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!

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