Tie And Jeans

Badly Gamified Classroom

So I’ll trumpet the value of teachers crossing the streams of classroom craft and personal interest, but I want to recognize the risks involved.

Success comes form mingling areas of deep content knowledge, exposing and exploiting structural similarities. If you try that with surface level knowledge, you can dig yourself a double-deep pit.  I sure did.

After a few years of teaching I stumbled into the tail end of the Forge-RPG community and the early-mid part of the indy/story game explosion. Although it’s been abandoned by real RPG theorists, the Game/Simulation/Narrative trifold model had a profound effect on my teaching.

Like most new teachers, I was developing my practice in the space between the obvious influence of my (superb!) mentor teachers and my own internalized (often unconscious) experiences as a student. My personal classroom “innovation” had been to phrase and present many of the traditional classroom routines as “health bars” and “super meters.” I was reskinning a process I had found bewildering and arbitrary as a student in language that was more personally palatable.

That some middle school kids wouldn’t immediately grok how bulletin board of homework keys signaled when the next quiz happened didn’t even occur to me. That it actively worked AGAINST my stated goals for how students would learn to play with mathematics was absolutely invisible. Looking back, I had gameified my classroom using nothing but construction paper, but still managed to anticipate all of the nasty, extrinsic motivation problems we’ve seen explored in badge-laden startups over the last few years.

It’s not that classroom activity maps exactly onto RPG theory. Rather, playing Sorcerer / Dogs in the Vineyard / etc showed me that the mechanical structure of an RPG system mattered, and could really shape what kind of game emerged from play. That revelation pushed me to examine my teaching practice again, to see my classroom structures as modest tweaks to a system that expressed radically different goals. I had built house rules that emphasized a version of “winning” math class, while I was trying to present math as a “story” of personal learning and discovery.

The next few years were messy ones. I lost all of my high-concept bulletin boards, lost the routines and structure that had expressed the day by day tempo of the classroom. What started to emerge was the core of my new teaching practice, focused on helping students find new, personal, empowering stories to fuel their learning and discovery.

Andrew Watt is correct when he recognizes that educators are game designers of sorts. (I also appreciate that the story that led to his contributions to Exalted are a classic example of the benefits of farting around online).  Like RPG designerns, our best work happens when we’re honest and clear about our all the paramaters of our creative agenda.


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