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Taking inspiration from computer games to enhance your PBL program

Long considered little more than a distraction from more productive tasks, it would seem strange to turn to computer games for inspiration for developing great PBL programs. However, as Professor Jane McGonigal points out, there is a reason that teenagers and gamers more broadly dedicate large chunks of their time to something that would seem pointless to an outsider. It was recently estimated that gamers collectively spend 3 billion hours a week playing games for little extrinsic reward! The reason can be found in the increasingly large staff of cognitive scientists and neuroscientists who employ cutting edge research to inspire extreme hard work, persistence, and resilience from gamers across the world. In this section of the eduSTEM review, we will look at some key insights into the [psychology of gaming and how these can be leveraged or assimilated into your PBL program to increase student motivation and application.

1. The “just right” level of difficulty

The psychological term “flow” was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe a state of contentment and challenge when we are so focused and productive on a task that we seemingly get lost in it. Csikszentmihalyi posited that we get into a state of flow when we have the “just right” level of challenge. Too little challenge and we find ourselves bored, whilst too much challenge leads to a sense of overwhelm. Instead, we find ourselves in a state of flow when we are sufficiently outside of our comfort zone that we need to increase our focus and attention, but not so far that we become overwhelmed and we lose both interest and hope of success. Computer games aim to move players into a state of flow immediately in a number of ways:

  • Start easy, build skills, and increase difficulty as skill builds: If you ever played Super Mario Brothers back in the day, you will remember the first level you play. Challenges are few and far between and largely help players learn the key skills needed in the game: jumping, dodging mushrooms, exploring, and catching the star to become invincible. Having developed these skills in level one, the difficulty increases in level two, again never by so much that your character dies in the first few seconds of the level, but also by just enough to keep you challenged and keep you honing the same skills. As one’s skills improve, and as the game moves from level to level, difficulty increases accordingly. This process, known as “levelling up”, is critical to establishing flow, and can equally be leveraged in PBL projects. As Jonathan Wouters - Learning Specialist at Prahran High School - discusses, it is critical to think about scaling the difficulty of challenges in PBL. This can be difficult to do when developing projects, as most educators are likely to be drawn towards the concept of students directing their own inquiry. However, one needs to factor in the following:

- 1st Year implementation. In the first year that most schools introduce PBL, all students will be new to it. Skills such as critical thinking, research, and self-guided inquiry will be new. Creating too much scope or ambit for freedom is likely to push students outside of their comfort zone. Instead, schools should try to scaffold their challenges over a number of years. As implemented at Prahran High, projects should have more defined scopes in order to keep projects on the rails and ensure that students are building foundational project skills. Then, as students’ project skills increase over time, the 2nd and 3rd year projects should increase the ambit for independence and self-driven inquiry, thereby keeping a balance between skill levels and difficulty. Clear attention to scaffolding skills and careful selection of project themes becomes of critical importance in this context.

- Age-appropriateness: Schools shouldn’t just focus on making sure that their implementation is scaffolded over a number of years; they must also ensure the projects are adapted depending on the age and cognitive development of the students. Too often, schools change the content of the project to make it year-level specific but do not change the difficulty or scaffolding of the tasks requiring ‘soft’ skills like inquiry, research, or problem-solving. As with any content-based task, schools should ensure their projects follow a continuum where students will be moved through tasks of increasing complexity to help them develop their PBL capability over time

  • Actionable steps: A second computer gaming principle that helps create a state of flow is known as Reasonably Assured Progress. Reasonably Assured Progress reduces the risks of failure and sense of overwhelm that is often associated with ambiguity and not knowing what to do. To avoid this in a computer game, programmers focus on helping the gamer know how to get started, how to progress, and how to finish. This concept can be equally be leveraged in PBL through the following steps:

- Clearly sequenced and sign-posted guides for students in the form of a workbook or similar resource. As Chisholm Catholic College found, providing students with curated resources provides a very basic nudge so that they know what they should be doing class by class. This can be enhanced through provision of features such as time guides so that students also know how long they should be spending on any given task.

- Provide prompts when necessary. Knowing what a driving question should look like, or how to frame a Need to Know Question, can be difficult and daunting for students; especially for newcomers to PBL. Indeed, Prahran High School have found that providing regular use of prompts and examples, especially in Year 7, is a good way for helping students to confidently navigate new challenges and build inquiry skills. Examples of how to frame these prompts can be found here.

2. Drive motivation through goals, rewards, and feedback

According to EPIC Games, makers of the hit game Fortnite, the average Fortnite player spends an 10 hours a week playing the game. That’s more hours than the average student would spend playing organised sport per week, on extra-curricular activities such as learning an instrument, or even studying or completing homework. Fortnite players, it would seem, have little difficulty motivating themselves to play! Again, computer game designers have a very clear playbook for activating the motivation of players. These techniques include:

  • Regular goals: Each great game doesn’t just consist of a macro goal (completing or winning the game). It generally involves countless smaller goals spaced regularly across the game such as completing levels, completing bonus tasks, gaining points, and so on. These regular goals keep a player motivated when the larger goal feels too far away, or too unachievable to have any motivating effect. Consider breaking each project into a series of shorter-term goals that in themselves constitute mini-challenges. Even better, ensure that there is a challenge for each class.

  • Regular rewards: Having a series of goals is great; partnering mini-goals with rewards will serve to complete the motivation loop. In this loop, the goal serves to release dopamine, which provides players with a sense of determination to stick with the task even though it may be difficult. Completion of the goal, and receipt of the reward, triggers the release of endorphins. This creates a feeling of happiness and triggers dopamine again for the next challenge. This loop can be replicated through the positioning of rewards throughout a project. These rewards could be points for the completion of tasks so that students receive different points according to the varying level of degrees or quality which the task is completed. Like a computer game in which a player accumulates points over the long term, students could collect points across a number of projects, allowing for the development of leaderboards or for students to work their way up differing levels of project mastery. Alternatively, students could create avatars that become stronger or grow based on the points they collect. A famous study by Stanford University found that simply watching customised avatars gain or lose weight made humans both exercise harder and for longer. Imagine harnessing these forces with your students! One of the beauties of incorporating points for activities is that it also forces you to consider upfront what success looks like. This not only guides the development of your own assessment criteria for students; it also allows you to provide students with an overview of what success looks like before they start. As Chisholm Catholic College have found, informing students of what success looks like significantly lifts their actual performance in the task itself.

Over the coming months we will be adding further gamification tips to help you increase engagement with the projects you are developing at your school. Alternatively, if you want to avoid the trial and error involved in getting gamification features working in your projects, reach out to one of eduSTEM’s PBL’s experts at They can guide you through a range of projects suitable for your students, each of which is designed to maximise student engagement through the incorporation and application of these gamification hacks.

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