Game On!

What started two months ago as a manipulative plot to get my seniors to prepare for IB exams has turned into an epic quest:  to annihilate Lida the Mango (#1 in the world in biology) in a battle of wits while accidentally preparing for exams of course. The QuizUp biology topic update has finally gone live and my students  couldn't be more excited... or sleep deprived.

QuizUp: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em!

Click through on the image to find out more about QuizUp

Click through on the image to find out more about QuizUp

For a while now I have been using Quizlet to help my IB Biology students learn vocabulary for my course.  Finals are just around the corner, so I posted the following messages to our class Facebook group: 


My first reaction was to dismiss this idea as I suspected that it was going to serve the same function on a different platform, which means twice as much work for the same result.  However, I went ahead and signed up for QuizUp to see what the fuss was all about. 


A week later, I find myself ranked #2 in India hot on Rams tail, though admittedly he has a bit of a lead on me.  A couple of days into my obsession with this game I mentioned it to a colleague of mine.  At midnight a couple of days later he sent me this message: 


We have decided to start a QA group at our school:  QuizUp Anonymous or 12 steps to getting more sleep at night.  But enough about us... it IS all about the students after all. 

To play the game, you choose a category (there are tons of options) and then you either challenge a friend to play with you (in real time or asynchronously) or you can challenge a random person in the world in real time.  Each game has 7 questions and you have 10 seconds to answer the question. You get experience points for guessing a correct answer, your speed in answering the questions, completing games and victories.  For each category, points add up to numerical levels and levels add up to achievements in the form of player titles (I am an Evolutionary Einstein formerly a Genetics Genius) as well as badges such as this one:


There are even a few badges for the not-so-fortunate among us: 


A student of mine discovered this after challenging me one too many times.  He should have known better than to go after an Evolutionary Einstein! 

Anyway, you can check out your stats as well as the stats of your "friends".  Here is a breakdown of the games played by the student that introduced me to this game. 



Can you tell that he is studying for his SAT in December?  I love that his top three topics include Biology and Physics.  Unfortunately, after playing "a few" games under the topic of Biology, I realized that the biology questions for the most part didn't address the IB Biology curriculum.  In passing my student had mentioned that we could create content for QuizUp, so I wrote to them and asked if I could create content for a new Science category with my students that would be focused on the IB Biology content that they would be tested on in May.  I figure if you can't beat 'em, you might as well join them.  How great would it be to leverage a tool like this for student learning?

They loved the idea, and have charged me with creating a spreadsheet with a minimum of 300 questions to launch the new topic.  Once this new topic is released, students all over the world will be able to access this question bank and play other students while accidentally preparing for their exams in May. 

I would like to open this up to other IB Biology teachers.  The format required for the questions is as follows: 

  • All questions are multiple choice and need to be submitted in a spreadsheet
  • Questions can be a maximum of 130 characters
  • Answers are limited to 30 characters
  • The order on the spreadsheet needs to have the question first then the CORRECT answer, followed by 3 wrong answers.

If you are an IB Biology teacher, and you are interested in helping me to create content for this game, send me a message and I will be happy to add you to the Google Spreadsheet that I have started with my students.  The faster we get this done, the sooner it will be available for our students to use.  You can reach me at my Twitter handle @roryaileen, or by email at  I am also looking for a catchy title (with IB somewhere in it to avoid the addition of non-related content) as well as achievement level title suggestions.  I am thinking of going with an evolutionary theme.  Instead of beginner, they start as primordial slime, and progress to higher organisms until they reach the top level, Super Human Intellectual Terrestrials.

I will keep you updated on the release, but for now, my arch nemesis from Spain has just challenged me to a rematch, so I must go. 

Gamification 101: Designing Your Playbook Beyond Levels Part IV

It has been a busy couple of weeks!  I just returned from the ISTE conference, which was an exhilarating, exhausting experience, but I will save my reflections for another post.  


As you can see I presented at the conference.  For those of you who did not attend, which includes probably everyone who reads this blog, here is a link to the how-to-guide that I created to go along with the presentation and my blog posts.  This is a good place to start if you have no experience with games or gamification as I have included links to tons of helpful resources that have helped me along the way. 

In my last post I discussed selecting your content and choosing a level structure for your game.  This of course is something that we as teachers do everyday when planning our lessons and units.  This should be the easy part!  Having said that, here are a couple of things to keep in mind before committing to your game if you are planning on creating a long-term game (more than 2-3 lessons): 


Remember, do yourself a favor and start small.  If you are one of those people who adheres to the mantra "Go big or go home!" then I would advise you to lock all future levels beyond the one that your students are working on.  This inspires curiosity creating a sense of heightened anticipation, which is motivating to your students. It also gives you a chance to call audibles and change things up.  Get rid of things that don't work and add in things that do.  Your first game will be a lot of trial and error, so give yourself a break as you will be doing a lot of "building the plane while you are flying it" your first time through. 

