The complex mechanics described here are best understood as “gamed-up teaching approaches” to a lesson plan. Each complex mechanic is a package of other mechanics and game principles, yet I have labeled each by the main “complex mechanic” that is driving the assignment-into-game metamorphosis. Although these mechanics have undoubtedly been used by many teachers before, and some were first brought to my attention by the listed individual, they have all been researched, extended, and classified by me. There are undoubtedly more complex mechanics but I am focusing on these nine for now.

For exercises that deal with writing or reading paragraphs, essays, and literature, all complex mechanics here would be beneficial except for Challenge-and-Switch, Concentration, and Classify the Pieces. For exercises that focus on learning new terms, every complex mechanic listed would be useful.

A quick look at these complex mechanics reveals how some of the simple mechanics are propping them up. Challenge-and-Switch has Rivals, Concentration is Random, Cut-ups is Random, Classify the Pieces is Random. Regarding learning principles, all of these encourage Gee’s “sandboxes” principle. If the instructor walks around and gives tips during these exercises, then “information on demand” also occurs. These “complex mechanics” are essentially roadmaps put together for you so you can see what the quirky quarks of games look like when tied together in a recognizable exercise-package.

Trivia Questions

1. PRENSKY: Frequent Rewards, Random Access

2. GEE: None

Trivia Questions test recall, usually facts, but if a student gives a subjective answer like a short interpretative argument or paraphrase, the instructor can still judge the answer. As you can probably guess, Trivia Questions must be used for practice and review, not to actually teach a concept for the first time. Trivia Questions are the most common games used in the classroom because they resemble quiz questions and are thus intuitive for a teacher to design.

The last iteration of our Shelley lesson is a traditional Trivia Game. The principles of a traditional Trivia Game are Prensky’s “frequent rewards” and “random access.” From Gee, the principles are... well, none.

None? Right. A Trivia Game is not the most educational game you could use—but it’s also not any worse than a standard quiz review or discussion review. Yet there are ways to amplify a trivia review. For example, if students can write the trivia questions themselves, or answer the questions in teams, then they become empowered learners through the Gee principles of “co-design” and “identity.” Also, trivia questions are nothing like Gee’s “well-ordered problems”; the questions are usually just random, even if they happen to be ordered by unit. However, such questions could be well-ordered problems… if the teacher takes the time to design and arrange her trivia questions such that the answers to earlier questions will help students solve the later questions. That’s more effort than teachers usually put into their trivia games, but that’s the best way to do it.

Challenge-and-Switch

1. PRENSKY: Random Access

2. GEE: Identity, Co-design, Cycles of Expertise

Let’s take a look at the sidebar entry for the complex mechanic I call the Challenge-and-Switch, a mechanic so straightforward and engaging that its lack of ubiquity in classrooms is almost disturbing. In an exercise using the basic challenge-and-switch, students write down the lesson’s terms incorrectly or incompletely, then give this writing to a rival player, who must solve the first student’s problem. For example, two students could write one paragraph that is only run-on sentences, or could write a list of complex sentences that need to be diagrammed, then switch with each other. (This mechanic works well with other mechanics, like “Classify the Pieces”). Note that the first learning outcome listed here reads “Identify <any terms that need to be corrected or completed>.” The outcome is meant to be flexible so that you can apply it to any given lesson plan that involves identifying terms.

Can simply competing against a fellow student really add that much engagement? One of my colleagues tried this game mechanic with diagramming sentences, a lesson she often had problems getting the students to pay attention to. No wonder; when I was in middle school, of all my grammar lessons, I hated diagramming sentences the most. Her class loved it. A bit astounded, she decided to try the lesson in a second class both the traditional way, and later as a game. Her students didn’t enjoy the lesson when presented traditionally, but she noticed a surge in engagement when she gave them the same material as a challenge-and-switch (whose title, I now confess, sounds like a con game), and her students, trying to outfox their rivals, busied themselves with scribbling sentence diagrams on the board as fast as possible.

Collecting and Creation

1. PRENSKY: Random Access

2. GEE: Co-design, Situated Meanings, Well-ordered Problems, Cycles of Expertise

In Collecting and Creation, units of information are brought into class and edited into a longer text. For example, students could each bring in a single sentence on the topic of global warming, then in small groups edit those sentences into a paragraph, then as a whole class edit each paragraph into one essay. Group can “trade” one sentence with another group, or create one new sentence plus any transitions. The class text could be created over multiple days, with new sentences brought in from different global warming articles each time. Variant: To teach reading skills, students are assigned parts of a story (or poem!) that they must add to. Each group also gives one other group a theme that they think is the most important in their part, and that theme must be incorporated. Based upon the different directions the story now takes as a whole, interpretations are discussed.

