Insert Coin: Part 5- Challenge Elements

Insert Coin: Part 5- Challenge Elements

304317777_0cf4d98181Well designed games, especially video games, are excellent delivering a consistently increasing level of challenge as player skill increases. If a game gets too challenging before the player is ready, the game could get frustrating. If the game fails to offer a sufficient level of challenge, the game may become boring. However there is a narrow zone, right between frustration and boredom, where players feel truly engaged.
Originally proposed by psychologist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this state of optimal experience is commonly referred to as “Flow”. Game designers are constantly using challenge elements to keep players in flow, otherwise they know that players will stop playing.

Flow in the Classroom- Educators can also use challenge elements to keep learners in flow. We can tell when students are out of flow because they either want to give up or don’t care about the task at hand. There are also those beautiful moments when students find flow in the classroom. They are interested and motivated because they are operating at the upper limit of their ability while at the same time not being overwhelmed. One goal of gamification is to create more of these moments of flow by delivering the appropriate challenge to each student at the exact time they are ready to succeed.  One of the best ways to generate more flow in a learning environment is through differentiated learning. This makes sense because differentiated learning means that everyone should be getting appropriate challenges at the appropriate pace.

MissionPoint Table WWIILearning Menus- Perhaps the easiest way to offer differentiated learning activities is through a menu system. Offering students a variety of tasks at different challenge levels will help them select the challenge that is right for them. Learning menus work well when organized from least to most challenging objectives. It is also nice to have a requirement for completing one or two missions on each tier before moving on. This example of a gamified learning menu is from a high school unit on World War II. In this menu system, the teacher has arranged the tiers of the menu to align with the content standards for the unit. Students actually got to choose at which level of depth they wanted to engage with each standard. In essence this learning menu can actually double as a rubric for student performance on the content standards!

AdventureMap_BAdventure Maps- Another way to move students through a differentiated learning experience is by using a learning map. Playmaker school uses adventure maps as the base of their interest driven curriculum. Each mission along the pathway covers a given skill or standard. But the students also have choice in the direction they want to go. Adventure maps accomplish the same task as learning menus but have a bit more linear flow. They can also layer a bit more fun as a map can match up with your narrative framework.

Resource Management- While Menus and Maps are a great way to have students select their own level of challenge, don’t forget that teachers can adjust the difficulty of each task by either adding or taking away available player resources during missions. Player resources include such things as art supplies, reference materials, technology, time, teacher assistance, and even other students.  For example, allowing students to cooperate on tasks is probably the biggest advantage you could give them. However, limiting the time allowed to complete a mission can add challenge to an otherwise simple task.

The Player Journey- Whichever style you choose for differentiation you should consider these three phases of the player experience: Onboarding, Exploration, Chokepoints. These three concepts are explored in depth in Designing The Player Journey but for our purposes I will briefly describe them here as well. The first few missions in your game should actually teach your players how to play your game. These initial onboarding missions are more about habit forming than they are about the learning of the content. they might focus on things like teach them how you want them to turn in assignments or update their character sheets or to check their point totals. After those habits are  formed, then players are ready to select challenges of varying difficulty and explore the game environment. This is where your differentiated learning opportunities come into play as students self-select ways to show their learning like creating posters, or poems, or videos, or songs, or comics, etc. Eventually, there may be a chokepoint, a challenge ALL players must attempt when they are ready and they may not move on until they have proven their worth. This is your chance to standardize your data collection and compare side by side how players are performing.  Many video games use similar mission flows although they might call it tutorial levels, quests, and boss levels or something similar to those terms. Considering the player journey when creating your learning map will help keep your players in flow by making sure they have what they need before they go, allowing them to self-select challenges, and putting them through a rite of passage when they are ready.

