Pervasive Games as a Model for Pervasive Learning


This thing that I have become so passionate about goes by many names. Games-based learning, quest-based learning, gamification, etc. etc. etc. Some of these names have positive connotations and at least one of them has some very, very negative connotations. I tend to use games-based learning and gamification interchangeably and I often tag posts that focus on games-based learning with the gamification tag, even though I don’t consider what I am doing gamification. I suppose I do this because teachers who are interested in one are often also interested in the other and, like me, may use one or the other depending on the course and the students. I have found, though, that I am moving farther and farther away from gamification and closer and closer towards turning my courses into full-fledged games. Hence, I see what I am doing as games-based learning; while my students aren’t playing video games (which typically characterizes GBL), they are playing a game; the game just happens to be the class. Sometimes this game involves role playing face-to-face or via a virtual environment like Second Life;  sometimes it involves completing quests to unlock new quests; sometimes the role-play and the questing center around a shared narrative that the players create via their decisions and actions; and it always involves communicating and collaborating with other players via social media.  If you add all of those things up, I think that there’s a pretty good argument to be made that what I am really doing–and what I want to do better–is turning learning into a pervasive game.

In Pervasive Games: Theory and Design, Markus Montola defines a pervasive game as “a game that has one or more salient features that expand the contractual magic circle of play spatially, temporally, or socially.” In other words:

In pervasive games, the magic circle is expanded in one or more ways: The game no longer takes place in certain times or certain places, and the participants are no longer certain. Pervasive games pervade, bend, and blur the traditional boundaries of game, bleeding from the domain of the game to the domain of the ordinary.

There are some common characteristics of pervasive games that illustrate this expansion: the whole world becomes a playground (players’ everyday environments become the game space), there is no such thing as a temporally-defined play session (play can and does occur at any time), and playing with outsiders (people who happen to be present in the game space during game play can become inadvertent and unsuspecting NPC’s). To further illustrate what a pervasive game is, I’ll use the example of Google’s Ingress. In Ingress, the player takes on the role of the game token (a flesh avatar) and their phone takes on the role of a weapon within the game. The objective of the game is to use their phone’s GPS to locate and “hack” portals of energy that are leaking out into the surrounding environment. These portals are located in the player’s local community: historical landmarks, governmental buildings, art installations, etc. The player is competing to claim as many portals as possible for their faction (either the Enlightenment or the Resistance) before players aligned with the other faction can do so. There is also a narrative thread that provides meaning to the energy, the portals, and the player’s role in and motivation for capturing them that the player can discover by locating and solving puzzles via websites, social media, and the portals themselves. The game is much more complicated than my summary suggests and I think that this video documenting one particular world-wide Ingress “operation” can do a better job of illustrating the capacity for pervasive gaming to engage and motivate:

So, what does this have to do with learning? If we consider the rhetoric that surrounds education right now, we can clearly see the connection. The new mantra of education is “21st Century Skills.” What specifically characterizes 21st Century Skills is debatable and has not been exactly pinned down. But what is clear is that the majority of schools–both K12 and higher education institutions–are not doing a very good job of helping their students attain these skills. We know that at least some of these skills include abilities such as problem-solving, disciplinary flexibility, adaptability, networking, collaboration and cooperation, technological adeptness, creativity, critical and analytical reading and thinking, and the willingness to be a lifelong learner. These skills are essential to surviving and thriving in the new information-based economy–one characterized by frequent career changes, a technology-dependent infrastructure, and the need for innovation and creative problem-solving within a global context. The old-school (pardon the pun) method of education just does not teach these kinds of skills or prepare our students for this kind of economy. In order to develop this new kind of mindset, we need to encourage our students to recognize and embrace learning opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom; to make connections between disciplines and between those disciplines and their passions; to transfer their social networking and technology skills from Facebook, YouTube, and video games to the classroom and, eventually, their careers; and to apply what they’ve learned about collaboration and cooperation from MMORPG’s and ARG’s to problem-based learning scenarios and service learning projects. So, in many ways we really want learning to be like a pervasive game: always “on;” expanded beyond a single physical space or time frame; encouraging connections across multiple platforms and environments; triggering and integrating multiple ways of thinking, interpreting, learning, problem-solving, and acting; and requiring creative interactions with both other people and the local environment.

