Designing the Player Journey

Unlike video games of the past, which were more likely a linear tale as players progressed from level one to level two, some of the most popular modern games allow players to explore their virtual world in a more organic way while still being able to progress through a larger story. For example, one of my favorite video games, Borderlands, allows players to travel anywhere within the world of the game, gradually uncovering the story as they complete challenges of increasing difficulty. Players can either advance the main story by choosing “story missions” or they can earn more experience, money, better weapons, etc. by completing optional “sidequests.” The game will only supply a set of new missions once the player has shown a certain proficiency indicating that they are ready for a greater challenge. This balance of story missions and sidequests is very carefully designed so that the player can always be engaged in the game, either exploring areas of their own interest or taking on the main objectives of the game.

 3 Principles of the Player Journey- Gamification aims to bring this type of engagement to our learners. If we wish to do so we must purposefully design our mission structure to simultaneously allow for exploration and forward progress. In Part 5 of the Insert Coin Series on Challenge Elements, I briefly discuss two options for creating a structure for our differentiated learning tasks, menus and maps. Either method requires careful design in order to keep our learners moving through the objectives. To do this we need to consider three principles which coincide with the player journey: Onboarding, Exploration, and Chokepoints.

Onboarding refers to the process of having players complete very easy missions in order for the player to learn a new skill. Well designed games rarely need an instruction manual because the game teaches the player how to play through the use of onboarding missions. For example, in some video games one of your first quests is often to go buy an item at the local shop. This is not challenging, but it is very important so that a new player knows how to collect money, navigate the map to find the shop, and interact with with the purchasing menu. In a classroom, we onboard students all the time.  Personally, I had to design a lesson specifically to teach my students when it was okay to use the pencil sharpener. This was not a challenging lesson, but it was important to the functioning of the classroom.  An adventure map or mission menu for a gamified setting should include onboarding missions which help students learn how to play your game. Give them a few easy missions which run them through how to turn in work, how to level up their character, or how to access your classroom resources.  Onboarding is crucial to habit formation. Taking the time to onboard students at the beginning of the game will reduce the number of procedural questions you have to answer in addition to getting everyone started out feeling successful.

Exploration is the phase in the game where everyone is now on board and ready to set out on their own.  While onboarding missions should be mandatory for everyone, the missions that follow should allow for player creativity and interest based pursuits.  This phase begins after the onboarding missions at the point where the path splits ways for the first time. Exploratory missions can involve any type of work that a student would like to engage with. They may prove their learning in a variety of ways.

It is important in planning diversified activities to consider the different player types you may have in your class. The theory of Player Types essentially states that there are personal motivators which drive player actions within the game. We know that even if we intend for the objective of our class to be be “calculating the area of a triangle,” there will be some students who compete, some who cooperate, some who socialize, some who doodle, and some who just want to cause trouble. They will use the game to achieve their own personal agendas because most game experiences, especially in the classroom, are social. For more on player types see my post on Player Types(coming soon!).  In short, exploratory missions should, as much as possible, include the interests of all of the various players in your classroom. Hopefully catering to these players can channel this energy into the missions.

Chokepoints, sometimes called “boss levels” or “gatekeepers,”  are not always mandatory in games but they do offer a way for the player to prove their learning and enter the next phase of their adventure. A chokepoint is any mandatory mission after an exploratory phase. These missions require all players, regardless of type or interest, to accomplish the same task. Sometimes these missions take the form of a test or a major project. On an adventure map this will look like a convergence of paths. On a mission menu, it may look like a restriction where players must complete A, B, or C before they continue to the next tier of the menu. Regardless of the form it takes, it serves as a chance for the teacher to check a student’s performance against both a standard and the performance of other students. Once all of the players’ journeys have converged at the same chokepoint, don’t miss the opportunity to ONBOARD the students again to get them ready for the next cycle of the game. This onboarding/exploration/chokepoint cycle may repeat as many times as needed to guide your players through their adventure.

Nothing New- Although these concepts in a game context might seem new to most teachers, I guarantee that every teacher has benefitted from the cycle of isolated skill acquisition, followed by incorporating that skill with previous knowledge, and finally assessing that skill according to a standard. So perhaps gamified lesson planning is not as foreign to us as we initially thought.

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

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