If you’d like to read about the implementation of the video game Gone Home in a high school English class, start here. To find out how to turn your class into an alternate reality game, start here for the first post and overview of the The Ward Game start here.
Cooking with Game Mechanics
Whether board games, video games, pervasive games or sports, game mechanics are the rules and constraints for interaction that make games fun and engaging. These might include rolling dice, eliminating an opponent’s pieces, solving a puzzle, completing quests, or jumping over mushrooms. When I first designed The Ward Game, one of my tactics was to scour the Internet for lists and explanations of video game mechanics and select the ones that I thought would best work with the game, engage and motivate my students and best express the narrative of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. Besides accessing lists and catalogs of game mechanics, it’s also a good idea to be mindful of the interactions that you enjoy while playing games and think about how you can apply these components to your practice.
Game design involves much more than simply throwing mechanics and reward systems together. A balance must be struck between all the moving (and stationary) parts to produce an enjoyable and engaging experience. Like all art forms, including the art of teaching, this is achieved with a combination of knowledge, instinct, dedication and trial and error. In the section below, I survey a series of gameplay components, or mechanics, that were used to create The Ward Game. Rather than a recipe, it’s a list of ingredients that any motivated educator or designer can use to produce their own creation. My discussion of mechanics will be divided into two broad categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. After an overview of the extrinsic mechanics, I’ll dig into the their intrinsic counterparts in the next few posts.
Gamification and the Two Faces of Motivation
In brief, intrinsic motivation is fueled by the enjoyment of completing a task or activity for its own sake, while extrinsic motivation involves carrying out a task for an external reward. For example, a casual chess game is usually motivated by the intrinsic enjoyment derived by the players, while participating in a draw-based lottery is extrinsically motivated by the prospect of a windfall. Recent discussions about the use of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators in relation to games are frequently in the context of gamification, or applying game mechanics to a non-game context. Like many new words, its definition remains somewhat fluid, and different parties have appropriated the term in different ways. Without wading too deeply into some of the controversy clouding the concept, some designers and academics feel that gamification does not really create a game, but artlessly slaps on points, badges, levels, gold coins and leader boards to extrinsically motivate participation. Those that malign gamification feel that this undermines the virtue of a good game, whose motivation to play should come from the game in and of itself rather than from the lure of external rewards. It bears adding that these external rewards are clearly analogous to grades and salaries in the games of school and life, respectively.
In an ideal world, students would be motivated by the love of learning over grades, and we would all work for the pride and fulfillment of our labors regardless of salary, but this is clearly naïve and unrealistic. My experiences as a classroom teacher and running The Ward Game have taught me that there are many people out there who are happily and productively driven by extrinsic rewards. Ultimately, this points to a question of individual choice, and the two modes are certainly not mutually exclusive. I don’t see a problem with an inherently good game also including extrinsic motivators – some of the best video games use both. Games should also cater to players who are incentivized by extrinsic motivation, and using both types of motivation casts a wider engagement net.
The Ward Game combines both intrinsic and extrinsic elements. Players strive to earn 100 points and have the choice to amass in-game currency or badges (called Achievements), both of which are cashed in for points at the end of the game. The Ward Game’s ability to motivate intrinsically is attested to by the numerous players who reached 100 points before the game was over but continued to play. There were also many players who carried out tasks or initiated activities that yielded no points or external rewards other than the simple joy of play. As the game’s design evolves, I’d consider making the entire point system optional, if possible.
In the case of The Ward Game, the inclusion of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators is also an artistic decision that expresses an important theme in the novel. To some degree, intrinsic motivation can be associated with McMurphy who uses games, excursions and the freedom of agency to incentivize the patients. Inversely, The Big Nurse motivates patients with a system of reward and punishment to exercise control and achieve her therapeutic goals. If the game is a proper encapsulation of the novel, it should include the two faces of motivation.
The remainder of the post will be devoted to describing The Ward Game’s extrinsic reward apparatus.
Acutes, Chronics and Escalating Difficulty
To earn a “dismissal” and exit the ward, patients must earn a very extrinsic 100 points. The first time the game was played, scores started to add up at an alarming rate, as I had blindly distributed points without considering the rate of accumulation. This was a significant design problem, as many players could conceivably earn 100 points and finish the game in a few weeks, although the game was scheduled to be played for 30 days.
Typically, the further a player progresses in a video game, the more difficult it becomes. Inspired by this mechanic, I issued a “patch” advising players of a change to the point system. Once they reach 50 points they become Acute and all points earned are cut in half. Similarly, when players reached 80 points they become Chronic and the value of points earned are cut in half again. For example, as a Chronic, the completion of a 10-point mission would earn them 2.5 points. In the novel, Acute is the label for the curable patients and Chronics are those considered incurable. In a reversal of the expected outcome, and keeping consistent with the novel, this system implies that patients worsen the longer they stay in the ward and are subject to The Big Nurse’s course of treatment.
Some of my colleagues with whom I shared this solution wondered if players would take my on-the-fly modification badly. I was, after all, fiddling with points that equated into grades. Technically, the contract provided for this type of flexibility, but legalities do not always satisfy justice. My students would riot if I changed my grading rules to their significant disadvantage halfway into an assignment. Oddly enough, I did not receive a single objection or complaint.
Why such a forgiving attitude? Maybe some players are lifelong gamers who innately understand the value and necessity of escalating difficulty. Also, university acceptances were in so grades were not quite as important as they had once been. I’d like to think that a number of players welcomed the change as an additional challenge with the prospect of prolonging the game. Finally, players realized that the game was a work in progress, and perhaps sympathized with my predicament. Maybe they were simply too scared to confront The Big Nurse. Regardless, the system works well and I’ve been using it ever since.
