The return of small-group gaming

To continue last year’s goal-setting and teamwork practice with New Super Mario Bros Wii, this year we’re going to mash up Mario Kart and cycling teams.

Last year we used a lives-lost-per-level ratio to determine which teams of players were most efficient at preserving one another’s lives. Teams with more fluent players were sometimes at an advantage (when they could manage their own lives well) and sometime at a disadvantage (when they were impatient to “win” and didn’t shepherd less fluent players). The best evidence of teamwork came during strategy-planning sessions midway through our experiment as students discovered they could converse and work well with one another before certain levels taxed their patience with the game and one another. We did have the game beaten by the end of the year – a collaborative effort of 22 students (and a few adults).

This year we’re going to play local multi-player Mario Kart. We’ll play for 25-minutes each Friday in groups of four as part of our normal class rotation through stations. We’re going to play like a cycling team dedicated to helping rotating captains win each race. We’re going to graph group members’ placement distributions to find out which teams are best at spreading out first place finishes amongst all group members. Students are already thinking about how to block the bots so less skilled players can win. I’m also thinking about what kind of controller would be best for each student. I need to invest in more Wii Wheels.

My hope is that students will learn to put others’ interests before their own – or even to see how putting others’ before themselves is sometimes in their best interest. I’d like us to work through a similar progression of lessons as we did last year:

  • Week 1: Introduce the content and let the kids play; graph the results.
  • Week 2: Talk about how difficult it was to spread out the wins; ask what worked; let the kids play; graph the results.
  • Week 3: Introduce a goal- and strategy-setting organizer; let the kids play; graph the results.
  • Week 4 and onward: continue with goal- and strategy-setting, playing, and graphing; start analyzing graphs for trends, success stories, and strategies to share; maybe start an online strategy guide.

Last year, a small group of students hit a wall when they experienced how much work went into platformer level design and how much that work depended on collaboration between students who acted as researchers and artists. This year, however, we’re demonstrating on a daily basis remarkable pro-academic behaviors that we only inconsistently demonstrated last year. I wonder if we’re ready to stick with game design that integrates curriculum.

I have to figure out how to get kids like me – kids eager to spend hours in sandbox editors – to bridge school content into their worlds, or to draw “real-world” lessons from their design work. It’s a challenge. How do you help a kid move school into his or her quality world when you share a mistrust of what school has been, but don’t have a shared vision of what it could be? (And how can I get Little Big Planet 2 into the classroom?)