How to Win Introduction to Theatre

Stephen A. Schrum

The “internet of things” postulates an environment in which we are surrounded by smart devices that gather data and react to our behaviors; for example, when we take that last yogurt from the fridge, the appliance itself adds that item to our grocery list and may even transmit an order to a local supermarket for delivery. In A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown suggest a similar situation for education. Learning, they say, “is happening all around us, everywhere, and it is powerful . . . and it is grounded in a very simple question: What happens to learning when we move from the stable infrastructure of the twentieth century to the fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century, where technology is constantly creating and responding to change?” (17). However, as a university professor with one foot still entrenched in the old ways of thinking, and, possibly more important, subject to the demands of outcomes and program assessment, I am wary of handing over my role as instructor to the educational equivalent of SkyNet.(1) Nonetheless, over the last two years I made a change in my Introduction to Theatre class. Having taught it in a fairly consistent manner for twenty-three years, I decided that it needed some reinvigoration to keep it current. And so in fall 2014 I revised the syllabus with the idea of making the class a game.


Why games? They seem to be everywhere. I recall losing entire Saturdays to Dungeons and Dragons sessions during my master’s program, with the theatre director in me serving as the Dungeon Master. More recently, the arrival, and each subsequent upgrade, of computer game systems (Sony Playstation, Nintendo DS and Wii, Microsoft Xbox) have been met by many with great anticipation. Legions of fans have kept the massively multiplayer, online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (or WOW) alive for over a decade. In 2009 many users of Facebook were besieged with those ubiquitous Farmville requests as friends and family became rabid players, and as I write this draft during summer 2016, Pokemon GO players have reached a fever pitch of excitement just scant days after its release.

In the realm of academia, scholars and researchers have also turned their attention to using “game design elements in non-game contexts” (Deterding et al.) as a viable platform for learning. Alternately called “quest-based learning” (or QBL) and “gamification,” the notion is that the inclusion of gaming elements into teaching allows an educator to incorporate techniques that involve students more thoroughly and on a higher level than a simple lecture-based format. In the aforementioned book by Thomas and Brown, the authors posit that MMORPGs, such as WOW, Lord of the Rings Online, EVE Online, and Star Wars Galaxies,

are large-scale social communities that provide a case study in how players absorb tacit knowledge, process it into a series of increasingly sophisticated questions, and engage collectives to make the experience more personally meaningful. What they teach us about learning is not specific to any game per se but it is embedded in the collectives that are constructed in, around, and through the game. In essence, the game provides the impetus for collectives to take root. (107)

These so-called collectives, defined as “a collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts” (52), suggest a way of looking at a classroom of students not sim- ply as passive receivers of information, but instead as active participants responsible for generating content and learning. Since theatre is the essence of play, it seemed a natural fit to introduce these ideas of gamification.

The Gamification of Introduction to Theatre

Change usually follows the introduction of a catalyst, and the catalytic moment for me arrived in May 2014 at a faculty development workshop at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg titled “Gaming the Classroom.” As part of his presentation, Dean Nelson, an associate professor of statistics, played a video of Chris Haskell titled, “Blowing up the grade book.”2 At four minutes and forty seconds into the video, Haskell makes the following statement about the success he has seen with adding gaming elements to a class: “93 percent of our students are getting ‘A’s or ‘A+’s. No ‘B’s, no ‘C’s and no ‘D’s.” Several of my faculty colleagues greeted this claim with derision; in the discussion that followed, one professor said: “Most of my students don’t deserve ‘A’s.”

That statement set me thinking. But what if they could get ‘A’s? What if we could motivate students in a class to strive beyond the usual bell curve? In my years teaching Introduction to Theatre I have seen the usual distribution of grades, but what if, with this general education class, I had students who aspired to do better, who wanted to win the class? I resolved immediately to make changes to my course that would encourage this winning attitude.

Including game ideas in my teaching is not new; I occasionally use random gaming elements in my courses. For example, to create teams or groups I will have students draw from a stack of cards; those with similar suits (clubs, diamonds, hearts) then work together. Or, to determine the presentation order, if several talks are assigned for a particular day, the students draw cards or perhaps roll dice. For my Introduction to Theatre courses,(3) I will admit that the changes I made were not earth- shattering; many of the alterations dealt with changing nomenclature rather than completely revising the setup of the course. I began by adding the following paragraph to the first page of my syllabus:

We often think of a college course as a set of lectures and assignments that a student has to get through for a grade. But I want to challenge that way of thinking. I want you to think of Intro to Theatre as a game: as the semester unfolds, you will navigate a series of quests for experience and for knowledge, resulting in (literally) experience points (XP). The XP then translate into Level and Status. As you move up in Level, you approach success in the class (“winning” the class?), and as you move up in Status, you achieve bonuses that aid you in your overall quest: to pass the class with a good grade.

