I am an avid gamer. For some time, I have been thinking about how engaging games are and whether this quality can be leveraged for other purposes; like instruction. Put more simply … What is it about games that makes them so engaging? Is there something about this that we can use as educators? Granted, these are not new questions.

Dr. Meghan Naxer recently posted a primer on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), Self-Determination Theory and Online Education: A Primer. I believe SDT does an excellent job describing much of what makes games so motivating and engaging. Indeed, games provide an excellent model of SDT and can inform us on how the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness) might be met in learning environments. I hope to build on some of the concepts introduced in Meghan’s post.

This is the first in a series of posts on games as a model for SDT. In part 1, I look at the convergence of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness in gaming and online learning in relation to building community and intrinsic motivation.

Autonomy: Open Worlds

Games are becoming increasingly complex, particularly in the arena of Open World games where players are allowed to choose their own paths (autonomy). Entire worlds, even universes, exist for you to immerse yourself in, each with their own history and internal logic. You are often thrown into a new world with few instructions.

For example, in the Open World game No Man’s Sky, millions of stars and planets are procedurally generated just for you, unique to your specific game. When this game begins, you appear on an alien planet next to a broken space ship. Your space suit is running out of oxygen. No instructions, just urgent messages from your onboard computer on toxicity and your decreasing oxygen levels.

The complexity of modern open world games is more than can be reasonably covered in a tutorial. Besides, a significant part of what makes the game engaging is the autonomous exploration and discovery. You decide how you will play the game, in what order you will do things and at what pace. Being told how to play the game is far less interesting.

Here is the internal logic of No Man’s Sky:

  • You’re in an alien environment.
  • It seems like you are alone.
  • There are problems to solve.
  • There is no instruction manual.
  • You must explore to solve these problems.

Think about that in comparison to your online students when they first enter your course. Online students do have instructions to help them get started. However, at first glance, it can seem like they are thrown in the deep end to figure things out for themselves. In a situation where intrinsic motivation is less clear, this can lead to frustration. That does not have to be the case. For gamers, there is one more bullet-point.

  • When you get stuck, you can turn to an online community.

If you were to talk to a gamer and describe your experience about how many times you ‘died’ trying to figure a game out, a common reaction would be something like, “Why would you do that? You know there’s a wiki, right?” Playing an online game today is not a solo venture, even if it is a solo game.

Relatedness: Gaming Communities

Online communities spring up around successful games to support players. A majority of large games have an accompanying Wiki, many of which are curated and updated by players. Various online communities exist to discuss specific games in forums and social media. Players discuss technical issues, the internal logic of a game, the lore and history of the game’s world, where to focus their efforts when starting, or the best order to do certain tasks for best success.

The point here is that given the resources, an intrinsically motivated group of people will figure out ways to help each other succeed. This speaks to Relatedness. In an environment where players are given maximum autonomy, they turn toward their community to support that autonomy and gain competence in that environment. Further, when given an opportunity to contribute to supportive communities, to share their competence, players feel valued as members of that community. So, can we create something like this environment in an online course?

Intrinsic Motivation: Sharing Competence

The challenge in my above summary is intrinsic motivation. There is something of an inherent motivation to play a game and get better at it. Though it can be less clear, online students also have intrinsic motivation beyond just ‘passing the course’. Community building can be a way to help students to discover and support these motivations.

Following the gaming example from above,

“Players discuss technical issues … where to focus their efforts when starting, or the best order to do certain tasks for best success.”

This is a good place to start building community. Simply encourage your students to share their success strategies in your course.

Formalize this by setting up a forum-style environment where students share their experiences, the process they used to solve a problem, the biggest stumbling block this week, or simply to ask each other for help. Much of this could also be accomplished through existing discussions or peer reviews by simply adjusting or adding language for students to draw from their own success strategies, “What did you discover this week that would benefit another student?”

Group work is another tool that can be used for helping students discover intrinsic motivation and build community. Challenge students to work together to apply this week’s content to something in their own lives, a subject of their choice. Trust them to find the problem that needs solving. This is similar to participation in a gaming community – sharing and building competence. But in this case, you are allowing students to build the narrative.

By giving students some autonomy in deciding the end product of their work, you are creating an opportunity for them to discover what drives them.

With all of these examples, it is perfectly reasonable to set the ‘internal logic’ of the environment; subject matter to be discussed, the completion goals, length of the project, rubrics for assessment purposes. The idea is to allow students more autonomy in determining how to get to these goals. All that you are really changing, compared to a typical assignment, is control of the narrative.

