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Education and Dragons: the gamification of schools

How do you keep interest in the classroom these days? For one teacher, it's a mishmash of Dungeons and Dragons, Xbox Live and World of Warcraft.

How do you keep interest in the classroom these days? For one teacher, it's a mishmash of Dungeons and Dragons, Xbox Live and World of Warcraft.

Craig Merrick(Credit: CBSi)

Craig Merrick is a teacher at Duval High School, in Armidale, NSW, and has turned to gaming to keep things engaging.

CNET Australia: what was the idea inspired by?

Merrick: last year I started working on a system with my then year nine class, in order to help them both engage with completing tasks as well as giving them a sense of school pride, and the ability to get on with one another. I developed this role-playing game, which had an interactive element in that I'd created a Flash application to drive all the data that was being collected; experience levels, what tasks they had completed.

I ended up making a bit too much work for myself, it didn't end up being sustainable. So I put it on the back burner, and did a few other things. Then earlier this year, a friend sent me a link to a guy who was doing a similar thing in the States in a primary school. He was using just a white board ... it's basically just a board with gold stars on it, but instead of gold stars they were experience points, which translated to levels, things like that.

So I pulled out my Flash application from the previous year, dusted it off and reworked it a little bit, and came up with a role-playing game where the students gain experience, levels and achievements by completing class tasks, as well as maybe volunteering in the playground, or something like that.

How does the Flash application work? Does having a leaderboard make it a competitive situation?

It really does. I've developed a Flash application which reads from an XML file. So I can have that file open on my desktop and I can go into a student's entry and change a zero to a one for this particular task, hit save, and when they open the Flash application they'll see a little sword icon, which represents that they've completed the task.

The character progress page. Ten experience points advances a character a level. Guild membership and achievements are also shown here. (Screenshot by CBSi)

One of the things I said to the kids before we started was "I haven't done this before ... so, it's going to take a little bit of tweaking. There are some things that may work well, some that may not work so well and they might need to be adjusted". For some students I've noticed, especially in the last couple of weeks we've had a few events at school where students have been absent from class because they were on an excursion, or at an athletics carnival, which means they come into class and everyone else is already on seven experience points, and that might seem to them to be an insurmountable amount of experience to catch up. So I'll probably have to keep that in mind and maybe have to offer bonus points to try and keep everyone relatively in the same area.

Walk us through the game and how the kids have received it.

It was funny, when I first introduced it to the class and first told them the name, I said "this is going to be called the Realm of the Mystic Turtle", and I had a class of 28 students. Twenty-seven students said "wow, that's fantastic!" and one said "that's dumb, sir" [laughs]. He conceded it was actually a good name, but I think he just, you know, wanted his opinion heard [more laughter].

Each of the students were allowed to create a character, and they had to tell me the name of the character, what that character was, a little bit of background and then we used a superhero generator to make a picture of their character, called Hero Machine.

The character screen, featuring Merrick's character. (Screenshot by CBSi)

From that point on, all the students had a character that they could use within this world, and then I set up things like the opportunity to create a guild, where they can band together with other adventurers. There's a guild master, and some founding members, and everyone who joins after that point just becomes a member of that guild.

In terms of participating, most of the students in that class are quite into gaming anyway, playing a lot of online games or console games or something like that, and so the gaming concepts to them are already familiar, it's just applying them to a system of learning rather than just playing Call of Duty or something like that.

The response [around the school] has been quite interesting. I've been printing out our profiles in colour and pasting them up on the wall in the room; because there's a lot of other classes that use that room as well, kids come in from other classes and they say "oh, what's the Realm of the Mystic Turtle?" and "who's this guy?" and we talk a little bit about the project and how it's going.

The Guild information screen. A student will have to sacrifice five experience points to lead a guild, and requires four others who sacrifice three experience points to start one. All subsequent members need only spend two experience points. In the future, there'll be guild-based quests where guilds need to be of a certain level to participate, and a system of changing guilds will be developed. (Screenshot by CBSi)

How do you link the game back to class work, while keeping the kids' interest?

If a class task has been completed in the amount of time that we have decided will be appropriate they get experience points. If they complete it after that point they don't get the experience points, but they still need to complete the task in order to complete the syllabus and participate in the course.

So it's promoting doing work in a timely manner, but there's other sorts of incentives.

Does that become competitive at that point? Guilds squaring off against each other for more points?

Yes; the system I read about earlier in the year from the primary school teacher in the United States had a system that he called "Friday Battles" or something like that.

On Friday all the kids would come and sit down and put their name in a hat if they wanted to participate — because participating in these battles was optional. If they wanted to participate, their name would get drawn out and they'd face off against each other for a trivia session, which was based on some of what they've done in class, or general trivia, or trivia about other subjects.

At the moment there's only one guild. As could be expected, it's being approached with a sense of humour.(Screenshot by CBSi)

So I created something similar to that with the view of also creating another Friday event, which would be a "Guild Battle". At the moment we only have one guild, only one lot of students has banded together to form a guild. But when we get a couple more we'll be able to have guild battles as well as individual battles. I'm still in the process of developing it, but there might be a system where perhaps you might be able to call on one of your guild members to help you in a task.

