3 Things I Wish Everyone Knew about Gamification

photo credit: epSos.de via photopin cc

The Games-Based Learning MOOC is coming to an end (technically, at least, but I’m sure that many of us will continue to share ideas and resources since the MOOC is based upon the constructivism learning theory and uses Lisa Dawley’s Social Knowledge Network Construction method). The last week also happens to coincide with my preparations to present on my use of immersive role-play and Second Life in my Spring FYC II class at my university’s CoRE Summer Academy. The focus of my presentation will be on the benefits of using immersive role-play in the classroom and the results of my own experiment with doing so. Since some attendees may be unfamiliar with gamification and/or games-based learning, I have included a brief overview of some of the most basic principles of both. What I have discovered in trying to summarize the two is that they are extremely complex concepts; I am having great difficulty reducing either down to a single slide of bullet points. I keep finding myself wanting to summarize everything I’ve learned in the MOOC over the past six weeks and to defend both as important and viable pedagogical methodologies, especially as I consider how the term gamification has become almost  a dirty word due to misuse and misappropriation of the term and the method. I know the kinds of reservations that educators have about buzzwords since I used to have the same reservations about gamification.

But the focus of my presentation is convincing my audience that immersive role-play can increase engagement and motivation and critical thinking, not defend gamification or games-based learning. But what if I had just ten minutes more in the spotlight. What would I say?

#1: Schooling is already a (poorly-designed) game

I’ve argued this before. The students know this. Some educators know it or suspect it, but either believe there’s nothing they can do about it or don’t care enough to do something about it. Some educators are incapable of understanding the fact that they are playing a game because they can play the game so well; they are, as a result, often bewildered by those who can’t or won’t play the game or who want to change the game because, as far as they’re concerned, “this is not a game!” (how often have you heard an educator say that?).

Why do we continue to play such a poorly-designed game? Why do we continue to force our children and young adults to play this game? Even those who learn to play it well gain nothing from the game.

If schooling is already a game, then why not redesign it to be a better game?

In “Everything Is Game Design,” Elizabeth Sampat reminds us that just because something is a game doesn’t mean that it’s a good game; you can integrate all of the shiny, expensive, sophisticated components you can think of, “[b]ut if you don’t tie that stuff to the end experience of the player, you’re not going to have good design.” The reason why schooling is such a poorly-designed game is that the end experience of the player is not the primary focus of modern schooling. We continue to throw new, expensive, sophisticated pedagogical “tools” and theories into the existing game, while ignoring the players.

#2: It’s not a magic band-aid

Learning how to apply the principles of gamification and methods of games-based learning effectively is not easy. Designing a class as a well-designed game is extremely difficult and time-consuming on the educator’s part. Playing a well-designed game is difficult and may be time-consuming on the part of the student. Too often, gamification is used as a band-aid, a quick-fix applied on top of a poorly-designed game. As Sampat argues:

Instead of trying to stick a crappy, half-formed game onto real life, the real challenge— the one that’s tough, the one that will bring the greatest results— is to fix the bad game design that’s all around us. Finding the reward structures and the rules that are already in place, and figuring out how to make them more effective, is the key to making life better for everyone— not adding an additional layer of uninspiring mechanics that push us to engage with mechanics that already suck.

I think that every educator should have some grounding in game design before they attempt to integrate gamification or games-based learning into a classroom. After all, those video games that keep our kids so enthralled for hours at a time are not built in a day or even a week and they are often designed, created, tested, and debugged by an entire team of people with game design experience and expertise. While applying game design principles to a class need not and, indeed, cannot be that complicated, we can and should borrow some of the design practices from those who know how to effectively design games.

According to Lee Sheldon’s The Multiplayer Classroom, game designers typically use the Agile Development Model, which looks like this:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While it’s a complicated-looking model, it’s primary objective is pretty straightforward: “Iterate, iterate, iterate.” During the design process, you must constantly evaluate the game in terms of the primary objective (where you want your students to end up in terms of learning) and how effectively the game is guiding players towards that objective. In order to help you determine the last bit, you can use the Octalysis framework:

Gamification-Octalysis.0041
Model by Yu-kai Chou via Gamifeye

As the creator of the model, Yu-kai Chou, points out, different components of gamification can be used to either inspire or manipulate. If your goal is to inspire (as is, or should be, every educator’s goal), then you should lean more heavily towards the upper left quadrant, or white hat side, of the model. This quadrant favors ownership, accomplishment, meaning, and empowerment.

