Our Quest Into The Depths Of Gamification


By Pete Whiting

Over the last few years, my teaching partner and I have set up a multiplayer classroom that focuses on collaboration and a growth mindset. We leveraged the time we had been afforded by implementing flipped learning to run an asynchronous (read: self-paced) gamified (read: mastery-but-with-a-little-awesome-sauce-thrown-in) course for each of our classes – Year 8–12 biology and Year 11–12 chemistry). For those readers wondering why they should join our adventuring party, it is not because it was super fun (even though it was), it is because we have been able to develop students of all abilities into self-motivated collaborative learners who understand that they can grow regardless of where they are starting from. Students always move forward in our adventure, even if they must take a different path than they first thought.

Flipped Learning: The Key to the Kingdom
Our epic journey into the world of gamification was born out of our desire to take our flipped classroom to the next level. Six years ago, we flipped all of our classes with game-changing results, but three years ago we were ready for the next challenge. For the uninitiated, flipped learning is where the direct instruction is removed from the group learning space to the individual learning space. This is done by providing students with micro-lessons (usually a video) so they can take care of the lower order stuff at home. This frees up time in the classroom to focus on the higher order tasks and prevents disengagement from those who cannot access the higher order tasks without their teacher there to support them.

That is flipped learning 1.0 in a nutshell. Students engage with new content at home and come to school to explore that content at a deeper level. This left us with a tremendous amount of time to use those pedagogies that we had always dreamed of. We wanted to get to a self-paced mastery course – our map to that destination was gamification. I am sure that it is possible to get to gamification without it, but I do not know how.

Masters of the Universe: Gamification as an Entry Way to Mastery Learning
The greatest video game ever invented is Super Mario Bros 2. It is a great side-scrolling platform where a plucky little plumber rescues the princess and stomping Koopa Troopas. One of the great things about it is that it requires mastery. Players cannot half succeed. They must master the patterns of the game before being allowed to move on. However, it is not frustrating enough that players stop. There is a difficulty curve; it gets progressively harder and, while it is always challenging, it is never impossible or inaccessible. This is what we wanted our class to be.

Chocolate-covered Broccoli Game-based Learning and Gamification
There is a difference between game-based learning and gamification of learning. Game-based learning is where one plays a game with an educational aspect to the gameplay. These are also called ‘serious games’ and have sometimes been referred to as chocolate-covered broccoli. At first, they seem like fun, but they can leave students feeling as though teachers are trying to sneak in some learning.

Gamification has the opposite approach. Gamification is the addition of game-based elements to learning. At its simplest, it might be adding badges to achievements in class or behaviour – think Class Dojo or giving literal badges/stickers for student work. This relies on extrinsic motivation and can be excellent at developing habits if it is not the focus. However, mastery was our goal not gamification, so instead of gamifying an aspect of our lessons, we gamified our whole course design from Year 8 students through to Year 12 students. Our gamified classroom is modelled on an old school tabletop role playing game (RPG) for the newbies, Dungeons and Dragons style.

Choose your Destiny
There are many roads to gamification, this is ours…

Our classes are immersive RPGs in style. The whole year has a theme that revolves around the colonisation of Mars, although for my Year 12 chemistry class this takes a turn to murder mystery as we tackle forensics. We settled on the RPG style of course design because it was something that we understood and we could do it super low tech.

In getting started, we mapped out our course outcomes to separate scenarios that fit our storyline of colonisation of Mars. For example, the Year 8 electricity unit revolved around getting the lights on for the habitat so they could move out of their cramped Mars Lander. These scenarios are where the problem to solve comes from. This is the start of the intrinsic motivation – students are working to solve a problem. Our best modules culminated in building a model or compiling all the ideas into solving a mystery, like who murdered their teacher/mission commander. Not every unit is perfect and they are better this year than they were last year. Next year, we will get even better!

These scenarios happen in the theatre of the mind – we might have the odd image projected on the board, but as educators we tend to be storytellers. Tell a story, no matter how silly it is, and it will increase the buy-in for students. The activities in your course need to serve the story.

So, you have your scenario, who are your adventurers? Get the students to build a character, an avatar to explore the story that you are building together. Ours are science classes, so we had students identify with a ‘class’ or a job that they were team leaders for (each team consists of three to four mixed ability students). We had engineers, mathematicians and librarians/researchers. Everyone works on each task, but these were self-nominated roles that others could look to when they needed help in certain areas of work.

This is the greatest part of most RPGs and a big factor in deciding on this model. There is no competition and everything is cooperative play. It is multiplayer through collaboration; precisely how we want their learning to be.

In the tavern, there sits a cloaked stranger. In her hand, she holds a map…
So, when you set a class up like this you will need a place for the students to access the course. This is the most tech-heavy part; you will need to build a platform. For us, this was a Google site (a drag and drop webpage builder – make sure you click the ‘new sites’ button). For others it was a WordPress blog, for some it is a paper handout. Put simply, the students will need a map of where they are going and what that map looks like is up to you.

We have used a quest book. The quest books (found at www.catfisheducation.com) have a simple structure. The scenario is outlined with story consequences if they do not fulfil their quests and then there is a table with their quests. Quests include videos (flipped learning), tasks, experiments, writing tasks and so on. These quests can be split further into core quests (necessary to move forward) or side quests, which students choose to do for extra experience points. The learning here is very explicit and visible. Students know what they need to do to be successful and they have choices. In fact, in the second iteration, I leant heavily on the principles of Universal Design for Learning and students were often given freedom in how they expressed their learning, as long as they address the learning goals.

Growth Mindset in Gamification
Experience points (XP) are how gamers know they are progressing; this was something that we used to great effect in developing a growth mindset. The XP (published to the students via a Google sheet) show the students where they are and if they are meeting the minimum standards (important note: self-paced does not mean no pace) in work they have submitted.

XP are awarded for work submitted, not for achievement. At no point are we giving XP for high scores or being the top of the class. Every student can show growth regardless of their natural ability and this is explicit and visible for the students and the teacher. XP are accretive and they never decrease. Students should never lose XP for poor behaviour or any other infraction.

This is a brief introduction of what we have done and, more importantly, how we have done it. We are not tech heads and we are not super gamers; we just wanted to give our students something that they all felt they could achieve and push themselves with. We knew mastery was where we wanted to end up, so gamification became our mighty steed of choice.


• Other teachers who are doing it are the greatest resource. Contact them and contact us through Twitter
(@Mr_van_W) or email. My favourite thing to do is to help, share and learn from other people.

The Multiplayer Classroom by Lee Sheldon and Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning by Matthew Farber are books that we constantly referred to.

• http://goblin.education is an open source teacher professional development course that teaches gamification through playing a tabletop RPG out of Oklahoma University developed by Keegan Long Wheeler and John Stewart.

Good luck on your quest brave adventurer.

Pete Whiting is a science, chemistry and biology teacher at Kinross Wolaroi School in New South Wales. He can be contacted via email pwhiting@kws.nsw.edu.au. Follow him on Twitter @mr_van_w or visit www.mrvanw.com for more information

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