Practomime: An Innovation in Learning Games

Woman typing on computer

The Chronicle‘s Wired Campus blog featured the work of Roger Travis, associate professor of classics and director of the video games and human values initiative at the University of Connecticut, in developing the learning games he has dubbed “practomime.” Relying on roleplaying and narrative storytelling, practomime requires students to complete course tasks and fulfill course objectives by playing characters within an alternate reality classroom.

The advantages of adding practomime as a component of a course are:

  • Student engagement and investment; in creating a character or avatar who is solving problems and progessing through levels of the learning game, the students have an immediate stake in the course material from week to week
  • A healthy sense of competition, driving student achievement in the course
  • The demand for student creativity, originality, and problem-solving
  • Increased investment in individual research, as students apply what they learn directly to progressing through the practomime

We interviewed Travis this week to learn more about how practomime works and how interested faculty can get started.

What is Practomime and How Does it Work?

Practomime leverages the advantages of role-playing games for immersive learning. Role-playing games (including popular MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft or The Lord of the Rings Online) rely on a player’s investment in a created character or avatar and require the player to complete difficult tasks (quests) and problem-solve to overcome obstacles, in order to progress through the “levels” of the game.

“As has been pointed out, role-playing games are the perfect assessment machines: you can’t get to the next level without mastering the previous one, and you get constant feedback.”
Roger Travis, U of Connecticut

Travis suggests that this type of “assessment machine” can be easily translated into a learning game. “The first step is to realize it is possible to make course objectives and game objectives the same.” Then:

  • Create a storyline for an “alternate reality” in which students are tasked for some urgent narrative reason with learning the information and developing the skills required by the course
  • Insert course activities into that narrative framework
  • Have students create characters within that virtual reality, characters who have a stake in solving the problems/assignments given and achieving the objectives of the game and the course
  • Assign credit for assignments in the form of “levels” or “experience points” within the game

The Alternate Reality Classroom

In the simplest alternate reality scenario, the faculty member plays a teacher, and the students play students. Then you add the layers that invite students to participate in the class as a learning game: rules to follow, a progression they have to master, and a sense of something at stake. Your history class could be assembling historical knowledge and clues needed to confront a crisis threatening Western civilization. Your pre-med students could be in a race to save a patient. Your legal students could be roleplaying a particularly difficult trial.

For Travis’ advanced course in Latin poetry, students do sight reading of Latin texts by Horace and Ovid during the class sessions, discussing interpretation and cultural context; then they present their homework by offering translations online and by roleplaying within a practomime hosted in Google Wave. In the roleplay, the students describe scenes in their characters’ lives in ancient Rome, using as much Latin as possible. The students earn “Latinity Points” (which help their characters advance to the next level in the practomime) for correct Latin, for completing research assignments, and for demonstrating their mastery of the Roman cultural context.

The practomime is especially useful in encouraging engaged, vigorous research, as students compete to earn Latinity Points.

“With the investment the students feel in their characters, the research they do is deeper, more self-driven, and more engaged than when I am merely assigning articles to read. They pay much more attention, they have a stake in it, they know what they will be using this information for.”
Roger Travis, U of Connecticut

Here is an example. The students are role-playing in the Forum of Augustus, 8 AD/CE. One of Travis’ students searches online in JSTOR, reads articles about the statues in the Forum, and based on that research, she formulates an account of her character’s walk along the portico, musing about the relationship between the statues she sees and the figures she has read in a poem of Horace studied in a previous class session. The narrative of her walk becomes a way for her to demonstrate what she has learned about the cultural context of the poem.

“Some of the learning moments that are the most indelible are game-like moments. Some of my students from last year are still talking about moments from my class, the characters they played, what they did and learned.”
Roger Travis, U of Connecticut

Minimal Technology

While it is possible to initiate a practomime within a third-party virtual world such as Second Life or an actual MMORPG, you can actually achieve your objectives with minimal technology — with a wiki, for instance, or with Google Wave. Travis recommends constructing the learning game around interactive narratives (for example, presenting a problem or a scenario, and prompting students to respond in character), and using something as simple as Google Wave’s “roll dice” feature to add a random element to the fun of the game. “You can support the narrative with images or multimedia,” Travis remarks, “but it is also possible to do this entirely in text.”

Measuring the Impact

Since integrating practomime into his classics courses, Travis has seen:

  • A 50% growth in enrollment in his advanced Latin course (bucking a national trend of diminishing enrollments in classics courses)
  • A 50% drop in attrition during the term
  • A 25% growth in the number of classics and ancient mediterranean studies majors over the past two years
  • A 0.7 jump in his “Stimulates interest” score on his course evaluation (on a 10-point scale)

Travis adds, “Students who would ordinarily be left behind and would stop coming to class, are continuing to come to class and engage. I have seen a much broader scope of participation from my students than I would expect in a traditional course.”

“They have to stay engaged. They have to get to the next level. There’s an investment in the character they are creating.”
Roger Travis, U of Connecticut

On an ongoing basis, you will want to track the impact of learning games on course attrition, enrollment, student engagement, and quality of coursework. Most of these measures are relatively easy to quantify, but make sure to prioritize which measures are important. Be clear on your objectives in integrating the learning game into the classroom. Are you hoping to increase student engagement, lower attrition, encourage higher-quality undergraduate research?

One less quantifiable item is increased student interest or investment in the course material. You can use a midterm and final survey or student questionnaire to ask questions designed to measure this:

  • How likely would they be to continue their learning in the subject beyond this class?
  • What did they find most rewarding in this study?
  • What did they learn through the practomime?

Learn More

More About Practomime: Roger Travis’ blog, “Living Epic”