By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
The year is 2055, and our world is broken.
No one knows how it all began. Some say it started with a monkey bite in the jungles of South America, others claim it was a military experiment gone wrong, and still others blame the outbreak on alien invaders.
What the survivors do agree on is that our world will never be the same again since the zombies arrived.
However it began, the zombie apocalypse shows no sign of ending. The undead are too great in number and too powerful for mankind to hold out any hope of ever eliminating them altogether. Small communities, known as guilds, exist in pockets here and there, scavenging the land for food and supplies – but they are too scattered and divided to pose any real threat to the zombies.
There is no government, no civilization, no free market, no hope. The only thing that remains is them and us. The only thing left to do is survive.
Those are the words that I used to start my ENG 102 class this semester.
Class as a Multi-player Game
From there, I went on to describe to the class that although they might look like ordinary students sitting in an ordinary classroom reviewing an ordinary syllabus, they were in fact competitors in a multi-player game called Zombie Survival.
They would be expected to form guilds, scavenge for resources, maintain their barricade, and fight back the zombie horde.
All the while, they would be learning to write.
Of course, I was nervous as I brought one of my favorite hobbies–gaming–into the classroom in a way that I imagine my students had never experienced before. Sure, they’ve probably done Jeopardy review games and the like, but I doubt they had ever been immersed in a class in which the entire semester was gamified.
My trepidation was bolstered (at least slightly) by the experiences of Lee Sheldon and Karl Kapp, whose books I had recently read. Sheldon, a video game designer turned college professor, authored The Multiplayer Classroom, in which he recounts the many iterations of his gamified class over several semesters, sharing his ups and downs, successes and failures. In The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, Kapp explores the theory and practice of harnessing the motivational power of games for education in many fields, not just academics.
These two had made it work. Research had proven the effectiveness of gamification. So, at least I knew that I wasn’t trying something completely off the wall.
But would my students buy it?
The Rules of Play
So, you’re probably wondering just how exactly Zombie Survival works.
Well, I’m no n00b when it comes to game design. I’ve been making games for as long as I can remember.
In fact, in 5th grade we had to create a board game as part of a book report, and when my teacher saw the quasi Dungeons & Dragons, multi-layered, Shining Force-inspired roleplaying game I was making to report on J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit, she told me to tone it down a bit. I grudgingly created a traditional progress-around-a-rectangular-board game instead.
But I digress.
The rules for Zombie Survival are relatively simple:
- Players are divided into guilds.
- Guilds have stats to determine their status in the zombie apocalypse (e.g., population, barricade, food, etc.).
- Every round, guilds get points based on their population (more population = more points).
- Every round, zombies attempt to break down each guild’s barricade and eat their population.
- Every round, each guild gets to attempt one mission (to reduce their zombies, increase their population, etc.).
- Whichever guild has the most points at the end of the game wins!
Obviously, there is a little more nuance to each of those steps, and if you’re really curious, you can read the full rules here.
But What Does It Have to Do with an English Class?
Good question. Glad you asked.
I mentioned before that every round, guilds get to go on one mission to accomplish tasks like reducing their zombies or increasing their population. Well, their success on those missions depends on their success in the class.
Every Thursday, we spend the first five minutes or so completing a round of Zombie Survival. I start with the Mission Success Report, which is when I report to teams the percentage of possible points that the entire team earned from the previous week’s assignments.
This mission success percentage then affects the outcome of their mission in the game. For example, when a guild chooses to hunt zombies, the maximum number they can kill (with 100% mission success) is ten zombies. If their mission success is only 70%, then they only kill seven.
The effect is that students have incentive to do well in their coursework and encourage teammates to do so as well–and that incentive is simply the desire to win the game (or avoid having their brains eaten, if they get really into it).
Is It Worth It?
In the end, gamifying the class doesn’t cost too much.
Sure, a lot of time went into set up, but designing games is a hobby of mine, so it really didn’t feel like work. Plus, now that the materials are created, I can use them over and over again.
When it comes to class time, the Zombie Survival game only takes 5 – 10 minutes out of every week, so I really don’t feel like I’ve sacrificed much.
Still, just because something is cheap, doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. You could offer me a flat tire for fifty cents and I still wouldn’t buy it. If this gamification thing is going to be a part of my classes for the future, I needed to know that it’s having an impact.
So, with much anxiety, I gave my students an anonymous survey last week about the semester so far. A few of the questions related directly to the game.
The results were pleasing.
When asked to rate how much they enjoy the game (from 1 to 5), 13 out of 15 students rated it a 4 or 5.
When asked if I should run class as a game for future semesters, 14 out of 15 students said yes.
And, in response to the open question, “What have you enjoyed most about the class so far?“, 6 students specifically mentioned the game aspects of the course.
That sealed it for me. Zombie Survival is here to stay.
I initially decided to gamify my course in order to boost student engagement by capitalizing on the intrinsic motivation of competition combined with cooperation. Students are enjoying the game, getting their work done, and having fun in class.
To me, all that (plus 2d6) adds up to success.
Stay tuned for more Tales from the Zombie Apocalypse. I’ll be sure to check in again soon with another report on my efforts at gamification.
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Sgt. Killzone avatar created using http://8biticon.com/
Zombie picture created using http://zombietar.framiq.com/