Tag Archives: Gamification

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.

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!


Insert Coin: Engaging Learners with the Essentials of Game Design

Part 1 – Introduction

“Insert Coin to Continue…” You have 15 seconds to decide. You have another coin, but you could also walk away and play a different game. You have made it farther than ever before, level 22, just three levels away from completing the game. You know exactly what you would do differently next time. Five seconds left.  Walk away…or “Insert Coin”?

Lately there has been an explosion of books and speeches touting the engaging power of games. This newly rising field of study about how we can harness the power of games is called gamification. Now, companies are paying big money to tap into this power, expecting greater customer engagement. In fact there are many arenas in which this power might be useful, including education. Teachers are always looking for ways to get their students to engage with learning, to get them to insert just one more coin into their education. So why isn’t every educator applying gamification to their classes?

Gamification is a concept that is simultaneously gaining and losing traction in the educational community. When they first hear about it, eager educators are interested in the potential increased motivation that gamification promises. Yet some teachers are finding that gamification is not delivering the engaging environment for which they were hoping. This is because a busy teacher can easily get pulled into the trap of simply applying the most obvious gamification buzzwords without truly understanding how they fit into a larger context of game design. It is not surprising then that some educators have found that implementing these tools without proper planning can actually create a de-motivating environment for a majority of students.

Gamification is not about playing games, like Minecraft, in the classroom. That actually falls under the scope of Game Based Learning (see my previous article Gamification vs Game Based Learning). Gamification is not about Badges and Leaderboards. Those things are not mandatory and are often just a very small part of the gamified environment. Gamification is not about using technology. Some of the best gamification can be done with paper, pencil, and stickers. Gamification is about careful design and thoughtfully created learning experiences that leverage all of those fancy buzzwords.

So what’s the secret? How do you make this whole gamification thing work so that your students get the fun, motivating experience you wanted them to have in the first place? The “Insert Coin” blog series is intended to answer exactly that.

Let me start out by saying that there is no one singular way to do gamification right. It looks different in every classroom that I have visited because each gamified experience should be designed with a specific learning goal, and specific players, in mind. This means that, even though I will be showcasing examples from well-constructed gamified lessons, each reader will have to figure out a system that works for them. This also means that sometimes I will be giving not as much of a “how to”, but more of a “why to” as we look at the educational psychology that informs the general rules that will help you design your own gamified classroom.

The Insert Coin Series will start from the very beginning by addressing the justification for gamifying a lesson and then move into the specific tools and techniques that are more commonly seen in the educational sector. We will finish by talking about how to combine those tools in appropriate ways and also address what could, and probably will, go wrong as you set forth on this endeavor. This series is planned to be released in eight parts(or more?) with weekly updates. Get your quarters ready!

Up Next: Insert Coin: Part 2- Why Gamification?

Related articles: Gamification Defined for Educators and Gamification VS Game Based Learning.

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!


Top 10 Gamification Fails

Gamification is intended to increase learner motivation in the classroom. However, I see many practices which actually decrease the effectiveness of a gamified setting. Here is a top 10 list of gamification fails I have encountered. How does your classroom stack up?

#10 -Playing Games in the Classroom- Playing more games in class might be a strategy for Game Based Learning, but it is NOT Gamification. Gamification is applying layers of game mechanics to your classroom that create a dynamic learning environment for your players. For a deeper explanation of the difference, see my post on Gamification vs Game Based Learning.

#9 -Inconsistent Rules- If there is one thing players hate, it is when the rules of a game change because the game designer is scrambling to fix an error they did not anticipate. If a team finds a loophole in the rules they deserve to capitalize on it. If others find the loophole they deserve it too. If there is another thing players hate, it is getting penalized for something when someone else gets away with it. Enforcing rules only some of the time creates a sense of unfairness and nobody wants to play a game that is unfair.

#8 -Neglecting Player Types- People play games for many reasons. Some play to win, others play to play, others play to make friends. There are many models, most stemming from the research of Bartles, about player types. Most gamified systems cater heavily to the competitive type. If your game ignores the cooperative or explorative types, they will disengage. Diversify your quests to consider all types of learners or players.

#7 -One Path to Victory- The best gamified classrooms rely on a foundation of diversified learning experiences. A non-diversified challenge structure is a sure fire way to kill player motivation for anyone who is not inherently motivated to finish all the tasks. It will turn any XP or badge earned into a checkmark. Checkmarks are not highly motivating! Learn more about diversified learning structures in Designing the Player Journey.

#6 -Trading Status for Stuff- According to Gabe Zichermann, the most powerful motivator of players in games is Status, e.g. experience points or levels. Some teachers create a classroom store where students can buy real world things like school supplies, bathroom passes, or even homework passes. Not only does this create a lot of work for the teacher to keep track of points spent and items bought, it greatly devalues the in-game XP earned. This practice trades intrinsic motivation for extrinsic motivation. Don’t do it. Read more about it in Status: The “Ticket” to Intrinsic Motivation

#5- Shameful Leaderboards- Leaderboards operate on two mechanics, fame and shame. While competitive types thrive on the leaderboard, it will surely alienate non-competitive players. The easiest ways to make leaderboards shameful is by making them mandatory and long term. Running a whole-class leaderboard for the duration of a semester will most likely be demotivating for most players. See my post on 6 Tricks for Shameless Leaderboards for ways to effectively integrate a leaderboard in your gamified classroom.