Keeping track of points was extremely time consuming. I had no dedicated software, so I tallied everything on a Word table, updating scores every few days and posting them on our LMS (learning management system) for the players to see. This could be easily rectified with an Excel spreadsheet or some other automated system that would create a tighter feedback loop so that players could reap more immediate gratification for their actions. Despite the inefficiency of my outdated method – which has since improved – it lent the process an artisanal intimacy that brought me closer to the players and their progress. Regardless, I previously posted a series of free point tracking tools that may prove useful for creating your own game, or creating an in-class reward system.
When I updated the points, I also posted leaderboards with the top 10 scores on the Big Nurse’s Facebook page. Rather than revealing the students’ names, I used the unique ID numbers they’d been assigned during the admissions process. In this way, leading players could see how they fared against others, but their identities were masked so as not to diminish those with lower scores in the eyes of their peers, or bring unwanted attention to the leaders. I also posted a weekly ward rank update, where each ward (i.e. class) was ranked according to their collective point accumulation.
The Cigarette Economy and Services Rendered
“Are we speaking symbolically, or are we still dealing with the concrete here-and-now cigarettes?” – Dale Harding
In the novel, patients use cigarettes as black market currency, but adopting cigarettes as the in-game currency posed an obvious ethical dilemma. It might be construed as an endorsement of smoking by fostering what advertisers call a “presence” that might glamorize cigarettes in the players’ spongy adolescent minds. I took this issue up with our principal, who suggested I get around the problem by calling them “cancer sticks”, thus building a health advisory into the name. The name was eventually shortened to “C-Sticks” or, as some patients started calling them, “pixie sticks” or simply “pixies”. I only follow the word’s evolution to give a glimpse at how the culture of the game spawned its own vernacular.
In the first run I used hard currency, but for the second I aligned with the modern world and digitized the entire economy. I added a column called “C-Sticks” to the online grade system so players could monitor their accounts at their convenience. Each player started with 10 C-Sticks and I modified their accounts when informed of transactions, or when C-Sticks were earned for completed missions or other activities. To facilitate transactions I created an auction and trading center in an open conference (essentially an online forum) on our email client called “The Day Room”. Many video games like Diablo III and World of Warcraft employ auction houses, and in Cuckoo’s Nest, the day room is the common space where patients socialize, play games and conduct transactions, illegal or otherwise.
Players used The Day Room to buy and sell goods and services and conduct many of their transactions. Having it centralized to one place let me monitor activities and adjust accounts accordingly. The Day Room was extremely active, and money regularly flowed from one account to another. They would buy and trade envelopes, artifacts, passwords, and items and information necessary to complete mission. On a few occasions I received a notice requesting a C-Stick transfer without more explanation than “for services rendered”. I let it go and complied because I was happy to see that the economy had taken a life of its own and was clearly being used for real world transactions. At the end of the game, players cashed in their C-Sticks for points.
In future iterations, I may abolish points entirely and use only C-sticks or, alternately, make points and C-sticks completely interchangeable.
Envelopes and Silencing Lawrence Welk
Envelopes were an exciting part of the game’s reward system. As most in-game items, they were branded with The Big Nurse’s logo and awarded for winning games, competitions and completing missions. Players who won envelopes pulled them randomly from a stack and inside they would find bonus cards that could be saved, used, sold or traded. Some examples of the bonuses are listed below.
Password Hack: Players could request any in-game password from The Big Nurse.
Mission Extension 24 or 48: This card granted players a 24 or 48-hour extension for completing any mission.
Acute or Chronic Immunity: This valuable card pushed up the Acute and Chronic threshold at which point values eroded. For example, Acute point erosion starts at 50, but the card pushes it up to 60.
Film Festival: I disallowed players to use images from the Milos Forman film for their artifacts, as I felt it curtailed their creative apprehension of the novel. This card temporarily exempted them from this rule.
Make it Stop: In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched controls the music in the ward, which consists of a short and mundane playlist with a heavy emphasis on Lawrence Welk. McMurphy is driven crazy by the repetitive music and pleads with Ratched for a change, which she categorically refuses. Staying faithful to the narrative, I played Lawrence Welk’s “Misty” on repeat for entire sessions. Like McMurphy, players begged me to change or stop the music, but I ignored them. This card licenses a player to force me to silence Lawrence Welk.
In a bid to recycle, I recently issued a patch where patients have the option to trade in three envelopes with cards that they may not need or want for a new one. Envelopes can be seen as both intrinsically and extrinsically motivating, because, on one hand, they are a reward for tasks completed or other accomplishments, but they also serve to modify gameplay rather than ostensibly reward players with points or C-sticks.
- Educators who want to design their own games or seek to create more dynamic classes can research and creatively implement game mechanics.
- A game that has both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators will engage a larger number of players
- Existing classroom tools like an LMS (learning management system) or an internal email client can be repurposed for a game.
- The use of points might involve escalating difficulty, and some free point tracking tools can be found here.
- Leaderboards, badges, in-game currency and bonus cards are effective components of an extrinsic reward apparatus.
“The (Re)Ward Game Part III: Game Mechanics and the Two Faces of Motivation” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Collectively, the posts on The Ward Game will appear as a chapter in the upcoming Teacher Pioneers: Visions from the Edge of the Map, which you will be able to download for free.