Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Shall we play a game? (part I) -- A Gamer's Initial Thoughts on #edtech Gamification

Ready Player One: Preparing for a Buzzword
A must read for Gamers
I can still recall sitting in my bedroom with the glow of a screen from the second level of Zelda. It was late, but I had pizza and Tab and a whole night ahead of me. I decided right then: Straight Through. No Break. No Dying. -- Time to save the princess.

So when I hear about the Gamification of learning, particularly from those who are passionate about the ability that it could have to transform the educational landscape, I become excited. If the same drive and will and energy that led me through those agonizing levels to defeat Gannon could be harnessed for the power of educational good -- EPIC WIN.

But as I begin to see "Gamification" making the same transition from innovative classroom technique to Edu.Vendor buzzword -- the same transition that "personalized" and "flipped classroom" made -- my excitement begins to slowly drain. My hyperkinetic eye movements (Pacman) and giddy shout of triumph (the first time I got Mario to bounce the turtles for 100 extra lives) are replaced by a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach: The sound of approaching doom ("I am SINISTAR")

It is thus with a nostalgic and hopeful mindset that I cautiously offer this multi-part prelection before I throw myself into Gaming as a tool to teach digital citizenship*:

*Note: Gamification encompasses a lot more than educational software and really a lot more than education in general. I am consciously limiting my focus for the purpose of this post.

Rescuing the Princess: Thinking about Goals
Gamers will go a long way for a goal
At the heart of gaming is a goal. It is this goal, and its similarity to a student's learning objective, that makes gamification appealing in the first place. After all, if a student will work voluntarily for hours to accomplish a virtual princess rescue, just imagine what we could pull off if we redirected it?

But goals are tricky things. First, they are only one part of a larger gaming landscape (we will cover other parts in the next post). A game can be burdened with a terrible ending, but can be overcome by excellent game mechanics (classroom activities) or even social features and scoreboards (group work, classroom leader boards).

Good game designers consider intermediate and long range goals carefully as they construct the overall product. The Gamification movement is about using built in structures such as rules and feedback loops to generate continued interest in the face of difficulty and challenge.

Simply saying "win the race by solving these math problems quickly" is not enough to qualify as an educational panacea, no matter how much you advertise the educational value of this particular prize. No virtual smiley faced "Badge" is particularly transformative in the long run. We have always known that kids love stickers and show them off with glee and pride.

Simply, there has to be a careful consideration about the GOAL OF THE GAME beyond THE GOAL AT THE END OF THE GAME. 

The Other Goals of Gaming

There are also a number of "goals" at play in the big-picture of game-design that have little to do with saving the princess, but a lot to do with how the game is designed, marketed, played and replayed.

Interlude: Building a Tiny Castle
A casual game that leverages impatience to encourage spending
A new breed of game came along with social media websites that took "casual" to a whole new level. The goal of these environmental games might be to plant an attractive garden or build a farm. The ultimate goal though, is to get you to spend money.

In one version of this game-type, Tiny Castle, players are given extremely linear "quests". These quests might be to clear a forest, plant a specific type of tree, create a new species, or upgrade the castle. Each quest takes one or more of the essential game elements: food (to feed creatures), magic (to get rid of fog...just go with it), wishes (to become more powerful) and TIME. Lots and lots of real, one-second-at-a-time, TIME.

As we perform an analysis on the game mechanics, it would be easy to argue that the game could be an excellent way to develop time management skills and patience (i.e., if I set half of my denizens to work on a 3 hour goal and the other half to work on another 3 hour goal, I can finish two goals at the same time that will both be ready the next time I "check-in"). However, a careful look reveals a darker unstated goal. The most efficient way to grow fruit, gather dust, etc. is to be constantly plugged in, refreshing the mechanical action - strategy is replaced by repetitive clicking. Delayed gratification (setting things up and walking away) is discouraged by the game mechanic.

Know what constant clicking is? BORING!

So at any point a player can choose to supplement any of the slowly accumulating supplies by making an "in-game" purchase with real money. A player can even speed up an hours long building of a renovated castle with a wish/hour (and there are even "special sales" on wishes). To make matters worse, some of the QUESTS are completed by "making a purchase of new wishes" (but you know, the first taste is free).

Far from developing any sort of real-life transferable skill, the game discourages serious players from thinking of the game in that fashion. Even the in-game objectives lay the real objective bare: spend more real-life money on make-believe stuff.
End Interlude

While there are a number of people working on gamification (computer based and otherwise) who are passionate about learning and transformative classrooms, this prelection is a cautionary about what happens when the learning technique becomes "buzzworthy". I remember when I hit the vendor floor at ISTE last year and saw Interactive Whiteboard and Furniture vendors explaining how their equipment would help you "flip" the classroom.

The vendors are attacking "gamification" with a vengeance. We as educators need to be familiar with the strengths of Gaming before we are sold another in a long list of goods that have as much educational value as Treasure Chest of Apples or a new horse for a make-believe farm.

Up Next: 
Feel free to add, critique, comment, revise. This is relatively uncharted territory for this old school gamer and my thoughts are in flux.

Special thx to @40ishoracle (her latest post on collaboration rocks). She is the one who turned me onto Jane McGonigal, who is advocating games to save the world


  1. If students want to learn something, does it need to be "gamified"? They learn to drive a car without badges because that's a goal they care about--driving a car. If a student doesn't want to learn about the war of 1812, appealing to their competitive instincts will only go so far. That isn't to say that there's nothing to learn about what makes the best games work, but I agree with you that we need to be wary about which lessons we are taking.

    1. I am intrigued by the feedback and mechanics aspect, so we'll see if the next post pulls some of that together. I love your example. Students can be self-motivated to drive a car, solve a puzzle, etc. Tapping into motivating factors is a key. I'm pretty sure testing isn't it...that fails like New Coke.

  2. Just want to say that I'm looking forward to this series!

    1. yeah, some would say i split it up because it was already over 1,000 words, but between you and me, i just have to think up some more obnoxious old school gaming references. Going to try to fit Kingdom of Kroz into the next one. :)