The idea of spending the better part of an evening with friends immersed in an interactive system of interlocking puzzles and strategy, while mutually maneuvering through a narrative, and competing against the crafty machinations of other minds envelopes me in warm fuzzies. The skill, the scheming, the tactics, the decisions and the marvel of it all — I simply love to play board games. Oh, the humanity!
The one thing I love more than playing games is tinkering with them. I spend a significant amount of my free time (and probably a great deal of other time that should be productive or actually free) designing games. To be honest, most of the time is spent examining someone else’s game design or turning a situation or subject into a game. I see a game in almost every situation and a game as a creative way to discover solutions.
William Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Well, I think Bill got it half right. We are all players to be sure. But, we are not just on a stage. We are up there playing a giant game with each other — or more applicably, playing multiple games simultaneously. That is how I see the universe, anyway. It is easy to understand why I pursue the idea of using games as a tool to teach.
It was to this end that I asked to sit in on a colleague’s bibliographic instruction (BI) session. Geoff Timms (Librarian for Marine Resources, College of Charleston), thought it was because he was going to get a needed colleague evaluation he could use to put in his professional packet. Boy, did I have him snowed. Actually, I was thinking of a way to game a BI session, and I needed to see it being taught in the wild.
I have taught BI sessions for many years myself. But, teaching and being taught are different experiences. I have learned that, as much as one conceptualizes how students perceive one’s sessions, these are preconceptions clouded in bias and largely self-fulfilling. Practically, they don’t amount to much in the way of useful data. I needed useful data. So, as the students filed into the classroom, I discreetly ensconced myself at a table in the back of the room and prepared to experience student perspective.
Let me start off by saying that Geoff is a native Brit, and his delightful accent gives him a leg up on anyone who talks regular American.1 Wearing a pirate costume would not have made him any more endearing. The session was about evaluating websites, and Geoff got the students’ attention right off by letting them know that this session was going to give them a great deal of CRAAP. Capitalizing on the smattering of groans he got, he quickly reeled them in by relating a brief tale of his English mother, how she came across some dubious information from the Internet and was keen to inform her son about it. Of course, this led right into (major course objective) to what degree one should “trust” such information. He had used the old trick of shifting “the blame” from the students (who, no doubt accepted a significant amount of Internet information themselves without confirmation) to an “obviously” somewhat clueless (to their mind) person who accepted (probably) biased Internet “facts.” Besides recognizing others (like their own parents or grandparents) in this anecdote, who doesn’t enjoy a good yarn about an English mother?
This brings us to a bit about “flow.” In game design, a major concept that informs an understanding of how and why a game works as it does is called flow state or more commonly, flow. First coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1975, “a flow state is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”2
Oh, that a BI session could be so.
While intently observing a class session in action, one can start to get the rhythm of the class as it ebbs and flows. It is evident early on if the class is in synch. Speaking as an idealist, students should not just “get it,” but enjoy “getting it.” There is no greater joy than students who give you their full attention, laugh genuinely at all your jokes, and become profoundly engaged with the session. This is rare. But, unfortunately, the converse “class from hell” is far too common, responding with only dead silence and blank stares.
The fault could be in the students (8am class), or the instructor (8am class), or the material (BI session) or some combination thereof. Can anything possibly overcome this? Perhaps a bit of judiciously applied interactivity?
As Geoff thundered on, I was furiously scratching notes into my spiral notebook (because analog is invigorating). My game-obsessed mind whirred into action with each point Geoff made that induced an interested twist of a student’s head. Indeed, Geoff’s every narrative pivot that coincided with a positive student reaction got my ink’s attention. When the students started answering Geoff’s inquiries with actual interest, my ludological3 mind ran wild across my notebook:
What about increasing student interaction by creating student teams with an interactive mechanic that allows them to quickly be acknowledged by the instructor and answer or respond to a question (without disrupting the “flow” of the class)? A blinking light? Create a method such that when a team responds to a question, that team advances and/or receives a point — could go in combination with a “leaderboard” / tracking chart that is visible to the class.4
In my mind, I was putting students into teams (competition), creating a quick and interesting way for responding to questions (blinking light or waving flag), giving them immediate visible feedback (tracking system) and an instant feeling of accomplishment (leaderboard). It was gamification if not an actual game. That could come later. Though many of these flash ideas may never see the light of day, they illustrate how understanding the flow and operations of a class session can generate potentially interactive game mechanics.
This session was basically a “chalk and talk” in which the information was explained and described, and there was little time for active engagement. The instruction itself was brilliant, and Geoff managed most of the time to keep all of them engaged. Still, my wandering eye detected one or two rouge websites and several instances of “phonus interuptus” (texting). Like most BI sessions across the land, keeping students engaged in a session is difficult. A more workshop, hands-on session would not itself have guaranteed the elimination of rouge activities. But maybe, by making a website evaluation game in which students had to uphold the honor of their team, while avoiding zombies, the students would be inspired to devote ALL of their attention to it. No doubt the game would necessarily involve blinking lights and a Pirate costume.
1. My editors want you to know that I am not completely daft (only partially). Yes, I know Americans talk “English.” But, is this phrase not cute? Ok, don’t answer that.
2. Flow (psychology) (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 25, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology).
3. Ludology is the study of games, the act of playing them, and the players and culture surrounding them. I don’t know if the adjective “ludological” actually exists or if it has ever been used in human history.
4. These are the actual transcribed scribblings that I frantically wrote down in Geoff’s session. Only writing in italics is not my strong suit. So, I put those in later for effect.