In addition to constantly evaluating the game throughout the design and creation process, you need to also be flexible during the gameplay, adjusting the mechanics and objectives to meet the needs of your students. And you must be willing to conduct a post-mortem after each iteration of the game and make the necessary changes in order to improve the game’s design. This may (and probably should) involve asking the game players for feedback. Here are screenshots of one part of the post-mortem for my Spring FYC II class:

FYC II roleplay feedback

 

FYC II Second Life feedback

 

#3: It’s not about points

Far too often, non-gamers and sceptics of gamification and games-based learning assume that gameplay is all about extrinsic motivation: points, badges, leader boards, prizes, etc. But, as I’ve pointed out before, no amount of points can keep someone engaged in a bad game. One of the reasons why schooling is such a poorly-designed game is because it focuses too heavily on the ultimate extrinsic motivator: grades. Remember the characteristics of the white hat quadrant of Chou’s Octalysis model? Accomplishment is only one component of inspiring game design and points are only one of many mechanics that can be used to demonstrate accomplishment. The best games use multiple methods for measuring and reporting accomplishment. Simply switching from letter grades to badges does not equate with increased engagement; it’s merely exchanging one game mechanic for another. If neither the grades nor the badges are linked to a more important factor within the game and the player’s end experience, then both are equally bad design. Remember, gamification and games-based learning are about applying all of what we know works in the best designed games, not cherry picking magic band-aids and sticking them on an obsolete game in the hopes of encouraging players to have one more go at it.

Okay, so obviously it would take more than ten minutes to say all of this. That’s my problem and, ultimately, the problem with gamification and games-based learning: it’s not easy, quick, or efficient. Like the most well-designed games, applying game design principles to the classroom is difficult, time-consuming, and challenging. But, as many game designers argue and hard-core gamers know, without a struggle, the pay-off is not nearly as rewarding.

 

Tools for Building Alternate Reality Narratives

This week in the Games-Based Learning MOOC we’ve been discussing Alternate Reality Games (ARG’s) and how to design them, especially in terms of building a narrative that will engage the players and help them become immersed in the game. For me, the most challenging aspect of designing and building an ARG is how to establish the “this is not a game” mentality (TINAG). In discussing both narrative and TINAG, I couldn’t help but think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the willing suspension of disbelief. In describing his contributions to his and Wordsworth’s seminal collection of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge wrote:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

The result of Coleridge’s efforts is the greatest piece of supernatural poetry ever written: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. There are two essential components to Coleridge’s method: human interest and a semblance of truth; we see these two aspects of Coleridge’s theory at work in The Rime and it is, I believe, an excellent text for game designers to study in order to better understand both. So, the two questions that I’ve been considering this week as I continue to work on designing my Interactive Fiction syllabus and how I might integrate AR into some of my other classes is how to ensure that my narratives integrate both human interest and a semblance of truth. A great source of inspiration for me has been a TED Talk that was part of our GBL course work this week; it is the story of teacher John Hunter and the  World Peace Game that he has his 4th graders play.

Hunter’s World Peace Game is the perfect example of an ARG that addresses both of Coleridge’s requirements for a willing suspension of disbelief.  You can tell from watching and listening to Hunter’s students that they have willingly accepted the TINAG premise because they both value the importance of  the humanistic issues embedded within the game and they are, through immersive role-play, creating a semblance of truth.

In my own game design, the human interest component is not as much a challenge as how to create a semblance of truth. For this, my own FYC II students have provided some very good examples. As mentioned in my last post, this class is using immersive role-play to analyze and write about the short stories and plays they’re reading, which they have, as part of their role-play, treated as real events. Students have been working in role-based guilds all term, but for the final project, I asked them to partner with someone from a different guild and work together to create a multimodal piece that demonstrates their characters’ combined analysis of one of the texts we have covered. In doing so, the students have utilized various methods to imbue their work with a sense of realism.

