How to level-up any lesson with game mechanics

This article was published in the UKEdMag E-Zine March 2014 HERE

With the advent of the new national curriculum and its new emphasis on computing there has never been so much focus on technology in the classroom. In particular there has been a huge surge in tools to teach coding. These include a variety of visual programing products, of which Scratch from MIT is the granddaddy. A number of other providers have developed tools that are more focussed on learning the broader curriculum and these generally use game mechanics of some form to accomplish this.

The first thing that I think is really interesting about many of the computer based teaching and learning tools out there is that they consistently improve pupil progress. A number of studies have been carried out with varying degrees of rigour but the impact is seen across age, gender, pupil-premium status and for all subjects and ages. A lot of this can be ascribed to the various facets of the products, and certainly there are differences between the various tools, but to some extent just playing a digital game has an impact on a learner’s engagement, attention and ultimately the amount of learning achieved. Across all sorts of games, digital or not, there are a number of features that stand out. These game mechanics can be harnessed in the classroom either using these kinds of digital products or in the way regular lesson activities are planned.

Not to easy, not too hard

For a game to be engaging is has to present the correct degree of challenge. Casual games including various avian flight plans have this perfected. Good casual games are very simple to start to play but devilishly difficult to master. People don’t like to fail so in order to get someone to even try something you have to remove the fear of failure they may have. Once they have started though they will very quickly get bored if a game is too easy or if it gets too difficult too quickly so pace is important. Equally, as a game player gains more experience they will start to learn how to beat the game so incremental challenge is important for player retention.

This translates to a generally simple process that is either open ended or steadily increases in difficulty over time or progress. In a lesson activity it is important to set the level and gradient of challenge effectively or you will lose less confident individuals at the start and more able individuals as they “beat the game”.

A great classroom example I saw recently was a KS2 lesson on complex sentences where a simple sentence was progressively improved by rolling a die to select a change to be made such as adding an adverb or improving an adjective. The simple mechanic was easily accessible by all pupils but the more-able could really stretch themselves and ended up with some fantastic results.

A sense of achievement

An almost ubiquitous feature of games is a reward system where overcoming the challenges of the game results in a tangible bonus, badge, level or similar. As we go about our everyday business a sense of purpose is important to motivate us. In a game situation this is absolutely distilled and getting one more level or aiming for the highest score yet can be very compelling.

Rewards are used very thoroughly in classrooms and many behaviour management systems for example use this concept to great effect. At my school we use a levelled wall chart where pupils start on green each day and go up or down depending on behaviour. Getting to gold gains a physical reward, getting to red gets a reprimand or whatever is appropriate. This simple process is amazingly effective and you can almost feel the pride radiating from the children when they give a good answer or show good behaviour and are asked to move their star / rocket / rock-star up. Taking the behaviour management a step further there are a couple of digital reward systems which do exactly this but in a more central and coordinated fashion.

The will to win

Another mechanic that is seen in virtually all games is the ability to win somehow. Winning implies some form of adversary and this is sometimes the case literally but often it is the game that will be beaten. There is nothing like the scent of victory to motivate someone and the satisfaction that comes with overcoming an obstacle or difficulty is lasting and meaningful.

One of my favourite examples of an activity where pupils try to beat the game is the Jam Sandwich Robot activity I learned of from a teacher names Phil Bagge. This activity teaches the idea that computers simply follow instructions, AKA algorithms, as given and challenges pupils to write instructions for a jam sandwich-making robot to follow. Inevitably pupils miss vital steps and jam-covered hilarity ensues. Over a few iterations though it is the desire to beat the robot and actually end up with a jam sandwich that brings focus to the detail needed by a dumb machine.

To see direct competition in action in a classroom all you need to do is utter the immortal words “Boys vs Girls”, or maybe “This Side vs That Side”, and see the scramble to compete and the desire to win. Unfortunately when there is direct competition between people someone winning means someone loses so this obviously has to be handled carefully so as to not demotivate the non-winners (lets not call them losers). One way to do this is to makes sure that everyone “wins” often enough to feel a sense of achievement enough that the losses are forgotten.