I then outlined “The Quests for this course” with the following steps:

1.    Log in to the class on a daily basis (show up);

2.    Read plays (defeat the quizzes, socialize by discussing the plays with others);

3.    See plays (trek to the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, deal with online ticket ordering or box-office
creatures, navigate the highways to the location, and then observe the play; also, attend an
on-campus communal event);

4.    Write a research paper (find the research tomes, evaluate them, and assemble the information
in a coherent, effective, and magical manner to convince your professor of your argument);

5.    Write a theatre review (socialize with others in the class and at the postmortem, consider your reactions to the play, and assemble your opinions in a coherent, effective, and magical
manner to convince your professor of your point of view);

6.   Defeat monsters in the forms of multiple choice and essay questions (exams);

7.   Collaborate with others and perform (design project, making theatre project, and so on).

On the second page of the syllabus, following a traditional table that lists assignments, their point values, and the points needed for each grade, I added a second table, labeled “Or, in gaming terms” (table 1 below). When students gained a new level, I would alert them to this achievement with an email. For example, attending their first class gave them five points that automatically put them in level 1. On that first day I would send an email with the subject line “THEA 0806: LEVEL UP!” The body of the email would contain this message: “Congratulations! You have reached LEVEL 1 in THEA 0806. LEVEL 2 is 80 points.” Subsequent emails would follow the same format; the subject line would be identical, followed by congratulations, the new level reached, and the next level goal. To further explain how the accumulation of experience points would function in determining a status, I then provided this information:

In addition to your level, you will be measured by your status:
Gold status is achieved if you have accumulated 90 percent of the available points

Silver status is achieved if you have accumulated 80 percent of the available points

Bronze status is achieved if you have accumulated 70 percent of the available points

Available points means the number of possible points that could be accumulated by the assignments/quests up to that time. “Before each exam you will be emailed a bonus question based on your status. You can work on the question prior to the exam, and hand in the answer to the bonus with your exam.”

My reasoning behind this bonus question was not simply to allow a student bonus points or extra credit; rather, the questions served as a “side quest.” The students would determine whether they wished to complete these or not. If they did so, the question served as a method of making them think differently or more deeply about some topic of the course. Since the bonus questions were short answer/essay, they required additional thought and writing to form an acceptable response.

Naturally, anyone questing expects to find treasure, and my implementation of this aspect of gaming was as follows:

Treasure: If you have achieved gold or silver status by March 30, you may claim one of two rewards: 1) you may have priority seating at the campus theatre production of Man of La Mancha; (4) or 2) you may join the actors and crew after the show at a local restaurant to celebrate the performance. (Note that you are responsible for your food and drink; Thursday, Friday, or Saturday only; not valid for the Sunday matinee.)

When the time arrived for the rewards, I gave students coupons that listed these two rewards on them, which they could redeem any night of the show. It may be important to note that a majority of the students in the class would receive these coupons; each semester, there would be only one or two students per section who did not qualify for gold or silver status.

In a TedTalk video titled “7 ways video games engage the brain,” Tom Chatfield speaks of how to apply these to teaching. My goal with the above syllabus additions was to address these, as this comparison table (table 2 below) indicates. I placed these changes into my fall 2014 syllabus, and continued this idea during the 2014–15 and 2015–16 academic years. As part of the final exam I included a question that asked the students to evaluate the idea of the class as a game, and to make suggestions for improvement:

"Your instructor spoke of making the class a game, and challenged students to “win” the class by doing well. Did this idea influence you at all? Did it help you in your attitude toward the class? Did you like the idea of levels and status, with the treasure related to show seating or post-show socializing? Were there other things the instructor could have added? (One change for next semester will be more easily attainable levels, that can be achieved earlier on, not waiting till the end of the semester. Do you think this will work better?) And, if you have additional suggestions or comments about the gaming idea, include them."

