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Team Learning: A Halo 2 Clan Story

This post was written by guest blogger Keegan Long-Wheeler and cross-posted from his blog, Keeganslw.com. Keegan is the educational technologist at the Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Oklahoma and my collaborator on GOBLIN.
Halo2

My first experiences of online multiplayer gaming were dominated byHalo 2. This Xbox title was the most popular game of its time in my social circles. In fact, every single one of my friends either owned or played this game at some point during high school. My favorite aspects of Halo 2 were the teams and communities that engaged and encouraged me during my teenage years. In particular, team learning was a significant part of this communal experience.

The first clan I joined, Domini Corona, was the community that engaged me in team learning while playing Halo 2. Coming together as a well-oiled teamwork machine did not spontaneously occur. Instead, all of us invested a lot of time playing against each other and exploring the various maps and weapons in depth to understand the nuances of all of these game pieces. Part of this learning process involved establishing the roles for each team member. For example, there were players who would rush to acquire the sniper rifle while players that excelled at vehicular warfare would seize the tanks and warthogs. Additionally, our clan leader emphasized team communication and continuously evaluated situations and issued orders to each member. (Fun fact! Our clan leader was one of the final OG Halo 2 players before the servers were shutdown.) As for my role, it varied from game to game, but I remember supporting my team by eliminating enemy vehicles and medium range targets with the battle rifle!

Although, we played many game styles, Major Clan matches were the most memorable. This game type was usually a series of 8 vs. 8 player objective games such as capture the flag. These games were the ones that demanded the greatest level of team learning and coordination. At the beginning of our Clan career, I recall trying to figure out how to play Halo 2 with 16 players in a match while also deciphering my role as a member of Domini Corona. Gradually, I learned my peers’ strengths, the layouts of each map, and how to synchronize attacks to efficiently defeat enemies. Eventually, this team learning contributed to us being ranked in the top 100 teams for Major Clan matches in the world for a brief period of time! Without going through rigorous exercises of team learning, we would never have achieved the level of team work we ultimately reached.

I’ll never forget the fun I had with Halo 2 players from all over the world. When I think about how much learning was involved during this time, I am humbled by the energy everyone devoted to come together and be among the best teams in the world.

As I write a portion of our story, I am reminded how powerful games are as agents of team learning. They can facilitate or simulate social interactions and learning to empower individuals to accomplish more in groups than they could alone. Additionally, many games excel at intrinsically motivating players to develop communication, coordination, and strategy skills. And, as with other forms of knowledge, becoming a literate user of a game often requires understanding complex systems and their relations in order to solve problems, overcome obstacles, and succeed. As an educator, comprehending this strength of games is valuable when thinking about course design and ways to engage students.

Scaffolding: From Candy Land to Calculus

Roel Wijnants' picture of a wooden playground with scaffolding

I’m currently teaching my 4-year old daughter, Evie, to play board games. Before we get to chess or Scrabble or even Sorry, we’re starting off with some really simple games that can demonstrate for her how games work.

Candy Land is mind-numbingly simple and a great starting point for her. Players race down a string of colored squares to see who can get to King Candy fastest. Each turn you draw a card (or in some editions pin a wheel) to see what color square you can advance to. Occasionally, you get a card that allows you to move to the second square whatever color. That’s it. That’s the whole game mechanic. There are winners and losers and graciously accepting victory and defeat. Evie loves it: “There are lots of castles, but I don’t like that guy that gets you stuck.”

Box and board for the Candy Land game

Having established these basic game mechanics, we’ve advanced on to Chutes and Ladders. Players race along a linear path, similar to the one in Candy Land, but instead of advancing based on colors, you use a die or numerical spinner. For a four year old, counting presents the dual challenge of accuracy and honesty. The game is further complicated by the ladders, which accelerate your progress and the chutes that reverse it. The first couple of times we played we ignored the chutes, only integrating them once we were somewhat confidant Evie wouldn’t burst into tears when faced with adversity.

Proficiency with the game mechanics of racing, dice rolling, and random jumps and falls will allow Evie entrance into a world of more interesting games from Sorry to Monopoly.