Once you have selected your content, it starts to get a little messy.  There are three main parts that you have to deal with:  the content, the narrative, and the mechanics.  There is no right way to approach designing your game, so if the creativity hits you, go for it and focus on the narrative and the mechanics when you are in your flow.  For others it will be helpful especially your first time through to focus on the content structure first and then embellish it afterwards.  I used the latter approach for my first game, but for the two that I am working on now, I am all over the place!   Below is a snapshot of my process.

Screen Shot 2013-06-30 at 6.41.57 PM.png

The Dilemma: 

At ASB we follow a trimester system, so students take a trimester of chemistry in 9th grade and then a second trimester in 10th grade.  Because I work at an international school with a transient population, every year in 10th grade, I get several new students who have never had chemistry before.  I also have a handful of students who could us a solid review of 9th grade chemistry if you know what I mean.  When there are only 50-60 students per grade level, this is a significant percentage of my students.  Having said that, it is not fair to hold the others back.  To address this issue, I designed a self-paced chemistry review using online resources via our LMS.  The problem is that students are not as motivated to truly learn (read practice and/or memorize problem solving strategies) especially those who are further behind than others as they tend to skip the necessary repetition to catch up with their peers.  So I have decided to gamify the review in hopes that the game itself will help to motivate the students to take the time required to build a solid foundation.  None of the tasks associated with the review will be graded.  They will all be formative assessments.

My game will have 4 levels.  I arrived at this number by analyzing the content and determining the natural breaks in terms of difficulty and complexity.  So my level structure for this one is easy to hard/more complex.  This is where it gets messy.  The narrative exploded on the scene before the rest of the structure fell into place for me.  So I went with the flow.  As a result, I can only share how I have designed the game thus far, but it will give you an idea as to how to get started. 

The example posted above shows the first task in the game.  Students will be assigned basic vocabulary that they will need to accomplish the first level of tasks (electron, proton, etc.) I have created a set of online flashcards on Quizlet that will be shared with the class.  Quizlet has both a built-in self-testing tool as well as two games that students can play for practice. I will play one of the games, and set the "score to beat".  Prior to the quiz, I will encourage grinding by holding a class game competition.  I will set a deadline (before they can sit for their first quiz) and the top three scorers who managed to beat my score on the word game will receive a code breaker card.  These tchotchkes are essentially a subeconomy in the game that will confer special privileges to the students in possession of the card.  Students will be allowed to barter and trade these cards on the black market as part of the game to purchase equipment for their laboratories if they choose not to use the privilege themselves. 


The card pictured above will essentially grant the student the right to retake a future quiz with no penalty (reduced amount of rubles earned, higher penalties for missed questions, eligibility for other tchotchkes). Note that by locking levels/ challenges beyond this one, I will be able to read when it is necessary to offer a privilege like this again and to whom to ensure that all students stay motivated and in their personal flow. All students will be awarded Rubles based on the number of questions that they get correct on their quiz.  They may retake the quiz as many times as necessary, but their earning potential is smaller for each subsequent attempt.  This encourages students to get it right on their first attempt, as you don't want students to waste too much time on retakes due to a lack of effort or preparation. 

As the game progresses, students will be able to use their rubles and tchotchkes to buy lab equipment on the black market (such as a bunsen burner) to upgrade their lab from an underground bunker to the next level.  There will also be surprise challenges like a chemistry scavenger hunt through the school using their knowledge of chemical elements and compounds to decode their search which can earn them equipment, tchotchkes or rubles. 


  • Small manageable chunk of content
  • Assessments allow for quick grading (program does it for me) to provide students with immediate feedback
  • mechanics selected (game competition, tchotchke award for top 3, ruble amounts) all motivate students to thoroughly learn the vocabulary required
  • Tchotchkes are designed to help avoid flow anxiety later in the game.   
  • Students that don't make the top three in the game will most likely have played it enough times to learn the vocabulary which will earn them a sufficient amount of rubles without having to retake the quiz.   

More to come as I flesh the rest of this out!  In the meantime, here is a link to a list of mechanics you might want to consider using in your game as you design your playbook.   

Gamification 101: Designing your Playbook Part III

Angry Birds screenshot

Angry Birds screenshot

In my previous post, Training Camp I discussed ways to prepare yourself to gamify instruction in your classes particularly for those of you who are not gamers.  Continuing with my football metaphor,  I want to share with you how I designed my playbook for my Physics game.  Though it may seem daunting, you will find that designing your game is incredibly similar to how you would design a unit in one of your classes, as the mechanics that you might use in a game align well with the pedagogical practices that we use everyday in our classroom. Having said that, with gamification, I found that students experience heightened anticipation, emotional engagement, and ultimately greater success due to the interweaving of game mechanics and fictional elements coupled with a disconnect from the pressure associated with grades.  

