Game design & Proficiency Assessment: LUHS students capture the adventure of the Renaissance

Are games really a viable option for assessing student learning?

The social studies department recently invited me to a meeting to deliberate this question.  Lively discussion ensued about how one might really assess learning by asking students to create a game.  Among the comments were these:

  • There is already a great game out there about trade.  Maybe we should just have them play Catan (formerly Settlers of Catan).
  • How much time is this going to take?  A test will only take part of the period.
  • I don’t know how it will look.  What do I tell students if they ask me questions about how to design a game?  I’m not sure I know how to do that.
  • And finally: we agreed to try this.  Let’s do it and see how it goes.

I understand the fear.  It is disquieting to ask students to do something that you don’t necessarily feel comfortable with yourself.  But.  BUT.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do, and you agree to figure it out together.  (See Innovator’s Mindset: risk taking.)  Here’s the thing: games are a second (or first?) language for our students.  They speak game fluently.  They know health; they know roles; they know many things about games you’ve never heard of.  The most important thing you need to know as teachers?

Students love games, and they can and will take your content and turn it into a game if you give them the time and some guidance.

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Trade routes & settlements: a game board in design

“I get it,” one teacher said to me when I walked into his room later that week to find groups in deep and eager conversation about their game design.  He looked at his room full of engaged–no, empowered–students, looked at me, and said, “I see what you’ve been trying to do.”  I’ve been working to help teachers take games seriously over the past couple of years, and it’s a goal often lost in the proficiency/personalized learning shuffle.  The real work has been in showing teachers that games aren’t something in addition to the changes they are making to implement Act 77; they ARE the change.  Just one piece, but one that deserves attention, because

games and game-like learning are excellent vehicles for meaningful content delivery and assessment.

Take the social studies proficiency that was the focus for this unit: P.I. 9 (Economics): I can analyze how economic globalization and the expanding use of scarce resources have contributed to conflict and cooperation within and among countries.  Perfect platform for a game, right?  Yes, Klaus Teuber already created something awesome, but let’s see what the students can do with this.  

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Classic Monopoly remade: Renaissance resources dictate a new take on an old favorite
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Candyland revamp: the Renaissance magic is in the cards
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Playtesting a take on Trivial Pursuit

While some students modeled their games after board games we know and love, some embraced their creativity and truly went rogue.  One group created a game where Heaven and Hell were the ultimate end–dictated by choices and currency exchange, often connected to churches.  (Interesting social commentary, too.)  Another group created a game based on settlements and trade routes whose success is dictated by not only the resources accrued but also by luck and happenstance.  While I reminded students of the importance of starting any good game with the ultimate learning goal, I also asked that they elect one member of their group to be the “fun police” (originated and coined beautifully by the Institute of Play).  They had a great time creating game mechanics that left players “dead” or headed back to start because of plague or other catastrophes.

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Bad eggs lead to death.  Good life lesson?

 

Sure, the games look good.  But are they good?

What are students really learning through game design?

Let’s talk about the proficiency first.  I took a stroll around the room of game designers and asked them to tell me how their game would teach players about scarcity, trade, conflict and cooperation.  Yes, there were blank stares.  But when I prodded a bit further, every student was able to explain in vivid detail how their game play addressed exactly those concepts.  Whether it was the act of trading resources of varying value, losing valuables to thievery during the New Age and gaining advantages as the culture shifted, or dictating card values based on resources, the students were able to explain how players would engage with the content.

A quick google form to garner feedback and reflection post-game creation also allowed students to reflect on the proficiency:

proficiency reflection

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Travel through the Ages: resource allotment from Renaissance to Reformation

That content holds a place in students’ overall education, but in my mind,

the true power of game creation is in the focus on transferable skills.

Here’s what two students had to say about how game design helped them practice communication skills:

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And problem solving:

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Is it worth the time commitment?

If you want students to delve into deeper learning, you have to provide the time and space for them to do so.  While you may not know how long it will take, or how it might look as things unfold, or if you’ll have the answers students seek, I implore you to

 give yourself permission for things to get messy

for there are tangible rewards on the other side.  Take the risk.  Cannonball.

 

Resources:

Institute of Play’s Game Design pack : in-depth game design guide brilliantly designed & executed

Game design handout for students : the handout used by the social studies department for this unit.  Thanks so Amanda Denison for creating it!

Global Games:Breakout EDU & The Hero’s Journey

Every hero’s journey begins with a call to adventure, and we answered it with a Breakout game.  My teaching partner, Whitney, and I cannonballed a long-distance, multi-place game that took our students through a bold “edventure” of their own.  

