Where the shadows lie

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.’

I DID MY HOMEWORK!!!

I DID MY HOMEWORK!!!

If anyone is reading this with any regularity, they are likely curious to hear about how the first semester of Classcraft-driven Latin went, whether or not I consider it a success, and what the students thought about the whole affair. That post is coming at a later date, but I wanted to take some time out today to ruminate on some ideas I’ve had while playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor.

As my post about King of the Hill demonstrated, I draw a lot of my inspiration from video games specifically, and as I’ve been getting deeper into the world of gamification, I have been trying to think more carefully about their design and how it might transfer to an educational setting. I am also in the process of tweaking and planning for second semester Latin, which will necessitate some new ideas, and I find that playing games is a good way to find inspiration.Shadow of Mordor has been a big hit, and something of a surprise hit for me since I started playing it a week ago. I should perhaps not have been surprised, since it has often most simply been described as Assassin’s Creed meets Batman: Arkham, both series that I enjoy, and, indeed, I have been eschewing AC: Unity in favor of Mordor since first I loaded it up. The player controls Talion, a murdered Ranger whose soul has been magically linked to that of a long-dead elf-lord, and joins the pair as they pursue horrible vengeance across the lands of Mordor.

The moral compass of the game—which requires you to murder, terrorize, and torture a host of orcs, and relies on the Manichean ethics established in the films to justify it—has rightly come in for some criticism, with Chris Plante on the The Verge declaring that it makes you behave like “the Jack Bauer of Mordor.” While such criticism should not be ignored, I want to focus on a few (specifically, three) elements of the game’s design that make it work so well, and that I think have potential for the classroom.

1. Flow

Like its forbear, the Batman: Arkham series, Mordor offers players a straightforward experience of the concept of “flow.”  I’ll leave you to follow the link for more detail, but basically “flow” describes the point where action, awareness, and expertise meet in an individual, such that they experience a sense of pure enjoyment from carrying out a certain activity. In its connection to principles of pleasure, it is integral to the way many scholars understand games; in its rooting in a strong sense of mastery, it has an intimate connection to education and the natural motivation students can experience in that sphere.

Flow is where games and education have one of their most powerful intersections, and such is one of the core arguments of Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken (2011), the first substantive discussion of the concept that I encountered.

The most basic mechanic of Mordor invokes a very basic feeling of flow. As in Batman, the player will be mobbed by a large crowd of enemies, and defeating them really boils down effecting to the correct alternation of strikes and blocks, based on signals given by the game. If the player times their use of just two buttons correctly, their avatar will become an unstoppable whirlwind of death, build impressive hit-streaks, and defeat battalions of deadly orcs. The feeling is quite satisfying, and an immediate lesson in flow.

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. As Talion gains XP, he unlocks new abilities for himself and his elf-friend, which broaden the range of actions he can take in combat situations. These extend the player’s options beyond those two buttons, and later confrontations will require imaginative use of this wider arsenal. By slowly extending the range of combat options—options that require mindfulness and an evolving mastery of the controller—the game extends the experience of flow, stretching the player and thus her enjoyment of the game.

As well as providing a neat example of flow in its most basic state, Mordor helped me reach a more holistic appreciation of its involvement in games. The game has some basic goals and rules, which essentially revolve around the targeted assassination of orc leaders, and leaves the player a lot of freedom in pursuing them. There is a high incidence of emergent gameplay, and in one assassination attempt I found myself almost overrun by the leader and his followers. When I disengaged from direct combat long enough to invoke some situational awareness, I began noting environmental features the game had taught me I could bend to my advantage, and was soon maneuvering my enemies so as to thin their ranks by setting free wild beasts or blowing up cook fires. The result was a more protracted battle, one that felt more cinematic and swashbuckling, but in which the ultimate victory was all the more satisfying. While the button-mashing of basic combat provides a visceral thrill, this was an altogether more intellectual flavor of flow.

I am still in the early days of thinking about flow, and how it can be used in class-design, but I think it has the potential to be a powerful structuring concept for any class, gamified or not. We talk about challenging students, but I don’t know how often we think about what the end of such challenge is; flow might have some interesting answers. I do think some element of flow exists innately in the Latin classroom—at least, in one that uses Wheelock’s Latin.

Wheelock (and, indeed, the 38 Latin Stories workbook that can be used to accompany it) both regularly sneak grammatical constructions into exercises that have not yet been covered directly (an obvious example is complementary infinitives and indirect statements). These are constructions that should already be readily familiar to speakers of English, and so they likely figure the student is capable of making an intuitive leap to gain the meaning of the sentence. Doing so certainly challenges the student to use all the intellectual options at their disposal to complete a task; what I have hoped all semester is that it also brings a sense of enjoyment when they do complete. Certainly, anyone who has studied Latin (or another language) has probably felt that sense of elation when things seem to ‘click,’ and the eagerness with which some students approach me to discuss their solution to the puzzle might indicate a flow-like engagement, but I would like to find ways to make them more aware of the potential to flow, in the hopes that they will come to seek it as an end in itself.

2. Using flow to sharpen

Another device Mordor borrows from Batman (and used with more granularity in Ryse: Son of Rome) is the way it trains the player to be more precise with the basic combat mechanic. Unbroken hit-streaks are an important factor in surviving the massive fights, since every 8 hits entitle the player to carry out an instant execution (or use another special power), tipping the scales more in her favor.

First-person, singular, perfect, active, INDICATIVE!

First-person, singular, perfect, active, INDICATIVE!

Early on in the skill progression, the player unlocks the critical hit ability. Up to this point, it has been possible to navigate most fights with some judicious mashing of the strike button with the occasional interjection of the block button. The critical hit ability rewards players for backing away from such behavior, choosing instead to focus more on the fight and time their input more carefully. From this point, if the player presses the strike button just once, at the point when Talion has just struck an enemy, she will be rewarded with a critical hit, one that does more damage and—critically—reduces the hits needed to activate an execution.

What I like about this feature is the way it first introduces a basic mechanic that players can happily blunder through, and then provides an incentive for honing their interaction with that mechanic so that they use it more wisely, with more awareness and with more intention. Even better, the reward is linked directly to the game itself, and simply enables the player to play it better. This has an obvious sympathy with Latin, where precision is key to success in translation. I have an upcoming post of one exercise where I achieved something close to this, but would like to pursue such challenges further.

3. Nemesis

At the very beginning of this series, I discussed some problems my colleague had encountered with what’s sometimes called a “gated” approach to learning, in which students are not permitted to move to the next module of a course until they have demonstrated mastery of a current module. One basic difficulty she had was students essentially war-dialling the quizzes that formed the gates to the next module, hoping to get lucky rather than applying themselves to mastering the skills under examination.

I am happy to report that Mordor has offered a potential solution to this problem, in the form of its nemesis system. Explained simply, one element of the game’s emergent gameplay is the rivalry it is possible to foment with its antagonists. In an elegant meeting of story and mechanics, Talion can’t actually die permanently because of his curse, and will simply regenerate at a nearby elven-tower if he falls in battle (this earns him the fearsome epithet ‘Grave-walker’). If, however, he does die, the orc that killed him will rank up in power and influence, becoming harder to kill next time and bolstering the ranks of Sauron’s army. This is an innovative way of ‘punishing’ player-death, and creates a richer experience in general. One particular orc captain has killed me three times in the game, becoming nigh-unstoppable in the process, and has been officially declared my “nemesis.” The reward for killing him has also grown, and I have a higher emotional investment in surmounting that challenge as well.

The nemesis system offers a simple tweak to the gated Latin classroom: each subsequent iteration of a particular quiz gets harder. This will disincentivize students from simply battering against them, and force them to approach them mindfully as what they are: opportunities to demonstrate mastery of specific knowledge or skills. A simple example would be: if quiz 1a asks them to conjugate one Latin verb, quiz 1b will ask them to conjugate two. This reduces the chance that they will “get lucky” and meet the verb they recognize, and require them to learn the systems for conjugating any Latin verb (the ultimate goal of the first chapters of Wheelock and of the Latin instructor).

Finally, if you are not familiar with the concept of nemesis, please let Brick-Top explain (NSFW).

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