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Playing games with learning

From cards, to gaming consoles and table-top family classics, gaming is something I’ve always loved. My favourite genre is the RPG, role-playing game, where you can select an avatar and journey through fantastical worlds in heroic fashion. Puzzles get my brain fired up with frustration and huge satisfaction when completed. The extremely nerdy Magic the Gathering franchise is another niche joy I share with a select group of friends who embrace its near-endless permutations of tactical combat approaches.  

More recently, friends introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons. For the unfamiliar, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of pick-your own themes, adventures, avatars and gaming-style, all wrapped up in a socially-driven RPG package. Over the holidays, we played a session where our Dungeon Master* (game-designer, adjudicator and arbitrator) featured the Irish president (Michael D. Higgins) as an evil necromancer. While laughing, we navigated several battles to overcome the dark magician using every bit of cunning and skill we could muster.   

What does all this have to do with teaching and learning? As we delivered the most recent Digital and Blended Design course, one of the activities prompted learners to review a video on narrative teaching design and learner journeys.  

Online Learning in a Hurry Guest episode 9 – Angela Gunder 

In the video, Angela Gunder explores her idea of storifying learning so that it “unfold[s] like a narrative that they’re actually a part of”. She continues to explain how this helps learners situate themself within the learning in a way that fosters personal connection and gives them a greater desire to return with motivation to future classes. David Cornier teases out how this plays out across units. Intended learning outcomes (ILOs) are framed as concepts or knowledge that allow students to cross learning thresholds towards the next stage of their learning journey. It’s an accessible way to think about programme level design. 

For David, content-driven teaching delivery is about representing the shared thoughts of the discipline as a “choral voice” with “many experts who [contribute] different perspectives”. Angela adds that this allows teaching to “make meaning together” with students and teaching staff where “we learn together and construct knowledge together”. She speaks passionately about both learner and educator agency here, using the metaphor of the “hero’s journey”. To do this, heroes need to be clear about what the learning challenge is and that ally heroes (fellow students) are on different parallel journeys at the same time. This prompts thinking about the roles that each learner takes, how their personal motivations are created, and how success is predicated on collaboration with others.  

This is similar to how a game of Dungeons and Dragons plays out. A Dungeon Master* creates an imaginative situation for players to explore. While they may have a particular journey in mind, they facilitate players’ creative responses to the situation. Going off-story and creating unexpected innovative solutions to problems are celebrated. For example, a goblin battle may seem inevitable, but players might work to combine their skills to avoid a fight and instead trick the goblins into a deep trance. In this case, the point is not that the story wasn’t followed as per the original design, but that players used their imagination to overcome a grand challenge or wicked problem through combining their skills in innovative ways. The result is less important than the journey taken. 

Bristol educators have produced several papers on wicked problems and grand challenges, adding to long-standing higher education discourse on interdisciplinarity, and thematics such as sustainability. Gamification approaches add another tool to meet these ambitions. No matter the discipline, educators can employ gamified pedagogical perspectives and methodologies to embrace new ways of engaging students, challenging them to apply their learning in unexpected ways. 

Reflection in the Digital and Blended Design course 

The video inspired discussion on the idea of learners as superheroes, sometimes working alone and at other times collaborating to accomplish shared goals. One discussant imagined students as Marvel Universe heroes, each with their own skills and expertise. From Deadpool, to Spiderman and Black Panther they have their own origin story, key attributes and independent franchise but they can also work together to defeat supervillains (grand challenges/wicked problems) and recognise the value of collaboration. As one of the discussion-thread contributors notes, this perspective also allows students to recognise that they are not working alone either. In this period of remote learning, creating learning environments that promote a sense of cohesion, collaboration and connection is vital. 

Realistic style drawing of Marve's heroic Avengers, with supervillain Thanos at centre.
The Grand Challenge of supervillain Thanos, circled, surrounded by superheroes (Source: “Avengers Thanos Concept”, Ryan Meinerding, Marvel Studios 2018) 

Bristol educators and gamification of learning 

Taking inspiration from gaming and gamification of learning is something Bristol embraces.  

In Health Sciences, gamification was used to help students in anatomy, dental and veterinary courses tackle the difficult subject of Histology. Using BILT funding, Frankie Macmillan and Zoe Palmer created Histo-link, a picture card game, to help students engage and learn in a fun way. 

Since 2018, staff in the Digital Education Office have held several events and community of practice get-togethers to explore gamification. A rich archive of resources and reflections is available on the team’s Education Works blog. Staff are invited to get in touch with Chrysanthi Tseloudi and Suzi Wells to learn more and discuss ideas for new approaches (digital-education@bristol.ac.uk). 

*Note on the word ‘Master’, my friends and I don’t like it and prefer to use the name of the game designer, but I included it to avoid confusion when explaining Dungeons & Dragons. Others like to use the terms ‘storyteller’ or ‘guide’.

Further resources 

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