The key to creating flow in the classroom is to provide every student with the appropriate challenge at the appropriate time. A well designed differentiated activity structure is a great first step in this process. The students can select the challenge they are ready to tackle and the teacher can modify the difficulty of each mission by either adjusting available player resources. If this activity structure and expectations are well laid out in a mission menu or adventure map, the students can progress at their own pace. If all of this can be accomplished while staying true to the narrative framework or theme of your game, you are well on your way to creating a fun and motivating gamified experience for your learners.

Up Next: Insert Coin: Part 6- Feedback Elements

Related articles: Designing the Player Journey

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series! Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!


Insert Coin: Part 4- Identity Elements

Insert Coin: Part 4- Identity Elements

Who are your students? Who do you want them to become? Student identity is something that, intentionally or not, teachers contribute to creating everyday. One of the greatest rewards of gamification is that it gives the teacher a chance to temporarily modify the identity of the student and in doing so, hopefully modify the behavior of the student, at least within the game context. There are several ways that a teacher can influence student identity within a game by utilizing a variety of game elements. In this post, I will highlight three that are commonly seen in gamified classrooms.

The first, and possibly easiest to implement, is a narrative framework. Simply put, a gamified classroom can be more than just a set of rules and points; It can be an adventure. Perhaps your class will be settlers on a new continent, or deep sea explorers, or even UN diplomats.  Whichever story or theme you choose will determine the flavor of the rest of the game. A narrative framework not only helps put the students’ work in context, but also gives the whole class a fun, common language when discussing classroom rules and objectives. For example instead of calling quick assessments “quizzes,” in a detective themed narrative, they might be called “mysteries.”

There are many ways to create a narrative framework. A common method is to create a themed website that tells a story. A great example of this is “Clockwise” a site by Mr. Daley.  If you click around you will realize that his class is nothing more than an literature based ancient history class. However, his narrative structure allows the students to be time travellers who use literature to travel back in time. A more complex narrative framework is that of an alternate reality game. This type of narrative framework involves incorporating different media, such as social media, to continually advance the story. Twenty Twenty is an alternate reality game created by “The Teched Up Teacher.” In this example,  a Twitter feed is utilized to send students clues and information as the story or game unfolds. Of course the simplest way to tell a story is just by telling a story. It is as easy as saying “You are all meteorologists and we are going to be predicting the path of hurricanes in order to plan an evacuation route.” The only requirement for a narrative framework is creating an alternative, collective reality in which you and your students can play.  

3047085444_7ee4308a19Another way teachers can help students find identity in a gamified classrooms is through the use of avatars. Avatars are a representation of the player in the game. These representations can range anywhere from a nickname to a 3D online character. Some teachers write off avatars as a waste of time, but if used well, avatars can help students take chances in the classroom by creating a small buffer between the student and their failures. For a more in-depth analysis of avatars in the classroom, please read my previous article on the  3 Dimensions of Educational Avatars.

6972091704_a714310d16_bThe concept of guilds is yet another commonly utilized identity element. A guild is a group of individuals who combine their strengths to achieve a common goal. The biggest benefit to the guild system in a gamified classroom is that a teacher can simultaneously create an air of both cooperation and competition. Guild members can cooperate with each other while they compete with other guilds. The use of guilds increases the intensity of the collective success while alleviating the stress of failure by making it slightly less individualized. Guild members can share in their successes (and failures) as a team.

The art of identity creation is often overlooked in the classroom but it is one of the most important elements of the gamified classroom. In his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee encourages teachers to help students create an “identity of success.” It doesn’t matter if they are a CEO or a swamp monster. Just make sure that they feel successful.

Up Next:  Insert Coin: Part 5- Challenge Elements

Related articles:   3 Dimensions of Educational Avatars.

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series! Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!


Insert Coin: Part 3- Essentials of Game Design

Insert Coin: Part 3- Essentials of Game Design

In my last post, I discussed why gamification (done right) is such a promising tactic for increasing student engagement. Gamification is an attempt, within the larger context of school, to construct a straightforward and responsive environment for our learners. Assuming that you buy into that rationale, we should turn our attention to the matter of how to accomplish this task.  It might be useful, then, to look at what exactly gamification is in order to apply it to our classrooms.

Gabe Zichermann, a thought leader in this arena, states that “gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems.”

According to that definition, all a teacher would have to do is apply game mechanics and game thinking in their classrooms. This of course is easier said than done because most teachers are not experts in game design. The good news is that you do not have to be. However, you do need to think like a game designer and understand how applying different game mechanics can affect the player experience. So, with that in mind, let’s delve into a little game design theory.

If we were to build a game from scratch, there would be several elements to consider. Five commonly used categories of game elements are: Space, Goals, Components, Mechanics, and Rules. Since we are not creating an actual game, but instead just making a real life situation more “game-like,” several of these are already taken care of for us. The Space refers to the physical or virtual classroom environment, the Components are your students, and the Goal should always be for students to demonstrate their progress toward learning outcomes. That just leaves Rules and Mechanics for us to deal with. While there is a strong argument that rules and mechanics should be differentiated (and for true game design, I absolutely agree), I do not find that distinction useful when helping teachers design gamified settings. So, even though expert game researchers will probably frown on me for doing this, for the duration of this series, I am going to lump Rules and Mechanics and even some of the variations in Space and Components into the general term of “game elements” so we can streamline the process of designing our gamified classrooms.   

Reduction_GearGame elements are, for our purposes, every penalty or reward, every restriction or allowance, every challenge or shortcut, that a game designer can use to change the feel of a game. Think about them like the individual gears of a complex machine. Each gear has a function and needs to work with the others to get the job done. If you change the gears, you change the function of the machine. To illustrate this, let’s examine the basic game of Tag.

The elements of Tag are simple. If you’re it, tag someone. If you aren’t it, don’t get tagged. If you get tagged, the it property transfers to you and you’re it! Let’s change the it transferring element to “if you get tagged, you can’t move, but if someone else tags you, you are free”. Now we are playing Freeze Tag. Or instead, let’s change the game elements so that everyone sits in a circle and the it will tap everyone on the head but they only become it if the current it yells out the name of a specific waterfowl! Now we are playing Duck, Duck, Goose. (I said GOOSE! That’s right, you heard me, Minnesota! …not “Grey Duck!”) gooseTo sum up, we just played three different games with the same goal (chasing someone) but very different elements. The layering of game elements can completely change the experience for the player.

There is a staggering number of game element combinations that a teacher could incorporate into any game or lesson. To help us sift through the multitude of game elements available to any game designer, I will separate them into three functional categories: Identity Elements, Challenge Elements, and Feedback Elements. As you will see, these may bleed into one another, but knowing the primary purpose of the element will help you design your game.

These three categories are crucial to consider when gamifying a classroom because they help us tackle some of the biggest questions we already face as educators: Who do we want our students to be? What do we want them to achieve? How will they know when they have done so?  The next three posts in this series will focus on each category individually and examine which mechanics are commonly employed by teachers to accomplish each one of these three goals.

Up Next: Insert Coin: Part 4- Identity Elements

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series! Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!

Insert Coin: Part 2- Why Gamification?

Inset Coin: Part 2- Why Gamification?

Before we dive into what gamification is and how best to approach it, we should examine the rationale for bringing game design into the classroom. In order to understand why a teacher would spend time and energy transforming their pedagogy with gaming principles, we need to first ask this question:

What is a game?  One of the leading authorities in the field of gamification currently is Jane McGonigal. In her book, Reality is Brokenshe states that “When you strip away the genre differences and the technological complexities, all games share four defining traits: a goal, rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation.” -Page 21

Think of any game and try to find those four traits. I will apply this model to basketball.