Social Media

One group decided to address Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, which involves an encounter between two strangers during which one, Jerry, seems to force the other, Peter, into helping him commit assisted suicide. Because Jerry is dead, the students recognized that they would need a way to investigate his motives. They decided to create a Facebook page for Jerry; using clues from the text, they created a page that included a profile pic, status updates, and quotations that indicated that Jerry was becoming increasingly depressed due to feelings of social inadequacy and  isolation.

The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry's Facebook page.
The group had to use clues from the text to create Jerry’s Facebook page.

Because social media use is so ubiquitous, the students knew that, however isolated and disconnected Jerry might be in real life, he would more than likely use social media as a way to try to connect to people and as a venue for expressing his feelings.

When creating an ARG, social media is an excellent way to add a veneer of reality. Almost everyone has either a Facebook or Twitter account (or both) and most businesses and organizations also use one or both of these forms of social media for networking with other companies/groups and advertising to and connecting with potential and existing customers/clients. Social media embodies verisimilitude not only because of its popularity, but because it offers the ability to release content in real time, thus providing a sense of immediacy; social media sites are, by nature, frequently updated and content is organized in reverse chronological order. Because of this, social media is also a way to add ambiguity to your narrative (ambiguity being one of the seven ways that games reward the brain); by not having all information available immediately but releasing it gradually over the life of the game, players are more likely to become invested in remaining in the game in order to access the missing information and are more likely to experience the feeling of TINAG (because real life is ambiguous and full of unknown variables).

Blogs 

Another group, also addressing The Zoo Story, integrated one of the character’s blog into their project, using it as evidence in their analysis (the premise they created is quite complex and involves a Dr. Who-like time-traveling blogger who uses virtual reality to experience events from the past from whatever point of view he wishes; during the events of The Zoo Story, he chooses to inhabit Jerry and, in the process, becomes entangled with his identity, bringing it back with him and recreating Jerry’s actions in his own  time so that the other students’ investigation must solve both murders). Again, the students recognized that many people are now living their lives virtually via the internet and blogs are one of the most popular ways in which they are doing so (at the beginning of 2011, there were over 156 million public blogs and an untold number of private ones).

When creating an ARG, blogs are a good way to bring in the perspective of various characters. One example ARG that we looked at this week in the MOOC, Exocog, uses a blog in order to provide insights from the main character, Sarah. Like social media, blogs are frequently updated, affording a chance to release information over the life of the game and create a feeling of immediacy.

Websites

One student who ended up having to work independently decided to build on a previous project she had completed during the term for Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been,” which involves a teenage girl who is kidnapped by an older man. For her original project, the student, who had taken on the role of a criminal defense investigator, had filled in a real missing person’s report for the kidnapped girl, Connie. For her final project, the student created a premise in which Connie eventually escapes her abductor 13 years later, writes a best-selling book about her experiences, and starts a non-profit called Safe Zone, for which the student created a website. Again, websites are a common method for organizations and companies to provide information about their work to the public. Exocog also makes use of websites for providing clues and information to players. There are several tools for building a free website, two of my favorites being Google Sites and Weebly. While websites typically are more static than blogs, they are sometimes updated, so you can choose either option.

Web 2.o Tools

There are several other web 2.0 tools that can be used to add realistic elements to an ARG, several of which were mentioned in my last post on DIY mystery games. My students this term have utilized two of these tools in interesting ways. As part of her final project on the escaped kidnap victim, Connie, the criminal defense investigator used Fodey to create a newspaper clipping in order to introduce the premise behind Connie’s re-appearance.

The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project
The student created a newspaper clipping to create the context for her final project

A second tool that students made use of to bring a sense of truth to their projects is Glogster. One team, a cold-case detective and a forensic psychologist, used Glogster to create an evidence board for the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell.

One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.
One group created the kind of evidence board you might find in a squad room.

These are just two examples of how web 2.o tools can be used to create the kinds of media you might find in real-life contexts within the game narrative. While you can’t have players discover a real newspaper article (or maybe you can?) or stumble upon a real evidence board in a real squad room, you can create virtual versions to embed within the game. Just remember that in order to maintain the TINAG-ness you’ll need to have players discover them under realistic circumstances (perhaps one of the detectives takes a photo of the evidence board and posts it to his blog or a character “pins” the newspaper clipping to their Pinterest board).

