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Blog: How Might We Gamify Ancient Greek?

In last year’s introductory Greek class, I watched a student rejoice when asked to give a (partial) synopsis of the verb ‘λύω.’ While synopses are rarely met with enthusiastic responses, this student knew that the synopsis, if correctly produced, would make him stronger. My class was playing Olympus, a term-length board game played in one-hour instalments throughout the quarter, and he had just drawn the Agōgē card.

After I explained the origins of the title in the brutal training regime of Spartan soldiers, the student remained optimistic. Since λύω is the most common example verb in our textbook, he knew that he had an advantage. If he could complete this task in the allotted time, his character would become stronger, and he would have an easier time defeating in-game monsters. Moreover, those monsters had lately been requiring him to deal with difficult third-declension nouns, but the Agōgē task lay comfortably inside of the verbal system. While this student had his own goals clearly in view, he was also helping me accomplish mine. When I began thinking about incorporating game-based or gamified elements into my Classics classroom, one of my foremost objectives was to think about how something as mundane as a synopsis might be met not with an “Okay,” but with an “OH YES!”

Strictly speaking, gamification is the incorporation of game-like elements into instruction-related (non-game) tasks, while game-based learning involves the incorporation of a game (which could stand alone outside a class setting) to achieve learning outcomes. For example, incorporating a “leaderboard” for the completion of vocabulary flashcards is an example of gamification. In contrast, the Reacting to the Past game Athens: Threshold of Democracy, in which students role-play historical figures, each with distinct “win conditions” (e.g. ensure that all metics gain citizenship), is an example of game-based learning.

Before I began working on Olympus, I had encountered exciting game-based experiences within Classics. I had lately corresponded with Anna Judson about her game-based foray into Linear B, Mycenopoly, and had been contemplating organizing a playthrough of it as an outreach event. Similarly, I had heard of T. H. M. Gellar-Goad’s success at creating term-length games that had language instruction as their focus.  I was taken with Gellar-Goad’s emphasis on role-playing and on the potential of this strategy to generate student engagement and investment in the language learning process. Nevertheless, I also recognized that the class size for his prose-comp focused games was likely small. I had no way of predicting class size in Introductory Greek, especially not across multiple academic years, so I turned my attention to how I might build role-playing experiences for the language classroom that might scale to accommodate a full class of (approximately) 25 students.

I created Olympus as a compromise between gamification and game-based learning. My primary concerns were to increase student motivation (informed by research on behaviour and second language acquisition) to create opportunities for personalization by students, and for the entire experience to offer cultural, grammatical, and pedagogical value. The game’s basic conceit is an adventure in which students attempt to join the divine pantheon by imitating Heracles, scaling the slopes of Oeta after collecting a magic amulet inscribed with the proper instructions for this (admittedly made-up) ritual. Students choose a character from Greek mythology or history and role-play that character for the remainder of the introductory sequence.

How to Play the Game

The Olympus board consists of three concentric squares, representing regions, the innermost being the “site of apotheosis,” the goal for all characters. Movement between these regions is granted only at certain points (e.g., a guardian sits at the point that permits access to the second square and must be defeated before players can proceed).

Figure 1: An Olympus board (Images provided by the author unless otherwise noted).

Most spaces require players to draw from the “search deck,” a deck of cards that contains random events, items, and challenges that can help or hinder character progress. Most cards are monsters that characters fight using a simple dice roll, but these results can be improved if students successfully complete grammatical challenges. Since all monsters feature one or more paradigm tasks, the chances of defeating a monster are greatly increased by correctly completing such tasks. The outcome of the dice rolls are random, however, so it is possible players will still be defeated by monsters despite completing paradigm tasks — or that players will successfully defeat monsters even though they have failed (see images below for sample monster and paradigm cards). This is a deliberate imbalance in the gameplay, meant to ensure that students who struggle with the memorization and production of Greek grammatical forms do not find the game-based learning experience to be demoralizing.

