Insert Coin: Part 5- Challenge Elements
Well 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.
Learning 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!
Adventure 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.
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!