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Breakout box & letters (photo credit: Whitney Kaulbach)

Here I take you through day by day, sharing our experience and offering up lessons learned.

Our goals were to connect Vermont students with students in the Dominican Republic, to teach them the story structure of the hero’s journey (HJ), to explore facets of Identity, and to inspire their love of learning through games. We created a ten-puzzle prototype that led students from the call to adventure through the journey to an eventual return home.

Our most daunting task began before the game even started: to take something of value from our would-be student heroes. Thinking abstractly, we decided to “steal a memory” of a proud moment from their lives. Requests were sent to parents to contribute to a form letter that could be printed and kept as a final prize.  With this task underway, the game began.

Day One: Students took their seats and we explained that our goal in the next two weeks was to discover the power of the hero’s journey through game play, and that they would work together to do so.  We encouraged them to be curious, to ask questions, to collaborate, and to persevere.  Then, because setting up the game properly is incredibly important, we paused for a moment, adopted a sober tone, and started with this:

“I have been informed by The Hero that something of personal value has been taken from each of you.  You may not know what it is yet.  You may not be aware that it is lost, but it has indeed been taken.  It is my understanding that you will receive the object upon successful completion of difficult challenges.  

A message has been sent to you with further instructions.”  

This was a risk.  Students have to believe in the story of the game.  They have to be curious.  They have to want in.  And we have to risk being out of the ordinary.  We hoped to see confused looks and curiosity piqued, and we did.  Students dove into their emails looking for “further instructions,” and there found a primer for the game: a link to a dossier.   

The dossier triggered a gmail confirmation: see the game master for the next challenge. When approached, we gave each group an envelope with numbered puzzle pieces of the respective flags of Vermont and Dominican Republic, a small Breakout box, and an iPad with the Locks app set to a color code lock.  The game was in full motion.fullsizerender

Students scrambled to make sense of the puzzle and the first connection between our two groups.  They eventually discovered the relation between the flags and the numbers, and successfully broke through their first lock.

We set the color lock to open a Chatterpix, which told students to run! to their library with the clue GNFYANG.  Some realized that their clue was a call number which led them to copies of American Born Chinese by Gene Yang, inside of which was a QR code linked to challenge questions.  The reading of the graphic novel took our class through the remainder of the first Breakout day.

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Check out these faces as this group realizes that their clue is a call number.

Day Two was rife with challenges for the most patient heroes.  After finishing Yang’s novel and accompanying reflections, students traced a clue to the lock opening the small Breakout box.  Inside, they discovered a black & white copy of a map, a flashlight used for reading invisible ink, and another QR code linked to Petra. Our daily lesson tied the Hero’s Journey to one element of identity (spirituality), to guardians, and to journey.  Google Street Treks (Petra) provided a virtual tour of this place that has drawn many a hero over time.  

At this point, we as game masters presented the large Breakout Box complete with a hasp and three locks on a front desk, giving students a sense of the scope of our study and game. Students smiled (or gaped) and returned to the heady work of the Petra challenge, using this guide to locate map points related to the directional lock.  

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As with any class game, play it through first so you can anticipate where students may struggle and have answers for them. Thus we saw necessity in revisiting the guardian stage and the journey through a portal to a special world.  Students savvy with the invisible ink/ flashlight enjoyed searching the room for their portal: a table of talk times with students from the other country.  

Day Three: students reviewed the structure  for conversations and plunged through a portal/ video chat with students from another country.  For all involved, these video chats were one of the very best parts of the game. Each country had a question and half of a URL needed in the next challenge, but only revealed it after discussion about the meaning of true heroes. By combining each half of the URL students could move to the next lock.

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Day Four: With the URL now in hand from their long-distance partners, students discovered a seven-minute physical challenge and choices to explore gender as it relates to heroism.  Digging deep to find the part of themselves that defeats self-consciousness, they risked push-ups and planks in front of their peers to follow the calling.img_6280

Day five: My long-distance partner, Whit, was ready to test our heroes’ patience.  After solving the riddle buried in Google’s Arts and Culture Institute, students faced finding a grail within the school.  Although they wanted to tear through the halls looking for it, we offered them a structured challenge to earn the location: work together to create a HJ word wall, and in return, receive pieces of a photograph showing them the way.

img_6285The grail held the key to another lock on the hasp.  The final word lock was revealed in a Padlet exchange–an asynchronous meeting as compromise since we could not find another time to meet live.  There, we shared both clues and photos of our ideal heroes. And in the box was the final clue: a rhyme hinting at the location of that which had been taken in the beginning of the journey.

