Gamify My Historian’s Craft

Gamification is all the rage. Operation Lapis show us what full-blown gamification can look like in the classroom; but if you’re not ready for that, there are other things you can do to introduce playful approaches to your teaching.

I find myself teaching ‘The Historian’s Craft’ this term. There are 100 students registered in the course, which unrolls over 13 lectures and tutorials. The course is one of our required courses, and introduces the second year student to the nitty gritty of being an historian – archives, transcribing documents, building arguments from documents; that kind of thing. Of course, with me being an archaeologist, I also slipped in quite a lot about material culture, visual culture, and landscapes.

Full disclosure: I was terrified to teach this course. My main concern was, how could a student ever hope to engage with the full gamut of tools, techniques, and approaches from a single class? As I was preparing the course, I came across this post by Richard Landers who teaches a social psychology course at Old Dominion University. Richard was interested in the social aspect of learning. He created a social network platform for his course, filled it with achievements and other aspects of social gaming, and watched what happened. (This pilot was so successful that Richard is using it as the seed for a $1.35  million project to explore the topic more fully. Join here!) And so the idea was set. I would follow Richard’s example, set up a social network for my class, and build achievements around the tools and techniques of being an historian.

Anastasia Salter has just posted on Profhacker some of the nitty gritty involved in setting up such a system. Like Anastasia, I’m using WordPress + Buddypress to handle the social interaction, and the Achievements plugin to create the reward system.Participation on the site is completely voluntary; it is entirely separate from the formal assessment exercises in the course. The name of the game: he who gets the most points, wins. Top quarter (more or less) on the leaderboard will see a (very) small bonus on their course participation grade. So all in all, the ‘gamification’ of this class is a pretty simple mechanic: a gold star, in essence.

Each week, I create a few more achievements which relate to the course lecture. I’ve assigned one TA to monitor the course site, verify achievements, and facilitate discussions on that site. Verifying achievements does take a bit of time, but once we showed students how to share screenshots, the process became much quicker. Some achievements are one-offs; others can have multiple levels. For instance, the National Archives in the UK has a series of progressively more difficult tutorials on palaeography; they also have a series on Latin. I’ve found exercises on critical thinking. The most recent is on oral history. Students also get points for starting new conversation groups related to the course content, and for sustained activity in those conversation groups.

Of the 100 students in the class, so far (and we’re at the midpoint now), 40 students have completed successfully at least one of the achievements. Thirty students have completed two or more; Twenty have completed three or more; and the remaining twenty students have completed ten or more achievements.  One student is gunning for all forty achievements (but there are still more to come). The most popular achievements? Palaeography and Latin.

The hardest part so far has been figuring out how many points to attach to each achievement. Do more points signal a harder task, or a task that will take more time, or a task that I think more important in terms of being an historian than some other task? Should I tell the students why some have more points associated with them than others? Should achievements be designed that are of equal importance to the course objectives (and thus maintain the same point value?). Maybe if I had definitive answers to these questions, I would have a higher participation rate.

Nevertheless, forty percent turnout for extra work above and beyond the course work? It’s worth gaming your craft to see what happens. It will be interesting to see how the final grades turn out: does participation in Historian’s Craft: The Game lead to better outcomes? We shall see…


  1. Some random advice from one game designer to another (you are designing a game, so you are officially a game designer now):

    The scoring system is there to signal your priorities and shape player behavior so that they get the most out of your game. In the game you are designing, difficulty and time to completion are external factors that you can only partially control. This is especially true when there is variblity in your “player’s” starting skill sets. So balancing points on those axes can be tremendously difficult. The higest point achievements for console games are offten there to highlight some aspect of the game that the creators wanted to make sure as many people as possible see, even if they are fairly eaasy to acomplish. Others have lower points but signal that there is something there, often thses tasks can be nearly impossible to acomplish. Long story short…give the most points to those tasks that most go towards the goal of the game (i.e. class), in this case being a historian.

    You should always be explict about the thinking behind scoring systems. People will assign some logic to it. If you don’t give your own logic, then they will create logic of thier own. And possibly be wrong.

    Lastly a note about increasing participation – I am a huge fan of many of the “Euro” board games that have balancing mechanims. These keep anyone from feeling like they don’t have a chance of getting back in a game once they are behind. You can do similar things with achievements. Some possibliities:
    1) Have rounds and reset the leader board at the end of each round. This way someone who has not participated yet can join in and feel like they are competitive. The person who ranks highest in each round still gets a sense of acomplishment for most rounds won, but others can come out of nowhere to feel like they won something too.
    2) Have the first few actions give greater rewards. When someone completes their 1st task – double points, 5th task – double points, 20th task – double points. The people who are more involved will always be the most invloved even if they get less points for it. By giving extra points for the first set of acomplishments you give people a better reason to try a little. “The first taste is free”.

    Good luck. I’m excited to hear how your experiment goes.

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