Goal- Get the ball in the hoop. That’s it.
Rules- You must dribble in order to walk. You must stay in bounds. You have 24 seconds to take a shot once you cross the centerline. There are 66 pages more of this in the rulebook.
Feedback- The scoreboard tells you who is winning, how much time is left, how many fouls you have. You get feedback from watching the ball in the air and hopefully go through the net. You also get feedback from your teammates, your coach, the other team, and the crowd.
Voluntary Participation- You do not have to play basketball. Even Jordan went and played baseball.

Scoreboard_UConn_Georgetown_Regional_semifinal_2011Games are engaging because you know exactly what you are supposed to do, exactly what you can and cannot do to achieve that goal, exactly how well you are doing, and, if you don’t win, you can always choose play again (or not).

Something very interesting reveals itself when you apply the same model to “school”

Goal- What is the goal of school? …graduate? …learn? …make money? …make friends? I guess it depends on the student, and the family, and the school, and the community.
Rules- What are the rules of school? …the school handbook? …classroom rules? …social norms? …parent expectations? There seem to be a lot of rules, many of them unstated and in constant flux.
Feedback- How do you know how well you are doing? …grades? …dirty looks? …the lunch table you are allowed to sit at? …suspensions? …academic honors? …getting grounded? Students are bombarded with multiple streams of feedback, often in driect opposition to each other.
Voluntary Participation- Nope.

Games are engaging in the exact way that school is not. Games, even the more complex ones, are straightforward and responsive. School, even at its best, is often confusing and sluggish. It’s no wonder that sometimes students feel disengaged.

School is a really lousy game.

Gamification is an attempt, within the larger context of school, to construct a straightforward and responsive environment for our learners. It also is an attempt to bring more fun into the learning environment. There are many types of fun and school has the potential to engage all of them. For a research-based suggestions on how to bring some more fun into a school environment, please read my previous post 4 Ways to Make School Fun. In my next post, I will introduce some fundamentals of game design and begin to discuss how teachers can apply them to their classrooms.

Up Next:  Insert Coin: Part 3- The Essentials of Game Design

Related Articles:  4 Ways to Make School Fun  

Catch up on the Insert Coin Series! Part 1- Introduction / Part 2-Why Gamification? / Part 3- Essentials of Game Design / Part 4- Identity Elements / Part 5- Challenge Elements / Part 6- Feedback Elements / Part 7: Some Assembly Required / Part 8- Your Epic Fail / Part 9- Game On!


Basic XP Calculator

This is a tutorial on how to setup the Basic XP Calculator and Leaderboard. The idea is that a teacher can input student XP into a Google Form and automatically update a leaderboard on a Google Site. This basic version (v2.1) can currently handle up to 75 students and is best suited for elementary classrooms or smaller class sizes.  If you have a large number of students, you may want to try the Advanced XP Calculator system instead.

Here is how you set up the basic version, step by step…

Create a Google Form for the Input of Student XP

  1. Make a form where each question is the name of a student in your class. The question should be a simple text input. The question title should be whatever name you wish to appear on the leaderboard.
  1. For anonymity, you may wish to enter an avatar or ID number in the question title so that the real name does not show up in the public leaderboard. If you do this, you may want to enter the student’s real name in the description so you can easily reference them. Enable the description text on a question by using the three dots in the lower right hand corner of each question.
    This is an example of what your input form might look like
  1. Finally, Click on the Responses tab and create a Form Responses Spreadsheet where all of your data will be stored. Then you are ready to set up the calculator.

*Pro Tip- Bookmark your XP input form link on your mobile device so you can quickly access it and input XP on the go!

