Gamification of Chemistry: Phase 2 – Mechanics

There is some debate as to the best definition of “gamification,” and in education, there are some who would prefer not to use the term at all. In its broadest sense, gamification can refer to the application of any elements of games to an activity that would not otherwise be considered a game.

In education, gamification is an umbrella term for applying game mechanics to learning activities. The hope is that these two pursuits will combine to create an experience that takes advantage of the engagement of gaming to improve education. Unfortunately, this can sometimes result in disparate elements being spliced together without a deeper plan for how they are related. This usually produces an experience which is neither engaging nor educational.

For me, the best examples of gamification are those that engage users in such a way that they enjoy tasks that we would otherwise consider boring or unpleasant. In my current project, chemistry class meets the boring/unpleasant threshold for many, if not most of my students. However, if I could turn the class into a game, I hope to turn their learning experience into something fun.

The format that I have chosen to work with is a quest-based role-playing game (RPG). Each player will choose from a set of “classes,” which will be related to different riles within the story of the mission (i.e. engineering, environmental, medical, research, command). These classes serve multiple purposes within the game.

First, choosing a class gives students the ability to select a role that seems interesting to them based on their prior knowledge or future goals in science.

Second, the classes allow for the creation of flexible teams for group activities. Some quests will require all of the members of the engineering team to work together. Other quests will involve mixed teams, with each class being represented. Finally, there will be quests in which members of different classes will work toward solving one piece of a larger puzzle. In these quests, the goal will only be achieved once players seek out and collaborate with members of the other classes.

Finally, the classes act as a mechanism for differentiation. There will be some quests that are only available to members of a particular class within the game. These missions will focus on different aspects of chemistry based on the interests of the players in each class. There will also be optional missions that can only be unlocked by the combination of completing prerequisite quests and being a member of a particular class.

Beyond the quest format and classes, the RPG will incorporate two major game mechanics: experience points/leveling and achievements.

Experience points (XP) are a fundamental component of RPGs. Players earn XP by completing specific tasks, and when they earn a sufficient number of XP, they level up. In the chemistry quest, levels will be represented by a combination of scientific and military ranks. Tentatively, there will be a total of 10 ranks that can be attained. In order to earn a passing grade for the first term, players will need to level up at least once. Leveling up a second time earns an “A” for the term, and so on. Each quarter requires a player to level up twice. A player who does not earn the necessary XP in a particular term will need to catch up in the subsequent term in order to earn an “A” for that quarter. The two additional ranks will be earned by completing the midyear and final exam “boss battles.”

One of the advantages of the XP model is that it is different from the “traditional” grading system in two key areas. First, it is based exclusively on positive reinforcement. Players never lose XP. They can only gained points. Rather than being subjected to the typical stress that comes from seeing points deducted for each error made, players will have the reward of seeing their XP increase each time they finish a task. Second, the XP/quest model allows students to experience challenges without fear of failure. A quest is only over (and XP awarded) when it has been completed correctly. If a quest is not completed satisfactorily, the player will receive feedback and make another attempt. No points are deducted. The goal is mastery, not perfection. In this way, students can get formative and make iterative changes. This is not only a hallmark of gaming, but it is also a more accurate representation of the scientific research process.

The second major mechanic will be the implementation of achievements. Achievements will take the form of awards and badges. Awards can be earned by accomplishing specific “feats,” such as five quests in five days, or completing their first team quest. Awards can also be stacked – the two awards mentioned in the previous sentence could both be earned simultaneously upon the completion of the same quest. Badges represent theme-based accomplishments, such as completing all of the measurement quests in a unit. The criteria for each achievement will be clearly stated from the start of the class, and all of the achievements that are available will be visible in an inline “trophy case.” This will allow players to see which achievements they have completed, which ones they are close to earning, and which achievements are still possible. It will also allow players to pick and choose the achievements that they might want to focus on next.

All of these mechanics need to be contained in a system that makes them accessible, easy to track, and wherever possible, to be managed automatically. The system that will be used is the topic of the next entry.

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