Gamification with micro:bit chips
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Gamification with micro:bit chips

Kerry Kidd
Kerry Kidd

Dorian Love

Dorian teaches ICTs, Coding & Robotics at Roedean School in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has been experimenting with Alternate Reality Games and gamification in education for a number of years. He is currently working towards a PhD in Education at Wits University, researching the practices of computer science teachers. He blogs about ICTs in education at https://digiteacher.wordpress.com/

Gamification is defined as the use of game elements in non-gaming contexts. Generally speaking, this involves the holy trinity of points, badges and leader-boards. On the surface, this formulation would seem to make sense when applied to education. The awarding of points fits well with mark-books. Badges would seem a shoe-in for rewards such as gold stars and certificates, while leader-boards equate with ranked mark schedules. I have nothing against the use of these mechanisms when gamifying the curriculum, but there is more to games than these largely extrinsic reward systems.

As Jane McGonigal (2010, 2011) has suggested in a fabulous TED Talk and her book Reality Is Broken, gaming has qualities which can be harnessed to solve real-world problems. She describes four super-powers of games which, to my mind, have a great deal to offer the classroom. So, what are gamers good at? The first quality is one of urgent optimism, self-motivation if you like. No-one enters a game expecting to fail; all have a belief in their ability to succeed. Sadly this is not something universal in our education systems. Gamers are also good at generating a tight social fabric, at collaborating to achieve a task. This is also lacking in many classrooms. All too often group work becomes meaningless as one person does all the work, while the slackers take a free ride. In addition, gamers have a sense of blissful productivity. No gamer sits staring out the window but always seeks to find things to get on with so they can level up. Newbies are welcomed to the game and helped to get up to speed. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, games carry a sense of epic meaning literally saving the universe. No one asks why they must sit learning something and what use it will be to them. Games result in an epic win. The school year often ends with a whimper.

To my mind, it is these are the super-powers of games that we should be trying to replicate in our schools. These are intrinsic motivations. That is to say that the sense of reward comes from the game itself, rather than being awarded badges or points. After watching McGonigal's TED Talk I was immediately inspired to use her vision of gamification in my classroom.

I started small, gamifying one unit of work, and have added modules and ideas as time has passed. Some classes have responded enthusiastically, others have been sceptical. I have had to walk things back several times and stalled, sometimes for years, in developing a fully gamified curriculum. At the same time, I was experimenting with several Alternate Reality Games which I ran with students at those times of the year when exams are finished and teachers are happy to surrender some time. These games involved getting students to solve a series of riddles and puzzles, to decipher secret messages and to help save another fictional school from a zombie apocalypse from outer space - HG Wells style. What I learned from these games is that students can get really engaged in a problem and are prepared to suspend their disbelief in a fictional world. I used fake social media accounts and hoax websites to create a framework for throwing up puzzles and clues.

fake Twitter account used to unlock clues. Creative Commons profile pic
fake Twitter account used to unlock clues. Creative Commons profile pic
Fake Twitter account used to unlock clues. Creative Commons profile pic

But I believe the introduction of the micro:bit chip in my classroom this year (Covid interrupted alas) has allowed for a much more coherent and exciting move towards turning my computing class into a game. I decided to create a game called The M'bius Effect. The basic concept is that students take on the role of secret agents in defending the world from an unknown threat from an alien intelligence and to help a fictional professor convince authorities to take the threat seriously. The lack of official response necessitated the creation of an army of secret agents able to take on tasks helping to combat the threat. I teach in a girls´┐Ż school, so they are styled as Geek Girl Secret Agents. These secret agents need to choose tasks to perform in order to save the world.

These tasks form the content of the curriculum. When I want to teach spreadsheets, for example, students are asked to create spreadsheets which can convert units of measurement, calculate the weight on different planets or time is taken for space travel between planets. Agents receive Experience Points (XP) for each task and may select from a range of tasks from Mission Challenges kept laminated in boxes at the front of the class. They then may receive a 'Spreadsheet Ninja' badge on completion of a certain number of XP. I do the same for databases and other packages. Students may earn badges for PhotoShop, Dreamweaver, InDesign or Flash, for example.

Badge. Creative Commons images used.
Badge. Creative Commons images used.

Topics such as cybersecurity, research skills and other digital literacies can also be covered in a similar way. Progress can be personalised and instruction is sometimes in class, but all my lessons are duplicated with short instructional videos posted to a private YouTube channel, allowing students to cover work beyond the bare minimum, earn more XP and more badges. This was especially useful when we had to move fully, or partially online at different times this year.

Crucially, I used XP to unlock clues. These clues are in the form of coded messages students can unlock and then decipher. They are released through fake Twitter accounts and hoax websites which are designed to add a sense of realism. One student, however, told me that she was beginning to wonder about the identity of my fake professor because she'd Googled her and couldn't find much. I can also slip in computer science type puzzles such as converting binary to decimal numbers or using hardware/software knowledge to unlock further information. The purpose of the clues is to drive a game narrative and a sense that performing the learning tasks the class would have done anyway are forging towards an epic win, discovering the source of the alien intelligence!

Alternate Reality Games use the concept of a puppet master who controls the direction of the game. The puppet master can delay the release of clues or speed things up to the time the epic win for year-end! If a class is solving clues too quickly more can be added, or hints released if a class needs a bit of help.

One feature of games is that the flow of the game moves from easier problems in a series of rising challenges, moving towards the boss fight. This represents excellent educational practice. Students need to master easier tasks before facing bigger problems to solve. For each unit of work, my boss fight tends to be a major project based on solving a problem. Successive tasks leading up to that are designed to give students the skills needed to do this.

Mission briefings.

So, where does the coding fit in? This was the last module of my syllabus to be gamified, but switching to the micro:bit chip allowed me to do this effortlessly. The conceit is now that each agent is issued with a micro:bit which they must use when in the field. The tasks set involve using these chips as burglar alarms, coded-messaging devices, tracking devices and so on. Used in conjunction with robotics the emphasis is on using robots to perform dangerous tasks such as removing an explosive device, causing a diversion or finding a way out of a maze.

microbit.org coding platform used for coding.

What the micro:bit chip added was a level of hands-on engagement. I believe that the framing narrative of a gamified approach allows for far 'more authentic' classroom tasks. Classroom work can often seem too abstract, too rarefied and removed from the real world. But coding solutions to fight an alien intelligence as a secret agent is somehow - and I say this with a straight face - much more real.

Pedagogically I try to ape game-like mechanisms as well. Games ease a player into the game. The first few levels introduce a player to game mechanisms and build capacity by gently guiding the player through the process of learning to play the game. Each task is set out on what would have been a worksheet but now becomes a mission brief. On the reverse of the sheet, I include hints or snippets of code that students can use or need to edit to get it to work. This fits in largely with the PRIMM approach. Students can re-create the code provided, predict the outcome, run it to see what happens and then use instructional videos posted online to modify the code and tweak it to get the desired result.
Since gamifying my curriculum, especially the coding part of it, I have found students far more productive. Many more tasks are completed and in a shorter time - even during the time our classes went online this year.

Biography
McGonigal, Jane, 2010, Gaming Can Make a better World, TED Talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world/transcript
McGonigal, Jane. 2011, Reality Is Broken : Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. London :Jonathan Cape.