3rd November 2014

Killers in the Classroom



Picture the scene. You have spent weeks, possibly even months, putting together a beautifully crafted, engaging training course for onboarding / hi-po fast tracking / leadership and strategy / etc. (delete as applicable), and here you are on the first day of delivery. Something has gone horribly wrong. Your team activities are in disarray. As hard as you try to facilitate discussion, proceedings are being dominated by a small core of (let’s be charitable) ‘strong’ personalities. These same people are questioning your own authority and knowledge, and finding the smallest of errors in your materials to back up their case. You have noticed definite signs of disengagement from the less outspoken learners in the plenary session – checking phones and even leaving the room to make calls.

During the coffee break you breathe a sigh of relief. Thank goodness you didn’t go down the games-based learning route. Imagine how much worse those *&%!#s would be if you’d introduced an element of competition.

I’m sure this hasn’t happened to you; at least not since your early days as a teacher or trainer. You’re more experienced now and have your classroom management and ground rules in place. But I’m equally sure you recognise the characters I’m talking about. I personally have been dealing with them for the last 20 odd years in corporate training rooms and classrooms, when delivering traditional skills training course and latterly games-based learning for leadership, strategy and personal development. They want to score points, to get one over on you and the others in the room. They measure success by how much they disrupt. It is all to easy to view them as a problem to be overcome. Teachers talk about them ‘spoiling it for those who actually want to learn’, an idea which assumes that they themselves do not wish to learn.

The creator of MUDs (Multi User Dungeons)at the University of Essex, Richard Bartle, defined four different player types as a result of research he did into the way people interacted with MUDs. The four types are Explorer, Achiever, Socialiser and Killer. The type I am interested for the purposes of this post is (you guessed it) Killers. If you’re interested, incidentally, my own Bartle player profile is 100% Explorer, 50% Achiever, 40% Socialiser and 10% Killer. Yes – I know that adds up to more than 100%, you Killer. It’s Bartle’s test, not mine. You can take it here.

Killers thrive on competition and conquest. They enjoy taking on others and proving themselves superior. Within MMORPGs they often seek notoriety and like to be feared. This description sounds almost entirely negative when you are thinking about a classroom situation, and will probably have you agreeing with the scenario above – that learning games are fraught with problems when dealing with this character type.

Bartle did not intend any of his player types to be viewed in a judgmental sense. They simply are.

So how would you, as a potential user of games-based learning, go about accommodating the Killers in the classroom.

One of the things which Bartle noted was that a bored Killer can be a threat to the community (learning cohort). So perversely, providing a Killer with a competitive environment, such as a game, within the classroom, might actually serve to soften some of their more anti-social tendencies. Killers are not necessarily unpleasant characters, but their competitive nature can sometimes make them appear abrasive.

Treating Killers in the classroom as a problem to be quelled can be counter-productive, and is often the trigger for them to turn on the facilitator. If you design in plenty of challenging activities to occupy them, they will likely leave you alone.

So in terms of games-based learning, what does that look like?

Opportunities to compete against and potentially beat the game itself. It is true that a Killer will usually prefer to take on another person; in MMORPGs they usually prefer killing another character to a non player characters. However, with a few exceptions, that is probably not a behaviour you want to encourage in your training room. For example, in a narrative based decision making game, you could give your Killer the opportunity to best an in game character, or even to beat previous historical scores from other cohorts.

Competition against other Killers in the room can be acceptable in certain situations, but this kind of element should be designed in with caution. The last thing you want is to have the other player types in the room starting to view your learning game as nothing more than a big boys’ p*&!ing competition.

It is a mistake to think that Killers are not engaged in the social aspects of a game. Opportunities to lead or teach by example within the game can be very appealing to Killers who like to be admired by others. It might be especially useful to make the situation in which they have to lead have a more altruistic nature to sublimate some of the more aggressive characteristics of the player type.

Bartle also noted that Killers were often skilled in the economic aspects of games, with a heightened ability to read and interpret market data. This may of course, be related to their style of play with its need to weigh up the strengths and weaknesses of opponents. The potential of this kind of talent within a business learning game is pretty much limitless.

Killers love to excel, so providing opportunities within your game for players to demonstrate their prowess in any field relevent to the learning will keep your Killers happy. Try to ensure that this is not achieved at the expense of your other non-Killer players.

Finally, and possibly surprisingly, you should be aware that Killers fundamentally want to influence the environment in which they are operating. Sandbox games, such as Minecreft, are quite appealing to Killers for this reason. They are not just concerned with destroying their environment. If they can directly influence creation of the world around them, they are happy with that too.

Photo by Jan Fidler from Flickr under Creative Commons – with thanks



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