ve learned in my efforts at gamification, but my mouse is longing to click the publish button. I’ll be sure to have more wisdom to share in the next entry of Tales from the Zombie Apocalypse.
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Sgt. Killzone avatar created using http://8biticon.com/
Zombie picture created using http://zombietar.framiq.com/