Level 100 in the Gamified Classroom

In the last installment, I shared some ideas about how games work and the mechanics that need to be in place for the game to work. These required mechanics are mandatory for games and they are no less mandatory for a gamified curriculum. Each level has to produce a certain level of engagement, a minimum level of flow, in order for the player/student to experience the work in the manner of a game. At the other end of the spectrum, beyond the bosses, is the final boss – the last obstacle to victory.

In my gamified classroom, “level 100” is the final boss. Students have to answer 1 level 100 question successfully in order to complete the Knowledge Tree. Like any other final boss, I intend the level 100 question to have some mandatory qualities:

1) It is the hardest single question they have faced so far in the class.

2) It is the hardest single question they will face in class.

3) Answering it requires that the players/students have used the opportunity afforded by leveling to acquire knowledge and integrate knowledge at their highest capacity.

4) The question builds explicitly from other questions in that branch of the Knowledge Tree.

5) It is answerable by a solo player, but is more easily/successfully answered by an ALT (accountable learning team).

The Level 100 Questions For America 3.0 (2011) are:

Social Change: Choose one of the following socially constructed concepts (parenting, family, gender, sexual orientation, adolescence, work) and trace all of the ways in what that concept has changed since America 2.0 began to give way to America 3.0. Trace the development of the change in your chosen concept through each of its major crisis points, how the American people have stimulated and resisted the change and speculate based on reason and sound evidence how you believe your chosen concept might continue to develop over the next ten years.

Culture: In the transition from America 1.0 to America 2.0, major disruptions in social relations and “social truth” led to the widespread adoption and embrace of fringe cultural practices. In many cases, these fringe practices died out (Fourierism), but in other cases, they survived into our own age (Christian Science). Trace the phenomenon of cultural resistance to the mainstream and/or the emergence of cultural anxiety in the transition from America 2.0 to America 3.0, and speculate based on reason and sound evidence about the likely survivability of at least three cultural expressions in 2100.

Politics: You are the campaign manager either for the Obama re-election campaign or for the campaign of his Republican opponent (if you select this option, you must also select the candidate). Construct a winning campaign for your candidate. This must include issues, approaches to media, approaches to social media, opposition research, spending plans, fundraising plans, travel plans, electoral college projections, debate preparation, constituency management and outreach, contingency plans in the result of foreign crises (if you are the president) or selecting a vice presidential running mate (if you are the Republican). For purposes of this BOSS WIN, you must explain the historical reason for each of the decisions you make.

Economics, Finance, Labor, Industry: Bring the federal budget into balance, explaining how you do so, who pays and why, the social consequences of your decisions and short, medium and long term EFLI consequences of your decisions. For purposes of this BOSS WIN, do not consider politics, but you must explain how and why the nation made the decisions you are now correcting.

Foreign Policy: Advise the president (in the mode of NSC-68) regarding the most serious foreign policy challenges facing the United States, in your judgement, between now and 2025 and what he/she should do to ready the nation for them.

Technology: Technology is, arguably, the single biggest change agent in the last half-century, perhaps initiating the transformation of America 2.0 to America 3.0

“Bosses” and the Nature of Questions in the Gamified Classroom

Games only work as games when they have certain mandatory qualities. They have to have an understandable objective (even if it’s as simple as “eat pixels and avoid ghosts”). This objective must be achievable, but not too easily achieved. Attempting to achieve the objective must be pleasurable in some way. It must induce in the player a sense of striving or reaching – that quality one gets when one passes through his or her current ability to execute game content and finds oneself on the other side…in a level that is well beyond one’s ability. The gamer understands the objective, but also understands that, at least now, it’s not clear that they can achieve it anymore. Games must have a fail state from which the gamer can emerge with more knowledge, wisdom and, ideally, a greater capacity to overcome the challenge that created the fail state in the first place. Would a board game still be a board game if, upon losing, it vanished through a dimensional portal and you could never try it again? A game isn’t a game if you can’t fail or lose and then have another go. This is true in the most basic children’s games; complex board games, athletics, basic video games and complex massively multiplayer online games. It should be true in education. Some of my favorite games have really bone-basic rules, are fiendishly difficult to win (I name you – Acquire!) but also reward the player who loses who afterwards learns from the experience. This should also be true about education. Even games where there is no ending (I name you – World of Warcraft!) and therefore, have no objective way to win, have to create within their structure these fail states or they wouldn’t function as games. These fail states are called bosses.

