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March 20, 2011 / Ben Chun

Competition and Learning

Earlier this year, I assigned an essay to my 11th grade class on a broad topic: What is the most important aspect of a game? Earlier in the year, we had watched Luxo, Jr., and I was thinking about things like character, storyline, and art.

One of the most interesting thesis statements came from a student who argued that competition is the driving force behind all game-playing and that creating a competitive environment (with opportunities to perform or enact skill in a social context) was the most important aspect of a game. Actually, what he wrote was,

“Games such as these give people the psychological “itch” to show off their skills and statistics, which draws the people to continuously play that game.” And in conclusion, “If there isn’t competition in a game, there is no point of a game.”

While games that mix in cooperation and collaboration (or simply facilitate competition in being better at helping others) have been successful on social platforms — think FarmVille here — there’s still a great deal of appeal in directly competitive games. Classic games individual like Tetris seem to gain additional appeal when made social and competitive.

Anyhow, after I graded those essays and felt deep sympathy for English teachers, I stopped thinking consciously about how the competitive drive links to motivation. Then the time came for my second annual AP Computer Science Rock-Paper-Scissors programming competition. Last year I called this competition BattleWorld, but after taking an online workshop with Fran Trees this year, I have been thinking a lot more about turnoffs. Things like names and styles of presentation can be unintentionally unappealing or uninteresting to large segments of the population. Her example was that people often use the game Battleship to teach 2d arrays, but she either didn’t play it as a kid or didn’t enjoy it. Of course you can’t be everything to everyone, but it’s worth considering.

So this year I re-cast the project as RPS Critters (aided by a very timely NYT interactive) and tweaked some of the competition rules to encourage more thought about the GridWorld classes and more work with ArrayLists. The competition itself took a little bit of tweaking, and I was okay with the feedback (versus last year) showing an increase in perceived difficulty.

What I hadn’t noticed or thought about was how this lab, with its competitive aspect, discourages collaboration — and how that might be a good thing. Going back through the written reflections, I did find some support for that. Here’s a student comment from last year:

“I think this was a good idea. It was competitive, so copying of other peoples work decreased.”

Echoed by a different student this year:

“I think this was the hardest lab we have had. We were very dependent on ourselves this lab even though we had some communication with our classmates but everyone was our opponent at the same time so it was hard to know who to trust exactly.”

Hah, exactly. And going a level deeper, another student this year:

“Group working, while in some circumstances is good, compels some students to fall into a pit of complacency and refrain from thinking for themselves. This is a rather difficult thing for a teacher to avoid (unless they desire 464723368735 different lesson plans for each student), but making coding competitive and enjoyable (such as this battle…we should have another one!) forces independent thinking to blossom.”

I have to say, it’s really nice when students can take in the challenges that we face as teachers. And on the other hand, I want to be sure I’m not fostering a cutthroat environment. So while I wouldn’t run a competition for every assignment, there does seem to be some aspect of open-ended problem solving that comes with these sorts of situations. One more student reflection:

‘We weren’t learning anything new but it was hard applying the things we learned in the past. … Thinking about strategies in your head is one thing but actually applying it in code is another.”

Yep, I’ll take it. For me, the most important aspect of a game is what you can learn by playing it.

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