Game Design, Gamification, Learning Design and Assorted Other Strangeness

Homework and The Grind

Homework And The Grind

One of the elements that is highly frustrating in MMORPGS is the grind. It can be summarized as the (seemingly) pointless activities that the players undertake to acquire the points to progress and engage in the game proper. Typically these are activities that the player can accomplish with relative ease and have become thoughtless and almost automatic.

In some regards they are seen as time padding devices to increase time engaged with the system. However they are something that is tolerated by players more than welcomed by them, to the point where some players have even started paying others to do the task for them.

The grind system is almost identical between MMORPGS and the classroom in one area; the assigning of homework.

Ostensibly, homework is given to get students to practice the material outside the classroom. Mostly in the belief that this will improve students learning or provide non academic benefits. However, these benefits are contested in the research with many studies refuting their existence. Similarly, students may be tempted to employ others to carry out the task for them instead of engaging in it themselves.

The biggest difference between these activities are that players are motivated to engage with grind, where as students are famously not engaged by homework. One possible explanation for this is to look at it through the game design framework of “busywork”.

Are grind and homework both busywork?

Busywork can take several forms.

“Pure” Busywork

In its purest form, busywork asks a player or student to perform an action repeatedly. This action is formulaic and does not have any meaningful choices associated with it.

Incomprehensible Busywork

In this form, there are choices available to the students/players. However, the reasoning behind the choices is not transparent. This means that the decisions are often made randomly, leading to a sense of powerlessness and disengagement.

Very low reward/effort ratio activities

When the reward for engaging in the activity is too low, many students/players can become disillusioned with engaging in the activity in the first place.

From the definitions above we can see that a lot of traditional homework falls into the category of busywork.

While it is true that many of the MMORPG grind activities fall into this framework, they have several workarounds for the disengagement of busywork. The first is that grind style activities are always meaningful to the player: If I do X, I will be much faster at Y when I am in a raid. Next, they give plenty of opportunities for feedback as to how the player is acquiring skill. Finally, they often allow choice in which activities the player is going to engage in, and in how they are going to complete the activities. Therefore, even when the activities become pure busywork, the player is still willing to engage with them.

What implications does this have for homework design?

Homework could take some of the lessons from grinding in MMORPGS. To avoid being pure busywork, homework must be meaningful, understandable, and have a reward in ratio to the effort required. It must be clear to a student that engaging in this type of activity will increase their ability to engage with the content proper.

Another shift suggested by MMORPGS is to move from the quantity to the quality of the required tasks, further emphasizing feedback so that the player can decide when they are capable of moving on.

Many grind activities are designed to get you to practice skills that you will later need to be automatic when playing the game. Once the player has become proficient (or decided that they are), they are not required to engage in the activities again. Some games make it impossible to receive experience rewards for activities too far below the players ability level.

With some thought and effort, it should be possible to design homework activities that are as engaging as any game.

For further information about how to redesign the homework you are assigning, take a look at Cathy Vatterott’s book “Rethinking Homework.

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