So I came up with one particular task where on Fridays, if we don't have a Friday battle, we have a Friday event. And last Friday we battled a dragon that was terrorising the Realm of the Mystic Turtle.

So you're also promoting teamwork?

Promoting teamwork, and also I'm looking to branch out not only to cross curriculum boundaries, but also to get the students in the mindset of offering their time or their services.

Beforehand I'd given four other teachers little cards which I'd had laminated, which represented items that the students could use in this battle. So one of them was the axe of power, one of them was the sword of truth, one of them was legendary armour, or something like that.

It meant the students had to go and see these other teachers and ask for help with the quest, and the other teachers would ask them a question in their learning area. So if they asked a woodwork teacher, he would ask "how do you do a dove-tail joint", or something like that. If they could explain it, then they got the card, could bring it back to the battle and use that item or ability during the battle.

I told the other teachers that they could have the choice of either asking the students a question in return for the card, or maybe for asking help in doing tasks, like "help me clean up the store room", or "help me find whatever it is I need". So they could essentially do that "quest" and be rewarded with the axe of power or something like that.

How does the combat work?

The combat system is interesting, because in order to battle the dragon, I wanted it to be an event we could all sit around and participate in. I did a bit of research on different role-playing games that existed, free ones available online and sort of tweaked them. For instance, I didn't want a combat system that needed a hundred sided-die or something like that.

I found one that used a deck of cards. So I got myself a deck of 500 cards that go from Ace to 13, and still has the Jack, Queen, King. The students who wanted to participate all sat at the tables, and I walked around with the deck of cards and they drew one at random. If they drew anywhere from an Ace to a 13, that represented the damage they hit on the dragon, if they drew a Jack it meant they missed, if they drew a Queen it meant they'd been wounded, if they draw a King they'd been mortally wounded.

So one of the items that they could collect from a teacher was a suit of armour that prevents you from being harmed by the dragon, and another ... was a potion of healing that could be used to heal yourself or somebody else.

I'm very interested to see how students can be a bit selfless and see if they'll use the potion to heal somebody else.

In an earlier conversation you mentioned achievements to us.

I've set up an achievements system. One of them is called the "Keeper of the Realm". There are three levels of achievement: bronze, silver and gold. You gain the bronze "Keeper of the Realm" by volunteering to clean up the playground for one half of recess or lunch. I implemented this system early in the day and by the end of the day I had three or four kids coming up to me saying "I've got the bronze achievement already, could you sign my form sir to update [the system] so I can see it on the page". That was pretty exciting.

I've also had other teachers who are responsible for the gardens at school, and planting trees. So I made another achievement called "The Forrester", and I've had a teacher come up to me and say "I've had eight kids today come up and ask me if they can help in the garden". For some kids that's what it's about, it's gaming and achievements. So far it seems to be working really well, there's been really positive feedback from other teachers, and the kids seem pretty excited about it, especially when we get to battle a dragon at the end of the term.

The current achievements available in the game. (Screenshot by CBSi)

One of the achievements that I've set up is called the "Dragon Slayer", so whoever lands the final blow on the dragon gets the "Dragon Slayer" achievement, and they get extra experience and a badge on their page saying that they are the Dragon Slayer. I'm looking at possibly including elements from online games like perhaps a title, so your page would forever say "Bob the Dragon Slayer", or something like that, as in World of Warcraft or something like that.

I'm also working on one called the Quartermaster, and the Scholar. Helping in the canteen and library. I need to sort it out properly first though, because kids tend to rush towards it saying "I want to help, I want to help!", which isn't incredibly useful if they all rush the canteen at once and haven't washed their hands.

Any further plans for expansion?

I wanted some sort of consumable that you could trade experience for, and would keep you coming back to earn more experience.

So I've set up these mana crystals, and adventurers can have a maximum of five mana crystals. They cost three experience points for one mana crystal, and they allow you to perform special abilities. I've got one ability called the "Whisper of Reason", and it allows the user to negotiate an alternative method for completing a class task. So if I set them a certain task and they say "I think I can do this, but I want to do it another way", they can spend a mana crystal and negotiate that with me.

I have another ability called "teleportation" that allows an adventurer to evade attack or escape capture. Last week two of our adventurers were captured by orcs, and the task for the week was to try to free them. So I had the students going to other teachers getting items to help them rescue the two adventurers who had been captured. So this might help you get out of that situation, or it might help you if you are being attacked by dragons. That will cost you two mana crystals to use that ability.

I've got one called critical strike, where if you draw a Joker [from the pack of cards during battle], you get to draw three more cards, and any face card you draw counts as a 10.

The last one I've called "Dark Ritual". The effect of Dark Ritual is not known, since the only reference that exists ends abruptly with blood spatter and burnt pages. It costs five mana crystals, and has this mysterious effect ... which I'm not going to talk about.

It's going to be something exciting. I can't wait for somebody to get five mana crystals and just declare in the middle of a class "I AM SUMMONING DARK RITUAL!" I'm going to have to turn off the lights for effect.

Disclosure: the author of this article knows the interviewee personally.