While the tools that I have focused on are all internet-based, don’t forget that you can integrate real-world media into your ARG, as well. If you can do so, integrating some location-based experiences into your narrative will increase player engagement, especially for students who are kinesthetic learners. Cemeteries and libraries are just two places that are chock-full of real-world media that lend themselves to ARG’s. The goal is to integrate as many different kinds of experiences and media as you can, always keeping Coleridge’s two narrative ideals of human interest and verisimilitude in mind.

DIY Mystery Game

This week in the Games Based Learning MOOC, we’ve been covering tools for creating your own serious games. In addition to scavenger hunts and ARGs (alternate reality games), we’ve been discussing mystery games. As I’ve mentioned before, I particularly enjoy mystery games and our discussions this week have made me consider how I might integrate a mystery game into one or more of my classes. I think that mysteries are particularly suitable to the classroom because of the evidence-based, critical thinking they require. In my FYC II class this term, one of the roles that students have been able to adopt is that of a detective. These students have treated those short stories and plays that involve murders as cold cases that have been re-opened; they’ve had to closely examine the texts for evidence, consider  what other kinds of evidence might be available to them, and analyze this evidence to determine the means, motive, and opportunity in order to both identify the perpetrator and determine why, when, where, and how they did it. They’ve worked on cases as diverse as “A Rose for Emily,” Hamlet, and Trifles. In framing the texts as a mystery that needs to be solved and in asking students to take on the viewpoint of a criminal investigator (who has a specific purpose and set of skills), the importance of locating, analyzing, making connections between, and drawing conclusions from the textual evidence has become clear to students in a way that I have never been able to achieve by teaching literary analysis using traditional methods. This aspect of the course has been so successful with students and effective in terms of teaching them how to analyze and think critically about a text (and both what is and is not explicitly contained within it), that I have begun to consider how I might expand the mystery element of the course and add aspects of mystery games to some of my other classes.

My favorite mystery game, Special Enquiry Detail,
My favorite mystery game, Special Enquiry Detail combines an engaging storyline, well-developed characters, challenging puzzles, misdirection, and evidence analysis.

As pointed out by  Vasili Giannoutsos, when creating a mystery game, there are several genres to choose from: traditional (which include locked room and puzzle mysteries), legal mysteries, medical mysteries, cozy mysteries (Agatha Christie-style), police procedural, and hard-boiled private eye mysteries. So no matter what subject you teach, there’s a type of mystery that will fit. Also, the mystery game creator must keep the 5 questions of mystery in mind: Who?, What?, Where?, When?, and Why? Players have to determine the answers to three questions early on: What are you solving?, What is your purpose?, and How do you come to your conclusion?

For a good overview of the basic elements of an engaging mystery game from a game designer’s perspective, I highly recommend  “Creating Mystery Games,” which also includes an example mystery game.

I have collated a set of tools that I think would be helpful in creating a mystery game. These are tools that are easy enough to use that students could use them to create their own mystery games.

Voki

Voki is a tool that allows you to create a talking animated avatar that you can embed into almost any application. Voki could be used to create characters within the mystery or to create a gamemaster who guides players through the game.

Glogster

Glogster is a tool for creating electronic posters that contain text, images, audio, and video. One group of detectives in my FYC II class is using Glogster to create an evidence board like the kind you would find in a squad room. A mystery game creator could either do the same or require the players to create their own evidence board where they store and analyze the evidence they collect.

Google Maps

Google Maps could be used to create location-based puzzles within the mystery game. For example, you could have players use the street view feature to locate clues within the real world.

ThingLink

ThingLink is a tool that allows you to tag images with embedded text, audio, videos, and hyperlinks. In addition to using tags to leave clues within an image, ThingLink could also be used to create your own hidden object puzzle. If you’re an educator, you can upgrade your account, allowing you to use hidden tags so that you could “hide” the tags on specific objects in the image and provide players a list of objects to locate in order to “unlock” the clues.

Fodey

Fodey  is a tool that allows you to create realistic-looking newspaper clippings. A game designer could use this tool to create snippets of news articles that reveal details about the mystery.

Dipity

Dipity is an interactive timeline generator. A mystery game designer could use this tool to create a timeline of events and embed clues and puzzles within the timeline or, again, you could require players to create their own timeline and embed the evidence they locate at the appropriate points.