I don’t think that you necessarily have to turn your class into a pervasive game in order to achieve this kind of learning. But I think that by studying pervasive games and how they work to engage and motivate players, we can figure out how to better prepare our students to adopt pervasive learning attitudes and habits. Here are some techniques outlined in Pervasive Games: Theory and Design that I think teachers could co-opt and integrate in order to encourage pervasive learning:

  • integrate authentic physical space and physical artifacts as game content to encourage players to interact with their local community in new and exploratory ways; use the community’s ambience and history to make it part of the game; use the game to direct players to interesting locations at interesting times
  • make the player’s body a de facto game token
  • integrate virtual and augmented reality to mix the physical and virtual game content
  • spatial expansion is about discovery and changing perception–> expose the unseen and make the familiar strange
  • temporal expansion makes play available at all times–> the game is always “on”
  • the rules of the game can change over time to scaffold play and keep players’ interest
  • design tangible experiences–> the player is doing something incredible through their own efforts that they’ll want to talk about afterwards
  • surpass expectations–> establish expectations then squash them with an unexpected maneuver
  • escalate previous experiences
  • link task structures so that success in one challenge directly influences the chances of success in another
  • force collaboration through interdependence
  • make players do things for real (find a book, scale a wall, create a chemical reaction, navigate a landscape)
  • foster networking to ramp up collective knowledge
  • create the 360 degree illusion–> indexical environment (real space), indexical activity (real action), immersive role-play
  • this is not a game–> use ordinary reality as a sourcebook
  • sustain a responsive game world–> lots and lots of interactive feedback (between game master and players and players and players)
  • the goal is for a collective story to emerge; the players tell the story based on their communal experiences; you shouldn’t have to tell the story to them
  • foster arenas where the story can emerge–> discussion forums, debrief party, etc.
  • design for sensory immersion–> audiovisual, 3-D, stereophonic surroundings
  • design for challenge-based immersion–> create a satisfying balance of challenges and abilities
  • design for imaginative immersion–> becoming absorbed with the stories and worlds and feeling for or identifying with a game character
  • create alternate endings and allow the players to determine the true ending

I’ll leave how to apply these strategies to a learning context up to your imagination. But I believe that they provide some very fertile ground for transforming learning for our students in the same ways that pervasive games have transformed what it means to play a game.

Dave Szulborski said of Alternate Reality Games–a type of pervasive game–that “[i]n an ARG, the goal is not to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game; instead, a successful game immerses the world of the game into the everyday life of the player.” I believe that in education, the goal is not to immerse the learner in the artificial world of school, but instead to immerse learning into the everyday life of the learner. Pervasive games offer a set of guiding principles that could very well help us do just that.

College for All and All for College?

This probably isn’t news to many of my readers, but lately critics–and even educators–have begun to question whether or not college is a good investment for everyone. In a recent Daily Beast article, “Is College a Lousy Investment?”, Megan McArdle points out many of the flaws in the current higher education system and how our increasing obsession with making sure that everyone graduating high school goes on to pursue a college degree may not be so healthy:

For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus. . . Promotional literature for colleges and student loans often speaks of debt as an “investment in yourself.” But an investment is supposed to generate income to pay off the loans. More than half of all recent graduates are unemployed or in jobs that do not require a degree, and the amount of student-loan debt carried by households has more than quintupled since 1999. These graduates were told that a diploma was all they needed to succeed, but it won’t even get them out of the spare bedroom at Mom and Dad’s. For many, the most tangible result of their four years is the loan payments, which now average hundreds of dollars a month on loan balances in the tens of thousands.

Yet, parents–the same ones who are upside-down on their mortgages and have lost their investments and perhaps even their jobs because of the recession–are still pushing their kids to take on this debt. Political rhetoric continues to laud a college degree as the key to the American Dream. The problem is this dream is about an America that no longer exists.

I don’t think that many of my freshman are even aware of these things. And if they are, then in the optimism of youth, they probably believe they’ll be the exception to the rule. But even those who think they’re the exception have probably not considered the most essential question they need to be asking themselves: Why college?

Of course, that question and the various possible answers to it immediately lead to more questions. And I’ve decided to ask my First-Year Composition students to try to answer those questions this semester. In addition to “Why college?”, they will also be asked to consider and answer the questions “What is college (good) for?” and “Is college (good) enough?” I have explained to my students that the parentheses indicate potential variations on the question and the opening up of different questions to answer within those variations. I am not trying to incite angst or pessimism in my students. I have tried to ask questions that I think are important for them–and everyone else invested in higher education–to consider. I have also provided them with several sources that present all viewpoints on these questions to read as they consider and write about them (I have listed these sources at the end of this post).

