Some games start off with a tutorial showing the players the basic mechanics. I’m too lazy to check on this, but I feel like Final Fantasy VII introduces the players very early to the Big Bad, Sephiroth, who quickly defeats and dismisses the players which sets up the rest of the storyline.

Hi I’m Sephiroth
Final Boss Sephiroth!

I might be making that up – but it is definitely a trope in games as I was growing up. A way to tease the story and potential of the player while also giving a tutorial on game mechanics.

I decided to try this technique to start this year.

For several years, as part of a mandatory SLO (student learning outcome) licensing procedure, I started each class with a very boring pre-test. It always bothered me that within the first 2 meetings with students I had to kill the engagement of the students with a test that almost by definition they were unprepared for and which contradicted all of the game inspired designs I promised on day 1. This year I decided that I would turn that pre-test into my first “boss fight”.

On the 2nd day of class, after the students had selected their superpowers we talked about primary sources. As part of the storyline the students’ superpowers came from an accidental detination of “primary source” energy by a mysterious stranger. To continue this narrative, while we were discussing a primary source an emergency klaxon began to sound and another mysterious stranger came onto the screen. (This all sounds high tech but it was just me playing a youtube sound and quickly opening a spreadsheet). This stranger will eventually be the semester 2 big bad “Dr Vonn” but they dont know the yet.

I rigged the battle mechanics so that the students could roll dice and attack but it would literally be impossible for them to win. Of course, they didn’t know that and didn’t bother to do the math. They were excited (I kid you not) to answer questions with the promise of rolling dice. As the boss I attacked them when 51% or more of the students missed a question. On the second day in class my students were jokingly trash talking me when I couldn’t attack or when they earned 100% correct on a question.

And they were laughing!

They were taking a pretest, a fairly tricky one full of reading passages, charts, and maps, and they were laughing!

In the past this pre-test was a mood killer and I would spend weeks digging out of the hole I made breaking that promise of gamified engagement. Yet here they were asking for more questions, asking if we will take regular tests this way, revelling in answering correctly and laughing away mistakes. It was amazing.

More importantly, they seemed to have scored much better than students in previous years. I haven’t crunched numbers yet but rarely did I get a chance to “attack” the students. Some kids did so well that I’m a bit nervous bout them showing growth on the post test! And really that’s the point of all this isn’t it? The purpose of the engagement goes beyond just creating a positive class vibe.

The purpose of all these games and mechanics is that they help to create better data because students actually care without the threat of a bad grade hanging over then. This in turn helps lead to better feedback from the teacher which leads to revisions and reiteration from the student which leads to growth and success.