Twine

Interactive Fiction games lend themselves well to mystery. Twine is an easy-to-use IF creation tool that allows you to create text-based mystery adventures similar to the Agatha Christie-style IF game  An Act of Murder (this and other mystery IF can be played via the free iOS app Frotz).

Dio

A new tool from Linden Labs (creators of Second Life) called Dio allows you to create interactive locations and/or events.

I found a great example of a mystery game created using Dio called “Sherlock Holmes: The Murdered Magnate.”

These are just a few of the tools that I’ve been able to imagine using to create a mystery game for the classroom and I can imagine several of them being used in tandem, since most include embed options. If you have a tool that you can think of, I’d love for you to share it.

Games Based Learning through Text Adventures

photo credit: Sergey Galyonkin via photopin cc
photo credit: Sergey Galyonkin via photopin cc

This week in the Games Based Learning MOOC, we’ve been focusing on two tools for GBL: AR/ARGs and Interactive Fiction/Text Adventures. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m planning to integrate IF into my Fall FYC class. Students will both experience the course as a piece of IF and, at the end of the term, create their own IF.

The Class as a Text Adventure

In lieu of a syllabus, I’ll provide students with a piece of IF that they will have to “play” in order to navigate the course: all of the course resources will be located within the “game” and students will need to solve “puzzles” and complete levels in order to locate them. As with any text adventure, the students will be able to make choices in terms of whether or not they solve specific puzzles or utilize specific resources. In this way, the game rewards students’ effort, rather than punishing their failures. Of course, the more effort a student exerts, the smarter they will be able to play as the game proceeds.

There are several tools available for creating text adventures, including Inform 7, Twine, and Inklewriter. I am currently trying out AXMA, a version of Twine, and am finding it fun and easy to work with. I created the following screencast of a very rough draft of the IF I’m creating for my class that demonstrates how the tool works and what kinds of gameplay I’m creating for the class:

In addition to text, you can also integrate images and sound into your AXMA story, allowing you to create a sensory-rich gaming experience.

Students as Text Adventure Designers

For me, the real power of GBL emerges when students are allowed to become game designers. I’m designing the course’s text adventure to serve as a model for those that the students will eventually create themselves as the final boss level of the game. There are several reasons why designing games, specifically IF, is an effective method for students to learn written literacy and critical/analytical thinking and problem solving. Joe Pereira does an excellent job of outlining how both GBL and IF address 21st century thinking and writing in his post “Interactive Fiction and Digital Game Based Learning.” In fact, I recommend reading his entire blog to get a better idea of the benefits of having students create IF and text adventures.

IF will likely be completely foreign to most students, so I am collating resources that will help them to better understand, play, and compose in the genre. I’ve listed what I consider to be the best resources below (in no particular order):

Inform 7’s Introduction to Interactive Fiction

Dennis Jerz’s Playing, Studying, and Writing Interactive Fiction

“The Craft of Adventure”

A Beginner’s Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction

Get Me Writing: Interactive Fiction

Digital Storytelling with Interactive Fiction

The Fiction Engine

Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling

“Crimes Against Mimesis”

“A Writer’s Guide to Interactive Fiction”

In terms of good resources for those teaching IF, I recommend the following (again, in no particular order):

“Interactive Fiction vs. the Pause That Distresses: How Computer-Based Literature Interrupts the Reading Process Without Stopping the Fun”

The Best Places to Read and Writer ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Stories

“Something to Imagine: Literature, Composition, and Interactive Fiction”

“Gamifying Stories — Using Interactive Fiction in the Classroom” (part 2 is linked at the bottom of the post)

Interactive Fiction and Digital Game Based Learning (a great Scoop.It site maintained by Joe Pereira)

“The Joy of Text”

I’m not sure if I’ll have students use Twine to create their text adventures or if I’ll have them use the much simpler Inklewriter (I may leave the choice of tool up to them). IF author Porpentine makes a very persuasive argument as to why we should use Twine to create IF in her post “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution.”

I’m also not sure if I will have students work in small groups to compose their IF or work individually. In integrating IF into her developmental English class, Emily Forand had students work in guilds and each guild designated one member to go to “Twine school;” while the rest of the guild worked on developing the game, this member spent time learning the ins and outs of  Twine and served as the resident Twine expert once they returned to their guild (see the interview below). While I really like this idea, I think it might be more advantageous for each student to be able to use the IF software so that the creation of the game does not rest in a single guild member’s hands. Again, I may leave it up to the students as to whether they work in guilds or individually.

