Ever since I can remember I have been playing Madden football games. It was one of the video games that my best friend and I bonded over in high school. At first the Madden games were just a football game but at some point during my high school playing days the EA Sports folks started adding features that were designed to take the game player off of the field. As the series grew they added multi-season Franchise mode which allowed for trading contracts and drafting new rookies. Then they added an Owner mode where gamers could control contracts, trades, stadium construction, and even uniform design. I fell in love with this mode and when my friend Brian and I started our first multi-player league that year in high school I created the “Arizona Phoenix” and I remember drafting a pre-arrest QB Michael Vick and high jumping WR Plaxico Burress. Brian hated my “send everyone down field and throw a bomb or scramble for a 1st down” strategy.

As I began playing more on my own I found ways I could “game” the Owner mode. There was a trick where the player could start a Franchise and then sign all of the top free agents. This would help a little but the trick was to trade the free agents immediately for draft picks. Another trick was to change some of the players’ positions; an level 85 Outside Linebacker could be turned into a level 95 Defensive End. Keep that guy or trade him for a haul but do it immediately! The goal in all of this rapidly improve the Franchise team either through amassing a huge number of draft picks or manipulating the real life players.

This is obviously not how real life works so is Madden broken? I was allowed to do all of this within the game so is this cheating? A violation of the spirit of the game if not the letter of the law?

There two related concepts in gaming called “Farming” or “Grinding” that apply here.

Here is what Techopedia says about Grinding:

Grinding refers to the playing time spent doing repetitive tasks within a game to unlock a particular game item or to build the experience needed to progress smoothly through the game. Grinding most commonly involves killing the same set of opponents over and over in order to gain experience points or gold. Although other game genres require some grinding, role-playing games (RPG) – specifically massively multiplayer online role-playing games – are the most notorious for requiring this type of time investment from players. 

And Farming:

Farming refers to a gaming tactic where a player, or someone hired by a player, performs repetitive actions to gain experience, points or some form of in-game currency. Farming usually involves staying in a game area with a spawn point that generates endless numbers of items or enemies. The player collects the items or continuously kills the enemies for the experience, points and currency.

The common thread in Grinding and Farming is that the player is going through low level tasks in order to increase their XP. Grinding seems to involve battling low level enemies and farming seems to indicate collecting items but in either case these tactics seem to involve avoiding risk taking or stretching one’s skills and instead completing meaningless tasks in order to give the appearance of growth. In a sense Leveling Up through grinding or farming provides the illusion of growth rather than a direct reflection of growth.

My tactics in playing Madden fit into, I believe, the Farming method. I am not becoming better at the actual construction of a roster, the nuances of drafting, or the delicate dance of a trade negotiation. Instead I am going through the monotonous process of signing a free agent and going through every team offering that player for a 1st round draft pick. If that fails I offer a 2nd round pick and so on. It doesn’t get much lower level or repetitive but the tactic is effective and allowing me to create a powerhouse football team in a short amount of time. Is this team a reflection of my ability to play the game as it was intended? Absolutely not. The powerhouse football team is not a true indication of my skill but rather my ability to manipulate the existing rules of the game.

Since Christmas I have stolen an hour or two of Madden time when I can. With three young children and a wife to think about there is not a lot of time for games but maybe that is why the Farming/Grinding tactics have been on my mind as we enter the last few weeks of my American History class. For the last few years I have used and been a proponent of an XP Grading System. My XP Grading – Nuts and Bolts Post goes through how I have used XP grading and some of the reasoning behind the system. I still believe it is light years better than a traditional gradebook and still for the same reasons. Students start with Zero XP and “Level Up” their score (grade) by completing missions that demonstrate their skills and content knowledge. Lately though I am noticing my students attempting to “Grind” or “Farm” their XP in order to get a grade that I don’t think necessarily reflects their skills.

A typical exchange over the last few weeks begins with a student asking about how much XP they should have at this point. A “max score” for the class is 10,000XP which would equate to a 100% for the class and we have completed 4 of 5 units so the answer is about 8,000XP. This is quickly followed by the student calculating in their head and then asking how they can earn more XP. We discuss how to earn more points and, almost invariably, the student will ask if particular assignments are worth XP and, again almost invariably, those assignments mentioned are the low level and mostly monotonous review activities that are built into the grading system. If this is not that case then often the work that is submitted is lackluster and is often submitted at the very last minute meaning there is little time for feedback and improvement.

Some teachers will call this grade-grubbing. From my gamified perspective I completely understand the student’s motivation in this. They are attempting to increase their score and it is a complete “Player” player type incentive. The goal of school is to increase your score which we just call a grade. This XP begging at the end of a semester is just an example of the game concept of grinding and just like my powerhouse football team it will lead to a false impression of the student’s true mastery.

I once wrote that I disagree with that favorite ed reform phrase “the most dangerous phrase in the english language is we’ve always done it that way”. I much prefer Shuri’s statement from Black Panther “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved”. This is where I am with XP Grading. It had been a much needed improvement to my grade system compared to the previous traditional system. Over the last few years the students grades have reflected roughly where I thought students should end up but at times the end point grade has felt rushed and the product of grinding. It is time to improve. It is time to think of something better.

I am currently deeply involved in investigating Standards Based Grading. I am intrigued by the combination of Skills and Content, of formative and summative assessments, and of work and communication. Over the next few months I am sure that my blog will be filled with thoughts on Standards Based Grading and my trials and thinking on the subject. I am not abandoning the power of Game Inspired Design because I see these concepts blending perfectly well together.
At the moment I have that mixed of dread and exhilaration that comes with facing the unknown; of standing at the cliff preparing to jump. I cannot wait to share my insights and to learn from those of you that are willing to share.