Progression systems in schools

What have I been doing? Playing a lot of Battlefield 1, honestly. By any definition it has become an addiction. I played that game when I should have been writing these blog posts or doing my laundry or reading any one of the new books I've been buying that have become mere decorations.

The game had me, but why? I hated Battlefield 1 the first time I played it. I didn't survive longer than thirty seconds before eating a shotgun blast to the face or a sniper bullet to the back of the head. I endured plenty of Kyrgios-esque meltdowns. The television would have an Xbox controller-shaped hole in the screen if not for it belonging to a friend of mine. But I persevered and switched from playing Conquest to Team Deathmatch, where the maps are smaller and the games shorter. This is where I drilled my accuracy and movement, and experimented with the different classes available. Every week or so I climbed the leader board, unlocked new guns, ribbons and medals. Playing Battlefield 1 was all I wanted to do with my time. Until today.

I played Conquest instead of Team Deathmatch this afternoon. It was brutal. I got shredded, dying more times than anyone else in the game. I got stuck on the losing side often but nonetheless I felt hopelessly outmatched. I rarely survived longer than a minute before dying to cavalry, infantry, grenades, fighter planes or tanks. I must have spent more time on the respawn screen than in game. I suffered this humiliation for half a dozen games. I stomped my feet on the carpet, punched the couch, tugged at my hair, said words that would offend my mother. I lost all taste for the game. 

Of course I had been through all this before when I first started playing but it was different this time. In the beginning I had hardly unlocked any of the weapons. This time though I had over 5,000 war bonds to spend on new guns. I could purchase almost any weapon in the game except those with requisite challenges. In addition to that I had also topped the leader board for my side in Team Deathmatch plenty of times and earned the MVP award once. So what was left to do? Not a lot, I realised. I could continue to grind for Battlepacks which rewarded me with new weapon skins, but they just change the look of a weapon and offer no real gameplay advantage. 

This got me thinking about progression systems, for which Battlefield 1 has been criticised heavily. Progression systems in games relate to unlockables, rewards and points, for example. Role Playing Games typically have progression systems that keep players engaged for months on end. These are games where a player begins with almost nothing and over time customises their player into what they want, perhaps by purchasing new clothes, finding more powerful weapons, exploring new locations, fighting new enemies. These are all things that make the player feel like they are developing their skills and being rewarded for the time they invest in the game.

This could be the reason Battlefield 1 has seen a consistently declining player base since its release in October 2016. The lack of depth in the progression system did not worry me up until now because I was not playing the game to unlock anything. I was playing for a bit of fun. But when I hit that wall today I realised the importance of a progression system—it keeps people playing through difficult times. When you can see where you are going, know how to get there, feel confident you will if you put in the time, and are rewarded regularly for your efforts, then playing the game, whatever that game might be, becomes addictive. Progress becomes addictive. Ironically, it seems game developers like DICE and EA have learned how to apply John Hattie's ideas about feedback and progress better than any school has.

Education seems to lack any kind of meaningful progression system for students. What is the reward for investing more time into a school subject? Personal pride, higher test scores, praise from teachers and parents. All of these rewards are based on the idea that a student appreciates the intrinsic value in the work they do, which not everyone does, at least not at first. Students are forced to take most of the subjects they study during their school lives. For a lot of these students, the rewards they receive are shallow and meaningless, like weapon skins—it is nice to get them but they change nothing. Ultimately, students need to feel that if they put in the time they will see the reward. What rewards do they earn for scoring a few percentage points higher? Usually all you get for doing well at a subject is more work or harder work. And all the while you are comparing yourself to the kids at the top of the class, the level 110s of Battlefield 1 who kill you every time.

We assess students based on their performance, but is there a meaningful reward for a good performance? Everyone wants to do well, and students understand that the scores they get at school influence the opportunities they have when they finish. But this reality is nothing more than a hazy dream for an adolescent who has known nothing but school their whole life. 

We need to think about building a progression system for students to keep them interested. It does not matter what you are doing or how old or experienced you are, everyone wants to make progress. It is an innate drive within us. Students are always making progress in their subjects but the problem is that it is not salient to them. They do not notice it because progress is incremental. The challenge is to make their progress obvious. The reason progression systems keep people motivated is precisely because they emphasise achievements and improvements, no matter how minor. 

Doing well in Battlefield 1 is not just about an impressive kill/death ratio. It is about playing the objective, working with your squad and fulfilling your class role in the team. Similarly, doing well at school is not just about high test scores but working with other people when necessary, finding your strengths and playing to them, and supporting your fellow classmates. My feeling is that we tend to overemphasise the top performers, the superstars. Malcolm Gladwell made an excellent podcast episode about how we idolise superstars at the expense of effective team players. It seems to me that we expect every student at school to be a superstar, or at the very least, the same kind of superstar. Success in life is about finding a role, usually within a larger team of people, and just committing to that role.

A player's score in Battlefield 1 tallies together kills, assists, suppression, spots and many other factors that encompass what it means to be a good team player. Just the same way, being a good student is not just about test scores but supporting other students, maintaining a good classroom environment, and contributing to rich classroom discussions, for example. Yet all anyone seems to care about is the letter grade they earn at the end of the term. I like this idea because it reflects the way people find different ways of making themselves useful in their adult lives.

There is something to learn from Battlefield 1 about how it rewards people for playing the objective of the game and contributing to the team. As teachers we should think about giving our students point grades that weigh the different ways students can contribute to a successful team.