- How to Win Introduction to Theatre
The “internet of things” postulates an environment in which we are surrounded by smart devices that gather data and react to our behaviors; for example, when we take that last yogurt from the fridge, the appliance itself adds that item to our grocery list and may even transmit an order to a local supermarket for delivery. In A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown suggest a similar situation for education. Learning, they say, “is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful . . . and it is grounded in a very simple question: What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change?” (17). However, as a university professor with one foot still entrenched in the old ways of thinking, and, possibly more important, subject to the demands of outcomes and program assessment, I am wary of handing over my role as instructor to the educational equivalent of SkyNet.1 Nonetheless, over the last two years I made a change in my Introduction to Theatre class. Having taught it in a fairly consistent manner for twenty-three years, I decided that it needed some reinvigoration to keep it current. And so in fall 2014 I revised the syllabus with the idea of making the class a game.
Why games? They seem to be everywhere. I recall losing entire Saturdays to Dungeons and Dragons sessions during my master’s program, with the theatre director in me serving as the Dungeon Master. More recently, the arrival, and each subsequent upgrade, of computer game systems (Sony Playstation, Nintendo DS and Wii, Microsoft Xbox) have been met by many with great anticipation. Legions of fans have kept the massively multiplayer, online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (or WOW ) alive for over a decade. In 2009 many users of Facebook were besieged with those ubiquitous Farmville requests as friends and family became rabid players, and as I write this draft during summer 2016, Pokemon GO players have reached a fever pitch of excitement just scant days after its release.
In the realm of academia, scholars and researchers have also turned their attention to using “game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding et al.) as a viable platform for learning. Alternately called “quest-based learning” (or QBL) and “gamification,” the notion is that the inclusion of gaming elements into teaching allows an educator to incorporate techniques that involve students more thoroughly and on a higher level than a simple lecture-based format. In the aforementioned book by Thomas and Brown, the authors posit that MMORPGs, such as WOW, Lord of the Rings Online, EVE Online, and Star Wars Galaxies,
are large-scale social communities that provide a case study in how players absorb tacit knowledge, process it into a series of increasingly sophisticated questions, and engage collectives to make the experience more personally meaningful. What they teach us about learning is not specific to any game per se but it is embedded in the collectives that are constructed in, around, and through the game. In essence, the game provides the impetus for collectives to take root.(107) [End Page E-1]
These so-called collectives, defined as “a collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts” (52), suggest a way of looking at a classroom of students not simply as passive receivers of information, but instead as active participants responsible for generating content and learning. Since theatre is the essence of play, it seemed a natural fit to introduce these ideas of gamification.
The Gamification of Introduction to Theatre
Change usually follows the introduction of a catalyst, and the catalytic moment for me arrived in May 2014 at a faculty development workshop at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg titled “Gaming the Classroom.” As part of his presentation, Dean Nelson, an associate professor of statistics, played a video of Chris Haskell titled, “Blowing up the grade book.”2 At four minutes and forty seconds into the video...