This mechanic can also be used to teach terms by asking the students edit a glossary or wiki of terminology. However, in order to achieve the constrained, random feeling that makes this mechanic a game, the terms should be a part of categories. For example, on the class topic of global warming, one group gets the category “land masses,” another “animals,” and another “reasons for disbelief.” Students are assigned to come up with terms and definitions for their respective category, but after reporting back to their group, they will find that some of their terms are similar to their peers. Now the task is to de-randomize their terms into an edited, cohesive list that fully represents their category. As with the other examples, there should be ways to interact with the other groups to keep the experience of a game present.

Meaning Role-play

1. PRENSKY: Fast or Random Access

2. GEE: Identity, Co-design, Situated Meanings

Meaning Role-play allows students to physically act out an experience or concept. For example, after reading from Martin Luther King, McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or watching Bladerunner, you could ask students to stand up and strike a pose suggesting what “freedom” means to them. Other students could then offer to interpret a student’s pose. Meaning Role-play is based in experiential learning theory. Yet students can go beyond experiences and role-play learning concepts. For example, fourteen students can hold up posters with fourteen phrases of variable complexity on them (“because she is smart,” “she goes to school,” etc.). Seven other students hold posters with one of the seven conjunctions. The rest of the class must “walk” the phrase-students around to construct sentences, then “walk” the conjunction- students around to see where they best fit between the phrase-students. The class now has the feeling of linking words together.

Simulation Role-Play

1. PRENSKY: Graphics

2. GEE: Identity, Co-design, Well-ordered Problems, Situated Meanings

Simulation Role-Play, or “simulations,” are the most common game in high school and college after Trivia Questions. Basic simulations are usually debates on a particular theme (nature vs. nurture, online relationships) where each student must do research from the point-of-view of a fictional or historical “role” (Huck Finn, Oprah). To make the simulation more advanced, the space being simulated is drawn out in great detail. For example, Troyka’s (1975) book of simulation games contains a simulation where prisoners go on a hunger strike to protest their living conditions. Students may take on the role of a prisoner, a prison guard, the Warden, an outside meditator, or a civilian staff member (like a prison clergyman or prison teacher), and the book includes character backgrounds as well as images and maps of the prison to help the class’s imagination.

Composition simulation games aim to create an engaging rhetorical space for students to practice writing and research, and instructors have reported great success with both student interest and performance. “Perhaps a key reason for this is that simulation-games provide students with a common ground of experience. No longer do students find themselves with “nothing to write about”” (Troyka, 1975, p. vi). Colby (2008) agrees and describes how students,

1. have little access to the discourse communities that they are writing about […], so […] students’ writing still often takes on decontextualized meaning. Furthermore, although student writing could be connected with the material and social conditions of a community outside the classroom, students often have little influence on those conditions. (p. 301)

Simulation Role-play games can be so vast that they go far beyond the outcomes I’ve given. They can teach essentially anything: grammar, paragraph development, synthesis of sources, point-of-view, interview skills, even social skills. Nevertheless, my outcomes are the main reasons you would choose to use a Simulation Role-play.

1. Writing Simulations: If you’re interested in using writing simulations, Troyka’s book “Taking Action: Writing, Reading, Speaking, and Listening through Simulation Games” contains six simulations, and each can fit in a single class period.

2. Rhetorical Peaks: Also, the multiple-week, immersive video game Rhetorical Peaks, inspired by the show Twin Peaks, teaches first-year college writing and argument skills (King, 2008).

3. ESL Simulations: For examples of using simulations to teach ESL or EFL in college, see Saliés (2002), or Philips (2003a) on role-playing game simulations.

4. ESL Card Games: If you have a penchant for card games, Phillips (2003b) also discusses a variety of commercial card games (including CCGs like Magic the Gathering) to teach conversational activity or EFL at the university level. (Note that these card games are not simulating a real-world situation, but instead providing a fun conversational activity.)

Concentration

1. PRENSKY: Random Access, Multi-tasking, Frequent Rewards

2. GEE: Situated Meanings

One of the earliest card games a child is delighted by is the game of “memory,” also called “concentration.” In an exercise that has been given the Concentration mechanic, small pieces of paper with terms are flipped over, mixed, then “matched” like the playing card game. For example, if the lesson was irregular verb tenses, the piece of paper “IS” must be matched to the piece of paper “WAS.” Self-scoring methods are possible if an answer sheet is available (students could lose points if they must check an answer; other students could challenge them if an answer seems incorrect).

