cultural inquiry course: core performance and challenge

In talking with some colleagues about gamification and my idea for a gamified intercultural inquiry preparation course, Richard Swan from the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning recommended finding the primary generator for my design (see Jane Darke’s “The Primary Generator and the Design Process”) in one of three aspects of the learning experience I hope to create:

  • the core mechanic
  • the topic (content or theme)
  • the challenge

In this case, it seemed that the core mechanic would be a particularly important consideration. According to Salen and Zimmerman:

A game’s core mechanic […] represents the essential moment-to-moment activity of players, something that is repeated over and over throughout a game. During a game, core mechanics create patterns of behavior, which manifest as experience for players. The core mechanic is the essential nugget of game activity, the mechanism through which players make meaningful choices and arrive at a meaningful play experience.

From the perspective of games as learning systems, the core mechanic also happens to be the performance that players are practicing and mastering through their participation in the game. It is the essential skill that is being learned, whether it be a single, simple action, or a “compound activity composed of a suite of actions” (Salen & Zimmerman).

Although it’s probably not too difficult, in most cases, to identify the core mechanic in a well-designed game, I’m not used to thinking about the design of an academic course in these terms. It wasn’t easy to get at one repeated performance that could characterize the whole experience of studying another culture; there are so many different things involved. You have to choose a study topic, write a proposal, and get all the necessary approvals from academic departments and the university IRB. You have to secure funding. Once in the field, you grapple with unfamiliar attitudes and ways of life; you have work hard to get yourself out of the door every morning, to always be learning new things. You have to keep yourself alive, meaning that you have to figure out how and where to get food, how to clean your clothes, how to keep from getting taken advantage of, and how to stay healthy. You strive to reach your project goals, but run into obstacles or run out of time and end up having to adjust your plans again and again. You come home and suddenly all you can see are the myriad questions you weren’t able to answer, and find yourself shuffling through your notes, hoping to come across something worth saying in all the experiences and information you collected. How can all of this be boiled down into one repeated performance?

I think I finally hit on something, though. When I think about what it is I hope our students have practiced and mastered through our preparation class and their experiences in the field, I end up with a process that looks something like this:

  1. Thoughtfully articulate questions that connect with your interests and current understanding.
  2. Strategically gather information that will help answer your questions.
  3. Analyze what you find, and thoughtfully articulate a new line of questions arising from your new understanding.

Now, the process could be broken down in different ways, or defined with different terminology, but this is really what I see as being at the heart of “intercultural inquiry,” whatever its form—whether it be a sociological study, a quantitative research project, or a creative endeavor (e.g. writing creative nonfiction or creating paintings inspired by cultural experiences). This is the core mechanic, the core performance.

I also think this process connects really well with what I see as the primary challenge of the preparation class: for each student to propose, in writing, a feasible, ethical field project that will facilitate the exploration of a new culture. Meeting this challenge, in my mind, requires an ongoing cycle of asking meaningful questions, exhausting your available resources (libraries, mentors, websites, etc.) in answering those questions, and analyzing what you’ve learned through your search, until finally your questioning has reached that invisible boundary between things that you can study from your current position and things that can only be studied by going out into the world. Even then, the process of questioning, searching, and analyzing continues; even when you’re done with everything, when you’ve come home and are publishing papers and giving presentations on your findings, all you really seem to be doing is once again articulating your current understanding and the questions that still remain unanswered.

Gamifying a course is going to require more than simply framing the learning experience in terms of a core mechanic and challenge, but I feel like this is a substantial forward step.

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