Gamifying Latin 2.0

This is a sidebar to an ongoing series of entries about my experiments in gamifying the Latin classroom. In doing so, I am relying heavily on Classcraft, a web-based classroom-management system that facilitates my multiplayer classroom. All posts will be grouped under the category ‘Gamifying Latin.’

At first I wasn’t sure about the gamification aspect of this class but overall it was innovative and it helped me stay motivated and attend the whole semester.

The gamification was really fun. It made me want to do well not only for myself but competitively.

[Latin] is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. But Classcraft was an interesting and motivating tool that encourage me very much.

The gaming style the class used with Classcraft was effective to show individual and group work. The class formed a great camaraderie in the formed teams.

This class is unique in that your grade can only go up because of the Classcraft program.

If you read the evaluations from Fall 2014, gamifying Latin with Classcraft was a complete success. Students reported enhanced motivation across the board, including those who had difficulty keeping up with the material and achieving well in the class; the latter also took ownership of their own role in not studying enough (although Beloit students are often honest about that on anonymous evals). The only critical comments about Classcraft encouraged me to work out the kinks and present the game more efficiently throughout the semester, and one student had a complaint about their grade being visible to the whole class. One. Out of nineteen. To me, this was more than counter-balanced by the final comment among those quoted above, which suggested that at least one student had bought into the illusion of grading performance by attrition: that grades only go up in a gamified classroom (for more discussion of this, see my earlier post).

This positive response was off-set by a large decline in enrollment from LATN 100 to LATN 105 (the second semester in the sequence): from nineteen to five. As I’ve mentioned before, this is a situation somewhat motivated by the institutional structure where I teach, but I had hoped gamification would work sufficiently magically to retain more students beyond the requirement-filling first semester.

I remain undaunted, however. My own experience with Classcraft and the kind of feedback I got from students have me convinced that it is a powerful way to enliven the Latin classroom, so I find myself here, at the start of Fall semester 2015, beginning anew with another crop of students (twenty-two this time), committed to making this method work even better than before. My hope is to tighten the core mechanics while improvising even more.

I have been buoyed not just by my experience of last year, but also from doing more reading about games-based learning. I mentioned in my (unfinished) report about GLS 11 that I had been given some pause by the talk of gamification as merely “chocolate-covered broccoli,” and the limitations of “pointsification” (in which I surely indulge) vs. so-called “deep gamification.” Perhaps the most vocal critic of gamification is Ian Bogost, whose blog-post “Gamification is Bullshit” is frequently cited (although if you can track it down, I highly recommend reading his chapter “Exploitationware” in this book instead, as the blog-post is but a dim shadow of his more fully developed argument).

The thrust of Bogost’s criticism is that “gamification” is a misnomer for a cancer that has begun infecting corporate, commercial, and educational culture, which at best overlays a veneer of achievement over mundane activities and at worst leverages this veneer to encourage unhealthy or unethical behavior from employees, customers, and students (hence his preference for “exploitationware” as a better way to describe Foursquare-like systems).

More positively, he argues that true gamification would be an approach that uses the mechanics of a game to teach or advocate for the system they reflect. This idea—what he calls “procedural rhetoric”—is advanced in much greater detail in his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames:

I call this new form procedural rhetoric, the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures. (10)

Procedural rhetoric, then, is a practice of using processes persuasively. More specifically, procedural rhetoric is the practice of persuading through processes in general and computational processes in particular. (16)

While I began reading “Exploitationware” fully afraid that Bogost would annihilate my convictions regarding gamification, it actually helped me realize that the Latin classroom is innately suited to gamification on the MMORPG model (which is what Classcraft offers).

The core mechanic of the (MMO)RPG involves performing tasks, receiving rewards for performing them, and becoming more able as a result of those rewards. These games have a trajectory of harder and harder challenges, that the increasing ability of a character (gained from tasks and their rewards) enables them to overcome more easily. Often, the character becomes more able in those areas in which the player chooses to make them practice (e.g., the more spells you cast, the better you become at casting spells). The level of the character is a reflection of their ability to overcome challenges of varying magnitudes.

This is, a course, a direct reflection of the process of language acquisition, particularly in the case of a language we learn to use for reading (rather than speaking or writing). Students learn increasingly complicated grammar, and are confronted with increasingly complicated translation challenges. At the end of semester, they must face a challenge of significant import, and their learning up to that point should correlate directly with their ability to overcome it. And just like a wizard, the more they practice a given skill (verbs) the better their facility of it should be. The pairing of Beginning Latin with Classcraft thus perfectly fulfills Bogost’s criteria for meaningful procedural rhetoric.

Bogost’s analysis of Ninja Gaiden seems particularly apropos:

 

All told, the game teaches players how to transform skills into strategies, and to turn failure into success. Ninja Gaiden serves as an especially salient example of this technique owing to the game’s characteristic difficulty. Unless the player learns the game effectively, he will never get very far. (253)

The only place the analogy to NG isn’t perfect is the degree to which the player’s level in my class completely reflects the likelihood of their passing the final challenge. I’m not sure that a direct correlation between level and proficiency is possible without a gated classroom (which would work like those sewer snakes I could never beat in NG), something I’m still not willing to try (despite my new ideas about it).

I’m not complacent, however. One of the things Boyce et al. call for in their study of “deep gamification” is more “paidic” as opposed to “ludic” play—the former being more freeform play and the latter play within a rigid set of rules. I understand paidic play as both being less rigidly controlled, and as giving the player plenty of leeway to fail and learn from failing. Bogost again:

Returning to our previous examples, a constructivist might understand Microsoft Flight Simulator as a game that teaches professional knowledge through “performance before competence,” a concept of pedagogical apprenticeship. Such an attitude might very well catalyze interest in aeronautics, but more generally it encourages the learner to experiment within knowledge domains freely, without fear of incompetence due to incomplete mastery. (252)

I think I have ludic play pretty much covered with the structure provided by Classcraft, and so this semester I will attempt to introduce more opportunities for paidic play, basically by shifting further towards a flipped classroom.

The basic structure I’m adopting works like this: students go home and read a new chapter, meeting new concepts, and attempt a couple of exercises that involve those concepts. They then come to class, and collaborate in their Classcraft teams to review those exercises and complete a related challenge. We then segue to a whole-class discussion where they can ask me about specific things that are confusing them, or I can reinforce some part of the material I think requires it. Then they go home with more exercises based on the new material, with the aim of mastering it. I’m banking on the recurrent cycle of student -> team -> professor -> student to aid language acquisition, improve learning, and make for productive (and playful) collaboration. Hopefully knowing that they will be confronted first by their peers, then by me, will give students the license “to experiment within knowledge domains [more] freely.” I will report back!