The game experience attempts to increase engagement in two ways:

[1] breaking down paradigm assimilation into smaller, discrete tasks

[2] increasing extrinsic motivation.

These goals (and the associated pedagogical strategies) are interrelated. The effect of gamification and games on extrinsic motivation is already well known, as is the chance to obtain prizes like stickers, extra credit points, or candy, but a game-based approach can offer something unique. Research suggests that, in the absence of success (i.e., progress towards a goal), learners exhibit a greater tendency to disengage. Breaking down paradigm assimilation into smaller, discrete encounters offers students more opportunities to experience this feeling of success. Furthermore, incorporating paradigm assimilation into a game allows students to pursue goals within the game world at the same time as they engage the learning goals.

To illustrate, consider two students: Student A considers herself a naturally-gifted language learner and her intrinsic motivation is high. She will like playing the game because she enjoys contemplating and producing paradigms and will study regardless of gamified and game-based elements. On the other hand, Student B is easily frustrated, and finds more traditional strategies (like rote memorization) to be a chore. For Student B, the game provides encounters with the language under a novel set of circumstances. For this student, the core elements of the game (advancing her character, defeating monsters, discovering Greek myth) provide opportunities for success and a sense of progress that do not depend entirely on her knowledge of Greek. Nevertheless, this environment enables paradigm practice and rewards engagement.

Figure 2: A monster card and a paradigm card.

Character movement and the drawing of cards are the core of all gameplay. (I drew inspiration for the board, decks, and mechanics from various sources, the most important being Talisman, Prophecy, and the Japanese-learning game LRNJ.) After rolling a six-sided die to determine how far they may move (they may choose any direction), players move to their target space and resolve the consequences, which almost always involve drawing a card from the search deck. There are numerous cards that pit players against one another in one-on-one or group contests. Sometimes, cards require players to team up to challenge the active player, e.g., the “Oracle at Delphi” card, which requires a group of players to devise a translation task. Similarly, the “Tax-Collector” card challenges all characters to race against one another in completing paradigm challenges, the reward being in-game currency (this can be earned in other ways; see “Gamification,” below).

A final card type, called spell cards, creates further opportunities for player interaction and composition tasks. These cards are more difficult to obtain, but all players begin with one. Spell cards allow players to manipulate the board, cards, or characters provided that they compose in Greek and that the composition satisfies certain grammatical requirements (e.g., a direct object, a prepositional phrase, and a verb in the future). These composition tasks can be undertaken at home, but intrepid players can also use them immediately. All spell cards are catalogued in a directory, the ‘enchiridion’ (“the handbook”), which contains recommended vocabulary. An optional supplement to the enchiridion consists of student-generated entries on the mythological and historical context of the spell cards. Alongside paradigm practice, I have assigned students to research these bits of mythological background as homework on days that precede a gameplay day. If students wish, they can also describe the in-game effect of a spell card (see below).

Figure 3: Enchiridion entry explaining the Spell Card "Alcestis' Sacrifice"

Character Creation and the Integration of Game-based and “Gamified” Strategies

At the beginning of the term, students choose a character from mythology or history that they will role-play throughout the sequence. I have always offered students the choice to have a character randomly assigned rather than search for one themselves, but I have never been asked to do this. Instead, student-selected characters have led to productive learning opportunities. For example, when one student selected the hero and erstwhile boxer, Kleomedes of Astypalaia, their choice generated opportunities to discuss hero cult and Greek sport (see Pausanias 6.9.6–6.9.8).

In another group, two students independently chose Theseus and Ariadne as their characters, leading to considerable (good-natured) tension between the players. Particularly in this second case, the chance to choose their own characters permitted a sense of ownership immediately — their game was different from that of the students in the other group because of the rivalry between those two characters. More broadly, as the case of Kleomedes shows, character selection permits a personalized approach to language learning from the very beginning, as students are able to share different aspects of their interest in the Greek world and its cultures. In addition, the materials distributed for character creation provide opportunities to put the diversity of the Greek world on display, as characters such as Aspasia, Memnon, and Sosipatra of Ephesus demonstrate.