Then for each iteration of the course I made slight changes to the gaming elements from the suggestions made by the students in their answers. For example, in the first semester the levels corresponded with grades in the class; students were “stuck” in level 1 until they accumulated 480 points—the number of points to go from an “F” to a “D.” This allowed them to forget the game idea, and in subsequent semesters I lowered the number of points needed for level 2 to 80 points.(5)

In the fall 2015 semester I added a leaderboard that I would post in “Announcements on Blackboard.” The announcement presented the top ten students as far as grades were concerned, listing the names though not their actual points or grades. Because of privacy issues I allowed students to opt out of this, and a few decided not to participate. However, I discontinued this after one semester, because it created additional work for me on a weekly basis and I did not see any tangible benefits to the list.(6)

The workload concern is naturally a significant one. Any time an instructor makes substantial changes to a course, there is a rise in the amount of time spent on preparation for that class. I teach at a small campus and have no teaching assistants, so I must absorb any extra work. This meant that I had to check my Excel spreadsheet daily to see if students reached a new level, and to email them if they did. However, since the students in the class were advancing at slightly different rates, this meant an additional task for each day the class met. The timely notifications also created a book- keeping nightmare: for example, did I send the email to those who made it to level 4, or is the check mark in the “notified” column left over from those who reached level 3?

I will admit that the workload issue was daunting, and I considered discontinuing the gaming idea for Introduction to Theatre in fall 2016 (7)—until, as I prepared to write this essay, I read all of the students’ comments closely and ran the statistics. While it is possible that the students wrote positive comments because they thought that was what I wanted to hear, the phrasing of the exam question made it clear that they would receive points either way, and so I am going to assume they were being honest in their responses.


Looking strictly at whether the gaming idea influenced them or not, we see in table 3 that a majority of them answered in the affirmative. One student said that she began with interest in the idea, but that later waned when she began missing quizzes and wound up with a lowered status. More telling perhaps are the reasons that students gave for the influence of the game idea. Several wrote of “reduced stress” and a “relaxed and enjoyable feel,” and for one student the game idea “made my attitude be serious towards the class, while enjoying it in a light-hearted manner.” Other students cited the ease in tracking progress in the class and the motivation provided by the feedback regarding their leveling up. A student-athlete commented that the “competitive sense” inspired by the leveling and leaderboard served as an inspiration to do well in the course. The idea that student engagement rises when gaming elements are used in the classroom appears to be a proven outcome of the experiment. As one student wrote: “Projects or even just coming to class [were] more fun thinking of it as quests and gaining experiences than just another paper or Tuesday morning.” Another said that, “I liked the idea of levels and status because it felt like my hard work was paying off each time I advanced.”

Students tended either to react positively to the game elements or to ignore them entirely. Judging from the comments, no one found the use of gaming elements juvenile or ridiculous. If I had included many more game trappings—such as the commercial product Classcraft does,(8) with the occurrence of random elements (a click on its website resulted in “forget to train and feel weak. Everyone loses double HP today”)—my students may have reacted with more negative comments from within their university environment.

On the possibility of future enhancements, student suggestions included tangible objects like coins, some sort of progress meter, a free ticket to the campus production with the attainment of a certain status, a free pass on a quiz, more options on rewards (but no specifics provided), and an amusing graphic to accompany the level-up email. During the first semester following my two-year “pilot” period, I used the latter suggestion, sending images of gems with the level-up emails so that students could visualize their progress from the cat’s-eye to amethyst, and then on to the diamond level.

Did students’ grades improve and was there a greater percentage of “A”s, as suggested by Chris Haskell? Reviewing the previous five years of Introduction to Theatre parts 1 and 2 grades, the results are inconclusive (fig. 1).(9) When I began using the game idea my course had fewer students, due to a drop in enrollment campus-wide, as well as to changes in the general education program. During fall 2016 enrollment returned closer to the maximum of thirty-five, and thus the increased numbers will allow further statistical study.


Will there be further study? Or to ask the question another way, will I continue to use this gaming idea in my Introduction to Theatre course? As mentioned above, after incorporating the gaming idea into the class for two years, I thought I would return to the old way of running the class. I was not sure how much, or even if, the use of these ideas was motivating the students. But after close examination of their affirmative responses, especially the ones listed above that suggested the positive feedback of the emails and that the achievement of higher status did indeed encourage their participation in the class and the completion of assignments, I have decided to continue this approach. While I will likely still not use this as a springboard to completely remake my course as a game, I will continue to use the gaming elements in the hope of involving and motivating students to win the course.


