Dungeons and bandwagons: Should your class be a Game of Knowns?

5th June 2014 at 14:38



It's like someone looked into my sinner's soul and pressed my launch codes. Shaun Young, a physics teacher in an American high school, has designed an online role-playing game (RPG) where his class can play as warriors, mages and healers. They accumulate experience points for doing well, which can be traded for such IRL power-ups as eating in class and – my favourite – Teleportation Spells, which allow them to leave class when they want. Yeah, some of my kids know that spell already.


But the dice roll ones as well as 20s; if their 'characters' do badly, they lose hit points, and can even die, resulting in detentions and sanctions. The teacher plays the Dungeon Master, and students – sorry, adventurers – get rewarded for working in teams. In fact, when a student dies, their whole team gets penalised, creating what is intended to be a powerful incentive to cooperate and collaborate. You'd have to have the heart of a Cave Troll not to be tickled by the prospect of this, like someone took my 12-year-old life inside and outside school and put them in a blender. Before I discovered girls and talking to people, I spent many days toiling over character sheets and Monster Manuals, long before Game of Thrones made it socially acceptable. I've done my time in Greyhawk.


But ineffably groovy as this sounds, I have more reservations than the bookings diary of La Gavroche about this whole educational approach.


Many of the claims just don't sound particularly well supported


“Typically, they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re mean, you’re giving me detention,’ and try and get out of it,” says Young. “Now, they’re like, ‘This is the game, it’s cool, I’ll go.’ You don’t even need to check if they’re going. They’re definitely going...Students don’t typically respond happily to punishments. But they are. It’s weird.”

Shaun Young 


That is weird. I will gladly journey to this happy Shire where children embrace their sanction rationally, and all disputes are dispersed biddably with the rules and dice, representing law and chance respectively. In the dull plains of Gondor where I work, children often know the rules, but reject their personal application or disagree on more emotional grounds. The RPG approach assumes the cool reason of the economist, but even some economists I know aren't especially reasonable. Plus, the assumption that it is reasonable to behave well due to the benefits of cooperation, completely ignores the free-loader effect, where individuals find it more rational to buck the system as long as everyone else doesn't.


The Fellowship of the Wrong


This leads to another problem associated with group work. I know it's become fashionable to believe that learning is incontestably better conducted in groups, despite the considerable evidence base that suggests it probably isn't. But there are difficulties with group work that every teacher knows about. Freeloading is the main one, and related to that is unequal loading, where one student performs most of the substantive work and three others draw knobs and text each other silently. Any system that only rewards group effort will bulldoze through this injustice, and even encourage it. It's the digital equivalent of the class bully getting the class nerd to do his homework.


Show me the gold pieces


Speaking of evidence bases, there aren't any to support the efficacy of this project.


Young doesn’t have any quantitative results to share yet, but many teachers using Classcraft are reporting success. “We have some really surprising statistics,” says Young. “We have teachers saying their class averages have gone up 20, 25 percent in the months following implementing Classcraft.” He puts that down to an increase in engagement due to three factors: offering significant rewards, providing a continuous feedback cycle, and encouraging a classroom dynamic rooted in collaboration.



I'm glad for him and his students. But it's hardly convincing. "No effect has been discerned," he seems to say, "But some people say it's great." Take my money! We could charitably say that maybe these teachers have seen short term increases in GPAs, but as John Hattie and others have often observed, in teaching, everything works, a bit, if the teacher and the class give themselves to the intervention, purely by the halo effect associated with wanting something to be successful. This intervention needs to be critically assessed against other interventions and across large samples before meaningful data can start to emerge. Until then, it's just enthusiasm and wishing really hard.


You are in a 10 x 10 room. At the far end you see a treasure chest. Do you open it? (Y/N)


And that brings me to an ethical bear trap: monetising the educational experience. This program is free to use at the moment, but a worring twist emerges when we discover that students can pay for avatar upgrades and power ups, just like Angry Birds. While the spend-ceilings are intended to be low initially, how long would that last? And the principle itself seems uneasily like the real world where economic differences between students lead to IRL inequalities of status and opportunity. Making the school dungeon master of that simply moves the problem elsewhere.


Einstein in 'didn't learn from KerPlunk!' scandal


And my central reservation with this World of Warcraft approach to teaching is that it's simply an enormous beard for real life – and a faff as broad as the Wall of the Night's Watch. Motivating kids is a topic so hot in contemporary education you could light your flaming torch from it. It's often assumed – simplistically in my opinion – that this means making lessons more fun, or reproducing environments where we know students are already having fun. But this misses the point. Learning is intrinsically valuable, but you can never make everyone like it all the time. Sometimes, learning is just hard work: in fact, it has to be. If it's easy, then I suggest you aren't learning a great deal, consistently. Hitting the books, revising, listening, working things out...these are all things that can be dreary and can be beautiful, but frequently they'll be as sexy as going for a jog at 6am in winter. Necessary, valuable, but not always fun.


I have no doubt that this puts petrol in the tanks of quite a few students. But you're teaching them that doing well is only important because you get extrinsic rewards. That doesn't develop a love of learning, and it doesn't encourage a love of the subject for its own sake, And grit, that other modern holy grail, isn't encouraged by dislocating the achievements of learning onto a virtual platform.


I have no issue with this teacher trying something new, particularly with students who might be at risk of dropping out entirely. But exceptional claims require exceptional evidence, and the evidence just isn't there to support the idea that the effects of gamifying the classroom couldn't be achieved by, for example, having high expectations of students, running the class with clear boundaries and, in general, doing what good teachers have done for centuries with their students.


There's little wrong with leavening toil with a little adventure, but injecting more than a little into lessons means, inevitably, more time spent designing your character's armour and less time learning about Planck's Constant. Our students can be hobbits of pleasant days and empty larders, or they can get out of their holes and learn. I wonder how Gandalf and Saruman got so wise? Maybe they role played accountants and actuaries.


Game Over