It was just supposed to be a quick trip to Beijing, a touristy group thing to take in the sights. It wasn't supposed to go down like this. There wasn't supposed to be a lost manuscript; the travelers weren't supposed to turn on each other. The only good, if any, to be found in this godforsaken quest, this unholy mission, was that by the end of it, they would all know how to speak Mandarin.
This intricate Maltese Falcon-like story will unfold each day, over the course of semester, as a multiplayer game at Renssalear Polytechnic Institute in New York. It is being designed as a language-learning exercise by Lee Sheldon, an associate professor in the college's Games and Simulations Arts and Sciences Program. "Using games and storytelling to teach—it's not that radical of a concept," says Sheldon. "It makes them more interested in what's going on."
Sheldon is a pioneer in gamification, a new movement that essentially takes all the things that make video games engaging and applies them to classroom learning. Sheldon started developing the theory eight years ago. Since then, gamification now comes in all shapes and sizes and is used across educational levels, for kindergarteners through adult learners. Its practitioners range from individual teachers experimenting with game-like elements in their classrooms to entire schools that have integrated the games into their curricula.
"The goal is to change the student’s mindset to a mastery orientation—to promote motivation, engagement, active learning—and to cultivate 21st century skills like collaboration, problem solving, creativity and systems thinking," says Joey Lee, a research assistant professor of Technology and Education at Teacher's College, Columbia University. "Learning looks very different today, so we need to move away from the Industrial Revolution one-size-fits-all model that still plagues much of education."
Sheldon discovered gamification by accident. After spending decades writing and producing television shows in Hollywood—and, more recently designing video games—Sheldon transitioned into academia, teaching game design to RPI students. Not being a teacher by training, he says, he ran his class in traditional fashion: one person lecturing, everyone else listening, the typical drill.
"I got bored very quickly with myself," he says. "If I was getting bored, you can imagine how the students were feeling. I thought, 'Well, you dummy, you're a game designer. Why don't you make the entire class into a game?' So I did that and things went really well."
Everything started turning around. Students stopped cutting class to the point where there was near-perfect attendance, and the average grade went from a C to a B.
Based on his own success, Sheldon went on to write the book The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. After that, the concept started taking off, as teachers in the U.S. and around the world expanded on the idea and added little bits of their own creativity here and there.
The reason it works, Lee explains, is that games themselves actively engage players cognitively, emotionally, and socially to keep them motivated to play. In their paper Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?, Lee and his coauthor, Jessica Hammer, point out that games offer a rich and complex environment that demands experimentation, problem-solving and quick thinking. The rules are set and known, the tasks are clear, the rewards are immediate, and the action intensifies as a player gains skill. Even failure is attractive in the game universe, since players know if they keep trying, they will eventually master the skill or beat the level.
Furthermore, stories are emotionally compelling; they take a player from curiosity to frustration to optimism to pride to joy. Games offer students a chance to try out new roles and look at situations from points of view that are outside of their own. Through the games, they can see themselves in new ways: The nerd becomes a powerful orc who can slay the dragon and get the girl; the jock turns into a wizard at strategy known more for his brain than his cool. All of this is all socially acceptable, since it's in the context of a game.
This is why gaming aficionados can sit playing for hours on end. Applying those principles to the classroom has the same effect, says Larry Graykin, a language arts teacher at Barrington Middle School in New Hampshire. "The key benefit in my opinion is that it provides context for work that might not otherwise have a clear context," says Graykin, who gamified his classroom two years ago. "We can say, 'You need this for high school,' and that works for a certain population of kids. But for a lot of kids, they don’t see that far into their future."