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Accidental Gamification

posted: 4.22.14 by Traci Gardner

Gamification is booming recently. Everywhere I look, I find someone talking about gamifying something. Charities are using games to raise awareness and connect with potential supporters. Businesses are exploring strategies to incorporate gamification in the workplace as well as in the hiring process. There are apps that gamify everyday life. Gamifying techniques are being used to motivate everyone from dieters and fitness buffs to youth volunteers. The most recent episode of the Not Your Mama’s Gamer podcast explored how games-based learning can work and why gamification sometimes fails (skip ahead to 43.5 minutes in for the featured content).

I love the idea of bringing the kinds of thinking and learning that students use in games into the writing classroom, but I recognize succeeding in that endeavor means doing a lot more than creating some badges and giving students do-overs on their assignments. I like Katie Salen’s idea of creating complex challenges and have done some thinking about Gaming the Writing Process. I would love to include more gaming strategies in the classes I teach, but I haven’t had time to develop the curriculum and tools I would need.

Last week, however, I found that I was unconsciously gaming the class by virtue of the tasks and tools I was having students use. Students are beginning a collaborative project to analyze a portion of a website and write recommendations to improve it. The task is a slight revision of one I had success with last term.

The first tasks I ask students to complete are to create a group work contract, an audience analysis of the website, and a website checklist to use as they analyze the site. The three tasks feel about as far from gaming as possible. They are specific, structured tasks that I include to help make sure they do some preparation before they dive into the analysis and writing.

As I was walking around the classroom to check on how the groups were doing, I noticed there was a lot of laughter from the group in the back of the room. They sit beside each other at a table. I walked to the back of the room and stood behind them, watching what they were doing on the computers and listening to their conversation.

What I found was that they all had a shared Google Doc open, which they were collaborating in to create their work contract. They were trying to set up a table to outline their tentative work schedule, but different group members kept trying to add things to the table at the same time. By the time I arrived, they had a table with another table embedded inside one of its cells. The conversation I overheard went something like this:

Student 1: “Oh, my God, where did that box come from?!!”
Student 2: “I don’t know, but MAKE IT GO AWAY.”
Student 3: “There. Gone.”
Student 1: “No, look. There’s a new one.”
Student 4: “It’s not me. My hands aren’t even on the keyboard.”
Student 2: “Someone make it stop!”

As I watched their attempts to fix the problem and their rapid verbal exchange, I was reminded of my watching my nephew when he was gaming and had his conspirators on Skype so they could plan their attack.

When the students finally removed all the rogue cells from their table, I commented, “You all sounded like you were a raid party in World of Warcraft.” The first student looked up at me, and said, “Yeah, I guess we are kinda working the same way as that,” as the others laughed in agreement.

Gamification was the furthest thing from my mind when I set up the assignment. I had shown the class how to use Google Docs earlier in the term and demonstrated how multiple people can work in the same document at the same time. Until I saw this group working together however, it never occurred to me it was the same kind of collaboration they used in game play.

Thank goodness I had managed to create a classroom atmosphere were they were willing to let me see them gamifying their task. This term, the gamification happened by accident. Next term, I hope I can work it into the assignment on purpose.

[Photo: Lich King fight by rev4n, on Flickr]

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