Games built for adults also have use demonstration and complication of game mechanics. The decidedly adult Assassin’s Creed video games tell a complex story of power, politics, corruption, and betrayal through a game mechanic of repeated complex assassination simulations. The game starts out literally teaching the gamer to walk and then run (and then punch, stab, and shoot) within the game world. In the current iteration of the game, “Syndicate”, the first two missions function as a tutorial teaching the game mechanics in a region completely separated from the rest of the game world (1860s London). As the game unfolds and the gamer develops their skill with the various game mechanics, new and increasingly complex missions simultaneously train and challenge the player.

Game cover art for Assassin's Creed Syndicate. A hooded assassin sits in a chair while surrounded by nefarious looking game characters.

Like many games, Assassin’s Creed employs a leveling model. When you start the game you are a level one character. As you play, you move up in level unlocking new game mechanics along the way. The foes that you face in the game also progress from level one to level ten. Rather than frustrating the player with either impossibly hard or boringly easy foes, the game creates a banded range of difficulty in which each challenge can be slightly easier or harder. As you gain proficiency in the game mechanics, you are asked to employ appropriate sills in a timely way. The game thus increases in difficulty but always within the band of possibility created by the leveling system. The graph of difficulty over time would look approximately like this. The increasing difficulty and variation keeps the player challenged and engaged but also allows her to succeed enough to enjoy the experience. This difficulty curve is a ubiquitous concept of game design. Like modeling/scaffolding, the difficulty curve encourages gamers to learn new game mechanics and then challenges them to hone their skills, combine them, and apply them with discretion to increasingly complex challenges.

Keegan Long-Wheeler and I are leading a faculty learning community, goblin.education, demonstrating the applicability of gaming concepts to higher education. Scaffolding, critical synthesis, and application of skills have obvious parallels for education in any field. Whether we’re teaching calculus, brush techniques in the visual arts, or research methods in the humanities, we use this same basic approach. The next step for instructors is to apply the concept to course design more broadly. How can we scaffold skills throughout our courses? How can we then allow students to experiment and play with those skills within a banded curve of difficulty that allows for failure to encourage experimentation, synthesis, and critical application?

Goblin as OER

Our Goblin mascot is represented as a hooded figure wearing goggles and carrying a package
While the thought of gamifying an entire class or even elements of a class will be daunting for many, GOBLIN also includes more universal and applicable concepts.  Well designed games introduce game mechanics and then increase the difficulty of tasks to encourage mastery of those mechanics.  They encourage team work, challenging players to combine the strengths and overcome the weaknesses of team members. They allow you to lose and to learn from that failure to improve.  By adapting these lessons for the classroom, we seek to improve student engagement and help students master the skills to succeed in college.

We hope that the design of GOBLIN will be more entertaining and provide better transference of skills than traditional lecture- or seminar-based workshops. The whole point of the project is to think about how we can create more active and engaging environments that motivate students to learn.

Open content was key in building this project.  The most visible example of open content in GOBLIN is the integration of artwork from Glitch the Game. When the game was discontinued in 2012, the programming team at Tiny Speck (many of whom served as the developmental team for the giant communication app Slack) released both the game code and the creative assets as open content in the public domain.  This meant that we could use any assets from Glitch to develop GOBLIN.

The ability to repurpose this artwork from the public domain inspired our storylines and allowed us to focus on developing game mechanics and instructional content.  All of this would not have been possible without the availability of high quality open content. For this we are grateful to Glitch creators.

We also drew on other open content resources including pixabay.com, a repository for open source artwork was phenomenal for acquiring content. Unsplash is another fantastic source for high-resolution, breathtaking photographs that can be freely used.

All of these resources hold a special place in our hearts, because they are aligned with personal philosophies on educational materials: open access content is best.  While, we intend to run this series as often as we can find interested folks to participate, we hope to reach a far larger audience outside the campus of OU by offering the website as an open educational resource.

We encourage anyone visiting the site to run their own versions of Goblin by using the site or by building and improving their own forked version.  To that end, we have used the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license throughout the site to assure users that they are welcome to use and adapt any material presented as long as they attribute it and don’t charge money for it.  Let us know if you want help in playing the game, using the resources, or adapting the workshops in whatever way suits you best.

We encourage you to consider sharing your next project as an open piece of content. Together, we can build even greater projects with the option to iterate and grow from other pieces of content.

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