If you went up to the average student and asked them if they wished school was more like a video game you would almost certainly get a passionate "YES!" I'm sure if you asked most adults they'd also put their vote in favor of making their tedious work day more fun and exciting. Gamification is in no way a new idea, but it's one that is still evolving at a rapid pace.
For the last two years of my adult life (which coincidentally are the only two years of my adult life) I have had the pleasure of being a 6th grade teacher in central Indiana. Gaming has always been a huge part of my everyday routine and in the middle of my first year of teaching I decided to bring a gaming aspect to my classroom. With a designer friend and an extensive knowledge of video games I created the classroom management system called ClassRealm.
ClassRealm is a way to help students get more involved in their school work and in the classroom in general. Students can earn experience points, levels and achievements by doing simple school related items such as participating in class discussions, helping clean up the room and getting assignments done on time. It worked exceptionally well with my first year class and I decided to do a little write up on the results. Kotaku writer Owen Good was kind enough to published my story on a lazy Sunday in March and the response was outstanding.
After the original article was posted I received dozens and dozens of emails from people all over the world telling me they wanted to use ClassRealm in their classroom or saying they wished their child had it at their local school. I was overwhelmed with all the requests and the amount of people who wanted to help or be a part of ClassRealm in some way. I decided if we really wanted to fund ClassRealm (which wasn't fully developed at the time) we needed to Kickstart it.
I wasn't sure if I could even Kickstart a classroom management system, as it wasn't a game or video game in the traditional sense. I assembled a small team of computer savvy friends and a wonderfully talented illustrator from Australia and we set up our Kickstarter in a little over two months. At the time it seemed like the right thing to do. Coverage from local news, WIRED magazine and gaming sites helps us gain exposure across the web, but we were asking for a lot - 65 thousand dollars.
Pitching gamification is a difficult task. Gamers know that educational based gaming has traditionally been pretty lame. Sure, when Mario teaches typing it's more entertaining, but it hardly makes a difference. Why give money to a system that you, personally, are not going to use? It's not a game for gamers, it's a game for students. Many educators on the other hand have a view towards gaming that is less than accepting. Video games are violent. They rot our students brains and make them into mindless zombies. Why would you want to promote video game concepts in the world of education?
Gamers and educators - these were my two biggest audiences and many were on the fence as to whether it was worth the time and money to collaborate. Even with these obsicles we managed to raise 25 thousand dollars. Which is phenomenal. It's outrageous. Who gives 25K to a group of young adults to make a video game based classroom system? The support we got was fantastic (Even one of my heros, Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade, mentioned it as "important"), but in the end 25K isn't 65K. We had failed and now all I had was a great idea and no money to make it happen. A team and no way to pay them. A product which people emailed me about daily, but I had no way of giving them.
I kept talking to friends, developers, and designers about possibly helping us create the online interface for ClassRealm that we so desperately wanted to build, but the conversations always fell short. Who wants to build a system for free? Even your best friends are smarter than that. I felt like I was stuck in a catch 22. I didn't have enough of an online system built to pitch my product and gain funding. I didn't have enough funding to make the online system so I could pitch it. It's the classic start-up conundrum.
Fans of ClassRealm offered ideas and sometimes even berated me for not putting all I had, money wise, into the idea. I felt selfish, but on a teachers salary I wasn't exactly bringing in loads of cash to begin with. A wedding and a new house added to my mental agreement that I shouldn't throw all I had into my idea, no matter how much I believed in it. A few other gamification sites approached me about maybe building on top of their structure, but once again it didn't work out. I tried as hard as I could to contact the folks behind ClassDojo, with the hopes that they would want to collaborate and make ClassRealm a reality. They never responded, no matter how hard tried to contact them. I even applied for a job with them just to get their attention, but to this day I have heard nothing back. I guess my ideas didn't warrant a response in their eyes. In December of last year I was named by Kotaku as one of their "Gamers of the Year", which was a great surprise as I had been off the news grid for some time. It was also another reason I felt I had to find a way to get ClassRealm out to more classrooms.
My original team, while supportive, felt it was best to move on from ClassRealm. Just put it on the shelf for a rainy day or for a time when we had more money and more resources. As heartbroken as it made me I had to agree with them that it was the right move... for them. I, on the other hand, was going to keep at it. Surely someone somewhere would take a chance and help us create this system.
Through some connections I managed to line up a lunch with two of the higher-ups at a company called Evanced Games. The company works on reading programs, educational games, and educational software for schools and libraries across the world, so they seemed like a perfect choice to adopt ClassRealm. The Evanced guys listened intently as I described all I had done and how ClassRealm had helped my students throughout my last year of teaching. Eventually it got to the point where they said that while ClassRealm sounded great it wasn't really something they could fit into their schedule. They suggested that they would pass it on to one of their higher-ups and see what they thought. Sure, why not. I'd held out hope this long, why not wait and see.
What happened next was unexpected, as I had gone in feeling it wasn't even a possibility. Evanced Games offered me a summer job. Doing what, you ask? Working on, evaluating, pitching, and creating educational games and programs. They wanted to pay me to combine two of my biggest passions. Needless to say I was overjoyed and told them I was very interested in working with them. Their ideas for reading programs and bringing educational games out of the classroom are phenomenal. I've been assigned the title of "Educational Game Specialist", which is quite possibly the raddest job title in the history of the world, and I'm counting down the days until I get to start my new summer job.
ClassRealm, much like gamification itself, has evolved rapidly since I first thought it up in late 2011. I still use it in my classroom everyday. While the system still sits in the back of my mind waiting to reach its full potential, I have a whole summer of working on educational games to look forward to. I haven't given up on ClassRealm. Not even close. But for now all my ideas for an online system and the expansion of ClassRealm will have to wait. The experience I gain as a teacher and at my new job as a "Game Specialist" will surely help me make ClassRealm into a system that will inspire teachers, students, and parents everywhere to admit something they may have never believed - gaming belongs in the classroom.
Have ideas for ClassRealm or just want to talk gaming in education? Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit up my personal Twitter account. I always love to talk about possibilites.