For a couple of weeks in college, I pretended there were writhing mounds of deadly, poisonous snakes in the middle of the dorm hallway, and you had to walk right next to the wall, on a very narrow not-real ledge, to escape them.
It amused me. That’s my superpower. Amusing myself.
What made it a game was that I convinced a few other people to walk along the wall and shriekingly warn others who were walking in the middle.
I knew the game was awesome when I saw a couple of gamer types from down the hall, the Dr. Who guys, we called them, walking tight along the wall. I hadn’t told them about the snakes, but someone had.
I still spend a fair bit of time amusing myself, but I’ve added to that a layer of thinking hard about games. Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken is blowing my mind in really terrific ways, and I’m understanding gaming in ways I could never have imagined in the late 80s, when my cousins Jamie & Josh asked me to watch them play video games and I almost always said no. I just didn’t get it. I get it now.
This semester in my composition classes, the default topic is whether the success rate in ENG 102 would improve if it were re-imagined as a game. (Students do have the opportunity each semester to choose their own topics, but if they botch that by missing the deadline or not following directions, I get to pick.)
There’s a basic problem, however, in this concept of course-as-game. McGonigal lists four things that make something a game: goal, rules, feedback system, and especially the idea that it’s voluntary.
ENG 102 is a required course. Still, you might view college itself as voluntary, but most of my students don’t see it that way. They’re being told by people they know and by the world that in this economy, they have to go to college. (Whether or not that’s true is a whole different column.)
In my favorite totally voluntary addiction, Candy Crush, if you complete a level, but barely, you get one star. Depending on how much I enjoyed the level, I might let it slide at one, or play again and again to get to two or three.
What if a C in ENG 102 were one star? And once you got there, you could move on—be done with the course and focus on other courses? What if you could get there by midterm? And then “level up,” if you worked hard enough, to a B? Or to an A? It seems possible to me that would emphasize the voluntary nature of excelling.
We’ll see what my students and I can come up with on that front.
Next up, inventing a game for elementary-age students to play at recess that will keep them out of trouble, lower the incidence of bullying, and improve their reading and writing and math skills. Wouldn’t that be epic?
(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley. The January issue is available in MANY, MANY locations in southwest Wisconsin; when the the February issue comes out, I’ll post my January “Pedadgogy Stew.”)