Reflecting on One Year of "Gamification"

Post date: Jun 9, 2016 6:15:55 PM

The Fracture Crisis is over - for now. I went into the year with grand plans about gamification. I spent a ton of time last summer building the elements for the game. I launched huge on the first day of school. I had power-ups, renamed lessons, cool posters and an amazing intro video. I figured out exactly how many points my kids could earn throughout the year and set XP breaks for level ups accordingly. I came up with a punch card system so we could track their use of power-ups without needing a digital interface. I even re-themed every single PowerPoint presentation for my entire year with new intros and graphics to fit the motif. I did it all.

Then, about a week into school it all started to fall apart. The tracking wasn't working, kids were already losing their cards and I was already behind my anticipated point totals. The theme was strong at least... Two months in I had solved the tracking problem and made the leaderboards a much more prevalent part of the in-class visual experience. Things were looking up. By the semester break I was pretty much done with the overall point tracking. The last unit I filled in for the class was the Dark Ages which ended in November. Getting to track their own XP was working great. The parts of the game that required me to track their cumulative XP were not.

And, my biggest frustration, nobody was using Power Ups. And when I say frustration, I mean utter relief. Whenever one was brave enough to use it it was a nightmare. They had to find their card, I had to verify their reported XP and they had to pick a power-up from a way-too-big list. The list is smaller now and I learn to just trust their reports. Still, that is the element of gamification that most makes it feel like a game and it just didn't work. Since the kids seemed to give up, so did I. I kept up with the theme and actually started to build more of the narrative into their daily learning. But it all just then kind of ended.

I didn't think twice about it ending but to my great shock - they did.

I had some interesting things said to me on the last day of school.

The first:

"I thought you told us when we had enough points..."

This came from one of my kids who was most into the game. She talked about it regularly and loved feeling like she was part of something greater. She did a video project and themed it all around the game. She was in the world and loving it. Yet, somehow, she had no idea how the skill system worked.

Somehow. Maybe it was because I didn't know how it worked or maybe it was because I changed it more than once. Maybe it was because I had 5 periods and just didn't explain it properly to her class. Maybe she was out sick they day I did. Whatever the case there are way too many maybes. A good game doesn't have maybes. It has clearly laid out rules that are only broken for specific purposes. Everything the game offers doesn't have to be clear from the beginning but it does have to be clear at some point (especially if it is central to the experience.)

Recently I've been playing a PC game called Dungeon of the Endless. The game has a very limited tutorial that does just enough to get you going and then leaves you with the following warning.

There is much more to this game that you will discover as you play. And you will die. Alot.

That is the exact feeling I want in my game. In some ways I front-loaded too much. In other ways not enough. I need to figure out just what is essential to get them into the game world and worry about specifics later. By providing information on-demand (something games also do really, really well) and in context I hopefully will avoid having my players go all year without actually knowing how to play!

Then came...

"So, did we win?"

"Ya, Mr. Roughton, I expected some credits with nothing but your name in it."

To which I replied "Uh, yeah, you won, good job."

My game had no ending!

Just before playing Dungeon of The Endless (which may or may not have an ending, I'm honestly not sure, I die alot as promised) I finished Far Cry: Primal. This game was savagely reviewed but I love the Far Cry series and the setting (10,000 BC) was intriguing. I loved the game - until it ended. I was going right along taming wild animals, fighting off cannibals, and learning new skills until boom, game over. I finished a random mission (which is all the game has) and then it was over. Some credits rolled and it said I won. Great. What did I do? Stories, even bad, ones, need endings. Despite about 20 hours of really enjoying myself I was left thinking pretty negatively about Primal simply due to that abrupt end.

Fracture Crisis should have had an ending. I mean, it has a very specific goal so I had set it up to end quite smoothly. I had set a goal at the beginning of the year for them to clear 1.2 million Fractures in order to win the game. I thought this would drive cooperation and lead to students encouraging one another to do more than the minimum required work. I wanted a shared goal to drive them to great things. The problem, I think, was that their progress was just not clear enough. I had a small poster in the front of the room that tracked Fractures cleared by unit. This meant that every 6 weeks (which was more like 8 by the time I did all the math) they got a single update on their progress. Plus, as I mentioned, I stopped tracking it entirely after the second unit. That's not nearly enough. Games constantly update you on your progress.

Still, at least a few students, cared. They wanted to see that progress. They wanted the narrative to advance (which it never did.) That's going to be my big focus for next year's version. (Yes, despite all my failings I'm going to do it again!)

The truth is I thought having a great intro would be enough to carry my game. I felt that once I had them hooked I'd figure out the rest along the way. I did figure out a whole bunch but often after that portion of the game had passed. Of course it wasn't going to be perfect the first time through (honestly this wasn't even a Alpha, it was pre-Alpha meaning the content was still being built) but I had hoped for more.

I've learned a few techniques for tracking and spending rewards (one teacher does a pay day where he gives them raffle tickets based on their current level - I love that idea) and we are going fully 1 to 1 next year so I may be able to digitize and automate many of the processes. I'm excited to try again knowing everything I know now. I hope you have found my reflections over the year to be helpful as you consider your own possibly journey into this world. I hope you'll follow along next year as we try Fracture Crisis 0.2 (not a typo, we're definitely not even to 1.0 yet let alone 2.0!)

One final note. One of my readers this year said I was being too critical of my progress this year. I am my own greatest critic (and I believe we all ought to be) because I want the best from myself for my students. Despite all the failings I think the game was worth running. I know I'm very good at what I do and I will take the next couple weeks to share all the GOOD that came out of my class this year!