Gamification of Chemistry: The Journey Begins

We, to be totally accurate, the journey began in my mind about 18 months ago. Or maybe it really began 10 years ago when I started teaching. Or it could be argued that the journey began more than 40 years ago, depending on how you look at it.

I was born in the same year that Nolan Bushnell founded Syzygy Engineering, which became Atari a year later. I can vividly recall my first experiences with Pong and the Atari 2600. I spent countless hours programming text-based adventures on a TRS-80, hoping to emulate the thrill and mystery of Zork. My father was involved in the computer industry from its earliest days, and I absolutely inherited the early-adopter gene from him. So much time and money was spent in arcades and gamerooms during my formative years that I shudder to think what its value would be today. What I do know is that I still spend more time gaming than my kids do – which, compared to a tech-immersed 10- and 7-year old is really saying something. There has always been, and still is, something about gaming that provides moments of escape, challenge, elation, and satisfaction that is matched by few other pursuits.

Given this background, it is probably no surprise that, even before my career as a science teacher officially began, I knew that I wanted to make the learning experience fun. Chemistry is a tough subject for many students, but I have always felt that there was much of that difficulty that could be overcome if learners could get past the fear and see the underlying concepts for what they were. My instincts told me that there was value in play, and from the beginning, I looked for ways to change the focus from the unfamiliar, obscure realm of electrons, Avogadro’s number, and VSEPR to something that the students could connect with and enjoy.

Part of this process involved using demonstrations and inquiry-based activities, while another part of the process involved games. Some games were simple: having a technical term of the day for students to translate. Some games were more involved: electron configuration Battleship. Some games were borrowed and adapted, while others were made from scratch. Some worked. Some didn’t. I was always looking.

Fast forward about 8 years. Still teaching. Still searching. I was in the process of applying to the Doctor of Education Program in Educational Technology at Boise State University. As part of the process, I had to conceive and articulate what it was I really wanted to do when I “grew up” in an educational technology sense. My initial answer was that I wanted to create an immersive, adaptive virtual environment that would allow learners to explore and experience science at their own pace and without fear of failure.The environment would adjust in real time to the needs and abilities of each student, offering assistance or ramping the difficulty as appropriate. The more I thought about it, the more it began to sound like a game.

Things really crystallized during a course on Games and Simulations with Dr. Chris Haskell at Boise State. Dr. Haskell designed the entire course as a game. From beginning to end, students completed quests, earned experience points, badges, and awards for completing work. The evidence of learning provided by each student was largely determined by the students themselves. Within certain parameters, a product could be anything we wanted, a video, a blog entry, an infographic, etc. As I worked my way through the course, it occurred to me that all of the games and activities that I had been using or attempting to use over the years were great, but I needed to think bigger. Could I create an entire, year-long chemistry curriculum in the form of a game?

That is what I plan to find out. And the attempt will be chronicled here all along the way.

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