There’s been quite a lot of buzz about Jesse Schell’s great talk at DICE. In it, he mentions the syllabus of Lee Sheldon as an example of how you could use game design to re-think the college classroom. I’ve asked Lee to share his syllabus, and he’s graciously done so. Check it out. Below the fold, some thoughts from Lee on how to administer the syllabus. And then finally, some more general thoughts of my own on how to build your own “Sheldon Syllabus” – your own class-as-an-MMORPG.
"The class Jesse refers to in his talk was the beta test of the idea last semester. I’ll also list here a few additional details missing from the syllabus, as well as some observations which may be helpful. Please understand that this course was Multiplayer Game Design. I’m a professional game designer and a gamer myself. If you are not, some of the references may be obscure. Google (or your students!) should help.
1. Guilds sit together. The classroom is divided into six zones. Each zone is identified by the name of a significant individual covered in class. For the Multiplayer Game Design class zones had names like the Fields of Koster and Garriott Gardens. Every few classes guilds move to a new zone (so slackers can’t cluster at the back for an entire semester!), and receive extra credit for answering questions regarding the person it is named after. Since they don’t know the questions in advance, they do research on their own. Last semester in our Theory and Practice of Game Design class I was planning to hide some quiz answers, taped to the bottom of chairs in each zone. They still had to match the answers to the questions, but they were encouraged to trade the information with one another. This directed their preparation for quizzes, forcing them to study when ordinarily many wouldn’t bother.
2. Quests labeled “solo” in the syllabus are completed by individual students.
3. Quests labeled “pick-up group” are completed by pairs of students not in the same guild. This helps foster a community in the class as a whole. Community is a very important word in MMO design.
4. Quests labeled “guild” are completed by all guild members. The guilds are given the option on how they would like to complete them. If they like, only one member needs to do all the work. In every case the guilds have decided on their own to work together.
5. The reading presentation quests were delivered to the class by their fellow students, with questions and comments from me. They relied on PowerPoint for the most part, supplemented by illustrations drawn on the board, and YouTube videos. I coached them on how to deliver PowerPoint talks (e.g. not simple bulleted lists that they read aloud); and to find new and innovative approaches. A guild last week built their presentation as a game! Every so often they had multiple-choice questions on material they had just covered, and awarded candy to those who got the questions right. They had the full attention of their classmates for an hour. It was awesome!
6. Solo Camping: Glossary Building. Not all students in the class are familiar with MMOs, or even video games. So on their own everyone researches and sends in suggestions to build a glossary for the class. Last semester we used a textbook that was so riddled with typos, grammar mistakes and factual errors, students hunted for them for XP. This was more successful than glossary building because it forced them to read carefully, and learn some spelling and grammar along the way.
7. The final grade is based on a guild project. In this case the concept document for an MMO. Since each guild member received the same grade, I added a secret ballot peer review, so that anyone not contributing would receive a weighted grade. I was concerned that they would simply give each other equally high marks, or that personal animosity might factor in. I saw no evidence of either in their rankings. The assessments they made coincided with my own observations.
I hope this material is of some help. I’ll be incorporating much of this into a book I’m writing due out in August: Practical Game Design: A Toolkit for Educators, Researchers and Corporations. What Jesse said is true. The participation in class rose dramatically from the usual “sage on the stage” lectures. Attendance was higher. And the average class grade rose from a C to a B compared to the previous class as a lecture."
Thanks Lee for sharing all this. Finally, my own thoughts on how to make your own Sheldon Syllabus:
1. Identify all of your gradable assignments.
2. Break them down into chunks and assign deadlines.- The chunks are called Quests
- They can be solo, pick-up, or pre-made groups
3. Assign points to the chunks.- The points can vary with the quality of the work
- In that case, assign points by grade within the chunks
4. Set each student’s points at 0 in each assignment and for the class.
5. Each time a student completes an assignment on time, grade it and add the points to his score.
6. Assign course grades according to the usual MMOG nonlinear mapping: It takes more points to get to a C than to a D, more still for a B, and the most to get to an A.Example:
F – 99 points and below
D – 100 points
C – 250 points
B – 450 points
A – 750 points
You should design some assignments as being basically voluntary, like mob encounters. Provide a certain number of opportunities to get points and allow students to do up to X of them, or none of them, however many they want. They can hand them in whenever they want, but there’s a respawn timer of a week after each hand-in. Assignments like this are graded pass-fail - you either killed the mobs or you didn’t. If you didn’t kill them, go back and try again.Group assignments are treated like instanced party quests. One-grade-for-all.
Lastly, tell the students exactly what’s going on: This is a system and they are invited to dominate it. Many will do so, and the ones who don’t will, as in MMORPGs, recognize that it was their own choices that led to their lower grade. If your experience is like ours, there should be gains to student engagement and performance from this system.
Comments on Build Your Own Sheldon Syllabus:
This is a fantastic idea and I hope to implement it one day. Do you have any recommendations on modifying the grading for elementary or middle school level students?
Posted Mar 3, 2010 9:48:22 AM | link
This is really interesting, but it feels a little too... familiar? Isn't this generally what all courses do? You start out with a 0% and you add to that score by completing assignments and exams. One presentation may be worth 10% of your grade, another worth 35% and in the end, the person with the most cumulative points (the highest level) receives an A.
