Gamified Composition Class

Time: Entire Course
Gaming Principles: Information "On Demand," Skills as Strategies, Distributed Knowledge
Gaming Levels: Gamification, 

Tanya Sasser, in her blog post, “Gaming the First-Year Composition Course,” initially describes her reticence about using gamification in her classroom: “I’ve been [reflecting on] the concept of gamification for almost two years now and up until recently was still uncertain about how I felt about it and how it would benefit my FYC students, if at all.” Ultimately though, she decides to follow through with gamification as a means to “disrupt” the typical first year composition experience (Sasser).

In her post, Sasser cites two major influences in her decision to construct a gamified composition course: a TED talk by Paul Anderson and “Gamification: Bring Gaming Mechanics into Non-gaming Environments” by Adam Renfro. 

This second source is worth a bit more attention before we turn to Sasser’s work because she organizes the structure of her post around the Game mechanics Renfro outlines in his post.  Namely, he discusses: the story, clear goals, challenges, competition, defining the role, equipment, scaffolding, badges, level up, and leaderboards (Renfro). His basic idea is to use these gaming concepts to encourage students to see education as something other than laborious work. 

Sasser takes these categories and discusses how she would implement them in her class: “For me, the story is always supplied by a course theme." I'm not sure this quite live up to Renfro’s idea that the storyline should incorporate the goals of the class into a journey. In many composition courses, themes are overlaid onto existing goals rather than arising organically from them--themes don't create the journey then, but only illustrate it. Sasso suggests that “students write the “story” themselves, choosing which of the infinite plot lines within our theme they wish to pick up and develop in their writing (in much the same way that “choose your own adventure” books work).” I have a hard time believing this. If gamification is to work correctly, it should act as something beyond a new justification for old methodologies. If we look back to Jane McGonigal’s gamification of an oil crisis, the story plays out week by week with players responding to direct stimuli. It fundamentally changes the actions involved rather than just giving old ones new names. In a composition classroom, this level of engagement would require a much deeper investment in the initial planning for the course. A theme would not be enough; rather the actual assignments would have to work in tandem with the theme to demonstrate a developing system of action. For example, students might be tasked with developing resources to promote their hometown on its 200th anniversary. The assignments could easily build from journalistic writing to proposal arguments. 

While I have no wish to restate Sasser’s entire plan here, a few more examples of her design seem pertinent.  First, in response to Renfro’s idea of equipment, Sasser says that she has been replacing a traditional handbook to create her own collection of readings and multimodal texts on a wiki. While this seems like a solid plan to me, it also does not seem to be true gamification. Equipment, in Renfro’s definition, are tools. A handbook is certainly one type of tool, but it is reasonably limited (more complex tools might actually help students explore new ways of composing rather than just "fixing" problems). Instead of defining this according to game terms, it seems likely that students would first refer to the handbook as a reference item. To make them into actual equipment, there needs to be some method of developing student engagement with their use.  Notably, Renfro discusses allowing students to create their own tools.

Finally, Sasser seeks to expand beyond Renfro with the idea of developing a walkthrough for students:
One way that I’ve been experimenting with walkthroughs this term is by using one of the students’ pieces as a model for effective writing, then conducting a paragraph-by-paragraph walkthrough of the piece with me recording our discussion and marking up the text using the Show Me iPad app; once I post the link to the video of our walkthrough, students can revisit and watch it if they feel the need to do so. 

I agree that this idea might have some merit, but as in the other case, her use of game words here seem to be little more than window dressing. In my own class, I’ve used past student examples as models. I’ve also walked through these models carefully with students and given them written guides about what we’ve looked at. The digital element of creating a video might be helpful, but it doesn’t turn the exercise truly into something gamified.

Sasser’s class could very easily be a compelling and well-structured class. However, the gamification elements here demonstrate similar problems to those created by commercial ventures. How are the game elements actually changing the way that action is carried out? To rephrase this last question, we as instructors need to discover how to make gamification integral to the invention of our work rather than a new way of thinking about what we’ve already been doing. A possible solution might include a class themed on the critical study games. That way, the classroom itself can become, for the students, an item to critically analyze.

 Strengths of Lesson: 
  • Customized handbook could help students
  • Possibility of changing student expectations through modified grading
 Weaknesses of Lesson:
  • Tends to focus on appearance of videogames over aspects of gameplay
  • Playfulness and engagement might be limited

Works Cited

Renfro, Adam. “Gamification: Bring Gaming Mechanics into Non-gaming Environments." Getting Smart. 21 June 2012. Web.
Sasser, Tanya. "Gaming the First Year Composition Course." Remixing College English. 25 June 2012. Web.