As you can see from the lack of learning principles, Concentration is not the strongest learning mechanic. Unless your purpose is really just a straight memorization review, or you’ve designed a clever exercise that depends upon situated meanings, Concentration should be combined with another mechanic, such as the Challenge-and-Switch.

Classify the Pieces

1. PRENSKY: Random Access

2. GEE: Situated Meanings, Well-ordered Problems

In Classify the Pieces, small pieces of paper with terms must be sorted onto larger pieces of paper with categories. For example, in an identification lesson, sentences with figurative or literal description can be divided by the student so that the figurative sentences are placed onto a picture of a poet and the literal sentences onto a picture of a scientist. Variations: A student could divide sentences with logical fallacies or no fallacies onto larger pieces of paper that say “Illogical” or “Logical,” or random words could be divided onto larger papers that have the parts of speech.

Cut-ups

2. GEE: Situated Meanings, Well-ordered Problems

In the complex mechanic I have dubbed the Cut-ups approach, units of information are cut out on pieces of paper from a larger unit, such as all the sentences from a three-paragraph process analysis essay, or every line from an iambic pentameter poem. Then the student manipulates these smaller units in order to restore them to their logical order. Variations: Cut out all the words from a complex sentence, or all the paragraphs from a long comparative essay. Burroughs (1978) was known for his famous cut-ups, and believed that they exposed the hidden truth of language: “photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents… writers will tell you the same. [….] All writing is in fact cut-ups. […] Use of scissors renders the process explicit and subject to extension and variation” (p. 29).

Find the Clue

1. PRENSKY: Random Access, Frequent Rewards

2. GEE: Well-ordered Problems, Situated Meanings

If you are trying to teach students to Find the Clue, you are giving them a piece of information (such as a short story), and asking them to find a particular concept (such as all lines of dialogue that suggest suicidal thinking). The art of this mechanic is in the presentation – how well the teacher can build up the significance and “mystery” of the clue to be found. Even an activity as traditional as Socratic questioning can be a game of Find the Clue, since the process of understanding the teacher’s logic means that the learner is de-randomizing the teacher’s questions. Of course Find the Clue can involve images as well (a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” mechanic), and if you asked students to search a physical or virtual space, such as a classroom, library, or the internet, you would have a scavenger hunt.

What makes clue-finding so addictive? The same embarrassing reason we watch so many detective television shows. Both are built on the time-honored simple mechanics of Random and Reward—or, can you find the Reward in all of this Random?

You will notice that the learning outcomes in the sidebar show a variety of advanced composition skills taught by these complex mechanic approaches. Of course there are also basic vocabulary and grammar skills that can be learned by these complex mechanics as well. The latter should be particularly appealing to instructors who want more control of the kinds of “content” their students are learning in basic composition and feel a little hesitant about using an actual commercial board game in their class. Regardless, you can fit many different lesson plans into these flexible mechanics!

Rulebook: Section 6

Complex Mechanics

List of COMPLEX MECHANICS

and the

LEARNING OUTCOMES They Teach

Trivia Questions

1. IDENTIFY <any facts for practice and review>

Challenge-and-Switch

1. IDENTIFY <any terms that need to be corrected or completed>

2. CREATE <any terms that need to be corrected or completed>

Collecting and Creation

2. BUILD Paragraph Development/<any systemic content>

3. BUILD Essay Organization

4. BUILD or IDENTIFY Terms

by Tam Myaing, Game Designer, Neuronic Games

Meaning Role-play

1. CREATE <any experience for understanding or appreciation>

Simulation Role-play

1. CREATE <any experience for understanding or appreciation>

2. BUILD/CREATE Argument

3. BUILD/CREATE Research

Concentration

1. IDENTIFY Parts of Speech/Irregular Verbs/<any related pair of terms>

by Prof. Christa Baida

Classify the Pieces

1. IDENTIFY <any amount of terms that can be easily classified into categories>

2. CREATE <any amount of terms that can be easily classified into categories>

Cut-ups

1. IDENTIFY Transitions/Grammar/<any linear concept>

by Prof. Julie Cassidy

Find the Clue

1. IDENTIFY <any non-fictional or fiction concept>

2. BUILD/CREATE Literature Appreciation

4. BUILD/CREATE Interpretation

NOT Challenge-and-Switch

NOT Concentration

NOT Classify the Pieces

All Complex Mechanics here