Gamifying higher education: welcome to the World of Biblecraft

Here’s the elevator pitch: My Religion 101 course, also known as “World of Biblecraft,” functions like a cross between Farmville, Minecraft, and the World of Warcraft, where students earn XP and level up by exploring the Bible.

Students enter the World of Biblecraft as first-level Bible readers, called Joiners. As students complete various class-related activities, they earn experience points (XP). As they hit certain XP thresholds, students level up to the ranks of Initiate, Hopeful, Greenhorn, Fledgling, Enthusiast, Dilettante, Catechumen, Bibliophile, and perhaps even to the coveted rank of Acolyte. At the end of the semester, student’s level determines the letter grade I report to the registrar. (If you can’t figure out the conversion, you didn’t read this paragraph carefully enough.)

A college course tends to be linear, and that’s true for Religion 101 as well. I currently have the course set up as a series of 25 discrete segments. This semester, I introduced the metaphor of twenty-five years in the life of an Iron Age Israelite village, to try to give a little more sense of storyline. Each year within the course storyline consists of three seasons, each with its own particular XP-generating activity:

  • In the summer, students harvest new knowledge by acquiring foundational knowledge from the Bible itself and from secondary sources, mostly readings from Oxford Biblical Studies Online and a series of YouTube videos that I created a few years ago (and desperately need to update). Students report their harvest yields in a quiz-type format through Courses, Pepperdine’s LMS (an instance of Sakai). The LMS scores the students’ reports and awards up to 100 XP based on their answers. Obviously, the harvests are basically reskinned reading assignments and online lecture components using a flipped classroom model, along with a pre-class reading quiz. Currently, I allow students to submit each harvest report twice; they receive feedback on their first attempt before making the optional second submission. Harvests occur in “buddy mode”; students are free to complete the harvest reports alone or working with one classmate.
  • In the autumn, students work together to craft the implements and structures they’ll need to see their village through the bleak midwinter. They do this by working together in learning tribes (named for the thirteen tribes of Israel—yes, thirteen, because Levi, Ephraim, and Manasseh are all represented), an obvious takeoff on Warcraft guilds. In other words, they come to class and participate in small group activities related to that session’s biblical material. A few workshops (the Biblecraft term for class sessions) see students working individually, but usually they work in groups of three or four (if everyone in the tribe is present). In every workshop, students produce a “learning artifact.” The artifact may be as simple as a poll response or as complex as a psalm, but it’s a discrete piece of work that I can track and evaluate. A student can earn up to 100 XP by participating in the workshop session; the standard for receiving the maximum award is putting forth a “good faith effort,” as judged by the student’s peers, to get involved in the activity. From this description, it’s obvious that workshops happen in “tribal mode” most of the time.
  • In the spring of the year, when kings go out to war, students must battle to defend their villages from various threats ranging from a lone wolf up to the Seleucid army. The battles are essentially “post-tests” with questions in fixed-answer formats (embarrassing, I know, but essays and short answers take a very long time to grade conscientiously). Students must fight their battles in “solo mode,” like David against Goliath. The first question on each battle is an honor pledge to this effect. Students can earn up to 200 XP from each battle (with one exception), but there are usually only three to five questions per battle (not counting the honor pledge) and so they are very high stakes. Each battle usually includes one easy “warm-up” question, but I have attempted to make most of the questions challenging. I wouldn’t call them “battles” if I wanted them to seem easy.

The system changes very slightly at the end of the term, with the last battle, Battle 24, absorbing Harvest 24 and Harvest 25 to become a double-length “final battle.” Students fight this battle between the last day of class and the final exam period. The final exam period then becomes the venue for Workshop 25, the students’ last tribal activity in my course. If you add it all up, students can earn 10,000 XP through the standard course activities, and the scale for leveling up reflects that. Periodically throughout the course—a minimum of four times, and perhaps more, depending on various on-campus events—students may undertake optional side quests worth up to 100 XP each (awarded on the same standard as the workshops).

In previous semesters, the course included two game elements that I would like to reinstate in some way, but which I have sidelined for the moment due to the level of bookkeeping overhead they add to my workload. The first is an achievement badge system. For several prior semesters, students could earn badges by doing different kinds of things, like serving as the prophet (spokesperson) for their tribes X number of times or achieving perfect attendance during the four units of the course (which don’t exist any more now that I’m using the “twenty-five year” structure). The second is an in-game currency. I’ve only used this in one semester, Summer 2013, so far. In that setting, students earned “shekels” for completing various activities, and they had to spend their shekels to unlock the side quests they wanted to do. In addition to the very heavy bookkeeping burden of keeping up with each student’s shekels, I was never quite happy with the math of how shekels were working during that compressed semester. I plan to revisit each of these elements, and I hope to incorporate both badges and in-game currency back into the course at some point. But that is for the future.

So that’s the current “state of the union” in the World of Biblecraft. As I engage with the gamification literature in other posts in this series, I’ll refer to these mechanics from time to time, revealing my judgment about the strengths and weaknesses of my own course and the strengths and weakness of the various pronouncements that gamification gurus make.

שָׁלוֹם עָלֵיכֶם