The substance of this note from the field served as material for my presentation, “Incorporating Gaming into Theatre Classes,” at ATHE’s 2016 annual conference in Chicago, in a session titled “All Work and No Play?”

Stephen A. Schrum is an associate professor of theatre arts at the University of Pittsburg at Greensburg. With a doctorate in dramatic art from the University of California, Berkeley, he is also interested in digital filmmaking, virtual performance, and playwriting. His notable past productions include Twelfth Night set in 1995, Macbeth performed in a cyberpunk style, and Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, utilizing both the Japanese dance-drama butoh and hallucinatory soundscapes that he created. He has written and performed a full-length monologue, Immaculate Misconceptions, and wrote and directed the musical Dog Assassin. In preparation for teaching a course in digital storytelling, he has created his own podcast, Audio Chimera, found at

1. SkyNet is the name for the malevolent artificial intelligence (AI) that dominates human society in theTerminator films.

2. This YouTube video can be viewed at

3. The courses I teach are designated as THEA 0805, “Introduction to Theatre Part 1,” and THEA 0806, “Introduction to Theatre Part 2.”

4. Of course, the production title changes every semester; Man of La Mancha was our spring 2016 show. 5. The most recent version of this table for fall 2016 expanded the list to ten levels.

6. Currently, I am using a leaderboard that lists groups of students who have formed alliances—the result of a suggestion after my presentation at ATHE 2016.

7. I also implemented the gaming idea in an Introduction to Shakespeare course I taught in spring 2015; it had many more gaming aspects, which worked very well. I have no doubt that I could continue the gaming idea with more focused courses such as this.

8. This may be viewed at

9. I chose five years, because the first two years that I taught the course at University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, it was more of a theatre history course, evolving into its current incarnation of an introduction course during the next two years. I implemented the game idea during my tenth and eleventh years teaching on the campus, and these statistics are from years 5–11.        


Works Cited

Chatfield, Tom. “7 ways video games engage the brain.” YouTube, uploaded by TED, 1 Nov. 2010,

Deterding, Sebastian, et al. “Gamification: Toward a Definition.”, Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.

Haskell, Chris. “Blowing up the grade book.” YouTube, uploaded by drnormal, 27 Sept. 2012,

Thomas, Douglas, and John Seely Brown. A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. N.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. Print.


Additional Resources on Gaming and Gamification

Boggs, James G., et al. “Experiential Learning through Interactive Drama: An Alternative to Student Role Plays.” Journal of Management Education 31.6 (2007): 832–58. Print.

center4edupunx. “Intro to Week 4 Epistemic Games.” LinkedIn Slideshare. 29 July 2012. Web. 13 July 2016.

Dunniway, Troy. “Using the Hero’s Journey in Games.” Gamasutra, UBM, 27 Nov. 2000. Accessed 12 July 2016. “How Games Make Thinking Fun.” Knewton Blog, 2 June 2014, resources/blog/ed-tech/games-make-thinking-fun/. Accessed 11 July 2016.

Haskell, Chris. “Understanding Quest-Based Learning: Creating Effective Classroom Experiences through Game-Based Mechanics and Community.”, March 2013, Accessed 11 July 2016.

Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949, Accessed 12 July 2016.

Levasseur, Aran. “Epistemic Games Are the Future of Learning, Letting Students Role-Play Professions.” MediaShift, 6 Feb. 2012, students-role-play-professions037/. Accessed 11 July 2016.

McGonigal, Jane. “Engagement Economy: The Future of Massively Scaled Collaboration and Participation.” Institute for the Future, 2008, Accessed 12 July 2016.

———. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Can Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.       

O’Donnell, Dean, and Jennifer deWinter. “Teaching with and about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).” Syllabus 4.1 (2015), Based_Storytelling. Accessed 12 July 2016.

Shaffer, David Williamson. “Epistemic Games to Improve Professional Skills and Values.” Department of Educational Psychology, University of Wisconsin–Madison, n.d., Epistemic-games-to-improve-professional-skills-and-values.pdf. Accessed 12 July 2016.

Sheldon, Lee. The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2012. Print.

Vista Success. “Game-Based Learning: New Education Methods Could Help Students in 2016.” Vista College Blog, 15 May 2016, new-education-methods-could-help-students-in-2016. Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.