Back to that whole game design / teaching thing

So, more on that post I made a little while back and failed to follow-up on.

The key points of the game design analysis that came up (for that case) were:

  1. Keep it small.
  2. Keep the action constant.
  3. Reward success.
  4. Extend the challenge as people master the basics.

How many of these are practical tips for your classes?  Here’s my first thoughts.

1. Keep it small.

This is something I’ve incorporated into my assessments.  I try to keep them as short as they can be.  What does this mean?  If I am assessing a given standard, two good questions are just as meaningful as ten mediocre ones.  What is the point of asking twenty questions on the same topic?  Are we testing comprehension, or mental endurance (ie. tolerance levels for boredom and redundancy)?  At best, this is just wasting everyone’s time; at worst, it’s disadvantaging students who do get it but have attention problems.  (Yes, it’d be good for those students to learn how to cope, and college exam prep etc etc, but I still want them to know they actually do get this stuff.)

Plus, um, it’s more work for me.  Why would I do that to myself?

There’s more grey area stuff to explore on this point but let’s move on.

2. Keep the action constant.

If there is one thing I’ve learned as a teacher-on-call, it’s that boredom leads to scary things being thrown at me trouble.  But this doesn’t mean busy-work.  If my design goal is to get students thinking, then busy work is nearly as bad as doing nothing at all.  The parallel to teaching is to keep them thinking.

This relates directly to the last point: 4. Extend the challenge. Students who get it should still be kept thinking.  Got a handful of students who finish the assigned problems in half the time of the rest of the class?  Have a few tougher problems in your back pocket on the same topic.  (I’ve varied greatly as to how good I am at being prepared for this.)

The flip side is to do what you can to keep students from shutting their brains off and giving up.  This means support mechanisms.  At this point, though, it’s probably obvious I’m talking about all the “differentiated instruction” tricks that get praised in Education circles but which are sometimes really hard to make actually work.  All I can say is, take it with a grain of salt as needed, but don’t give up on it.  The plan I think can work is simply emphasizing group work – peers are an instant support structure.  But my adventures with structured group work in a classroom are another post.

3. Reward success.

For the design of Super Meat Boy, this meant a unique replay system that showed all your failed attempts at a level simultaneously while replaying your success.  The message?  “Look at this crazy hard level that beat you up so many times and now you beat it! Therefore you are awesome.”

The goal for their game was to make something crazy-hard, but keep building up skill and confidence in the player so that they persist through the challenge and get to enjoy the success at the end.  They did this by deliberately not dwelling on failure, giving as many chances to succeed as the player needs, and highlighting what the player accomplished at the end.

Do you hear that? That’s the sound of an entire industry mastering the art of creating self-efficacy in people.  (Sorry, I know it’s a ten-dollar word, but ever since I found a word that describes exactly what is most needed for students to succeed in math, I can’t let it go.)

The thing is, when teachers talk about crazy things like standards-based grading, replacing poor marks with good ones whenever students demonstrate mastery, etc, it’s almost guaranteed that someone will come out of the woodwork and complain, “Oh great, more dumbing down the math class. Hope I’m not stuck with your students next year!”  But even the video game design example we’re looking at here is all about making things hard in a way that people won’t give up on.  Get that?  This is not about dumbing down – this is about training students not to give up.


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