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Lee Sheldon, associate professor in the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has developed The Multiplayer Classroom model.
Photo by Jonathan King
Game designer discusses value of games in the classroom
October 23, 2014Tweet
A brave young bard, a court jester and a motley band of heroes embark on an epic journey. The stakes are high, and their fate rests on the success of their quest.
It sounds like something out of a roleplaying video game like World of Warcraft, but it’s not. It’s just the way Lee Sheldon, associate professor in the Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, organizes his classroom — as a game.
“We have been using storytelling to teach since the dawn of time, the same with gameplay,” Sheldon said. “And if you do these two right, the students learn almost without knowing they’re learning.”
Sheldon talked about his groundbreaking teaching style, known as The Multiplayer Classroom, and more during a seminar held in the Fine Arts Building on Oct. 17. During his hour-long presentation, Sheldon, a noted game designer and writer, discussed how simulations and games can be used in a course to engage students and enhance their learning.
He kicked off the seminar by discussing the history of gameplay and education. Incorporating games into the classroom is nothing novel, he noted — and it’s not something one should take lightly.
“It’s a craft that has to be learned, just like teaching is learned. You don’t start off being an expert in any of that,” Sheldon said.
He pointed out some poorly designed games (like the one that teaches students what they need to get into college by having them move a shuffling zombie around the screen to “catch” good grades) and noted that balance is key when designing games for the classroom.
“Gameplay and pedagogy have to support one another,” Sheldon said. “Gameplay and subject need to fit together.”
Sheldon discussed how he developed The Multiplayer Classroom model. He had just arrived at Indiana University and, totally new to academia, had no idea what to do. Reflecting on his experience as a professional game designer, he realized that he could design his entire class as a game and actually engage his students.
“I thought, ‘I’m really bored, and if I’m bored, the students must be bored, too. What can I do to change that?’” said Sheldon. “And then I thought, ‘Well, dummy, you’re a game designer. Why don’t you design the entire class as a game?’”
Rather than hand out letter grades, Sheldon gives his students experience points (XP), units of measurement used in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, to signify a player’s progression. He starts the first day of class by welcoming students and telling them that they all have an F. He then tells them that they can build XP and work toward an A.
“The idea is that by doing it this way, they’re not focused on A’s and B’s,” said Sheldon. “And because A’s and B’s are kind of meaningless, all you’re doing is adding. You’re not falling back.”
“It’s embracing the idea of failure,” said Andrea Marcagel, instructional designer at the CLT. “In a game, if you screw up while you’re on a raid or something, you just do it again.”
To further invest students in the classroom experience, Sheldon has them create avatars, which gives them a virtual presence in the game as well as a physical presence in the classroom. Students can be knights, magicians — whoever or whatever they want to be.
Sheldon’s model falls in line with the CLT’s approach to active learning, Marcagel said.
“He promotes active learning,” Marcagel said. “The students are engaged in the class. That’s what we’re all about at the CLT, helping the faculty design their class so that the students are engaged and active, and not just sitting there.”
After the seminar, audience members took part in a hands-on workshop in the Center for Learning and Teaching’s new Learning Studio, where they designed their own class as a game.
Myra Sabir, assistant professor of human development and a narrative psychologist, took part in the workshop. She doesn’t plan on making her entire classroom experience a game, but she does plan on incorporating more games and storytelling into her teaching.
“Everyone readily connects to narratives − stories are what we are and what we do,” Sabir said.
Ann Fronczek, associate professor at the Decker School of Nursing, said that the concept of gaming as a teaching strategy has tremendous capabilities to engage students in material.
“I think this could be done on a small scale for an individual class or for an entire semester,” she said. “It could be a unique way of creating some pretty awesome transdisciplinary experiences for students as part of coursework or as part of solving some other type of unique problem that may occur in the real world.”