Set up the XP Calculator and Leaderboard Sheet

  1. First, Click here for the XP Calculator and Leaderboard Spreadsheet v2.1. Look down at the tabs on the bottom. From the “XP Calculator” tab dropdown menu, select “copy to” and choose the Form Responses sheet created from your Google Form. The XP Calculator sheet will automatically pull the names and data (for up to 75 students) from your “Form Responses 1” tab. When data is entered, It will sum the XP of students, look up their level, rank them by XP, and even report on the status of their guild or team if you set it up to do so.
  1. To customize this sheet to your game, first edit the YELLOW section. This is where you determine the XP thresholds and given titles for each level. This section can be modified for whatever fits with your game. In the ORANGE section you may assign a guild or team to each student who shows up in the blue section. If a team is added, the calculator will give team scores as well as individual scores. If you do not want to use this feature, just leave it blank. Everything else is automated, so don’t mess with it! Your final sheet will probably look something like this.

Publish the Results on a Website.

  1. On your Form Responses Sheet, adjust your “sharing” settings so that this sheet is viewable “PUBLICLY ON THE WEB” If you do this correctly you will see a little globe icon in the blue share button“ If you do not share your sheet, your charts will not show on your website.
  1. Set up a website. I like Google Sites for this because you can insert a chart from any Google Sheet with a few clicks. At the bottom of the insert sidebar, simply select “Chart” and choose your Response Sheet. It will display all available charts. If mine are not enough feel free to make your own charts from the data or just edit mine to suit your needs.  When you have inserted all of your charts make sure to “PUBLISH” your site and put a link to it somewhere easy for your students to access. Don’t forget to make sure it is available to everyone on the web so that there are no privacy barriers in place. If you do it right, your site should look like this.

And you are done! Now, every time you submit a form, it your website will update. Students may have to refresh the page to see the newest data, but that’s it! If you need a run through here is a video tutorial.

I am constantly trying to improve this system, I welcome your thoughts and comments. If this works well for you please let me know on Twitter @ChrisHesselbein or by email at

Be careful! Leaderboards can be a tricky balance of fame and shame so you might want to read my article on 6 Tricks for Shameless Leaderboards. Remember that effective gamification is not about the points and leaderboards, it is about diversified learning.  Slapping some XP on a project does not effectively gamify a classroom.  However, points and levels can be powerful feedback tool in a properly gamified system. For more on how to gamify a classroom read my Insert Coin Series.


3 Dimensions of Educational Avatars

Avatars can play a powerful role in an educational setting.  However, I feel that the overblown nature of the term today might make it it daunting for some to educators to approach. In 2009, James Cameron’s holiday blockbuster “Avatar” shoved a little used term into the limelight. As with most terms that gain sudden notoriety, the word “avatar” has acquired a new primary connotation as determined by the perception of the masses. In the post-2009 world, the term most likely brings to mind either the iconic blue creature from the movie, or a fully rendered digital character who inhabits an immersive game space. While avatars do not have to be 3D per say, I propose that educational avatars do exist in three dimensions: Detail, Duration, and Distance.

Detail- The common assumption is that avatars have to be fully-featured, fantastical characters. This cannot be further from the truth. Avatars can vary in the amount of detail they possess. We forget that while an avatar could be as complex as a highly detailed World of Warcraft character, they could also be as simple as a pseudonym or a screen name. A 2013 study by Shen Zhang, Toni Schmader, William M. Hall showed that low detail avatars can be remarkably effective in overcoming stereotype threat. In this study, participants were told that scores from a math test would be publicly displayed. They were then cued with a stereotype threat, “Women do less well on this than men.” Women who were allowed to choose a gender-free pseudonym, an avatar, showed no difference in performance, while those forced to use their real name struggled to perform. Even simple avatars give us room to break away from the social expectations that often hold us down.

Duration- Avatars also can vary in the length of time for which they are utilized. Avatars can be used in the short term for a single activity, such as a team name at trivia night. Alternatively, they can exist across a span of years, as in the case of a social media profile. The appropriate duration of the avatar is determined by its usefulness in a specific scenario.  I would argue that the longer the avatar exists, the more meaningful of an identity the avatar can take on.  However, longer term avatars are difficult to maintain and this maintenance becomes even more difficult when taking into account how many avatars we already have in our daily lives. To avoid possible avatar overload, variations in avatar duration should be considered when using one in an educational setting. Some should stick around and grow with us, while others should be as easily cast off as they were to step into.