Day six was our heroes’ return home.  Students were invited to the highest offices on campus where administrative teams met them to unveil the letters.  Admittedly some students were hoping for candy, but all who read the letters blushed with amazement and joy, some even shedding tears. A few nodded as they understood the deeper level of what this experience represented, and requests were made to keep the game going. img_3775-1 

This prototype of interactions, communications and problem solving was so much more than a box of locks or a reading and a graphic organizer. It was an experience–an adventure, even. Already we are exploring changes and collaborations with schools in other countries for next year. Everyone teaches the HJ; why not make it a truly shared experience?

Apps and tools used: 

Gone Home: Reading a game in English class

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Photo credit: The Fullbright Company

In a word, creepy.  That’s what it was.  It was my first thought as I ventured into the unknown territory of The Fullbright Company’s award-winning game, Gone Home.  I’m not a gamer, despite the fact that I understand the value of games in the classroom.  Although video games are not my forte, I have had an incredible time playing and learning along with a group of seniors this month.

I sent out an email to a colleague sharing the inspiration I had stumbled upon in Paul Darvasi’s all-encompassing approach to incorporating games in his classroom.  At first, she replied kindly and expressed her appreciation and fear at the idea of using a video game as a text.  I didn’t hear back from her.  Until a few weeks ago.  There is something about the end of the school year that gives teachers a certain sense of freedom to try new things, and I was so happy to hear it.

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My co-teacher exploring the game

Her trust in me allowed us to jump right in.  Our focus would be on character development through game play.  How do game developers create and develop characters?  How is it similar and different to an author’s approach to the same task in a novel?  How might you “play a story?”  These questions guided our exploration.

Briefly, Gone Home is a first person video game where players discover the story of the Greenbriar family.  Kaitlin Greenbriar, the main character and player’s point of view, has just returned from a one-year trip overseas.  When she arrives home (late at night during a storm), she discovers a note from her younger sister Sam and an empty house.  The endgame is to discern what happened to Sam, who has disappeared.  Through exploration of the Greenbriar mansion, players learn about the family, the house, and eventually, what happened to Sam.

IMG_1662I borrowed heavily from Darvasi in order to get started, following his suggestions to stick to the foyer on the first day and encourage limited exploration in order to familiarize ourselves with the game and gameplay.  I had a crew of ten seniors, two of whom were accomplished gamers, so sticking to this creed was a challenge at times.  I wanted to level the playing field for at least the first day, inviting gamers and non-gamers alike to understand the mechanics of the game: arrows move you around, fingers on mouse pad to look around, control to crouch or stand up, and shift to pick up objects.  Those well versed in game play had the two main commands down in a second; newbies (like me) took some time smoothing out movement through the house.  There were many things to discover within just the foyer, and in fact, play starts outside of the house with a locked door.  The first real challenge is figuring out how to get into the house in the first place!

With the lights turned off in our small lab of Macs, we adopted Darvasi’s approach to annotating the game and started collecting evidence of our discoveries.  (Screenshots for objects were challenging on the Macs because the commands to do so were the same commands needed to control the game movement.  We punted; students used their iPads to take photos of their screens when needed, and it worked beautifully.)  Students dove in, and the room became eerily quiet as they bravely opened doors to dark rooms, hunted around for light switches they couldn’t see, and tried not to spook when the thunder clapped in their ears.

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An artifact found in the foyer
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One of our gamers cruising through the foyer

We took a few moments at the end of the first class to talk about what they had discovered.  They noticed that like any good story, the exposition becomes clear with quick exploration of just the foyer itself.  Players meet the family and are provided with hints of possible conflicts to come.  By the end of the period, our seniors had a clear idea of the characters, conflict, and mood of the game and were champing at the bit to keep playing.

Because the foyer is really the only place in the house that is somewhat contained, game play from this day on was simply guided exploration.  Again following Darvasi’s lead, I asked that students choose a group of characters to explore as they made their way through the Greenbriar mansion.  Students took screenshots, practiced annotation, and collected evidence of character development, all of which was demonstrated on this doc.  In all honesty, the actual document wasn’t completed until the final day because they couldn’t. stop. playing.  Struggling to engage and challenge learners?  Here are a few snippets I overheard as students discovered the many intricacies of the Greenbriars’ story:

“This house is huge.”

“I found the kitchen!”

“OOOOHhhhhh!  I knew it!”

“I’m starting to wonder if this is a mystery or not.  Whoever created it could be leading me astray.”

“Clues could be anywhere.”

