My oldest son (6) is a green belt in Goju Karate. He’s been studying this style since he was 4 years old and, outside of the occasional Saturday morning ‘want-to-keep-watching-cartoons’ complaint, he has been an active and excited member of the dojo the whole time. This two year period coincides with my growth in understanding gamified systems and I’ve noticed some game mechanics in the dojo that can easily be applied to the classroom. Because, lets face it, karate is really nothing more than hard work and at times dull repetition and if it can keep a 5 or 6 year old engaged for 45 minutes there must be something to learn.

External Motivators

1) Belts – each dojo is a little different, but the general pattern is that a student starts karate as a white belt. As they progress students earn new colored belts. Right now my 6 year old is a green belt – which is the third level – and his next step is purple. In gamified terms belts are a ‘leveling up’ system. In order to earn a new belt the student has to take a test to prove their skills.

2) Tips – In between tests, the head of the dojo – the Shehan (literally translates to ‘Teacher of Teachers’ or principal) – can choose to give ‘tips’ to a student. The tips represent hard work or skill growth and acts as a badge system. Tips are a visual representation of growth and progress towards the next level. 

3) Status Rewards– Both belts and tips serve as status rewards. When students start class they line up in ‘rank order’ with higher ranks in the front row and lower ranks in the back row. Tips serve as Status markers within the same color rank. My son is a green belt with 2 purple tips so he lines up ahead of a green belt without tips but behind all purple belts. You might argue that the belt and tips are stuff in the SAPS rewards, but the belt is meaningless outside of the Status system. 

4) Leaderboards – Now that I think about it this is also a non-traditional leaderboard. 

5) Access Rewards – Ranking up also brings access to new opportunities. As a student gains skills they can be introduced to sparring and weapons. They must show ability before being offered a chance to test for the next rank. 

Internal Motivators

6) Relatedness – this is gamification terminology for collaboration and competition – working with others. The mantra of our dojo is that ‘karate begins and ends with respect’. Most students arrive to class early but the expectation is they begin working as soon as they are on the dojo floor. In this pre-class time, higher ranking students are expected to teach lower ranks new skills or ‘kata’ (attack and defense movements). Classes also become extended families as the weeks turn to months and months to years. Collaboration turns to competition in karate tournaments which are nothing like the Karate Kid movie tournament. Competitors of course want to win, but karate begins and ends with respect. I’ve seen participants that taunt an opponent lose belt ranks for the actions. Classes, tournaments, and even nearby dojos radiate an interconnectedness that is the key in the Relatedness motivation. 

2) Mastery – Tournaments can have several elements but most common are sparring and forms (called kata in or dojo). Sparring is the fighting and forms involve an almost dance-like set of movements some of which can involve dozens of steps and hand gestures. To master a kata takes thousands of repetitions and even black belts (the highest general rank) practice even the most basic forms repeatedly. The goal is not only to win at the tournament (though that is present) but there is also a joy in feeling mastery of  the beautiful movements of the kata. 

3) Purpose– Most practitioners hope not to have to fight. Posted on the dojo wall is a saying that ‘there is no first strike in karate’. Many of the techniques my son has learned involve defense and then de-escalation. The sense of purpose is ever present in the kata forms though. The most powerful moments are when their Sempei (older brother/sister – meaning dojo black belts) walk through the reason that a particular move is in the kata. I was amazed when I saw that the simple mid block was not only to block the punch but to also grab the attacker’s shirt so that the next strike would have more power. When combined with mastery and relatedness the sense of purpose is intensified. The general sense that one is adding a layer of protection is also a purposeful action. In addition to understanding the movements purpose can be a motivation for beginning training. Several family friends began taking classes in recent months when they began feeling threatened by statements against their ethnicities. It may never be needed but taking action was empowering.

So there are 8 lessons my son and his karate class have taught me about gamification. An hour long class of push-ups and repetion of blocks and kicks has been thoroughly engaging to my 6 year old for several years. Now, how can we take these lessons and apply them to classrooms? Leave a comment below and we can discuss!