Games people play

Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

This post has been split into two parts:

Part 1: In which I outline some of my own feelings about games in the classroom.
Part 2: Which may be published tomorrow and will cover the why and how of introducing a game mechanic to your class or course…

Screenshot at 99 posts

Screenshot on the eve of 100 posts.

Games to kill time

First, this scene from an episode of The Simpsons:

[Bart has forgotten his permission slip for the class excursion to the chocolate factory and has to stay at school.]

Principal Skinner: Here’s a whole box of unsealed envelopes for the PTA.
Bart: You’re making me lick envelopes?
Skinner: Oh, licking envelopes can be fun! All you have to do is make a game of it.
Bart: What kind of game?
Skinner: Well, for example, you could see how many you could lick in an hour, then try to break that record.
Bart: Sounds like a pretty crappy game to me.
Skinner: Yes, well… Get started.  -‘Bart the Murderer’ (Writer: John Swartzwelder, 1991)

Games bloggers play

For a while I’ve wanted to set down some thoughts about games and their place in the classroom. If you blog with WordPress you’ll know that you get a little badge and some words of encouragement each time you publish a post.

It’s not necessarily an earned reward either. The person who pushes the button usually isn’t the same one who wrote the post and nevermind that I only joined the team a year or so ago — in this case I’m the author and the lucky duck that gets to see 100 posts tick over. Similarly with ‘followers’ and site statistics, these two metrics of the online world are easily gained, easily gamed, but addictive regardless. At last count the tomtom has a few hundred followers spread across WordPress, Twitter and Facebook.

Fitting then that I flag the importance of fairness and that with the 100th post from the tomtom team, I weigh in on games and ‘gamification’, a topic that we haven’t really dealt with explicitly.

Paper-based games

A few years before that episode of The Simpsons, I was in 6th grade. At some point in that year, one afternoon, my teacher brought out a blue ice-cream container with cut-up pieces of paper and announced that we were going to play ‘The Fractions Game’. I got along well with my teacher and I sat at a group table near the front of the class.

But this game sounded boring and it sounded like something I wouldn’t be very good at. Plus I probably felt like this was my time to score a point in the more important social game called ‘6th grade’.

I didn’t do anything elaborate: I just groaned dramatically and said ‘Not this game.’ (I’d never actually played ‘The Fractions Game’, but the title was a giveaway: these were vegetables masquerading as dessert.)

In my memory this next bit is in slow-motion. Mrs P. shouted something like ‘Right!’ and tossed the bucket of cut-up paper into the air. The pieces rained down on our group’s table and on her head and shoulders. A bit like confetti or ticker tape. But more like something very bad had just happened.

I’d never had this effect on a teacher. So unexpected and such a literal explosion. My group and I started gathering up the paper — but the ‘Right!’ was just the start of the sentence sending me to the principal’s office. And to make clear that this story is not about rewriting my history to represent me as anything like a cool and calm kid, I was definitely in tears at this point.

I was sent home that day with a note (more tears!) asking my mum to come in the next morning. I remember apologising, I remember Mrs P. explaining that she’d spent a lot of time on preparing that game.

I was an enthusiastic participant in any game Mrs P. suggested for the remainder of the year.

Computer games

The games we really enjoyed were on the Apple IIgs at the back of the classroom: Gold Dust Island and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. We got to play in pairs or trios I think. Gold Dust Island — especially good — had you marooned and managing water, food, treasure-hunting and shipbuilding. Looking back on the two games they’re both pretty meagre fare educationally. Carmen Sandiego was a bunch of trivia about the flags and currencies of countries and I remember that digging for gold in Gold Dust Island usually prevented us from spending the necessary time on woodcutting and shipbuilding. Still there were early lessons in opportunity costs and logic in both.

Time on the computers was probably based on some sort of behaviourist carrot and dependent on our ability to coöperate sotto voce and get off that island/find Ms Sandiego while the rest of the class were reading or doing maths problems.

I could go on about the computers and other games we played. We had the usual typing tutors and ‘drill & kill’ games. Students of my generation can usually count at least a few skills gained solely through games. Off the top of my head, for me, it would be typing speed and a smidgin of music theory. At home (or at a friend’s house) we played the increasingly sophisticated simulation games of the ’80s like SimCity. For many of my friends, games were their pathway into programming, through a language like Logo.  Many can trace a path from these experiences through to their current professions.

But If Mrs P. is reading this, she should take heart that it was her teaching strategies, her passion and the class conversations that I remember most about 6th grade and not a computer screen. ‘The Fractions Game’ was an off-day. I have vivid memories of her reading to us (Thurley Fowler’s The Green Wind (probably more tears)) and that she was a ruthless critic of my juvenile writing for instance. See how far I’ve come!

She should know too, that as an English and History teacher years later, I would stay up late making revision crosswords or flashcards that stumped my students and made me question what progress we’d made. That I ran in-class games that were unappreciated by most, or that simply crashed and burned. That I set the creation of games as assessments with very mixed results and that we played these games-of-variable-quality (set maybe in Ancient Egypt or Rome) in the final days of a term and that yes, they usually left the participants cold.

So games are attractive. As educators, it’s natural that we should see them as containers that we can sneak knowledge into, perhaps a foreign language or some critical thinking skills. Which is a roundabout way of bringing this post to ‘gamification’ and its place in TAFE and Higher Education.

But first more disclosure

I’ve recently participated in the ‘Global Corporate Challenge’. I wear a fitness monitor to track steps every day. I work on a project that is trialling badges and quests to lift the engagement of users in a professional learning approach.

All three of these activities are trying to use a game mechanic (ie points, leaderboards, quests) to increase the level of engagement/’stickiness’/personal commitment or fun. There are many more examples of gamification being used by institutions, corporations and by governments to alter behaviour.

So gamification often tries to take something most of the population experiences as tiresome or time-consuming or not intrinsically satisfying (exercise, professional development, sorting your recycling or paying your tax) and attaches an extrinsic reward to it.

And now, a game!

If this, the 100th post of the teaching tomtom gets more than 100 hits today, Thursday 3 October, I will publish Part 2 on Friday. If not, I’m following Mrs P.’s lead and throwing it to the winds! Lost to the ages!

In Part 2 I will discuss some caveats of extrinsic rewards; why and how one still might like to introduce game mechanics to a HE or TAFE course and I’ll share another anecdote about me as a learner. This time, a lecturer at university takes me to task for doing the crossword before his lecture begins.

Stay tuned/click refresh/leave a comment.

Share your thoughts about Part 1 in the comments…

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