Valkyrie’s eccentric teaching style incentivizes students

William Pham

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 Zek Valkyrie, senior instructor in the department of sociology, has developed a teaching style that has come to define to his career at UCCS in the last decade. Instead of the routine classroom experience of lecture to homework to test, Valkyrie runs his classroom like a role-playing game.  

     “All my courses are built with a role-playing game (RPG) skeleton, of sorts. To keep it short, it is essentially a resource management system with some student choice mechanics,” said Valkyrie via email.  

     “They do work and earn ‘Exp’ (points that measure their grade), which in turn grants them a resource (‘MP’ for ‘magic points’), which they can then choose how to spend (i.e., cast spells to help them excel/survive future assessments in the class). That is the basic premise. There’s quite a bit of extra layering to it, but most of the auxiliary elements are more ‘flavor’ than anything else.” 

     Valkyrie did not want his classes to be unengaging, so he implemented this system to differentiate himself from his fellow teaching staff. His goal was to keep students interested with the material, while also maintaining a level of excitement in the classroom. Valkyrie found that teaching this way, with the addition of his illuminating stories, helped paint a better perspective of him as a professor.  

      “I do it partly because it’s challenging. I get to be creative, to build something different, to make up magic spells, etc. I also do it because students need to see that courses can be run differently. Every teacher should not have to tap along to the same beat into eternity,” Valkyrie said. “Admittedly, I also do it because it’s now clearly ‘my thing.’” 

     The idea started when Valkyrie began looking into a study centered around work in video games. Researchers examined how video games tricked players into doing work by disguising it as fun. For example, in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) RPGs, players usually had to go out into a questing zone and kill a certain number of enemies or retrieve an item for a quest. Valkyrie stated that these players were working, but it was considered fun because it was all voluntary work within the construct of a game.  

     Valkyrie then decided to do some personal investigating into the MMO he was playing at the time and started chatting with players in the game. He asked if they were students and what skills they would like to unlock if they had the choice to, like a talent system. The feedback was not particularly helpful, as most of the gamers were not fellow educators.  

     Although the feedback was lackluster, the conversations helped Valkyrie draft a plan of what he wanted his first RPG class to be like. And finally, in an introductory class at UCCS in 2012, he got his chance, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. 

Portrait of Zek Valkyrie.
Courtesy of the UCCS website.

     Despite his success as a sociology professor, Valkyrie did not plan to become a professor in his future, let alone studying sociology. He claimed that he was destined to be an engineer, but a sociology and psychology teacher in his high school, who he referred to as “Mr. X,” led him down a different path. 

     In response to certain criticisms, Valkyrie explained that negative reviews of his class were mostly due to misunderstanding. He cited two specific reasons.  

     First, students did not understand his classroom and simply did not put in the effort to try and understand. The second reason is that students have preconceived ideas about the class before enrolling.  

     “There are a handful of students who I feel select their courses based on ‘guarantees’ (as in, for their grades/GPA/etc.),” Valkyrie said. “They don’t care much about learning or having certain experiences. They obsessively research faculty reviews and course offerings to enroll in the ones that present the least resistance to them ‘achieving’ a perfect grade.” 

      With the COVID-19 outbreak, Valkyrie has found the loss of in-person courses to be bittersweet. On one hand, he is glad to keep himself and his students safe from the pandemic, but he is also disappointed to have lost the in-person classroom interactions.  

     For this semester, he has opted for a remote asynchronous classroom to help with the unpredictability of student schedules during the pandemic. His current courses are Introduction to Sociology and Social Research Methods. 

     Valkyrie said that he was hopeful for a tenured-track position at UCCS, but the coronavirus has rendered the plan unlikely for the time being. 

     He has other projects planned, including research collaboration with a UCCS student on the topic of parents who regret having children. He also intends on gathering more data on gamers for potential papers in the future.  

     Valkyrie described himself as an avid gamer, with a particular fondness for Japanese RPGs. His favorite games include Chrono Trigger, Persona, Final Fantasy, the Xenoblade and Xenogears series and many more. Games were a fundamental part of his life, particularly for mental health, and he stated that he could not imagine a life without them. 

     Valkyrie was recently nominated for the Mayor’s Young Leaders Award in education.