In many games with clearly stated objectives but no defined win state, player satisfaction derives primarily from overcoming boss encounters. Boss encounters are also used in many games to establish the final obstacle to total victory. Defeating these encounters is euphoric for most gamers…the opposite of the epic fail…the epic win. They go back decades in the history of game design. The justly famous Ultima IV was known for its character development complexity and morality-based gameplay but also for its final boss encounter (to gain the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom). In contemporary games, boss encounters are used to create particularly difficult or memorable challenges generally requiring either the use of teamwork to succeed or the possession of specialized knowledge or skill to succeed.

In my class, the boss encounter is a major design element in the knowledge tree. Every level ending in zero will be a boss encounter. I want to encourage students to build learning teams and to use them to “defeat” these boss encounters and, in so doing, synthesize learning, apply it meaningfully to other problems, work authentically to engage real world concerns, learn to work together effectively and have some fun while doing it. Because the gamified classroom is founded on the notion of intrinsic reward, I hope to create boss encounters for students that will do everything I stated above while being seen as rich and meaningful and worth solving.

The level 10 boss for the culture branch reads: Contrast the different concerns / foci / approaches / obsessions/ anxieties expressed by transformative and mainstream culture. What is common between them? What’s different? What is the transformative trying to transform? What is the mainstream trying to preserve? The level 10 boss for the technology branch reads: How much influence does technology that predates 1970 have in your daily life? Cite specific examples and demonstrate how your life would be diminished without these technologies. What technologies that predate 1970 no longer have a role in your daily life? These questions are radically more complex than levels 1-9, are based on the work students do in levels 1-9, will have a direct impact on how successful they are with levels 11-100 and ask students to integrate and synthesize.

Next time, I will share the 6 level 100 final boss encounters.

Gamifying and “Doing” in the Classroom

In my previous posts, I shared some of the ideas I have been thinking about as I redesign a course I am teaching to be explicitly gamified. One of the crucial decisions I made at an early stage was to divide the work process (the quest lines) into two distinct trees. In my last post, I shared an example of the knowledge tree. In any course, there is content that students should learn and master. There are also skills that a student should learn and master. In both cases, the pathways through the content and skills must be student-directed.

A critical difference between the knowing tree and the doing tree is that students do not earn “points” for completing quests in the knowing tree. Knowing serves itself; it is for its own sake. Doing, however, can be measured.

The doing tree is divided into six branches: critical reading, critical writing, critical speaking, modeling, collaborating and integrating. The doing tree for writing looks like this:


Critical Writing – one foundation of expression (where one cites)
Short, short form – tweeting
     one very simple idea
Short form – blog postings (200-500 words) or the 2 minute movie
     one simple idea, explicated
Medium form – the short paper, the “long blog” (1000-2000 words), the 7 minute movie
     one complex idea, explicated with depth
Long form – the long paper (2000+ words), the webpage, the 20 minute movie
     one highly complex idea, explicated along multiple arcs
And this is just one mode students might use to share what they are thinking. Like in the knowing tree, students will be obligated to complete a certain number of tasks in each branch of the doing tree as well, but will be rewarded significantly more by completing more complex tasks or repeating tasks. Rather than using an explicit level system as I am doing in the knowing tree, I am thinking of using something closer to an achievement system in the doing tree, with students earning achievement points (similar to the achievement point system in World of Warcraft, a system I know pretty well) and then tying those achievement points to the students’ ultimate grade in the class.
In my next post, I will share how I am thinking of making the connection between levels, points and grades clear.