So what would make it more game-like? I can imagine MORE quests -- more assignments. I think part of the problem with conventional classroom questing is that it is relatively limited and very high stakes. In other words, you have a midterm and a final exam, with nothing in between. This doesn't mesh well with the theory that games engage us through an ongoing appeal to appetitive and aversive drives. Moreover, part of the appeal of games seems to reside in agency. Not only can I choose my quests, but I can choose a subset of quests and still succeed. In the classroom, I can choose whether or not to write a paper or give a presentation -- but these alternative routes rarely earn an A.
Finally, if the mechanism of leveling-up is generally the same in the classroom as in virtual worlds, maybe we should focus more on aspects of immersion. While the school narrative is coherent and consistent, it isn't always "fun". Maybe fun isn't the right word -- engaging, enjoyable, playful, life-affirming? The point is, maybe we should focus on creating new narratives. Certainly the Sheldon syllabus starts down this path, but it just doesn't seem to make the sale. "Defeat 5 random mobs (5 written reading quizzes)." The narrative just isn't thick enough to convince me that I'm not pushing a rock up a hill.
That said, if I ever earn 0 points on an assignment, I will feel much better about the whole ordeal if the teacher writes "Leroy Jenkins" rather than F-
Posted Mar 3, 2010 10:44:05 AM | link
Hmmm, elementary and middle school. I don't know, can they handle the idea that you do assignments when you want? Maybe not, so, maybe the quests have to be given out at a specific time and have to be handed in at a specific time. But I think the guilding and grouping would work.
The first time I did it, I would make an easy leveling curve and try to give everybody an A, just to make sure you don't make anyone mad or depressed or frustrated.
Posted Mar 3, 2010 12:38:30 PM | link
I have barely enough students to run a PUG, let alone several guilds (sigh). Even if I did, though, there's no way my university's assessment regulations would let me do this kind of thing: if I want to give marks for "coursework" it has to be submitted electronically or in some other form that our external examiners can pore over sagely and announce meets Learning Outcome #5.
I really envy the degree to which American universities trust their teaching staff - the freedom you have is much better than in the UK (except perhaps in Oxbridge and the like, where they can tell people who want to over-administrate them to go boil their heads).
Posted Mar 4, 2010 4:57:59 AM | link
I'm not sure what the big deal is - this syllabus is just the same tired old syllabus with some gamer vocab swapped in.
I would be more interested in a syllabus that had only two lines. "During the next sixteen-weeks you have the opportunity to become an elite game designer. How you get there is up to you."
What does it say about a game design class where the syllabus reflects that same tired old game elements. I'm guessing the first game produced by those students will include a quest where you have to kill 10 rats.
Posted Mar 5, 2010 1:49:35 AM | link
>a quest where you have to kill 10 rats.
Or, for computer science students, 2 rats.
Posted Mar 5, 2010 5:58:02 AM | link
Or 1010 rats.
Posted Mar 5, 2010 8:01:45 AM | link
Elena Bertozzi who teach game design at U Wisconsin did this article for IGDA Ivory Tower in 2004:
Classes have always been games simply because you have to earn credit to level up but I always thought Elena's approach to the final particularly unique. Add to this that the final was at Elena's house and she is one of the best cooks in North America and you have a situation where even failure could be delicious.
Posted Mar 12, 2010 1:05:42 AM | link
If you're curious about actual-classroom-practice use of gaming concepts in high school, both my hint tokens and math videogame scorecard are very game-inspired. (The latter involves Gold, Silver, and Bronze achievement levels.)
I think only a handful of my students would appreciate the MMORPG terminology, but in one of my classes (involving standards-based grading, so rather than Fraction Test #1 it gets broken down into Reducing Fractions, Adding Fractions, etc.) I had the notion of making a website to upload their scores to that would generate medal achievement levels and give links to bonus videos once they hit "mastery" of a certain concept. Alas I haven't had time to finish that.
Posted Mar 12, 2010 5:23:52 PM | link
I can see where this idea would work in this particular class. The students have self-selected to work with MMORPGs so putting the class in the form of one makes it more fun and interesting.
It actually highlights one of the real problems with game based learning in my opinion: Not everyone likes every genre/theme in gaming. Imagine teaching a high school algebra class with a game. To appeal to all of the students in the class you would have to have the exact same content formatted as a Pirate themed game, as a space themed game, as a teen romance thinly disguised as a vampire themed game, etc.
Some commentators seem to think this is a cool idea and some seem to think it is a stupid idea. I think it is both cool and stupid and the difference is the context in which it is used.
In one context, it will work brilliantly while in another context it will be viewed by the students as a transparent attempt to make the material more "fun" -- chocolate covered broccoli as Ian Schrieber likes to put it.
Posted Mar 22, 2010 3:26:29 PM | link
For more information about Sheldon’s game design classes and using games to teach please visit his blog at:
Posted Mar 23, 2010 3:14:40 PM | link
I saw this thread and couldn't help diving in!
Posted May 24, 2010 2:35:43 PM | link