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Can education be made into a game?

Embassy of Time


Gamification. It's a word that has been thrown about a bit this last decade. Most just use it to describe awarding points for trivial or easily ignored tasks, to encourage people to do them. Points for cleaning the house, keeping a score on your pedometer or whatever fancy new fitness-on-my-wrist is popular, workplaces trying to foster ambition with prizes and competition. People are realizing that adding aspects of games to things can easily and cheaply push people to do more. But I have yet to see anything be truly gamified, i.e. turned into an actual game. It's a weird concept to wrap your head around, so let's try to boil it down a bit. Firstly, we focus on something I actually know a bit about, education (I'm a tracher). Not fitness, not work efficiency, just learning academic stuff, like biology and history. Second, rather than trying to add point systems to everything in an attempt to turn it into a progress bar (I love Khan Academy with all my heart, but their scoring system just feels so weird....), let's take an actual game and see if we can use its ideas to bridge the gap. I am avoiding computer games here, simply to keep it a bit, well, simple. To make it an actual effort, let's take something that does not remind us of academia, which sadly games like Trivial Pursuit do. Let's take the surprisingly popular comedy card game (with tons of expansions) Munchkin, from Steve Jackson games.

The essence of Munchkin is that you have some cards that you can use to give a fictional character abilities. You then flip random cards to find monsters to kill with those abilities, to take stuff that gives you more abilities. The game ends when someone has grown strong enough to have a "level" ability of 10 (20 if you use Epic rules). What is fun about this game? Well, in my experience (and for honesty's sake, in my opinion), there are these funnies of playing Munchkin:

- The content humor: Munchkin is based on cards. Each card has one thing described, like a skill, a weapon, monster or a treasure. These are described and designed with puns and satire of genre gaming like fantasy, pirates, horror etc., mostly rooted in old-school tabletop roleplaying. So you may have to fight a zombie or a dragon. Or you may have the very easy fights against a potted plant or goldfish (yes, those are real monsters in the game). You can use cards to modify yourself and the monsters, like fighting an ancient and undead potted plant with your fancy battleaxe. Cards may seem to contradict each other (ancient and somehow yet young dragons?), but a part of the fun is just the ridiculous situations set up by the mix of cards, easpecially when other players use their cards to influence a fight. Which beings us to...

- Cooperative sabotage: To keep others from becoming overpowered and winning, players can influence fights and alter each other's characters, either helping out or throwing wrenches in the gears of one another's plans. This is probably the most strategic part of the game, figuring out which cards to keep and when to use them on others, or yourself. Allainces are fleeting, enemies are forever!

- Creative overview: Part of the enjoyment of the game is to simply see your character, and the character's arsenal of tools, grow. There is a clear element of hoarding in this, with weapons and armor and magical or techie gadgets accumulating on the table in front of you like a physical character sheet (which I just now realized it actually is). Building your gear and dealing with other players cursing or otherwise messing with it is a whole side-game, with much of the humor and cooperative sabotage from the main game working just the same.

I chose to ignore the purely social aspect of playing a game with friends, because that is a bit harder to quantify and honestly a bit outside the scope of this relatively short piece on the topic.

How could we transfer the fun of such a game to academic studies? The first obstacle might technically be the least important, but it still seems, to me, to matter: Narrative. Munchkin has a simple story: You and your 'friends' (whom you may beat the crap out of in the process) are hunting treasure, and you go kicking down doors in a dungeon/spaceship/haunted house or whatever to find it. Monsters show up, you deal with them. Easy enough, right? So can we do something similarly simple to explain having to deal with mathematical equations and historical eras? And do we make them competitive, or just single-player? Some ideas, off the top of my head:

- You fell asleep while studying for a test. Now your brain is trying to put a ton of stuff together, hunting the knowledge in your head like treasure.

- You are competing against fellow professors for tenure. Hunt down the coolest academia for your next publication to impress your univeristy!

- You are starting a civilization from scratch. Knowledge of the ages is needed to advance, possibly tech-tree or skill-tree style.

There is also the option of not having a narrative at all. Randomly drawn cards of words, chemicals, social movements or the like can be combined Rube Goldberg style into bigger things, and the biggest thing wins.

The next part becomes the rules structure. Essentially, this is easy: Getting certain cards raise or lower some kind of stats, which are used to get more cards. The question is what raises or lwoers what, and how are new cards gained (I am sticking with the card analogy, for simplicity's sake). The simplest model is to just draw randomly, but where does learning come into it? Each card may teach by recognition ("oh, the first punic war, I got that last time, too!"), but the real power of a game is in the use of cards. Combinations can be used to learn how things fit together (words, atoms, historical events, etc.), or cards may be traded for something they contain or cause, or something from a similar category (swap your adjective for one already in play, not only giving you a more useful card but maybe making someone else's played sentence more nonsensical; break a molecule down into atoms, if you have something that lets you do so; swap Pinting Press for one of its consequences, Libraries, to advance your technology score). This is the strategic part of the game, resource acquisition and trade. It also includes the overview, as it means having a lot of things that you can use, if you can keep track of them. Limits to trade or belongings can help define the game, and cards may alter them. This is very basic, non-gamification game design, so I will not go too much into it.

And then there is the goal, how to win the game. Honestly, there are too many options fo rme to list, from reaching certain scores to managing some central task, to wiping out all other players somehow (or making them join you).

It should be clear that this entry is very much a set of questions in my mind, not a set of answers. I have thought about these things for years but never settled on any truly great answers. I am very open fo rinput and would love to get a small discussion going on creating games like this, with education in mind, without making traditional "school games" like Oregon Trail and others that are too much school and not nearly enough game....


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