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Language of experiments pt II

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Farmer for a star of gold: can qualifications be gamified?

Being a member of (late) Generation X, I’m fairly familiar with video games. I had an Atari 2600 (still got my Uncle’s old one kicking around that I should really fix), and later a Commodore 64 (albeit when friends with more disposable income were moving onto Amigas…). I never really got the console thing, Nintendo and Sega pretty much passed me by, but eventually the advent of PlayStation 1 in my post-student years brought some of the old magic back. This is not however a post about the relative merits of various games (Head over Heels on 8 bit is indisputable), but the possibility of taking what is undeniably one of the most popular pastimes for  young people and let’s be blunt here, for that perennial progress problem, young males. Is it possible to extract the juice from whatever makes a game not just enjoyable but potentially addictive and smother it liberally all over our lessons?

There’s no doubt that gaming is now not just popular as an activity but also massive business. I’d suspect that a significant chunk of the money generated by the UK’s creative industry can be traced back to videogames. Developer Rockstar North, based in Edinburgh, was behind the hugely successful/controversial Grand Theft Auto V. Although historically seen as more popular among young males, gaming has shown the potential to reach out across all age groups and genders. People are quite willing to spend hours (and pump in pounds) to games as diverse as Animal Crossing, Candy Crush, Call of Duty and the yearly Fifa games. What’s keeping people in the game?

There have been some rather dubious claims about the benefits of gaming, from improving hand-eye coordination (it probably does, for a particular type of game) or that it improves problem solving skills  (ditto – however problem solving seems to be highly domain specific rather than a general skill. Your ability to tile rows in Tetris doesn’t translate into the ability to reach maze 255 in Pac-Man).

One teacher friend of mine a few years ago asked his students about their experience of gaming and intriguingly found that most of the boys preferred the short, 10-15 minute games of online competition like Call of Duty or Fifa. This strikes me as an example of a very short-term and clearly defined game where you can instantly judge yourself against other people but that failure is not long-term, in fact it lasts only until the next game where you have the opportunity to correct last time’s low ranking. The feedback from success and failure is instant and easily understood by the player. Even the ranking system is only temporary, with the ever-present promise of improving next time and wiping out the pain of a bottom place on a leaderboard.

What would this translate to in a classroom? It’s not too difficult to conceive of very short-term goals or discrete tasks that could then be built into larger understanding (for example the amount of cognition needed to construct a graph can be overwhelming for some students but it can be approached by working on one or two components at a time. Of course this is a familiar approach in maths teaching where concepts and skills can be scaffold to build a larger understanding but not so often seen in other subjects where I think teachers can take the expert, wider view of a topic and forget how it is constructed from smaller parts. As for the ranking, there are many problems in the classroom with this and it is not a tool to be used lightly, but there can be benefits in allowing students to see where they are in relation to other students. I will often indicate performance in tests by talking about a mean score and a top score for the class/year. Students know if they haven’t done well but don’t necessarily need their faces rubbing in it.

What may be more interesting is that many games today are so large and complex, particularly the online multiple player games they require longer term goals. It can take tens if not hundreds of hours of dedicated gameplay for players to reach achievements or levels, even if those achievements offer little more than arbitrary trophies or imaginary points.  This is a little more in line with the education experience – potential pay-offs are long-term. What is crucially different is that students cannot see how smaller tasks build towards their achievement. Progress for students is a patchy, frustrating process and it is hard to see from their perspective inside the system that they are getting better. There is no real life bar across the bottom of the screen charting how well they are doing or what they have achieved so we rely on often inadequate proxies of stickers and test scores to convince students that they are really getting better. Yet in games we see the phenomena of ‘grinding’, where players will spend hours and hours completing simple repetitive tasks that gradually increase scores. The farming referred to in the title is a particular type of grinding where players are trying to secure items in the game, in other words a specific reward rather than just to increase a level.

So why aren’t students prepared to farm knowledge and skills in the classroom, particularly resisting those areas that just seem like dull, monotonous repetition? I think again that it is the speed of feedback and the clarity of a specific short term goal that is not easily reproducible (or necessarily desirable) in teaching. Yet imagine a course that regularly assessed students in a controlled way e.g. online that did allow them to build up a score towards a qualification so they could see what they are achieving as they go on an almost lesson-by-lesson basis.  I can imagine that an argument against this would be that very short term assessments don’t lead to larger understanding or the ability to deal with more complex ideas, but I think that underestimates how much skills and knowledge are actually composed from smaller parts that are pieced together. There’s obviously something powerful in the feeling of immediate and quickly correctable feedback that can encourage students. But simply noticing that something works in one context absolutely does not guarantee it will work in another. I’m sure some subjects would suit this approach better than others. Just please, no teacher ‘assessments’.