Tensions ran high as a stern detective interrogated a group of American students at a Beijing police station. The questions were fired in Mandarin, but the students stood their ground and responded in kind. This was not a scene from a blockbuster thriller or an episode of Locked Up Abroad, but the final exam for the Mandarin and Chinese Culture class Lee Sheldon designed at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Using Mandarin-speaking actors and an elaborate backstory involving a stolen manuscript, Sheldon worked with the course’s instructor to deliver the class as a narrative-driven game that immersed students in Chinese culture without ever having to leave the Troy, New York campus.
Sheldon is no stranger to the art of crafting narratives, and his unique classes mark the convergence of his multifaceted career as a screenwriter, author, producer, game designer and academic. While working as a writer in Hollywood, he penned over 200 episodes for TV classics like Charlie’s Angels, Cagney and Lacey and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He transitioned into game design in the mid-1990s and then to academia when he accepted an offer to teach screenwriting and game design at Indiana University Bloomington.
“After a couple of years teaching and becoming increasingly bored—I feared my students were as well—I tried to think of a way to make the classes more interesting to all concerned,” said Sheldon. His “Aha” moment came when he thought to re-conceive his game design class as an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), a complex live-action game format he had experimented with during his days as a game designer.
A look at an “interrogation” and how students speak Chinese with actors in this alternate reality game:
The university lecture format has remained virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages, but the demands of the modern world are causing institutes of higher learning to do some serious soul searching. Efforts to innovate new models for college education have led to flipped classrooms, in-class student respond systems, sophisticated online courses, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and multimedia lectures–and now games have joined the fray.
The 2014 Horizon Report on Higher Education, an annual NMC publication that identifies and predicts education trends, states that games are “gaining support among educators who recognize that effectively designed games can stimulate large gains in productivity and creativity among learners.” Professors are not only using video games as course material, but there has been an explosion of college-level game design courses. This speaks to the increasingly important role games play in modern society, or what professor Joost Raessens from Utrecht University terms the “ludification of culture.”
“Good Morning. You all have an F.”
Sheldon would start his first game-based class by announcing “Good morning. You all have an F.” His student’s initial shock and dismay quickly gave way to enthusiasm upon further explanation. Unlike traditional grading systems that erode from a perfect score, the class would mirror the “level up” model of video game scoring. Students start at zero (the proverbial “F”) and work their way up by earning experience points for a variety of tasks and activities. The experience points system is much more forgiving of failure than traditional grading, and it encourages mastery. Students can keep working to build their score towards a respectable grade, rather than suffering permanent and potentially demoralizing setbacks from unalterable missteps.
The model’s success led Sheldon to write The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game, which has become required reading for educators and designers who seek to deliver classes as games. The freedom to fail, rapid feedback, progression and storytelling are the most consistently engaging game elements when applied to learning environments, according to a 2013 analysis by professors Andrew Stott and Carman Neustaedter from Simon Fraser University.
Transforming the grading system in Sheldon’s class was only the beginning. Students became players, the professor was the Game Master, group work was carried out in guilds and assignments were delivered as quests, all held together by an engaging storyline. Sheldon has since designed over a dozen different classes as games, with plot lines that involve alien abductions, traditional Kung Fu tea ceremonies, a future of genetically-enhanced humans, and even a saga about an Irish family immigrating to Mars to teach engineering.
“The learning objectives exceeded my wildest imagination,” said Sheldon. “The average class grade went from a C to a B. The average grade for midterm exams has either been A or A-. Class attendance is almost perfect.” He noted that students were visibly more excited about their classes, carried out extra work on their own, and enthusiastically competed and collaborated. “It was so successful students not in the class were begging to be allowed to audit it,” added Sheldon.
One of the virtual elements of the Mandarin Chinese class: