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Gamifying Summer Camp

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

Summer camps are always strange things to teach because the atmosphere falls somewhere in between the rigor of the regular school year and the freedom of summer vacation. You don't want to push students too hard and at the same time you still need them to learn something. Also the campers might not bond until the last few days of camp, so you get this kind of eerie vibe for the first few days.

To address these two issues, I recently used a free gaming platform, HabitRPG, to Gamify a drumming camp. Gamification is a popular topic in the business and education worlds and involves adding a "game layer" or utilizing game mechanics in a non-game setting. HabitRPG is a platform designed by Tyler Renelle with the intent of providing that extra motivation you need when forming a new habit, whether is be exercising, reading, or whatever. 

One of the most compelling game elements is the continuous feedback games provide gamers. Whether it's how much money you have in Monopoly or your score in Tetris, continuous feedback helps to drive motivation and prolong attention. My goal was to make our daily progress objective and visible. That is, I wanted to provide better feedback than just saying "Hey guys, we're really doing a great job, we sure have done a lot of stuff today!"  If student progress was concrete and tangible, I hoped the students would be motivated and stay focused for the length of the camp.

Each day I loaded in our daily checklist of items into the "Dailies" list. When we completed an item, we checked it off and earned Experience Points(XP) and Gold(!). The latter could be cashed in to upgrade our avatar's weapons and armor, which helped us survive on days we didn't finish our dailies and helped us to level up faster.

We kept the screen below projected on the board and the students liked to strategize what powerup to spend their hard earned gold on. The Dailies list also functioned like a flexible lesson plan; as long as everything got done each day, we were in good shape. Students also got to choose which item they wanted to do next. Autonomy is a big motivator inside and outside of games.

There was also a list of ongoing habits that we wanted to develop that included technical and musical objectives as well as simply "Have Fun!"(it is summer camp after all). Here is what one day looked like in HabitRPG:

This was my first attempt at overtly using game elements in a class and I was cautiously optimistic. The students were really into using HabitRPG and the camp turned out to be a great time and very successful. The results speak for themselves: we learned four songs on xylophone(and each song had three separate parts), a ton of hand drum grooves, and essentially a semester's worth of junkyard drumming. I tallied up our daily objectives and the total was over 80 individual items. These were some productive students!

However, I don't attribute all that success to the presence of HabitRPG; the students were bright and naturally motivated by drumming from the get go. It's worth mentioning that using HabitRPG didn't change the way I taught. Instead it kind of gave some grist to my teaching, because the end result(ex. finishing a song on xylo) was tied to something observable to the students.

It's also worth mentioning the age-old discussion around the use of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in education. The idea is that learning should be satisfying for the sake of learning and that external mechanisms like gamification could potentially rob students of that intrinsic motivation. This is a legitimate concern and a worthy topic to rigorously and repeatedly consider. The concept of extrinsic motivators "crowding out" intrinsic ones has been made popular in recent years by Daniel Pink in his book Drive.

However performing music is so naturally and intrinsically satisfying that you'd have to really work at it to squash that intrinsic motivation. Clicking a couple of check boxes and buying a new shield for a little green dude in a horned helmet is not a lethal blow to music: one of the most robust and intrinsically rewarding human activities.     

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