 

As I make progress in designing the class text adventure, I’ll post about my process and challenges. Right now, I’m foreseeing the following challenges:

  • how to let students know how far to read/play at any given time (this will be a hybrid class, so there will be less in-class f2f support and motivation)
  • students may challenge my method of using a text adventure as the syllabus for the course: how do I address/avoid this?
  • how to allow sufficient time for students to develop, create, and play their IF (this is an issue Forand experienced)
  • whether or not to have students publish their IF outside of the class (again, an issue Forand experienced)
  • how to make sure students understand the connection between IF and the course learning objectives (do I rely on stealth learning or make these connections explicit?)

 

 

 

Rewarding the Brain through Purposeful Design: Reflections on Week 2 of the Games Based Learning MOOC

photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via photopin cc
photo credit: Patrick Hoesly via photopin cc

For me, the standout resource from the second week of the Games Based Learning MOOC was Tom Chatfield’s TED Talk “7 Ways Games Reward the Brain.”

Chatfield’s seven aspects of gaming align with many of the same aspects of gaming that were addressed during our discussion of fun, flow, and fiero during the first week, and I think that a consideration of his arguments regarding not only how but why games are so rewarding will help shed even more light on the issues I addressed in my last post regarding how games-based learning continues to trump classroom-based learning, despite how (poorly) gamified school already is (see my post on bad game design for a more thorough discussion of this). But understanding why/how something works is just half the battle; the most difficult part of design is putting that knowledge into action, so I’ve placed Chatfield’s talk alongside Greg Costikyan’s “I Have No Words and I Must Design” in order to highlight the practical ways in which game design elicits these rewards.

The Relationship between decisions and experience

Chatfield’s first reward is experience bars measuring progress. He argues that it’s important for players to be able to see how close they are to their long-term objective, as well as how far they’ve come since they started the game. While Chatfield qualifies explicit progress measurement as an experience bar, various games demonstrate progress in different ways, but the one thing that all games have in common is that progress is a result of decision-making on the part of the player: good decisions allow them to progress, bad decisions prevent them from progressing. In terms of design, Costikyan argues that  games make players’ choices meaningful by giving them resources to manage. Often these resources are experience points, which unlock new levels or other types of resources. If the game has more than one resource, then players’ decisions become even more complex: interesting decisions make for interesting games. But the resource(s) must have a function within the game; in other words, the resource(s) must allow the player to progress and play smarter/stronger.

This is where classroom design often falls horribly short. Often, the only resource students have any control over is their grade (the ultimate progress bar in the game of school). While educators may argue that decision-making plays a role in a student’s grade (don’t do the work or don’t do it well enough and you don’t make the grade), if a grade is the only resource a student has to manage, then the decisions they make regarding their learning are far less interesting. We could argue that students also have to manage their time, their textbooks, our instructions, etc., but often students don’t see how these resources are relevant to the game, or their grade, because we don’t make those relationships explicit the way games do. Also, students’ progress is not always made a central aspect of their learning; they may receive progress reports periodically or, worse yet, only twice during a term (as is the case in college courses), but we rarely provide them with an ever-present experience bar or cache of experience-related resources that they can constantly look at and to. I’ve argued before that we need to teach students how to be more meta, but we must give them the tools to do so and an explicit and constant visual reminder of their progress is one way to do that.

Tension

Chatfield’s next point is that games provide both short and long term goals so that players can choose between different tasks or complete tasks in parallel that all point them towards a larger, ultimate objective. Goals are, as Costikyan points out, one of the defining characteristics of games and they are what make games worthwhile, but achieving the goal must involve a struggle of some kind in order to trigger intrinsic motivation. It is the opposition that players face as they attempt to meet their short and long term goals that lies at the heart of the game. As others have pointed out, if the goal is too easy to attain, then both it and the game lose their value. Tension, Costikyan reminds us, makes for fun games:

Ideally, a game should be tense all the way through, but especially so at the end. The toughest problems, the greatest obstacles, should be saved for last.