#4 -Grading on XP- If you already have an in-game feedback system like badges or XP, it is tempting to use it to determine the traditional grade on the report card. XP or badges should be a celebration of hard work, not a way to compare a student to a standard. A clever teacher will design diversified experiences aligned with the standards and use rubric-based grading on each performance task. Never just say get “x” number of points for an “A”. Also, this type of grading mechanic can actually cause players to stop playing when they have earned an “A” rather than keep playing for the sake of the game. For a more in-depth look, check out Why Grades and XP Don’t Mix.

#3 -Feedback Lag- Gamification speeds up the classroom feedback process by breaking larger tasks into smaller, concrete quests and then letting the player know very quickly if they have succeeded.  The easiest ways to slow down this feedback loop are to have large tasks with subjective terms of success. Nobody wants to play a game where they hit the “jump” button and then have to wait a week to know if Mario made it cross the gap!  Technology can sometimes help speed up  this process, but don’t let it get in the way.

#2 -Breaking Character- Your students are trying on new identities as they play your game. You should get in there and play too. Avatars can be very helpful in this endeavor. Nothing makes people feel more self conscious about really getting into a game when one person, especially someone in power, refuses to “geek out” with the rest of the gang. If your theme is Space Pirates you better be ready to put on a space helmet AND an eye patch!

3729453412_b8ed13fda2#1 -Not Celebrating Failure- Games celebrate success, but they also celebrate failure. If you are not celebrating failure, you are not celebrating learning. By only celebrating success, you put a value judgement on perfection rather than growth and persistence. Do you have badges for “Sticking With It,” “Big Improvement,” or “Asking for Help”?  

How do you celebrate failure in your classroom?

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

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 chris@insertcoin.org

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.


6 Tricks for Shameless Leaderboards

Leaderboards are a common fixture in a gamified learning environment. The argument for using leaderboards in a classroom is that they are a motivating way to give feedback to our learners.  Leaderboards motivate people by tapping into two primal constructs, fame and shame.funny-dog-picture-toilet-paper-shame The hope is that, when scores are publicly visible, learners will be motivated to climb to the top. For competitive, fame-seeking, achievement-oriented students, this is indeed what happens. However, the students on the bottom of the leaderboard are more likely to be discouraged by the public display of their ranking.  In rare situations, those students may be motivated to get out of the bottom ranks, but that motivator is shame. Shame is never the best way to encourage learning. So, are there ways to create less shameful leaderboards that still motivate learners? Here are a few suggestions.

Make them Optional- Mandatory participation in leaderboards is a sure fire way to create a shame dynamic. If you allow learners to opt into the leaderboard, they will be more likely to be motivated by their status, even if they are toward the bottom.  For those who opt out, the activity can still be mandatory even if the leaderboard participation is optional. Those not listed on the leaderboard can still check in on where they would fall if they were participating in the leaderboard.

Use Avatars- Using avatars instead of real names gives students a slight emotional separation that can lessen the sting of the leaderboard. An avatar can be as simple as a random identification number or as complex as an alter ego. The important thing is that an avatar grants a certain amount of anonymity to a possibly shaming situation. For more on avatars, see my previous post – 3 Dimensions of Educational Avatars.

Screen Shot 2014-04-12 at 12.42.48 PMMake them Cooperative- Instead of listing individual rankings, list the rankings of groups in the learning environment. This encourages everyone in the group to pull their weight without singling out any one participant. Also, create a collaborative goal for the class. This can help make the leaderboard less about individual achievement and more about top contribution to the group goal. It is a subtle difference but, if spun properly, this concept can be effective.

Display the Top Ten- This is nothing earth shattering, but displaying only the top of the group will give those competitive types the recognition they are fighting for while not publicly shaming those who are not on it. Of course, it doesn’t have to be the top ten. Maybe yours can go to eleven!4024541219_6c81dfe660_o

Display Growth- Even if you are only displaying the top ten, if those ranks are based on cumulative totals, there is a good chance that they will not change very often. Even students who are working very hard might not ever get listed on the top ten. Instead of displaying a cumulative score, why not display a growth score?  How about displaying points earned for the week or the weekly percentage increase? This gives credit to the students giving the most to their own learning even if they are not the top scorer in the class. Tap into fame for as many learners as often as you can.

Personalize- This is a very tricky proposal, but with the right technology we can get it done. Instead of showing everyone’s score in relation to the whole, how about displaying only the five directly above and below the student in question.  This would give them smaller goals for overtaking the person directly ahead of them. When you are in 13th place, all you care about is being in 12th.  Anyone want to try to get a system like this working? Let me know and let’s get a project going!

Make them Short Term- Leaderboards that persist over a long period of time have a tendency to stall out because those on top tend to stay at the top. The most exciting time for leaderboards is at the front end when everyone is very closely matched right out of the gate.  Making leaderboards have a shorter life span is more encouraging to all because everyone has a chance to start over from zero on a regular basis.

Which one is best for your classroom? Good news, Everyone! You do not need to choose any one particular trick. In fact, combining multiple strategies makes for an even better scenario.  How about an optional top ten leaderboard that displays team names?

Looking for an simple automated solution for a leaderboard using Google Forms and Sites? Check out this post on how to use my XP Calculator and Leaderboard.

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


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.