King of the Hill

This is the sixth in 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. Future posts will be grouped under the category ‘Gamifying Latin.’

Halo screencap by Alexander Ridler

Been silent for a little while. On top of teaching and a conference, I have had to put some work into job applications (yes, ’tis that season in every adjunct’s year). Given the sporadic nature of my posting schedule, I have decided to break from a synchronic account of this experiment and start dipping into some isolated experiences that I hope will be interesting.

I had always intended this class to run as something of a laboratory for gamifying language education. While Lee Sheldon and Classcraft provide powerful structuring ideas and systems for running a class as a game, it is still possible to run the multiplayer classroom very traditionally (if you want). So I have been playing with various ideas for introducing game elements into the classroom in disruptive and productive ways. Classcraft’s event system helps with this, as every class opens with a random event that can add new rules for the day’s meeting and helps to engage the students with the XP/HP/AP/powers system; the games master can customize these, but I have so far been using the stock set and they have been working quite well.

The events are all well and good, but I wanted something that would address the class material more directly. An opportunity came when a student asked if we could recap all of the names for syntactical uses we had covered so far in the class. My normal response would be to crowd-source a list from the class, but I wondered if there wasn’t a more interesting way to go about doing that. So I turned to the inspiration for this class: games, and specifically the games I knew. One of those is the Halo franchise, into which I have poured many hours in the past. I thought about how the multiplayer experience—specifically the team-based play—of Halo is organized, and drew some ideas from there. Ultimately, I decided to base a classroom exercise on Halo’s King of the Hill mode, in which teams compete to maintain control of a designated area of the game map. Instead of a hill, we would use the blackboard, and instead of battle rifles and Spartan lasers, we would use syntax.

We played the game loosely once, and then I went back to the drawing board (and to Halo) to tighten up the rules. We played it again yesterday, since we are at a nice juncture where Wheelock has just defined several new usages and there is a quiz coming up on Friday. I thought it went well, and what follows are the rules for version 2.0.

The goal of the exercise is to engage the class as a whole in generating a complete list of syntactical usages we have met so far. The gaming aspect is designed to promote engagement with the exercise and cooperation within teams, as well as to use competition as a motivator to produce a more complete list. I also see it as developing gaming/systems literacy, but more on that idea in a later post. Students play in their Classcraft teams, and I set a bounty of 200XP for the team who won the game. So the class as a whole was collaborating in an exercise that would ultimately benefit them all, but doing so in a competitive fashion that could benefit their team as well (I like to think this parallel structure is at work in a lot of what we’re doing).

In this game, the blackboard becomes “the hill,” and the winning team will be the one who controls the hill for 60 consecutive seconds. The game starts when a player steps to the board and writes up a correct syntactical usage (in this case from the first 15 chapters of Wheelock). I then start a stopwatch going. In my classroom, I had my iPad hooked into the projector, so we could all see the seconds climbing towards 60. If you can do this, I recommend it, as the students get very into watching the numbers climb, exhort their teammates to hurry, and breathe audible sighs of relief when it gets stopped at 59.75 (as it did yesterday).

The stopwatch keeps going until another player begins writing on the board. At this point I pause it. If the new player writes a correct, original syntactical usage on the board, they now control the hill; I reset the stopwatch and it starts counting to 60. If it’s not correct or it’s already on the board, the original player continues to control the hill, and I un-pause the stopwatch from where it was. I took this rule directly from Halo, where a team’s point accumulation is paused when a player from another team enters the hill-area (this is called “contesting” in the game); they have to fight until only one player is left, who will then occupy the hill for their team.

The games master as judge is an important part of this game. In version 1.0 I had played a less direct role, and we got a lot of parts of speech (e.g. “noun”) rather than syntactical descriptions (e.g. “subject”), as well as grammar from later in the book. I made calls on the fly about what was valid or not, with promises to discuss them afterwards if anyone wanted. They were fine with this, and more interested in making sure I was running the stopwatch correctly. Ultimately, I would say that one of the best outcomes of this game was to make a clear delineation between what are parts of speech and what are descriptions of syntax. Since Latin 100 is a very technical (dare I say, nerdy) enterprise, I think this alone was very useful.

The game started off pretty tamely, but energy built as the list on the board did. Teams could feel victory slipping from their fingers, and some players began mining the textbook aggressively for answers. This led them back to some of Wheelock’s nerdier notes (producing “protasis of a conditional statement”) and to the index (personally I always feel like I’ve got something right when I’ve driven students to look at an index!).

By the end, we had a near-complete, crowd-sourced list of Latin syntax, which I am in the process of typing up for them in preparation for the next class. The exercise got everyone paying attention to the board and to their books, and got students off their feet and engaging in a lively manner about Latin on a Monday morning. Some of them, I hoped, came to understand more fully the distinction between what a word is (e.g. “reflexive possessive adjective”) and what its role in a sentence is (e.g. “functioning substantively as the direct object”). I may run this again near the end of the semester; in my experience, exercises like this feed well off iteration.

The spoils of war!

The spoils of war!

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