Of Carrots and No Sticks; or, on Teaching Digital History with Gamification

Mar 13, 13 Of Carrots and No Sticks; or, on Teaching Digital History with Gamification

I’m teaching HIST3812: Digital History (Games and Simulations for Historians) this term.  Past experience has taught me that whenever I actually try to force students to learn some digital skills – to do digital history – I encounter pushback and resistance. Why that should be is fodder for another day, but I wanted to quickly outline here how I introduce digital skills (or at least an appropriate mindset) with all carrots and no sticks. That is, with gamification. (Once the course is over, I plan to discuss whether or not this has been successful).

The class looks like an ordinary class (but for the subject matter); but I grafted a quite clearly self-conscious gamification element to it (but hopefully in a non-Bogostian sense of ‘bullshit‘). The self-consciousness is part of the plan, actually.

XP: Level Up Your Game (a COMPLETELY OPTIONAL experience)

XP -experience points- may be earned by performing any of the tasks listed in the ‘Level Up!’ folder for a given week. They may only be performed during that week. These might involved doing programming tutorials, modifying scenarios or simulations, trying out things in Codeacademy, and yes, playing games. XP can be traded in for a bye on your blogging duties for a given week, or for an extension on certain assignments, or, for those of you in the top third by XP, a small bonus on your final grade.

Your final documents will be posted online and brought to the attention of the history & games community. The three that generate the most interest (as measured by retweets, likes, or other social media metrics) will receive an XP bonus. I intend to ask PlaythePast.org if they will publish these ones.

The exchange rate for XP is the following (subject to change without notice)

A bye on your blogging duties in a given week (may be used once) 80 XP
A bump on your final participation grade An amount proportionate to all of your XP, towards 2/3 of this grade
An extension on your critical analysis document, 1 week 100 XP
A bonus on your final grade An amount proportionate to all of your XP, to a maximum of 10%; no XP may have been traded in for this to take effect.

In the best traditions of EULA agreements in the MMORPG world, I reserve the right to adjust these exchange rates without warning or notice, to better adjust effort with reward.

The initial few xp challenges attracted perhaps 10 of 40 students each week to give the various challenges a try. I would sometimes award XP at random during classroom discussions, when students made particularly good points. Random reinforcement is always a useful tool. I’m thinking I might start awarding them to students based on their blog postings – Chris for instance turned his post into a ‘choose your own adventure’ through judicious use of internal links, showing not just engagement with the material, but also with the structuring of narratives in IF and other kinds of digital media.

Later challenges in the XP folders try to give students a taste of some of the meta-historical skills that particular digital or trans-media experiences are built on. How do you solve an ARG? You have to think like a historian. So I built a (very small) ARG like experience for them. XP will be awarded as students manage to penetrate the mystery, to different degrees.

Penetrate the mystery? Different degrees? Levelling up? Sounds like the Illuminati… or a Bachelor’s of Arts in History. The unexpected consequence of my XP experiment is that the students are becoming keenly aware of the way the university system, publishing, scholarly knowledge online, can all be understood as games of different kinds.

So, so far, so good.

(Carrot & stick image: wikimedia commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stick_and_carrot.svg)

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