Closing loops

As human beings we like there to be a certain sense of order to the world. This is maybe the thing that gets taken too far by individuals suffering from OCD but in all of us there is a desire to control our environment and remove unfinished business or “open loops”. In game speak this is completing the game and in modern console games you will often have a primary story with a much larger open-ended game that can take hundreds of hours to collect all the stars, characters, areas, challenges or whatever and complete the game.

A non-game example of this is the percentage completion shown on LinkedIn profiles and now everywhere else. Every time you look at a page it tells you that you have 80% completed your profile. That is REALLY annoying so you add your city and ask someone for a recommendation just to get to 100%. Admit it, you did that too didn’t you?

A simple school example of this is a word search where the desire to find the whole list of words focuses a pupil on the words at hand. Alternatively, in a classroom a pupil might have to complete all of a set of activities on a certain topic in order to complete a challenge.

You make it, you own it

Minecraft. That’s all I really need to say here really but this relatively simple game has an addictiveness of around a million out of ten. One of the many things that contributes to this addictiveness is the ownership players feel when they have crafted a structure in a Minecraft world. Add to this that you can share this with others and even 3D print your Minecraft constructions and the sense of ownership swells further. Minecraft itself can be used in a number of classroom situations such as model making for topics or more directly in computing lessons via scripting.

Another common game feature is a player customisable avatar and this gives the player a real sense of ownership over their identity within a game. This sense of ownership brings a player back again and again and gives a degree of purpose beyond simply playing a game. The created digital persona also allows the individual to express themselves freely, which again encourages them to return to the game.

This mechanic is evident anywhere a pupil makes anything. I remember covering my exercise books in wrapping paper when I was at school and even this simple act raised the importance of my books and motivated me to take good care of them. Anything crafty where things are made will give pupils a sense of possession over their own learning.

Get personal 

Often games will cast the player in a certain role. This has the effect of giving a specific perspective and helps players to identify with the given situation. The player will strive for the character as if it were themselves but the fact that it is only a game gives the player the ability to try things that would not be possible, or that would be too risky in the real world, without the fear of failure. This enables repeated rehearsing of situations and a far greater willingness to participate than a literal situation would.

In a lesson a simple device might be to create a theoretical situation where invented characters have to solve a problem. Because it is the characters’ problem rather than the pupils’ directly the risk of failure is diminished and pupils will feel much more free to try and solve the problem.

The element of surprise

If you always knew exactly what was going to happen, life would be very boring. It is the sense of anticipation and the occasional surprise that makes life interesting and it is the same with games. Most successful games will continually twist and turn to keep you guessing and retain your attention. It is the same with a good novel; you would be very disappointed if the secrets were all revealed on the first page and nothing new occurred through the rest of the book.

It is very easy to introduce a level of unpredictability into lessons and most already have them. Lolly-pop sticks, love them or hate them, are a great example of this as are surprise changes in rules that introduce a new concept or make pupils think in a new way.

A computing example is the Stompy Zombie Robot game or variants thereof. In this game pupils must direct one pupil as the team robot in turns to either take steps, turn or fire a tissue and try to hit the opposing robot. This is another activity looking at algorithms but it is when pupils are invited to create their own additional rule that the ideas are really cemented. There is an element of synthesis and ownership here also but this simple tweak to an already effective game makes a powerful difference.

A word of warning

In saying all this I hope I have given some ideas that help to enrich lessons either through the multitude of technology products available or by applying some game mechanics to more traditional lessons. If used correctly game mechanics can enhance engagement, focus, attention, motivation and context. It is very easy however to add a game that simply does not connect a pupil with the learning. To ensure that learning is improved it is vital that the focus of the game is on the subject matter rather than simply providing a distraction, albeit a fun one.

With that word of warning given – have fun!