Game-informed pedagogical insights

In this TED video, Seth Priebatsch discusses what he calls “the game layer on top of the world”. He explains that several principles fundamental to digital game design are found increasingly in other areas of culture and society. It’s interesting to think about Priebatsch’s principles in terms of their application to L2 pedagogy.

His first concept, the appointment dynamic, is a game dynamic that operates such that a “player must return at a predefined time to take a predefined action” in order to succeed. Wildly popular games like Farmville work this way, where all one needs to succeed is to discipline oneself enough to show up somewhere or do something at a specific time. Many everyday activities in life operate on this dynamic, for example, cooking, or gardening. In the classroom, the practice of ‘participation’ or ‘attendance’ points makes use of this dynamic, where we give learners credit simply for being in the classroom, or merely taking part in an activity. It’s an important, but sometimes dismissed motivator. Developing self-discipline and becoming self-regulated are important parts of the learning experience, and rewarding this ‘appointment dynamic’ behavior reinforces this.

Priebatsch also offers influence and status as a game dynamic, which he explains is the structure of a game that affords the “ability of one player to modify the behavior of another’s actions through social pressure”. Social pressure is a reality of every social group, whether a family, a group of friends, a community, a school, or a classr. The question is, whether a teacher or curriculum should recognize or take advantage of this fact for the purpose of pedagogy, and to what degree.

In the classroom, we are faced with a dilemma if we want to recognize achievement with influence and status publicly. Certainly, recognizing high achievement with some sort of truly desirable reward can be motivating to others, but often, teachers are so concerned about discouraging students who do poorly that they don’t recognize or provide rewards to top achievers in front of other students. Some decide to reward everyone, but this may not be effective, since it can result in high achievement losing its status. A better way to avoid damaging self-esteem would be to give those who achieve less on a particular activity, quiz, or test an opportunity to catch up to the high achievers by dedicating more time and effort, that is, by incorporating judicious use of the appointment dynamic, like extra credit. Another solution might be to reward groups instead of (or as often as) individuals, by incorporating frequent collaborative/competitive group activities (where students collaborate in groups to compete against other groups), but mixing up group membership occasionally so that each student ends up on the winning team at least once. A third solution might be to use a point system with rewards at particular milestones or levels, rather than associated with each activity/quiz/test–everyone would then realize a reward was waiting for them, and it was just a matter of when, rather than if, they would achieve it. This is how the old ‘gold star chart’ system worked.

A dynamic similar to this ‘gold star’ solution is Priebatsch’s progression dynamic, where “success is granularly displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks”. Digital game players will recognize this dynamic as being part of practically every game out there, in the form of point systems. An important part of this dynamic is that the contribution of every single task towards achievement of a desirable goal is made explicit, no matter how small. Points are never taken away, so that the player never sees regression–only fewer points are awarded for less well done tasks. Priebatsch notes this ‘regression’ happens all the time in education, where a student receives say a C on an quiz after getting an A on an earlier one–a very deflating experience.

Many instructors find point systems effective, especially if students can figure out how many points they have at any time during the semester or year. Another reason point systems are motivating is that they show students that even a few points, perhaps fewer points than hoped for, are still points, and count towards achievement. If there are other means of earning more points, students will be less discouraged, even though these other means might require more effort.

So should we award points for every classroom activity, from attendance to group activities to tests? Should we reward students when they reach certain levels, rather than assign them As or Bs? Should we provide alternate routes to achievement, that is, ways to earn extra points? For internally driven, highly motivated learners, maybe such systems are unnecessary. For others, however, providing an external structure like a point system might be useful if we expect motivation to be internalized. Game designers know this, and the best designed games are so motivating that players spend hours playing, learning, and developing new skills, without anyone asking them to. L2 instructors and curriculum designers might benefit from these game-informed insights. Some might even realize that they have been incorporating aspects of them all along, because they seem to work, without realizing their similarity to game dynamics.

– J. Reinhardt

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1 Comment

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One response to “Game-informed pedagogical insights

  1. I found your blog from one of my professors, and I too am interested in how we can use games and game mechanics in education, specifically, in second language learning contexts. I’m not sure if you’re aware of it, but there is a wonderful group of game designers who produce a web series called Extra Credits, and they have touched on many of the things Mr. Priebatsch spoke of in his TED talk. Here are some links if you’re interested:

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/tangential-learning

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/gamifying-education

    I have tried to contact them myself, but they have a rather large following in the gamer world, and as such, they get inundated with emails.

    Just wanted to say I really enjoy the work you all are doing, and look forward to reading more.

    -Adam Garnica

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