Saturday, December 29, 2007

What Teachers Need to Know about Game Design (Part 2 of 2)

Last time, I talked about why games are fun, and why classes aren't. How can we apply the lessons learned from game design to make classes more exciting and engaging? (Presumably you already see the benefit of this, but just to spell it out for the rest of you: if students pay more attention in class, they'll learn more.)

Three ways to use games in class:

  • Play games as a classroom activity. This is obvious and it's effective, but it has several limitations. Games are great at teaching concepts, especially system models, processes and cause-and-effect relationships. They're terrible at teaching content, making them unsuitable for content-heavy classes. Also, most games are made for 1 to 4 players, and don't scale well to a 25-student class. Lastly, these require a good deal of "game literacy" on the part of the teacher, making it not suitable for all teachers; most classroom games are some crude form of Jeopardy!, only because the teachers lack the game experience to go beyond.

  • Discuss the games that students have played in relation to the course content. This is easy: ask "has anyone played a game that has ____?" and then compare and contrast between the content in the game versus that in the class. This also has limitations. Not all students are avid gamers, so the comparisons will only be useful to a subset of the class. It also requires game literacy on the part of the teacher, to provide examples when the students can't think of any.

  • Modify your teaching style to be more game-like. Add elements to your class that make them just as engaging and interesting as a game (for the same reasons). This is the hardest way to use games, but by far the most rewarding and least limited.

Game-Like Teaching:

  • Games are interactive, not passive. It is the interesting player decisions that make the game. Include interesting decisions in class. This includes classroom discussions, a choice of topics or homework problems (with varying tradeoffs so that the more interesting ones are also harder or contain other "fun" rewards), and asking the class questions (either to individuals or by having everyone "vote").

  • Applying flow theory (making the content at an appropriate level of challenge) is not obvious, because different students have different skill levels. One way to do this is to include multiple layers of depth to your topics; explain first what's going on conceptually at a fundamental level, then go into the details every student needs, and then offer additional insights for the advanced students. Another great place to do this is homeworks and exams, offering a variety of basic, intermediate and advanced problems so that all students can find their own level of challenge.

  • Use as many different kinds of fun as you can think of in your classes...

  • Exploration fun is difficult when you're stuck in a classroom, but field trips (especially open-ended ones where students are free to explore the area rather than being herded like cattle) can tap into this. If you have computers in the classroom, you can ask students to search the Web for information relating to a topic, providing a kind of exploration as they navigate from one page to another.

  • Social fun is easy: group assignments, class discussions, and other collaborative exercises.

  • Collection fun is something that happens mostly at the K-6 level, where teachers hand out gold stars and stickers. If you're teaching at a more advanced educational level, you may have to be inventive.

  • Physical fun: include various physical objects that can be passed around the room in your discussions. Include "eye candy" -- neat-looking photos or illustrations that you can show around. Try including some music or other interesting sounds if you can tie them to class topics. Get the senses involved! I once had a physics teacher who would bring "props" to just about every class, such as throwing around a super-bouncy-ball when talking about elastic collisions; I know another professor who would make the entire class get up and stretch when she noticed students nodding off.

  • Puzzle solving fun: ask open-ended questions, especially those that students really have to think about before answering. Group discussions and case studies fit this nicely. Some classes have content that is inherently a kind of logic puzzle (especially in the maths and sciences). In these cases, it helps to approach these as puzzles or mysteries, rather than as problems or exercises. Who ever heard of having a "problem" that was fun? What percentage of your students enjoy "exercise" as a recreational activity? Why do we use such not fun words to describe a fun process?

  • Character advancement fun: is automatic in any class that builds on its own content over time (the kinds of classes where the final doesn't have to be "cumulative" because you need all the previous stuff to solve the latest questions anyway). At the beginning of the class, try showing the skills and concepts as a "tech tree" -- the same as you'd see in World of Warcraft or Diablo 2 or Civilization.

  • Competition fun: here's where we see the old quiz-show standby. Formal debates can trigger this kind of fun too, as can informal debates that emerge spontaneously during class discussions on controversial topics.

As a parting shot, notice that most successful games are made with the players first in mind... not the creators, and not the content. Approach your classes the same way: design your classes around the students first, not the content and certainly not the teacher!


Anonymous said...

I had some opportunities to became a teacher over the time, but I said no to each one of them. The thing is, I don't think I'm capable of teaching people how don't want to be teached. And I've met a lot of this kind of people during my school's and college's years.

But now I feel different. After reading your posts I discovered new tools. And these tools may help me get more motivated about teaching, specially because they will motivate the students in the first place.

I have been a developer for the past ten years, right now I'm a Java developer willing to became a Game Designer. But now I'm also thinking of teaching some classes, and thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, forgot to sign (I don't like using internet aliases). :-)

-Alvaro Cavalcanti.

Anonymous said...

A couple other benefits, and one alternative view

* The process of designing games is excellent at teaching content on the sly. Students love to make games. Have them make a game about the content being addressed. They will scour Shakespeare looking for a good angle. They read with a purpose trying to find the characters required for their particular design. The settings become alive and dynamic.

*Playing a game is a great ice breaker in a classroom. If lots of team-based stuff happens in the class, the value of an initial round or two of games is immeasurable.

Ian Schreiber said...

Welcome, Alvaro. Glad to hear that this blog is actually helping people :)

Brenda, great points. I wasn't even thinking of using a game design activity to get students interested in content (and I have no idea why it didn't occur to me, when designing games is so fun).