The screenshot above from Angry Birds does a great job of illustrating this.  Angry Birds is divided into worlds.  The first world of Angry Birds is called "Poached Eggs" which establishes the fictional elements of the game.  Each world is divided into levels that increase in complexity and difficulty as you move through the world.  The levels remain locked until you pass the level below.  Locking levels is a game mechanic that creates anticipation.  What will I find in Level 2?!?  There are multiple ways to pass each level with varying degrees of success equated to points and stars.  You also have the opportunity to redo each level if you are not satisfied with your feedback.  For a more detailed description, check out the Angry Birds Wiki and explore one of the themes (levels).  See if you can identify the game mechanics used to create the emotional experience that you have when playing Angry Birds. 

Now compare the description above to a unit that you teach in your class.  What would you need to do to heighten a student's anticipation?  How could you reduce their anxiety and transfer their focus from grades to the learning?  Does your content become more complex and difficult as you progress through the unit?  How frequently do you provide feedback to your students?  What opportunities do they have to act on your feedback? 

Keeping these questions in mind, let's get started on designing the shell for your game. 

Step 1: Select the Learning Objectives

As with any unit that you design, you must have your learning objectives in place before you create your assessments.  It is crucial that these are clearly articulated so that you can integrate them into the game play.  Students should not be able to be successful in your game without demonstrating mastery of these objectives.  When choosing your learning objectives, you should focus on content that can easily be divided into smaller chunks and levels of difficulty or complexity.

One of the most appealing aspects of games is player control.  This translates into empowering students to be in control of their learning.  Your game should give students voice and choice over their game play, and allow for self-pacing.  Select content and skills that will allow you to be as far away from the driver's seat as possible. 

My advice for those of you who are new to gamification is to start with something small and manageable until you get the hang of it.  Keep in mind that games are not perfect for every situation.  Gamification works really well with Math and Physics units.  For other disciplines, you need to think carefully and creatively about how you will go about structuring your game.

For my physics unit, I had the topics of work, power, energy, and momentum to cover.  When I decided to gamify this unit, I focused my first “world” on work alone.  This narrowed down the list of learning objectives considerably making it easier to differentiate and assign levels. 

Step 2:  Choose your Level Structure

Once you have selected your content and skills, the next step is to choose your level structure.  I have provided a few examples below, but you can also just as easily come up with your own.   For educational games, the best approach to this is to do what Karl Kapp refers to as a mission-based structure.  I had not read Kapp’s book when I designed my game, but this is exactly how I did it because pedagogically it makes sense.  The two structures that he suggests are:

  • easy, intermediate, hard (using the same content)

  • demonstration, practice, and test mode (this is similar to the model that I used).

Screen Shot 2013-05-24 at 6.55.32 PM.png

The three levels in the game that I developed were:

  • Level 1:  The collaborative, self-directed learning level.  I used online resources (Physics Classroom, and G-docs) to guide their learning.  The learning was self-paced, and this blended learning approach allowed my stronger students to forge ahead to more challenging tasks, while freeing me up to help the weaker students one-on-one or in mini workshops.  

  • Level 2: The challenge level (read test).  I made it a requirement that students had to get a minimum of an 85% to receive their badge.  However, they were allowed to retake it if they didn’t accomplish it the first time through.

  • Level 3: The project level.  I designed this level to force them to use higher order thinking skills (problem solving, creativity, critical thinking etc.) to accomplish the task.  Within the level, I built in different levels of difficulty to keep the stronger students in their “flow”.  Flow is a very important concept in games.  

Image credit:

Image credit:

Keep in mind that you can lock levels and keep your students in the dark.  It increases their excitement and anticipation while at the same time allows you to call audibles and change it up in the middle of game play.  Win-win!

CAUTION:   Be cognizant of the amount of content you put in each level and the amount of time that you allow for it.  If students are stuck in a level for too long, they will move into the zone of boredom and lose interest.  Timing is key.  One solution to this is to add sublevels (see example).  Change things up after every sublevel, or have mini-activities in place for some hands-on experiences.  I would recommend adding these at the end when you go back to revise your game.  

Another game structure you should check out is Michael Matera's Realm of Nobles that he created for his 6th grade world History course.  He does an awesome job at illustrating how you can gamify content in language-based disciplines.

I could literally go on and on about this topic, but I think that is enough to get you started.  To summarize as you begin to create a structure for your game and divide up your content and skills, you should consider the following suggestions: 

  • allow for self-paced learning

  • ensure that each level is challenging enough to maintain their curve of interest (flow) for all students (differentiation).

  • adhere to a short time limit per activity/level

  • build in an increasing level of difficulty from level to level

  • provide for a variety of learning approaches

In my next post I will discuss assessment/reward/feedback strategies.  If you missed my previous posts on gamification, you can find them all at this link