And that is a nice segue to the topic of my upcoming post, Part 2, Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement – Narrative and World-Building

Many educators have contemplated the use of games as way to engage learners, or maybe thought about using some elements found in games to engage learners. A big hurdle for integrating games into a course is the amount of work it takes to build them to use in a course, even if you have the skill-set. Of course, you could always take the easier route and try to integrate an existing game into a course. The hurdles there involve cost and finding a game that supports the content specific to your course. There is another approach to bring game concepts into the learning environment that does not necessitate a huge investment of time, combining game design with problem-based learning.

Create activities in your course that have learners design and contextualize the content of a game. You set the rules and mechanics of how the game will work, your students design how the content fits into that game. No one has to actually program or build a game. The idea is to use game mechanics as a tool to get learners to think about instructional material and how concepts inter-relate.

So where do you begin? Start with what you know. What are your favorite games? These don’t have to be a computer or video game. Think about puzzles, board games, or card games that you have enjoyed. Are there elements of how the game works (mechanics) that can be applied to your course content? Do some ‘research’ (this is the fun part). There is something of a board game renaissance going on right now offering a boggling variety of board and card games. These cover a range of concepts, from pandemics to book collecting. The board game Chronology offers a simple mechanic that can lend itself to a variety of topics. The game works as the name implies.

Remember, you don’t have to provide the rules for an entire game. Keep the activity focused on one element of a game that you can apply to content appropriate for your course and that supports the given learning objectives. Keep the rules simple.

One of my favorite games is Sid Meier’s Civilization V. The purpose of the game is to build a ‘historical’ civilization from the ground up. A key element of the game is researching and building technology. In order to be successful at building technology and move your civilization forward, you have to understand how technologies are inter-related and build on each other. You can’t just research gun powder, for example, but have to first research and develop all of the underlying technologies to get there.

Sample of the technology tree from the game Civiliztion V
You can’t research Horseback Riding before you develop Trapping and Animal Husbandry. (Image from STEAM community workshop)

The above image should be familiar to anyone who has used timelines, production trees or flowcharts. You may already be using something like this in your course. Game design can simply be a way to engage learners in developing these tools.

A big strength of using Project-Based Learning in this way is that it doesn’t require a lot of time to set up and the project can easily be managed with tools that already exist in your LMS, using student Groups, or something as simple as shared Google docs. How far you want to push learner creativity in the design is up to you and the needs of your course.

Here at Ecampus, we are lucky to have a marvelously creative Media Development Team who would be able to help build supporting material for your ideas. Depending on the complexity of the game you propose, it may even be possible to put your learners’ work into a game ‘shell’ that would result in a working version of the game. This, in turn, could be used as a study tool.

the title screen

Often an instructor will bring us media (like a collection of photographs) and ask if we could help create some sort of interactive exercise  (like a microscope simulation, to explore their photographs). We’re happy to do what you ask, but when time and interest permit – we like to push a little further. Sometimes we will ask if it’s all right to make a game.

This past term in Botany 350, we created an anime-themed adventure game, Plant Detective, which let students collect clues and present their findings to a humorous  caricature of their instructor. You can play it here, and I’ll discuss how we made it after the break.
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Part of quality online course design is ensuring that students have opportunities to practice with course content in active, engaging ways. Providing students with lectures to read and hear passively is a start, but is generally not enough to help learning happen. To make real learning happen online, it’s important to encourage students to engage with the concepts they are learning actively.

Another best practice of online course design and teaching is providing opportunities for formative assessments, that is, low- or no-stakes practice activities with feedback that lets students know if they are on track for summative assessments, such as final exams.

Yes, but who has the time?

These kinds of practice activities and formative assessments are great, but they can take time to create, facilitate, and respond to, and most of the instructors we know don’t have excesses of time!

Thankfully, there are tools available to help create quality learning activities quickly and easily. StudyMate games are a quick and easy way to include these sorts of activities in your classes. Furthermore, the feedback is built into the game, so once they are created, they don’t require additional time for facilitation. Best of all, students find the games to be enjoyable and effective ways to study course concepts.

StudyMate games are built using one of three types of questions:

  • Single answer (such as a term and its definition)
  • Multiple choice
  • Calculated (math problems)

Instructors provide the questions, and the OSU instructional design team can help create the games. Games include flash cards, matching, crossword puzzles, and a Jeopardy! – like challenge game.

You can even use this software to create a glossary of terms for your class:

Try some StudyMate games used in Charisse Hake’s Math 105 class.

To learn more about StudyMate and to see other sample games, visit the StudyMate Sample Games Page.

To learn how to create StudyMate games for your class, contact instructional design specialist Shannon Riggs at shannon.riggs@oregonstate.edu.