Game Design, Classroom Design, and the Faux Use of Gamification

Chris McNutt
September 21, 2019
“Gamification” is a popular buzzword — whether it be corporations wanting users to excitedly spend money or educators motivating students through extrinsic rewards. Consistently, well-meaning educators are seeking gamification to encourage students to meet their standards.

“Gamification” is a popular buzzword — whether it be corporations wanting users to excitedly spend money or educators motivating students through extrinsic rewards. Consistently, well-meaning educators are seeking gamification to encourage students to meet their standards.

I’ve written about the issues with gamification and whether or not it’s good pedagogy (I don’t believe it is in its widely used state.) However, that does not mean game design has no place in the classroom.

Rimworld is an incredibly successful video game that has sold over 1 million copies. In the game, the player manages a colony of crashlanded denizens who often fall victim to various disasters on a wild planet — starvation, raiders, wildlife, etc. The player has little control over the actions of its colonists, instead giving them tasks which they may or may not abide by (and as a result, losing is often inevitable.) Impressively, almost all of Rimworld — from its artwork to its programming — is developed by a single person, Tynan Sylvester.

Image for post

Sylvester, surprised by the positive reaction to his game, published his ideas on design in his book, Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences. Further, he publishes ideas on his game design blog.

Sylvester offers a game design perspective that is vastly different than many mainstream developers — and educators could take note of what “gamification” could actually mean. Rather than crafting experiences which explicitly tell the player what to do, the player is crafting their own stories using the system the developer lays out.

Blog: “The three levels of designer”

Adopted from Tynan Sylvester’s blog.

1. Child Level: Basically reciting stories of what you want the player to do.

2. Balancer Level: Having understood that level 1 is broken, with an understanding that cross-cutting concerns, balance, and decision-making are important, seeks to complexify and balance and diversify decision-making to produce elegant and deep game systems.

Can create well-balanced, abstractly interesting mechanical systems. The problem with level 2, though is that it works on abstract, mechanical-level analysis of systems, which doesn’t relate directly to what players actually want from their games: emotions.

People working at level 2 can end up “balancing out the fun” of a great goofy design, or complexifying a game until it’s so deep that it becomes intimidating and drives players away, or working endlessly on details that players just don’t care about, or ignoring easy wins because they depend on mechanically-irrelevant pushing of emotional buttons.

3. Emotioneer Level - Having mastered level 2, with an understanding that people’s emotions respond to stimuli besides balanced gameplay, seeks to pull heartstrings as much as possible while asking the minimum of cognitive effort from the player.

Uses level 2 skills effortlessly to produce the foundation of balanced, elegant gameplay, on which to generate varied, emotionally-relevant experiences which aren’t necessarily balanced or complex or deep or mechanically elegant.

Requires broader thinking than level 2 because while maximizing balance/elegance/crosscutting concerns is a relatively narrow problem, human emotion triggers are absurdly complex and varied.

The vast majority of games use level 1 design. The player is told what to do, the designer builds the world around them, and engagement is assessed by how well the linear narrative is shown. Often, the tutorial is “Press X to do X.” and players simply follow a series of steps with the game playing out in front of them. The level of engagement is through great storytelling, graphic and audio design, and gameplay loops (the level of fun doing common tasks.) Sometimes choices are offered, but the result is linear (If I do X, then X happens every time I play.)

In the gamified classroom, level 1 design mirrors its gaming counterpart. The teacher builds the world and they present the narrative upfront. They tell students exactly what to do and the students repeat those steps. Engagement (or in some cases, compliance) is through great storytelling and design of the linear experience. This manifests itself like over-the-top experience systems, gamified “escape rooms”, lessons within a theme, and other game-related tasks.

The problem is that these game systems are one-offs. Once someone experiences the game they’re focused on the rewards of it. If I teach a lesson and its point is learning a new idea, am I engaging in learning or in the game? How connected is the game to actual learning? Further, is there any value in “playing the game” again, or is it all just a storyline that could have been told in other ways? Is the extrinsic motivator of the game more appealing than the content being delivered? Is the theme more interesting than the actual content?

Level 1 design is used by mobile developers as well — having the player complete a series of tasks, usually encouraging them to spend money to continue their progression. Whether it be flashing lights, competitive advantage, gambling, or some other advantage, the developer is manipulating the system to force engagement/monetization of the player. The parallels to classroom gamification are obvious — by creating over-the-top experiences filled with flashy props and pop culture references, educators can masquerade students toward checking off a learning objective.

Yet level 2 design is much more complicated. Rimworld is level 2: rather than building a game that produces a linear narrative, players have free choice within the systems built by the developer. When starting my colony, I choose exactly where I want to settle, how I’d like my settlers to behave, what gameplay style I want to follow, and even how I can win (if I want to win at all!) Success is defined on my terms, and the game can progress as slowly or as quickly as I want to push its systems.

Image for post
From choosing where to settle, to how the colony is built, to what to focus on, to how to win (whether a “victory condition” or just a personal “win”) is entirely up to the player.

It’s not about winning, nor is it about completing objectives. In fact, Rimworld offers little storyline, instead allowing the player to manipulate their environment and utilize their imagination — like a dollhouse. The task at hand is entirely up to my decision-making. And although there are plenty of ways to lose, the “survival rules” are setting a solid foundation to my imaginary stories.

Sylvester explains this concept in the first chapter of his book:

Systems and Rules

Adopted from: Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences by Tynan Sylvester

GAME DESIGN isn’t in code, art, or sound. It’s not in sculpting game pieces or painting game boards. Game design means crafting the rules that make those pieces come alive.