And finally, one of the best: when bell rings: “I wanna keep doing this!”  IMG_1665

On our final day, we circled up and processed.  “It made me cry,” one of our senior boys said.  “I was just so caught up in her story.  When I got to the end, I cried.”  We talked about how the game creators had to have mastered character development in order to evoke that kind of emotion.  We discussed how the characters were created through found objects in the game, organization of the house, and audible journal entries.  Multimedia approaches to character development were prolific, and it was absolutely delightful to hear students as they discovered secret passages, revealing letters, and those heartbreaking journal entries.

Video game as narrative is a valid form of media in the English classroom, and if Gone Home is any indication, we should be paying close attention to games as new media.  (This game in particular is probably best used with older students, as there are some mature themes and discoveries along the way.)  Using games as true content delivery methods  has long been an interest of mine, and I was so appreciative that one English teacher was willing to take a chance on this.  I’d encourage you to do the same.

 

 

Game on! Personalized learning, meet your new bestie.

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Me in all my sweaty glory under a tree that smells heavenly.  Can anyone tell me what it is?

So I am training for another half marathon, and beating myself up about not running enough, but when I do run, it’s in some incredibly sweet places: up the side of Mt. San Jacinto, through Golden Gate Park, and alongside the unparalleled pacific coast most recently.  Aside from getting in shape, these miles are for processing.  For some things in my life, there just aren’t enough of those miles, but I do accomplish some decent planning for school.  On a recent run, I recalled my visit to Epic–a middle school in its second year of awesomeness.

Epic is aptly named.  Francis Abbatantuono, their director of personalized learning, took a significant chunk out of his day to meet with me and two of my colleagues on a recent visit to NorCal.  His passion for game-based learning and education in general was apparent, and I sat in awe listening to him recall his journey over the last few years as a founder of Epic.  It kicked into high gear when they won a Startup Edu competition, and has grown into a successful middle school model with future plans for growth into high school.

What brought me to Epic was their focus on learning through and with games, and they do so with a focus on the hero’s journey.  Students receive their handbooks in the late sIMG_5620ummer, but in contrast to the standard thick brown envelope full of multi-colored random pieces of paper to be signed, their handbook is beautifully crafted, and sets the tone for the school year with a story: “…you are one of the chosen ones,” the story tells students in its opening pages.  Framing the challenges ahead as a call to action, the story acknowledges the work ahead, but ends with questions about identity.  “How did you become who you are?  How did you achieve all that you have?” and the story’s answer is this: “In time, you will reply, ‘I became Epic, because our world needs heroes.'”  How awesome is that?!  That’s adventure, right?  In the pages that follow, you meet Epic’s sages, like Francis here, who are all tricked out in game gear and looking epic themselves.  Now that is an introduction to the school year from which we can all take some cues.

In fact, it has me wondering about how we can apply this to our personalized learning plan (PLP) process in Vermont.  I hear plenty of whining these days from students about PLP’s, and it’s clear that there is a disconnect between the intent of PLP’s and their implementation.  At Lamoille Union, we are fortunate to have some rock star teachers planning the rollout, and they have offered many resources and inspiration in an admirable attempt to support faculty in this venture.  Still, students are complaining.  So I’m wondering how might we adopt some of Epic’s awesomeness and take the power of narrative and games for a spin when we launch the second year of PLP’s?  How might we reinvigorate the PLP’s by deeply thinking about next year’s launch?  What if we framed the school year as an adventure quest?  (I’m picturing our school entrance and lobby designed with student engagement and inspiration in mind.  There is art.  A lot of art.)  How might we integrate badges into PLP’s?  Using a platform like Schoology, it would be relatively seamless.  How might we integrate the power of games into our classrooms and programs in order to increase student engagement?IMG_5586

Epic grants badges for various accomplishments tied to their three foundational principles: safety, responsibility, and respect.  Each badge has its own rewards, and some badges can be combined to create a new badge that holds higher level rewards.  For example, the Hacktivist badge is earned when a student has a Maker and a Catalyst badge, both of which are earned separately for their own demonstration of skills.  What if students were combining their PLP badges to demonstrate proficiency in transferable skills?  “Look, Ma!  I earned a physical health badge for the marathon I ran, and a community service badge for my erosion project.  I can demonstrate grit with these!”  Badges give students something concrete to connect their learning to their goals, and thereby help them understand how to tangibly demonstrate skills acquisition like creative problem solving, grit, and communication.

Some people run for the same reasons they play games: competition, strategy, skill, coordination…I run to think.  And I think I might be on to something with layering game principles onto our PLP’s.  We know games are engaging.  As a state, Vermont has set out to personalize learning in an effort to reach all students.  The two ideas seem like a natural fit.  Many thanks to Epic (and my Brooks) for the inspiration.

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Class agreements, hero style.  Nice use of chalkboard paint.

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