Getting an “A” in the Gamified Classroom

In my earlier posts, I have discussed the work I’ve been doing to bring game-based design principles to the structure of my America 3.0 course. I am continuing to develop the levels that form the core of the knowing tree and, while I feel confident that the doing tree makes sense structurally, I am continuing to tinker with the relationship between what students do and the points they’ll earn in class (because even though I’m gamifying the course, at the end of the day, I teach at a college preparatory school with transcripts and grades on the 0-100 scale).

These core principles inform my thinking:

1. Doing, not Knowing: Students earn no gradable points for progressing in the knowing tree. I believe it is valuable to know things (anyone who’s played me in Trivial Pursuit knows that knowing is important to me…I read Wikipedia for fun…), but I believe even more strongly that knowing for its own sake is less valuable than knowing and then being able to do something with that knowledge.

2. “Gotta Level:” In order to pass the class, students will be obligated to achieve certain levels across the knowing tree. There are 6 branches of the knowing tree. Students must reach level 10 in all 6 branches, level 20 in 4 branches, level 40 in 3 branches, level 50 in 2 branches and level 100 in 1 branch.

3. Student Selection: There are 6 doing trees, as there are 6 knowing trees. The formula for earning gradable points is 100 achievement points = 1 point.

4. Collaborative Work is Good: Students can earn points by doing work themselves or earn them by working productively in their ALT (accountable learning team).

Two examples of how students earn points.

1. Critical Writing: one essential branch of the doing tree is critical writing. Writing is clear, measurable and requires that students read carefully and progress on the knowing trunk to actually have something to write about. There are four kinds of writing that I’m defining:

Short, short form – tweeting

“one very simple idea”

Short form – blog postings (200-500 words) (a 2 minute movie script)

“one simple idea, explicated”

Medium form – the short paper, the “long blog” (1000-2000 words) (a 7 minute movie script)

one complex idea, explicated with depth

Long form – the long paper (2000+ words) (the webpage) (a 20 minute movie script)

one highly complex idea, explicated along multiple arcs

Achievement points in writing are earned in clusters of 500 points. 500 points are earned according to the follow formula:

1 long form mode = 3 medium form modes = 15 short form modes = 100 short, short form modes

There isn’t an A/B/C/D/F grade assigned to the writing itself in this case. Rather, the writer earns an A and hence gets the achievement points, or the writer gets an R, which is to say “redo.”

2. “Modeling:” I define modeling as non-written forms of expression (so conveying the same message as a written text, but in a different mode). This covers modes like infographics, visual/performing arts, mind maps, photography, film and so forth.

Because modeling is idiosyncratic, modeling points are earned on a case-by-case basis after discussions with me where I approve the scope of the project and assign it points. Some examples of 500 point achievements in modeling are:

1. An infographic (see examples in the Schoology forum) on a complex idea, like use of technology by senior citizens.

2. A photo essay illuminating Jewish-African American relations in Los Angeles.

3. A curated (photos found, but not taken by you) photo essay on Native American resistance to cultural assimilation.

4. 5 minutes of a short, creative film about high school students responding to 9/11 on 9/11/01.

5. A 3-4 minute pop song, written and performed, which speaks to a social problem in the USA.

Modeling projects can be done by ALTs as well – the complexity of the work proposed generates the achievement points.

Gamifying Education – The First 10 Levels

Previously, I posted an article outlining some of the challenges I had been working through as I comprehensively redraft America 3.0, my course on the contemporary history of the United States. Today, I will share some thoughts on the “knowledge tree,” one of the organizational spines of the course and what the first 10 levels will look like for a student in the course.

