Gamification as a Boat-Building Exercise

Unlike many teachers, I do not teach the same content every year. Sometimes, I wish I were planning a unit I’ve taught many times before – and I’ve lived that experience in the past – but most of the time I’m glad that I don’t do it anymore. For me, things are always interesting because the content is always new. When it comes to gamification, though, consistency in content-curricula would probably make things a bit easier. Instead, I’m building a new boat all the time as I sail it, kids on board the whole while. (And to offer my take on the question: no, it’s clearly not the same ship that I land in June that I set out in back in August. It’s a new ship.)

Here’s my context: In our Middle School, we integrate across subjects (English, History, and Science), and we teach with projects, inquiries, and problems. (Many of us don’t do typical assessments – at least, I don’t. I use “tests” as I used to think of them to check for remembering and understanding as well as occasional application – lower-level thinking, per Bloom.) Each year, we might bring a unit or two back from the year before, modified and improved significantly and often with new resources and goals, but the other three or four major units have so far been new. I’d describe our philosophy as putting skills before content at every stage. So the skills that I’m teaching each year – map reading, chronological and causal thinking, making connections between our present and our past – these thinking skills are consistent. The content we use as a vehicle for the skills can change as we teachers find necessary to reach the current crop of students. This whole system by itself is worth a few posts, but here I’m only thinking about what the constant changes mean for my classroom game.

This is my second year gamifying, and I chose space as a new theme this year (students need to find an Earth 2, a habitable planet to replace our Earth 1, which we departed for a now-forgotten reason over 400 years ago). The theme is developing independently of the classroom content out of necessity.

Here are some practical effects of building this game as I go with no connection between the game as an independent entity and the units I teach:

  • The theme isn’t tied to the class content at all. I determined the theme by writing a little story, starting with setting, main players, and conflict. This works about the same as it would with a D&D campaign or a novel outline. The story of the game is not related to any of the content I teach (so far, anyhow).
  • The quests aren’t specific to the unit material, either. I use a menu of side quests inspired by and tailored to a list of skills (specific to historical thinking, in my case) and gamer types (Achiever, Socializer, Explorer, and Griefer – think Bartle test here). I created a menu of quest types (wikipedia connections challenge, find a story stranger than fiction, create a model, etc.) that students can apply to the current unit of study. I do not, under most circumstances, contextualize those quests within the theme of the classroom game, tying it to the content of the unit we’re working through. If I’ve got the time I can write out new and particular quests and quest chains that fit my current theme to my current unit of study, but these circumstances rarely obtain. It’s practically speaking much tougher to keep going than just picking those apply-to-any-unit quests because it must be done over and over again and is creatively demanding perhaps beyond the point of marginal utility. To expedite things, I do quite like the “grab and use” menu that I built for myself last year. I’m finding, now that I’m finally reading Michael Matera’s book Explore Like a Pirate, that he’s got some cool quest ideas that I can incorporate as well!
  • The scoring and reporting isn’t tied to the course content but is tied only to the theme of the game.
  • The same goes for the items in the game.


An afterthought about side quests: I do foresee that the more comfortable I grow with the process of gamification (and it is a process and not an event or destination), I can tie theme better into every side quest I offer. A quest to find resources (in-fiction) is a search for information about a topic we’re studying in class. An assignment to find and eliminate The Corporation’s spies on our mothership (in-fiction) could be a search for a specific historical actor from our unit of study. And so on.

And another afterthought: It seems to be easier for me, generally speaking, to think about gamifying via skills rather than content. The skills are transferrable, and if you’ve got your own list of skills, we can build a gamified class around that list, too.

I’m making these observations and thinking: this sort of gamification procedure could apply to anyone’s classroom. Maybe that’s the point here. If I can do it with shifting sands under my feet, you can do it with a rock-solid foundation. All you need is a procedure.

I’m working on building that procedure to share with you at UCSS and AMLE this fall. I’d be happy to meet my Utah collegues outside of those contexts, also. I’m toying with the idea of trying to host a get-together for us gamifiers to network specifically about gamification here in this state. If you’re reading this and are one of those people, send me an email or a tweet (@EthicsNValues)!

If you’ve got steady content, you’ve got a leg up. You can revisit and build year-upon-year, tying the game into the course content.

Got questions? Send `em my way. I’ll do my best to share any related experience so that we can both learn from it.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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