In my last post, I addressed the need to match player with challenge and how classrooms fail to be as effective at this as games. There may be several reasons for this related to how we address short and long term goals and tension. While games establish the players’ objectives, they also allow a lot of wiggle room for player autonomy. Players usually have multiple short term goals they can choose between, often with varying degrees of difficulty. For example, in Minecraft, I can choose to gather more resources so that I don’t have to spend so much time and energy on short term survival, or I can fritter away the day spiffing up my digs. Each “day” I have to make complex decisions about how to spend my time and energy and balance my resources against my long term goals.

Minecraft Home Base
Some days are spent spiffing up my home base (despite my low health status)

As educators, we obviously have to establish learning objectives for the students. But how much wiggle room do we give them in terms of how to meet those objectives? And how often do we allow them the autonomy to decide which short term objectives to work on at any given time based on their own feelings of efficacy and motivation? And how often do we force them to make complex decisions about their own goals and those established for them? As I’ve argued before regarding game-based rules and goals:

While the rules of the game may be very rigidly defined, how the player chooses to interact with those rules is really what playing the game is all about. If games were standardized experiences for every player, no one would play them.

When we expect all students to meet standardized goals in standardized ways, we create standardized experiences. This is especially problematic when you consider how many of our students are gamers, used to autonomy and complex decision-making within ultra-responsive, randomness-filled environments that are constantly testing their individual thinking and responsiveness. The tension we are creating for our students is not a struggle to meet learning goals, but tension between what they’re capable of and what we ask/expect of them.

Effort determines destiny

Chatfield points out that, in games, all effort is rewarded. Failure is not punished. According to Costikyan, a player must feel a sense of control over their own destiny:

[I]t shouldn’t be ridiculously difficult to find what you need, nor should victory be impossible just because you made a wrong decision three hours and thirty-eight decision points ago. Nor should the solutions to puzzles be arbitrary or absurd.

How often do our students feel a sense of hopelessness because a series of failures have significantly reduced their chances of winning the game (i.e., making the grade)? How often do our students struggle with feelings of helplessness as they watch their more motivated and/or game-savvy peers maneuver through complex puzzles that seem arbitrary or irrelevant to them? How often do we make it harder on our students in order to teach them a lesson (about turning work in on time or attendance or following the rules or picking up hidden clues we drop to see how well they’re paying attention)? Too many educators confuse “rigor” or difficulty with the tension discussed above.

Timely connections

Chatfield’s fourth reward is rapid, frequent, clear feedback. He maintains that people learn by linking consequences to actions; the further away the consequence, the harder it is to link it to an action. This function is served by the resources that games provide players. In Minecraft, if I am not vigilant enough, night time will catch me unawares and I won’t have enough time to return home; if this happens and I don’t shelter in place, I’m likely to fall victim to creepers or zombies; if I die, I lose all of the resources in my inventory, but if I’ve planned ahead and stored some resources in my supply chest, then dying is not as detrimental. Eating replenishes my health. Planning ahead pays off. The best resource to have is a bed (so you can skip the dangers of night time). Games provide players with rewards based on how smart or hard they play. Get too lazy or become less engaged, and the game will motivate you to change your behavior via immediate and clear feedback.

How rapid and frequent is the feedback our students are receiving? As I mentioned above, often feedback is periodic or infrequent and students are receiving it so long after the actions to which the feedback applies, that they have lost the thread that connects the two. And, as mentioned above, students are often only receiving one type of feedback (grades), whereas game players often receive multiple forms of feedback for any given action. For example, completing a boss level may gain you XP as well as allow you to level up, which means survival and may also mean new powers and/or resources.

Even our providing various forms of feedback may not be helpful if that feedback is unclear. Again, timeliness is key here so that students can see the causal relationship, but clarity and relevance are essential, as well. If students receive feedback and then have no clue as to how to apply it to future goals, then you might as well not provide any feedback at all (unclear feedback may do more harm than good). In games, there’s always a clear connection between an action and a consequence and the game underscores that relationship with the type of resource it provides (use information correctly and you’re likely to get even more helpful information; learn from deadly mistakes and you’re more likely to survive the next time that situation arises; use weapons and armor effectively and you’ll probably unlock even better weapons and armor, etc.). And, by providing multiple forms of feedback, the relationship between smart/hard gameplay and more/better resources is intensified so that the more feedback a player receives, the more motivated they become. So, our work is not just providing immediate, clear feedback in multiple formats, but also making sure students know how to use that feedback to play smarter/harder.