The course asks students to acquire knowledge about recent American history in six areas: Social Change and Reaction, Culture, Politics, Economics/Finance/Labor/Industry, Foreign Policy and Technology. The first ten levels of the Social Change and Reaction tree look like this:


Level 1: Gather 8 pieces of data that inform you about the state of Black America in America 2.0 and DO.
Level 2: Gather 8 pieces of data that inform you about the state of women in America in America 2.0 and DO.
Level 3: Gather 8 pieces of data that inform you about the conditions facing Native Americans in America 2.0 and DO.
Level 4: Gather 8 pieces of data that inform you about the state of Mexican Americans (or another immigrant group) in America 2.0 and DO.
Level 5: Gather 8 pieces of data that inform you about the conditions facing gay Americans in America 2.0 and DO.
Level 6: Derive 3 common threads between the experiences of these groups.
Level 7: Choose 3 from previous levels (Black America, Women, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, gay Americans). What were the triggering event or events that stimulated a new consciousness for these groups in America 2.0? Why these events and DO.
Level 8: What, if anything, is common between these triggering events?
Level 9: Gather 15 pieces of data that inform you about the state of “mainstream” America in America 2.0. What does “mainstream” mean in this case? Derive what is common between your data points and DO.
Level 10 BOSS: What qualities of the mainstream were the disenfranchised entranced by or interested in attaining for themselves? How were the disenfranchised resisting the power of the mainstream? What about the mainstream were they reacting against? DO


Some notes and definitions:

Gather – go to a source or source you trust and learn enough about the topic to DO something meaningful with it.

Derive – using the knowledge you gathered previously, determine an understanding that is defensible and makes sense to you of how that knowledge fits together.

DO – once you have gathered, derived or what have you, choose some method of sharing/communicating what you’ve learned from the Doing tree.

BOSS – a question/task of notably greater difficulty than the one’s before, which is lead into by the tasks before and which is particularly suitable for group exploration (and group-based DOs).

In my next post, I will respond to questions/thoughts posted by readers and/or share an example of how I am structuring the “Doing” tree.

Gamifying Education – Theory and Practice

n recent months, stimulated by provocative books like Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken,” numerous blog posts and my own experience as a board gamer (think “Fresco,” not “Monopoly”) and massively multiplayer online roleplayer (MMO) in World of Warcraft, I have become more firmly convinced that course design (and indeed curriculum design) could be and should be informed by the same thinking that makes games so powerfully motivating for their players. This thinking is already in evidence at schools like Quest to Learn, where the curriculum is intensively gamified.

In the coming year, I will be testing this hypothesis in a class I teach called “America 3.0,”  a course in which high school seniors study the history of the United States, more or less, from 1970 to the present. In the past, I have structured the learning experience of the course conventionally, with me setting the learning expectations, directing students along a single, narrow path and telling only one story. For the coming year, I will be gamifying the students’ experience, bringing lessons from the board game and MMO world to bear on students’ learning. My intention is to open the study of American history to student choice, allowing them to develop a core understanding of the period while requiring them to make a deep commitment to learning a particular facet of the American experience. I make the following assumptions going into the course design experience:

Choice: As the course designer, my responsibility is to provide a meaningful, understandable and compelling structure that will stimulate and engage. Once I as designer have constructed the system, all subsequent choices are made by the students themselves.

Facilitation: If the design is effective, I have fundamentally and unalterably changed my own role in the classroom. If each student could be (and is likely to be) exploring a different “quest line,” it is not possible to use my comfort zone mode (lecture/discussion) for classroom instruction. Rather, I will need to be a “benevolent guide,” helping students understand and interpret what they are learning, so that they can make better use of it as the progress along the quest line they have selected.

Leveling and “Quest Lines”: A critical component of the MMO experience is leveling. Players level by completing clearly defined tasks in clearly defined quest lines that become progressively more difficult as players gain skills, knowledge and capacity to play their character. In order to be successful, the students’ experience in class has to be based on leveling as well.

“Level Bosses”: A key component of video gaming is the “boss kill” or “boss win,” – a big challenge that comes at the end of a series of smaller challenges. The leveling experience of the course had to have “boss wins” that would stimulate integrated and critical thinking.

