The play’s the thing

“Playing in the digital age” was the subject of a recent podcast on Australian public radio’s “Future Tense” program (which I highly recommend). This wasn’t another story about video games and their cognitive effects, but about ‘play’ in more broad terms: the freedom to innovate and take unpredictable actions within a rule-bound system, whether it’s snooker or sonneteering. You can do novel and unexpected things with others within the alternate space of a game, outside of ordinary life.

But there’s another dimension to games, one that this “Future Tense” program captured well: they’re not necessarily an alternate space, but a ‘layer’ atop ordinary life that changes its character. Games that are integrated into the activities we do regularly, or habitually, change our habits by encouraging some and discouraging others.

Update on 2015-05-20: A recent “Hybrid Pedagogy” podcast on the topic of play in higher education, is also worth a listen. 

Consider the university course. You (the student) succeed if you do your homework, come to class, ask questions about the material, and reflect afterward on your learning. It has the elements of a game, an alternate world with arcane rules: come to this room at this time for these weeks to discuss these chapters in these books. Innovate within the rules of learning and writing and reading and research, and you’re rewarded with a grade and a level-up – which is game-speak for the prerequisites you’ve just earned for more advanced courses.

So how you add a game ‘layer’ to a course? I did it recently with an assignment designed to capture and encourage the activities that engaged students normally do anyway, the energy and interest they bring to course material.

In an introductory-Shakespeare course English 205 this past term, my students had an assignment that encouraged them to play with ideas. I used a badge system, which I describe here and introduce here, to award 15% participation grades to students in the course. Badged don’t compel engagement: they’re a layer that captures engaged activities. After all, what fun is a game that you’re forced to play? There has to be an element of choice, of opting in.

The 10 badges were for a wide range of activities in 7 categories (laid out in this spreadsheet): completing quizzes; speaking in class; analyzing texts; creating sonnets or new scenes or movie posters (here’s another) or podcast episodes; attending and reviewing plays (here’s another); annotating texts; recording dramatic readings; summarizing articles; discussing the course on D2L; compiling YouTube videos; illustrating texts (or even me in mid-lecture!); cooking dishes from plays; editing Wikipedia; introducing artifacts in the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The results, if you follow those links, was a flowering of creativity and engagement on the course blog: 418 posts from 88 authors. Many of their posts went way beyond my expectations. There are too many to highlight here, but some that come to mind are the sonnet that was as personal as anything Shakespeare wrote; the notes a student shared about her efforts to illustrate the texts; the series that a student wrote from her hospital bed, culminating in her personal appeal for the community to extend beyond the course’s end; and the text-adventure video game about Shakespeare’s most famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.

When you induce students to exhibit their creativity and engagement, you get results like some of the extraordinary posts I’ve highlighted. The badges in English 205 were one way to do this.

You also gain an understanding of the people who have congregated in your class, bound together by common expectations and rules and experiences, ready to experiment with different modes of expression, to post their drawings and confess their anxieties and transcribe their conversations.

But the game needs rules. If you set up the parameters of a badge system well and monitor it regularly, it can be a success. In future posts, I’ll address the specifics of both of these systems (setup and monitoring), and the lessons I learned in each case.

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