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by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

I've had an above average interest in games of all sorts since being a kid. But I didn't become interested in them professionally until about two years ago when a friend recommended the book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by Arizona State professor James Paul Gee. At the time I was struggling to find ways to catch the attention of some middle school students in a school partnership and had decided to try out using some game elements.  James Paul Gee's book was one of those things that arrives at exactly the right time and place.

Front Cover

James Paul Gee's book is not about how to design a video game but rather how video games offer complex environments that allow people to cognitively develop identity, construct meaning, and solve problems. He delineates how, in many ways, video games are more effectively set up than our current school system and how video games cannot be dismissed as merely entertainment.

Gee's book fascinated me with how game design can apply to educational settings and how it can empower and motivate learners. Many scholars and researchers have published books on why games are so addictive (and why school isn't), how to create a game based curriculum, and how life itself is in desperate need of a redesign.

The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by philosopher Bernard Suits offers a pragmatic definition of what a game is: "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."(pp. 54-55) He goes on to discuss what a game is at length (and also the difference between games and play) but the immediate take away is that a game has to include: an objective/goal, rules, and most importantly unnecessary obstacles. Without these obstacles, activities just look like plain old work rather than a game. How many times have classroom music teachers heard the question, "Why are we doing this?" from students.

Game design offers a specific perspective on the perennial problem of why students aren't motivated to learn. I've adjusted some of my teaching both in individual lessons and group classes in hopes of increasing student motivation. 

As I'll discuss more fully in subsequent posts, I'm not interested in turning music making into a game per se, but instead I'm interested in leveraging the underlying design elements that make games so intriguing to humans.  In other words, I want the game elements to increase the amount of time students have their instrument in their hands and their brains thinking music.

One example is a project from grades 6, 7, and 8 at New City School. The goal for these general music students was to compose a total of sixteen rhythm compositions for drums by the end of the period. The unnecessary obstacle was that they could only write one measure at a time. Also, they were not allowed to repeat any measure (a rule) and the compositions had to be a total of eight measures long (a rule). Students were organized in three groups, each consisting of four or five students, and each group was set up in a circle around a table.

When I said go, each student wrote a measure of rhythm on the post-it note in front of them. After thirty seconds, they rotated to the post-it to their right and composed the second measure of that piece OR corrected an error that they noticed. They continued this writing/correction process until all of the eight measure compositions at their table were complete.

We could have stopped right there, but I wanted to take the game concept even further. I then had each group rank their post-its as easy, medium, or difficult and post them on a piece of paper.

The students then had to create their own game using these sheets of paper as a leveled game board. They were tasked with creating an objective, any unnecessary obstacles, and rules. We ended up with three completely different games with rules and objectives I never would have thought of!

Each group presented their game to the class and then we proceeded to play test all of the games. The students gave each other feedback on how tricky the game was, any additions or changes that needed to be made, and judged the overall game play.

This activity was educationally effective because it required students to write rhythms, read rhythms, perform rhythms(depending on the game), evaluate rhythm notation and performance, amongst other musical skills.

I think the motivation was increased due to the restrictions placed on the activity. That is, if I just told them to compose an eight measure piece of music, some students might have come back at me with "why are we doing this?" and others still might finish quickly and say "now what?" The other positive thing was that the teacher was not the center of attention for the entire class period. I simply served as the time keeper and helped to facilitate some of the feedback, but ultimately the students were in charge.

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