Knowing and Doing: The core misunderstanding in our national obsession with high-stakes testing is that it places most of its values in the realm of knowing, rather than balancing knowing with doing. I entered the design process for this class seeking balance, but frankly valuing the doing more than the knowing. I argue that knowledge in a vacuum doesn’t do anyone much good really. Rather, once students understand something, what can they do with it? I will present students with the following formula: Knowing levels ask students to demonstrate that they know X about Y. Doing levels ask students to demonstrate that they can acquire knowledge X in a particular way or transmit or pass on their knowledge X  of Y in a particular way Z.

Level 100: The students’ end-goal in the course is no longer to “get an A.” Rather, the object is to achieve level 100. Students reach level 100 by completing  objectives in two quest lines: knowing and doing. My hope here is to explicitly decouple the experience of being in class and learning with the high-stakes reality of grading. By stating the object of the course in this way, I hope to provide incentive to students to work hard and skillfully, while providing a space for students with lower self-efficacy to achieve at the highest possible level, with the highest possible claims on their own motivation.

In developing the students’ leveling experience, I have made a number of decisions that about the structure of the course:

Knowing: The six branches of the knowing trunk are: Social Change and Reaction, Culture, Politics in the Age of Reagan, Foreign Policy (Facing Down the Soviets and the Discontents of Hegemony), Economics/Finance/Labor/Industry and Technology. Students will have the opportunity to level each of these knowing trunks from 1-100. The course requires that they level all areas to at least 10, 3 of the 6 to 20, 2 of the 6 to 50 and 1 to 100. Students do not earn any “gradable points” for the work they do here. Rather, they use what they acquire on these quests to “do.”

Doing: The doing trunk also branches six ways: reading, critical writing, critical speaking, modeling, collaborating and integrating. Students will earn achievement points by completing doing tasks/quests that are progressively more difficult. I define reading as the principle process by which one attains knowledge (and that lots of things can be treated as “reading,” like studying architecture, conducting interviews, etc. – that which is read is that which is cited). Critical writing, speaking and modeling are examples of where one cites (modeling is defined as non-written modes of non-speaking expression, like infographics or photography). Collaborating asks students to form ALTs (accountable learning teams) by which students will work together to solve complex problems (like level 90 and 100 boss wins), construct shared group learning identities and hold each other to appropriate standards. Integrating asks students to mashup or meld learning from multiple branches of knowing (like studying how the foreign policy and culture strands of knowing might be mutually reinforcing) or multiple branches of doing.

In my next post, I will share the first ten levels of each of the knowledge branches and an example of a level 100 boss win.

Driven By Mission

In the US, we spend a lot of time in our educational discourse talking about the wrong things. NCLB, state-standards, content obsession or skills obsession or 21st century anxiety or panic about the corruption of our system by wingnuts pushing a 21st century agenda which either works or doesn’t work, depending on your point of view (I am a firm 21st centuryer, in the interests of full disclosure). We have to remember that schools are not factories (even when they look like them) and they’re not prisons (even if they function like them) and their purpose is not profit or servicing the economy or turning out compliant/complacent zombies. They are also not test centers, meant to create reams upon reams of data that measure our children’s achievement of 19th century standards (provided they even tell us that, which, in all likelihood, they do not).

In the 21st century, effective schools will be those whose communities have developed clear, meaningful, powerful, transformative missions that place their goals and objectives for their students squarely in the school’s local context while being mindful of the inevitable statewide, national and global contexts. This is, in part, why the charter school movement has been so successful. Lots of well-meaning people do not want their children to be ground through a politicized, state-mandated curriculum that has little to do with stimulating a child to develop into a whole person and lots to do with complying with dubious objectives. This is also why great independent schools are great. They are clear about who they are and what they want to accomplish.

I want schools and their faculty, students, parents and broader community to commit to being driven by mission.

If I were to start a school, here’s what its mission would be. At SchoolNEXT, we believe young people learn best by doing. As citizens of the 21st century, we learn by applying time-tested wisdom to the opportunities presented by the transformative now. We respect ourselves and seek to live spirited, balanced lives. We dignify all members of our school, local, national and global communities and embrace our interconnectedness and interdependence as members of the human family.