Order_of_the_Stick_Avatar_by_MyNameMattersNotDistance- This final dimension pertains to how closely an avatar represents the actual learner.  An avatar creates a safe space for a learner to try new things by separating our real-life identity from our in-game identity. More distant, fantasy-type avatars are excellent for offsetting failure because of the larger rift they provide. Although, in certain cases, it may be worth choosing an avatar which represents a possible future identity, such as a CEO or a Scientist. Less distant avatars give students a chance to assume an identity that they might one day actually aspire to. Avatars are effective for learning because they allow us to celebrate our successes publicly while at the same time distancing ourselves from our losses.  When we succeed we pull our avatars closer. When we fail we can leave our avatars out in the cold. The important thing is that an avatar creates a space for playful learning and risk taking.

Avatars are a large part of Gamification and Game Based Learning. I believe that teachers are missing out on the benefits of avatars in the classroom because we are held back by our unrealistic preconceptions of what avatars should be. I propose we take a step back and consider the full scope of what an educational avatar could be.  I argue that an avatar only need be a representation of one’s self. Avatars do not have to be flashy to get the provide the learner with a sense of accomplishment or escape. Hopefully, with a little reconsideration, educators can begin to harness the power of the avatar and create space for their learners to grow, simply by adjusting each of these three dimensions to best suit their learners’ needs.

Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.

5 Tips for Badging Done Right

Badging is becoming a hot topic with the rise of the Gamification trend.  Many educators see badges used in game based learning platforms and would like to harness the power of badging in their classroom.  Many educators have asked me about how to properly go about a creating a badging system. Since every classroom, project and learning culture is unique, I cannot provide a detailed step-by-step guide to this process. However, there seems to be a pattern in the more successful programs I have seen.

AdventureMap_B-300x1841. Diversify the Learning Environment-  Before a single badge is ever given, the learning environment must be diversified. By that I mean that the system must allow for multiple pathways to success. A great example of this is the adventure map from Playmaker School. Inversely, imagine a non diversified learning environment where there is only one way to prove proficiency. At the end of the process, all students would have the exact same badges in the exact same order. In this type of system, a badge would be no different than a checkmark. What makes a badge valuable is the unique nature of the accomplishment. The more unique a set of badges, the more ownership a student will take. Applying a badging system to a standardized learning environment is a cheap trick that will eventually sputter out. Diversify the learning first. You may even find that the diversified learning structure would be enough to motivate students, even without badges. Why not stop there? But if you must continue…

2. Make Badges Highly Visible- There is no best platform for badging. Choose a platform that your users are comfortable with and go to often. For badges to maintain their value, they need to be VISIBLE and seen often. In a face to face classroom, would an online system be the most effective location for badges? Will they be seen on a regular basis or does it require a side trip? Football players sometimes have badges on their helmets and Boy Scouts display them on their sashes at troop meetings. A good badging platform should easily integrate with your daily routine and not require a series of complicated steps in order to distribute and display the badges. The more effort expended on the badging process, the less energy there is for teaching and learning. It is not about the badges. It is about the work behind the badges.

3. Be Flexible- The greatest thing about badges is that you can create new badges anytime a student is creative enough to forge their own pathway. This may sound like a lot of work but it really takes the pressure off of the instructor to preemptively create badges for all possible scenarios! Teachers and students may collaboratively create the badges as they go, giving the students more ownership in their own process of learning. Don’t forget to badge as you see fit to reinforce positive, unexpected behavior in the classroom even if it is not directly related to learning outcomes. For example, a student might be awarded a badge for sharing, cooperating, or helping. Stay flexible and be ready to reward unexpected achievements and positive behavior.