The element of surprise

Chatfield’s next reward is randomness. He argues that uncertain or surprising awards are more enjoyable than those that we expect (ahem, grades, ahem). According to Costikyan, randomness provides variety of encounter. Some questions that game designers ask themselves that educators would do well to adopt are:

What things do the players encounter in this game? Are there enough things for them to explore and discover? What provides variety? How can we increase the variety of encounter? (Costikyan)

Variety of encounter provides emotional and/or intellectual stimulation. If our students walk into a scripted class meeting every day so that they know exactly what is going to happen and when and how, then there’s little to stimulate their sense of adventure. While there’s comfort in routine (the main argument used for such classrooms), our job should be pushing students outside of their intellectual comfort zones, not helping them to cocoon deeper within them. As mentioned in some of my previous posts, cognitive disfluency is a prime component of learning. How often do you surprise your students? During class, are they truly awake and alive, emotionally and intellectually, or are they no better than automatons, going through the motions of routinized behaviors that look like learning?

Gazing out of windows

Chatfield notes that, through billions of points of data, games have been able to zero in on a player’s window of enhanced engagement (what educators would call the zone of proximal development). The two elements Chatfield mentions as essential to this window are memory (give them information when they’re most primed to remember it) and confidence (game play and rewards make people braver and more willing to takes risks). What Chatfield means by the window of enhanced engagement is what  Costikyan refers to as a game’s interactive nature. A game, Costikyan argues, is truly interactive because it demands participation. A game player cannot be passive. They must interact with the game. They cannot sit and gaze out of the window, as our students often do, because without player input, there is no game. The game stops. It is a game no more. Just as, when our students tune out, there is no more learning. Learning, like games, is interactive. It requires learner input. Once the learner stops participating in the learning, learning stops.

Some questions that Costikyan prompts game designers to ask regarding player engagement are:

What can you do to make the player care about his position? Is there a single game token that’s more important than others to the player, and what can be done to strengthen identification with it? If not, what is the overall emotional appeal of the position, and what can be done to strengthen that appeal? Who “is” the player in the game? What is his point of view?

These are important questions to ask because, if the player does not care about their position, then they become less and less likely to interact with the game. The novelty of the struggle to attain the game’s goals, the immediate feedback provided during that struggle, and the variety of experiences the player encounters along the way will wane and become routine if the player does not, at some point, begin to truly care about what happens to them in-game. Variety alone is not enough to engage students because even variety must be meaningful. Do your students care about what happens to them as learners? Do they truly understand their position as learners? How are you helping them to both understand and care about who they are as learners?

The social fabric

According to Chatfield, social interaction and collaboration are the biggest drivers of motivation in game play. Jane McGonigal terms this the social fabric of games. Costikyan encourages game designers to allow opportunities for diplomacy during which players can assist each other, perhaps directly, by sharing resources, or  perhaps by combining forces against a common foe. He prompts designers to ask the following questions:

How can players help or hinder each other? What incentives do they have to do so? What resources can they trade?

How often do you consider ways to encourage students to build a social fabric? Do you integrate opportunities for diplomacy? Or even competition? For example, John Hardison gamifies class discussion of assigned readings by encouraging both diplomacy and competition. It’s not enough to throw students together in groups and expect them to collaborate. You have to create a narrative that encourages cooperation and the cooperation must serve a purpose within that narrative. In weighing the needs/requirements of the group against their own needs, students often opt for self-preservation. If self-preservation becomes inextricably intertwined with the needs/requirements of the group or if collaboration means being able to work smarter, then students are more likely to value building a social fabric.

We worked together to build a fort with an underground bunker
My son and I worked together to build a fort with an underground bunker

If there is one take-away for me from the second week of the GBL MOOC, it is the primacy of meaningful decision-making in both games and learning. According to Costikyan:

Decisions have to pose real, plausible alternatives, or they aren’t real decisions.

In considering how this relates to and connects with what I’ve learned about fun, flow, and fiero, I can’t help but pick out the common thread of autonomy. If we wish students to be engaged, (inter)active learners, then we must allow them the autonomy to make real decisions. Only in freedom to decide between plausible, relevant alternatives can we experience the fun, the flow, and the fiero that games–and meaningful learning–allow players to experience.