11 July 2013

Using Game Design Tricks to Motivate Students, Part 1

Let's all be honest here: we've all played a game much beyond enjoyment because we just wanted to unlock that one item. No? Just me?

The thing is, school isn't inherently fun, unless you're one of those kids we make fun of. But it could be. It should be. When I was interviewing for the job I have now, I used the word 'fun' to describe how I wanted my classes to be, then thought that sounded bad and corrected myself, using the word 'productive' or something. The principal stopped me and said 'fun' was the right word. These are kids, if we can make class fun, without skimping on content, we should.

So, on that note, and after spending a few hours playing Mass Effect 3 and Where's My Water yesterday, I'm going to list a few ideas we can take from video games and apps that can make class more fun, or at least motivate them to keep going. (I'm going to put them in the context of a Graphic Design class using Canvas, but hopefully the concepts can translate to any class. I'm also keeping my eye on 3D Game Lab, it might be something to invest $10/month someday.)

Part 1: Unlockable Content

I hinted at this one in my first sentence. There's something so satisfying about unlocking things in games. Sometimes it's new levels or challenges, sometimes it's new tools for your avatar to have, sometimes it's prizes, and other times it's simply recognition of achievement.

Unlocking challenges (assignments and projects)

I'm no psychologist, but my theory is that we get satisfaction from unlocking new challenges because it's as if the game is telling us we're worthy of tougher challenges. In Canvas, this can be done by adding prerequisites to modules. By completing the prerequisites, students 'unlock' that module. I always have my students learn vector graphics in Illustrator before moving to raster graphics in Photoshop, so when they finish the former, they see a screen that says they've unlocked new challenges, which are the raster assignments.

Unlocking tools

When they unlock the raster challenges, they have a few things to accomplish before going back into the computer lab. When completed, they unlock Photoshop. Now that they've proven themselves worthy to use the more powerful tool, it's unlocked for them. They can now complete challenges more quickly, just like in Zelda when you unlock the Master Sword, you can kill enemies and progress more quickly.

Earning prizes

Just so students don't see through your ploy where all they ever unlock is more work, you have to throw in prizes. By completing certain modules or challenges, or maybe by earning a certain score, or by accomplishing some other combination of tasks, students can earn a prize. It could be a sticker, a treat, a t-shirt, a free period to play games, a hall pass, whatever. But I'm going to keep these prizes secret. With the challenges, tools, and achievements, students are able to see what they need to accomplish before unlocking them. That's fine, because those rewards are intrinsic. You can't hold Photoshop in your hand, but the fact that you can now use it is an intrinsic reward. Prizes, however, are extrinsic rewards, and extrinsic motivation is the lesser motivation. But when students are randomly awarded a prize, that surprise element can be huge. (I know I've read something about surprise rewards being much more motivating.)

Achievements, Levels, and Badges

There's a lot I wish I could do with these three gaming ideas, but I'm limited by my tools. In my case I'm using Canvabadges, which are tied to module completion. It could be as simple as complete this module, earn a badge, or complete three of these five modules, earn a badge.

As such, I think I'll use these badges in two ways: to represent achievements and to level up. When a student completes a beginning vector graphics module, he earns a badge that says, "Vector Beginnings." In the description they see that it was earned by completing that first module. However, when he completes, say, three of the intermediate modules, he earns a badge that says, "Level Up! You have reached Level 3: Design Intern."


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  2. Nice prediction.You have enough philosophy regarding students.You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you could do with some pics to drive the message home a bit, but other than that, this is great blog.
    Game Design