The character selection process also provides the first opportunity for gamification, although the mechanism is not points, but an “achievement.”  The widespread use of achievements is relatively new to the gaming space, but they are typically some kind of visual proof that an in-game task or task peripheral to the game has been completed. (Achievements partly have their roots in these charming physical patches, made by Activision in the 1980s and distributed to players who mailed in photographs documenting high scores above a certain threshold.) Achievements are widespread within modern video gaming platforms and distribution services (e.g., Xbox Live, Steam).

In Olympus, achievements are visual upgrades to a player’s character sheet, earned by completing foundational tasks of character creation and language learning. After students write their character’s name in Greek alongside a motivation statement in English (approximately 100 words of character background, including some imagined reason for this character’s quest for immortality), I print a graphically enhanced character sheet, albeit in black and white. Once the cases of the character’s name have been added to the sheet, I create the final version and print it in color.

These aesthetic upgrades are achievements that represent completed tasks; the character sheet also allows more traditional gamification using points. Once their character sheets are complete, students use them to track their progress across two domains, strength and intelligence, which are the base values that they use to fight in-game monsters. Strength and intelligence scores are increased through events in the search deck or through defeating monsters, while actual “combat” follows the dice-roll scheme described earlier. If players manage to defeat a monster (regardless of whether they accomplish the associated paradigm task) they are allowed to keep the card as a tropaion (“trophy”). These trophies can be redeemed to increase strength or intelligence.

Figure 4:  Completed Character Sheet for Kleomedes of Astypalaia

Additional opportunities for gamification arise through the incorporation of Quizlet, an online flashcard program that hosts paradigm and vocabulary flashcards. I add new paradigm cards to the physical board game at each session, complemented by the publication of online paradigm flashcards on Quizlet. Paradigm flashcards overlap (but do not entirely match) the content of the paradigm cards added to the game, so students who choose to practice via Quizlet can gain an advantage, since they have had the opportunity to preview some of the potential paradigm tasks. Similarly, students who complete vocabulary flashcards before a gameplay day will earn an in-game coin, which can later be redeemed for other in-game items or put at risk during in-game events, like the “Tax-Collector” card described earlier. Paradigm and vocabulary practice are gamified in this way and integrated into the gameplay of the language-learning game itself.

Although they are neither game-based nor a gamified element, “game wrappers” contribute directly to the language-learning process and benefit from the environment provided by the game. Game wrappers are short worksheets that I require students to hand in on gameplay days, and they are loosely based on the idea of “exam wrappers.”  Exam wrappers are short surveys administered to students after exams, typically focused on study strategies, self-reflection, and progress toward learning objectives. Game wrappers differ in two ways:

[1] the are given both before and after gameplay  

[2] they require active skill practice.

The day before students play Olympus, I ask them to reflect on some grammatical aspect they are having trouble memorizing, and which strategies they have been using to practice. I also require them to produce and practice self-correction on the target paradigm(s). I then ask them to bring this sheet with them to the gameplay session, so that they can record their encounters with paradigm and language-learning tasks (paradigm cards, spell cards). These game wrappers also require them to reflect on their experience attempting to produce paradigms etc. during the play session (due at the beginning of the next class).

So, if I were planning to play Olympus on a Tuesday, I would distribute the game wrappers on Monday and students would reflect on areas of difficulty and practice their target paradigms that evening. On Tuesday, students would play the game and would use the same sheets to record their in-game encounters with paradigms. After reflecting on their progress on Tuesday evening, students would then turn in their game wrappers at the beginning of Wednesday’s class session.

The benefits of self-reflection within the learning environment are manifold. Among these is contribution to the development of a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. I refer to these game wrappers as “training” in an attempt to foster a growth-focused approach to grammatical mastery and assimilation. Exam wrappers can also help establish a growth mindset, but they remain connected to a graded task that students often see as high-stakes, thereby running the risk of misinterpretation (e.g. as an explanation of why a grade was earned). Since gameplay is relatively low-stakes, the self-reflection that proceeds from game wrappers targets study skills and learning outcomes more directly, as it is decoupled from graded tasks. Furthermore, given that students play the game approximately once every 10 calendar days, these kinds of check-ins are sustained, regular interventions that allow students to appreciate their own progress as it occurs.