4. Be Consistent- Once a badge is created, record the specific criteria for attaining that badge and reward it to others who also complete those objectives. Students care very much about fairness and if they perceive that the system is not fair, the badges will be devalued. Make badging requirements available to students upon inquiry. Also, be consistent in the rewarding schedule. Set up a badge distribution schedule so the learners can expect when to receive their badges. This also makes those spontaneous behavior badges, given out immediately, more special.

10842834543_806a895b68_z5. Celebrate!- Badges themselves are not incredibly motivating. Receiving a badge can be exciting in the short term, but the badge in itself is not an intrinsic motivator. The successful learning and work behind the badge is an even greater reward. But the most powerful motivation behind badging comes from the status that badges represent within the learning community. (For more on this, see my last post on The Paradox of Badging.) If the learning community does not celebrate the individual achievements of its members, the badges mean less. The most successful badging communities celebrate, on a regular basis, the unique accomplishments of their learners. They create frequent events where their badges can be displayed and revered as they connect with others to compare the uniqueness of their individual journeys.

Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.


The Paradox of Badging

What makes a badge valuable, desirable, or motivating?  It seems that the answer may be a bit counterintuitive. I propose that there is a “Badging Paradox” currently at work. When planning a badging system, leaders are focussing on the badges themselves when in fact the more a system focusses on the badge, the less valuable the badge becomes.  I see four levels at which badges accrue value. We will start with at the lowest level and work our way out.

The Award- The lowest level of value is that of the awarding of the badge itself. The instant the badge is awarded, there is a feeling of accomplishment. This moment can be slightly motivating for many reasons. Maybe the badge looks cool or it may cause interest from others at the time of the disbursement. It may also induce feelings of pride or catharsis. However, this is short lived and when the initial reactions dissipate, the badge is just a badge.

The Effort- Zooming out from the badge we see the work which the badge represents. The work and learning on the way to earning that badge is more valuable than the badge itself. Even without the badge, learners can take pride in their actions. If the work is not difficult or something to be proud of, the badge loses value for the recipient.

imagesThe Person- One level up, we see the badge as a smaller part of a whole. Although one badge may seem small when compared to the accumulation of all the other badges, every badge serves to reinforce every other as they create a visual panorama of acquired skill. Each piece of learning, each new skill, means more when you add it to the menagerie of talent that has been accumulated by each individual. The whole of this portfolio, just as with each person, amounts to more than just the sum of its parts.

The Community- The fourth level and the most important is what the badge represents within the community. The issuing institution sets the consistent requirements for attaining each badge. That means that everyone in the community understands and respects the work done by that learner. When the badge, and more importantly the badge collection, is displayed, there should be a shared sense of accomplishment. This is the level that most systems overlook. If the issuing community does not publicly recognize and celebrate the status and achievements of its participants, the badges lose a large portion of their potential value.

*Beyond?- Taking it one step further out, badges tend to lose value because, once you leave the community, the badges may not be looked at with the same reverence.  It is difficult to make our badges worthwhile in the realm beyond our specific badging communities. We can attempt to extend our community and create a larger unified badging culture like the Scouts program has done. Yet even in this organization, when a scout exits the program, the badges still tend to lose value in the greater community.  

Escher-WaterfallThe Paradox: Badging works not because learners receive badges. Badging motivates learners through what the badges represent: an award, effort, a person, and a community. The less focus we put on the badge, the more the badge means in the context of the community that values it. Earning a badge may be rewarding for some, but status in a community is highly motivating for all. Less motivating badging systems focus on the rewarding of the badges themselves. Truly effective badging systems focus on a culture and community of diverse learners.

Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.

