Higher Education

Q&A with Lee Sheldon: Turning the classroom into a multiplayer game

Lee Sheldon

It turns out that video games aren’t only for children—or adults who refuse to grow up—after all.

Recognizing the educational potential of video games, teachers across the country are increasingly incorporating them into lesson plans.

Lee Sheldon, a video game writer and designer-turned-college-professor, is one of them. In September 2009, Sheldon decided to model one of his game-design classes at Indiana University on the concept of MMOs, massively multiplayer online games. His classroom literally became a game world, with students creating “avatars” and forming guilds. Instead of completing traditional assignments, students went on “quests” and “raids” or undertook “solo” missions. Perhaps the most striking change Sheldon made was to grade his students on experience points, also known as XP. Students started with zero experience and could “level up” by completing quests or raids. Eventually, the amount of experience each student earned determined his or her final grade.

Sheldon has since taught several “multiplayer classes” at Indiana University and, most recently, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he’s been an associate professor since 2010. His latest book, The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game (June 2011), details his experiences and also includes numerous case studies of other efforts at “gaming” the classroom.

The Hechinger Report recently discussed with Sheldon how he incorporates MMOs into his college courses.

Did you face any obstacles from administrators or other educators when you proposed your class?

Every “multiplayer class” started life as a standard lecture course, so I admit I was somewhat in stealth mode. I did mention the idea to my colleagues at Indiana University, including my chair. Some liked it, some didn’t. But no one told me I couldn’t do it, so I did it. Same at Rensselaer. The multiplayer classroom and the book I would be writing about it were known to my future colleagues. And, again, there were no real obstacles because I wasn’t creating new courses. My courses were simply taught in a different manner from the sessions taught by colleagues.

The subject of your multiplayer class is usually computer games. How well do you think this could be adapted for non-computer classes? And for younger students?

I added the case histories to the book to deliberately show that multiplayer classrooms were not limited to game courses. Non-gamers benefit as much as gamers because I’m applying game-design techniques, not assuming they play computer games. My primary example is a gardening course for seniors at an assisted living home. And the case histories also show that students from middle school through graduate school are benefiting. I think the younger the students are, the easier it would be for them to adapt to the teaching style since they start out playing games in school. Then games begin to drop away for some reason as they get older.

Among the allures of a massively multiplayer game are the open world and the freedom players have to choose how to level up—and how fast to do so. Do your classes allow students to level up at their own pace?

Well, we’ve got 15 weeks, and they must leave the class knowing as much (or more) than they would in a regular lecture/workshop-type class, or multiplayer classrooms wouldn’t fit into a standard curriculum. But since they know how much XP they need to level up, and that there is shared credit for some XP and extra credit, there is a certain flexibility. They can choose which assignments to concentrate on. This causes the pace to change. And since random dice rolls are often used to determine when certain work is required of individuals and guilds, their accumulation of XP may speed up or slow down as a result of design, not choice.

Your book includes anecdotes from other educators experimenting with video-game mechanisms in the classroom. Were there any ideas or innovations from those classes that really stood out to you?

Yes, quite a few! Using objects already in the classroom to create a new world and NPCs [non-player characters]; using skill points; giving students a selection of quests at the beginning of the semester that they can complete in any order they choose; some great intrinsic and extrinsic reward ideas like achievements; awarding achievements at the start of each class; using character classes; the experience bar; and much more.

Does the multiplayer classroom model make teaching the subject matter more expensive? If so, who bears the extra cost?

Since the classroom itself is the game world, multiplayer classrooms can be taught anywhere with no computers to buy, or even electricity necessary, unlike trying to use computer games in the classroom. The multiplayer classroom is cheap, even free, and can be taught anywhere to any students, whether they’ve ever seen a computer or not.

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