Other Considerations and Outcomes

The design schema of Olympus is meant to approximate the challenges and rewards of learning Greek. There is a large, overarching goal that seems like a Herculean task — understanding the fundamentals of Greek grammar — but this goal is broken down over time into multiple playthroughs, each of which contains dozens of small encounters with grammar. While the game is a metaphor for the challenges that students face, it also allows the instructor to treat another problem common to introductory Greek and Latin classrooms. Typically, university-level language sequences move students through Greek and Latin grammars quite quickly, leaving little time for cultural content such as history, mythology, art, and literature. Furthermore, there is often great variation in student preferences across these domains:  some students are keen to discover the storyworlds of Greek mythology, others want to explore Greek history, or the cultural context of early Christianity, etc. Olympus addresses this problem not only by enabling a personalized approach to exploring Greek culture through the character selection process, but also through the nature of the game’s random, card-driven events and the design of the board and cards themselves.

Both the search cards and the board feature images taken from Greco-Roman art, allowing interested students to access and ask questions about art history and ancient Mediterranean material culture. The majority of images on the board are taken from a late ancient mosaic (the Megalopsychia mosaic) found at ancient Daphne, near Antioch (modern Yakto). In addition, the current board (see figure a) incorporates images from the Nile mosaic at Palestrina and the gladiator mosaic at the Villa Borghese. The cards feature images from various forms of ancient art, including mosaics, pottery, coins, medals, and paintings. Similarly, the in-game currency is modeled on the famous owl tetradrachm of fifth-century BCE Athens.

Figure 5: In game currency modelled on Athenian owl coinage from the 5th century BCE.

Olympus permits students to explore the multifaceted world of Greco-Roman antiquity while simultaneously practicing the fundamentals of Greek grammar. In terms of success and progress, the game enables practice of the foundational grammar, while keeping other goals for learning the language (contact with culture, history, and mythology) in view, and enabling a sense of progress on those goals as well. I am upfront with the students that everyone has different goals for learning Greek, and that, just as characters can come from different historical periods and mythological traditions, the game combines diverse elements, comprising the earliest Greek sources all the way down to the Byzantine period (e.g., “Persephone’s Abduction” and “Varangian Guard” are both found in the search deck). I encourage students to ask about any elements that interest them.

The opportunity to encounter new aspects of Greek culture during each playthrough is another attempt to sustain a positive classroom atmosphere that allows individual students to make progress on their learning goals. We might imagine, for example, a student who takes her turn, draws a card, and faces a monster. Perhaps she accomplishes the associated grammar task and experiences success. Perhaps she fails, but defeats the monster anyway, achieving success in the game world only. Perhaps she even she fails at both of those tasks, but learns something exciting about Greek mythology or art. It’s possible for all of those things to happen in one turn. It is even more likely that at least one of those things happens during a student’s turn.

Paradigm learning is the central task of Olympus; however, the game attempts to sustain motivation across the entire introductory sequence by situating paradigm practice within a dynamic, engaging experience where students can achieve other kinds of success and make progress towards other learning goals. The game exemplifies that the pedagogy of play has great potential in the teaching of Greek, but can also incorporate and teach many other aspects of the ancient world at the same time.

Header Image: Achilles and Ajax Playing a Board Game Overseen By Athena, Attic black figure neck amphora now at the Getty (Getty Open Content). 

Joshua J. Hartman's picture

Joshua Hartman is Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics at Kalamazoo College. His research focuses on the relationship between literature and memory, especially during late antiquity. He is currently working on the monographic adaptation of his dissertation, Poetry and Cultural Memory in Late Antiquity. He has published articles on Greek and Roman literature, Roman cultural memory, and classical reception in Puerto Rico.

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