Gamification: Defined for Educators

“Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems” -Zichermann

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

“Gamification is the infusion of game design techniques, game mechanics, and/or game style into anything.” -Gamification Wiki

All of the above definitions are valid. Gamification is a huge field of study which is growing every day. But as a teacher, none of these definitions are helpful as they seem a bit vague. The make even appear daunting as they apply more to the fields of gaming or business. These definitions leave it up to the teacher to bridge the gap between the finely tuned private sector and their classroom. That is why I looked for an alternative definition which can easily be ported to education. I found it in an article by Lee and Hammer called “Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother? “

Lee and Hammer define Gamification as “the use of game mechanics, dynamics, and frameworks to promote desired behaviors.” This definition resonates with me because this is ALL that teachers do all day long. They use pedagogy and classroom management strategies to evoke education-positive behaviors in their students.  This is the starting point of all my thinking about Gamification in the classroom. I consider how different mechanics could modify the behavior of my learners. Although the definition does not specify which behaviors, the article does defines three distinct areas of intervention in which Gamification has been effective in modifying student behavior: Cognitive, Social, and Emotional.

Lee and Hammer hit the nail on the head. As educators it is imperative that we mold our learners’ cognitive behavior towards inquiry and curiosity. We must allow them to play with yet undiscovered social identities, both individually and in groups. We must create a positive emotional correlation with both achievement and failure as well. Effective game design can accomplish all of these things by varying essential mechanics to specially, and simultaneously, target identified behavior outcomes.

As always, the devil is in the details. There is still the task of selecting and designing game mechanics that actually produce the desired changes in these three areas of behavioral intervention. Of course, each mechanic has its own set of effective practices for implementation in the classroom, but that is for another post. Before addressing any of that however, we need to have a definitive foundation from which to start. I would like to expand on Lee and Hammer’s definition by suggesting that Gamification, in the educational sphere, could be defined as the implementation of the principles of game design to modify the social, emotional, and cognitive behavior of learners. In this way, Gamification is really less about making your classroom like a game as it is about using the principles of game design to create a more effective learning experience.

Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.

Gamification vs Game Based Learning

Recently, I have read a slew of posts which suggest that one could simply sprinkle some badges and video games into their classrooms and “Voila!”… Gamification. Okay, maybe they did not say that verbatim, but they did lump video games in with a whole bunch of other ways to “gamify” a classroom. We should not assume that using games in a classroom will “gamify” the experience. While it might make a learning environment more “game-y” it does not really fall under the umbrella of Gamification. Using games for learning in the classroom is better described by the term Game-Based Learning. Many people throw these terms around interchangeably. Is there a difference? Should we differentiate?  Should we care? I believe we should.

Gamification focuses on modifying the real world experience to better resemble a game. If properly executed, it will create an engaging, safe place for learning by invoking the basics of game design. Some of the common tools of gamification are knowledge maps, avatars, badging systems… but not games.  Games on their own do not qualify as an essential tool for game designers. That is why the use of games in the classroom should be considered Game Based Learning. When done correctly, this too is a valid form of engaging learners. The idea is to allow the learners to immerse in a game in order to learn something through play.

These two models are clearly different from each other. So why the confusion? Although they both involve games, they live on different ends of the same continuum. They both leverage the structures and mechanics of games to engage learners. However, one focusses on the in-game experience, the other on the real world experience. One modifies reality, while the other simply chooses portals out of reality.  That means that designing a Gamified environment should start at a fundamentally different place than designing a Game Based Learning environment. I suppose one could argue that they could be the same thing, but only in an extreme circumstance. Eventually, if one intensely gamifies their classroom, their students will essentially be immersed in a game, thereby learning through the game itself. In this scenario, intense Gamification could lead to a type of Game Based Learning.  But I digress…

It is because of this differentiation that I have a difficult time participating when a GBL Twitter chat has a discussion about badging, or when a Gamification forum has a discussion about the best math game for 5th graders. By not differentiating, we are diluting the design of both. If you want to use games in your classroom, by all means, go for it, but do not call it Gamification. If you have a gamified classroom, don’t assume that playing more games will shore up your system.  Maybe I’m being picky. Maybe more of us should be.

Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.

Engaging Learners with the Basics of Game Design