BY THEMSELVES, chess pieces are just tiny decorative sculptures. But when we move those pieces around according to a special set of rules, those little statues come alive. They will create a nail-biting finish at a high-stakes tournament.They will generate a world of puzzles in the newspaper. They will spark friendships, tell stories, and teach lessons found nowhere else in the universe.

But not just any set of rules will do. In fact, most sets of rules for pieces on a board won’t do any of these wonderful things. Many will collapse into simple, repetitive patterns as players use the same winning strategies over and over. Others are nightmarishly difficult to learn. Still others are so hard to follow that the game becomes a plodding number-crunching exercise.

The unique value of chess is in how it generates a perfect rhythm of puzzle and solution, tension and release. That value isn’t in the pieces or the board. It’s in the game design — the system of rules that drives the game’s behavior. A game designer’s job is to craft systems of rules that create these kinds of results.

What does level 2 design look like in the classroom? How can we design experiences with base rules that encourage students to craft their own scenarios?

These questions are markedly similar to the role of a progressive educator, especially one operating within the public school system: pairing the values of democratic education, self-direction, community building, critical pedagogy, and choice with those of standards, oversight, and testing. Game design offers a new perspective to “gamifying” or designing a classroom in this way, as long as we acknowledge the important distinction between level 1 and level 2.

Level 1 Classroom Design

Taking a normally boring lecture topic and designing an escape room themed around it. Students love the activity and the tasks, and likely bring away a lot of knowledge of the topic. There’s a lot of energy in the room. They clamor for more escape rooms and similar “gamified” classes. It’s certainly better than traditional school.

Level 2 Classroom Design

Taking a normally boring lecture topic and letting students choose their own way to demonstrate understanding. Students are inspired through real-life connections such as a speaker, field trip, or choice/relevancy of the given topic. The teacher helps facilitate each individual/group to additional “real life” opportunities, while providing structure (e.g. resources, deadlines, minimums) to provide a ruleset.

Level 2 might not be as zany as level 1, and it probably isn’t as buzzworthy — but the learning outcome is motivation surrounding academics rather than games. The desire for more content isn’t because of wacky fun, rather students crave more real-world opportunities. Choice is important — whether it be the topic, the way to demonstrate the topic, or whether or not to even choose the topic. (In certain districts, there’s a certain level of choice that a teacher can offer — walking the tightrope to lean in favor of students is a difficult, yet worthy task.)

The structures that we provide in level 2 design allow students to flourish. I’ve fallen victim to not setting enough rules. If students don’t have the proper support, they will be overwhelmed. If the task is seen as too large or trivial, confusion will set in — and confusion often leads to stagnation. Just saying “show me this by the end of the week” without any prior knowledge or skill-building in the topic and/or practice of self-directed education is not going to lead to successful results for a sizable number of students. This is not to say that a restrictive rubric needs to be set or students should have their hand-held the entire way, but baseline rules are useful in adapting to a progressive mindset and self-directed attitude.

A huge factor is flow, as Sylvester explains in Designing Games,

Flow makes time seem to disappear. Hours can seem like minutes when a player is utterly engrossed in an activity. It is the perfect form of escapism because it strips everything else out of the mind. In flow, we don’t worry about bills, relationships, money, or whether we’re going to get screamed at by a drill instructor.

And flow is pleasurable because it is built on a continuous stream of tiny successes. Flow appears when a player is presented with a challenge that is perfectly balanced against his ability level. If the task is too hard, flow breaks as the player becomes confused and anxious. If it is too easy, the player gets bored.

Graphed, it looks like this:
Image for post
Flow is the foundation for most good game experiences. It works at all intensity levels and emotional valences. Heart-pumping action games, contemplative puzzlers, humorous social interaction games — all can create flow because each occupies the player’s mind without a break, and without overfilling it. And in any case, if flow is broken, the other parts of the experience fall apart. Nearly all games have to maintain flow to work, and many problems with bad games come down to nothing more than breaks in flow.

Rulesets in a level 2 classroom could consist of: guest speakers, note-taking exercises, demonstrations of learning (documentation checked consistently), podcasts, brief examples, structured time (being extended overtime to complete self-direction), frequent check-ins, involving the parent/guardian/student in conversation, providing ample resources/articles/books, completing the directive alongside students, a final deadline, and community circle envisioned disciplinary rules (with reminders.)

This runs counter to rulesets in a level 1 classroom, which would consist of: a set of directions to follow (or must be followed to be successful), a predetermined single assignment or set of assignments to choose from, a teacher-centered theme or activity, an extrinsic reward for completion, numerous assessments and check-ins that look the same for everyone, and constant disciplinary redirection by the educator.

Then comes level 3 design, which relies entirely on emotion. Unlike level 2, which is focused on everyone still producing a similar outcome (albeit in many different ways), level 3 is entirely on experience. The outcome is too complex to write for as its based on human emotion.

Classrooms have a unique opportunity to meet level 3 outcomes, or at least blend levels 2 and 3. If we can design systems that cater to what our students care about — and inspire them to make a positive difference in the world — we can make our classrooms life changing. When students are passionate about their learning, they truly can change how the world operates in rapid fashion. (Just look at the recent climate change strikes led by children.) And if every classroom had this constant emotional connection — and had educators and students working in-tandem to remove old school methods of constant control and direction — we would literally build a better society.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now