So far, my students have only had to grapple with the very personal, and seemingly inane, question “Why college?”. I have skimmed the responses and have not been surprised by the answers (a more detailed post dealing with my students’ responses to the question is forthcoming). Many of them, in fact, come across as rote, with almost every student citing the same standard set of reasons: it was always expected of them; it is the only way to get a good-paying job; it will make them financially secure; it will help them support their future families; they want to experience the freedom and exciting social environment that college offers. Very few responses have mentioned a life’s calling or a passion. Even fewer have questioned if college is really for everyone.

I am by no means a fatalist about the value of college. College transformed my life. If it were not for college, I would more than likely be living in poverty. I, like many of my students, am a first-generation college student (neither of my parents completed high school). But despite growing up poor, I was encouraged to read and explore things that interested me. I fell in love with school during my elementary years and can still recall teachers and moments when I learned something that expanded my mind or soul. Unfortunately, much of my enthusiasm for school was squashed in secondary school when I transferred to a city school system. For one thing, my new peers ostracized and made fun of me, partly because I was poor and from “hillbilly” country, but mostly because of my love for reading. My teachers didn’t exactly help the situation, since I found most of what they were teaching to be irrelevant or something that I could learn on my own by reading a book. My elementary school had doubled-up classes, so by the time I finished 4th grade I had already learned what the 5th graders were being taught. When I entered the city system, I had to sit through an entire year of classes on things I had already learned  (this was before No Child Left Behind, so there was no gifted program available or I might have received the challenging learning opportunities I needed). I did take a few AP English classes in high school and did well in those, but my overall GPA was abysmal because I was so bored and adrift as a student. College was not really something I had considered, but my parents encouraged me to go and my ACT scores were high enough to get me accepted by several regional universities.

I ended up enrolling in a small public liberal arts university, almost as an afterthought. And my life was immediately and irrevocably altered. In his book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson argues that in order for your passion to really ignite, you must find your tribe–those people who share, and therefore help nurture, your passion. And that’s what I found in college–a tribe of people just like me, who not only loved to read and learn, but shared what they had read and learned with others and encouraged others to read and learn along with them. It was not uncommon for a group of students to hang around after class and continue to discuss issues and class readings with our professors. Sometimes our professors would even hang out with us at the local coffee shop or pizza place, engaging us in Socratic questioning sessions about Shakespeare and Walker Percy and the Romantics. Even classes that I didn’t particularly like or excel in, like Chemistry and Botany, seemed like journeys through mystical worlds. Because I was in the Honors Program, I was able to take double the normal number of electives, so I took classes on architecture and the Christianity of C.S. Lewis (in which our professor, who normally taught History, would serve us tea and homemade pastries to help set the mood), classes that had waiting lists because so many students wanted to learn about these things. I felt honored to have the opportunity to be among this tribe. They nurtured my passion and inspired my life’s calling.

Perhaps that is why so much of the magic that I experienced in college has disappeared. Too many people who are in college today don’t want to be there. I never see students hanging around after class to discuss ideas or books with their professors. When I walk down the hallway with students, I don’t see much passion. In fact, far too many of them resemble automatons, wound up and placed on a path of someone else’s choosing. At least the automatons have some self-awareness; they seem to understand that someone else has chosen their destiny, but they either can’t or don’t know how to change directions. Far worse are the zombie students, unaware of and disconnected from what’s happening around them, mindlessly motivated by money or success or athletic fame. Some of them are not even motivated by anything; they’re just aimlessly wandering, vacuous and devoid of desire or direction.

In the first episode of The Walking Dead, there’s a particularly pathetic legless zombie girl whom Rick Grimes discovers crawling, inch by inch, through the park. At the end of the episode, Rick finds the girl, still crawling, inch by excruciating inch, towards nothing. Always the man to do the right thing, he puts her out of her misery. But before he does, he tells her he’s sorry this has happened to her. I’m afraid that some day in the near future we’re going to have an entire generation of college graduates who feel lost, bamboozled, angry, and buried beneath a suffocating and inescapable load of debt.

And we’re going to owe them a very big apology.

“The End of Education” by Russell Hvolbeck

“Live and Learn: Why We Have College” by Louis Maynard

“The Case for a Useless Degree” by Andrew Bast

“Don’t Miss the College Forest for the Career Trees” by Bobby Fong

“Professor: Value of College Extends beyond Paycheck” by NPR

“Why Some Graduates Believe University Was a Waste of Time” by Holly Higgins

“Is College a Lousy Investment?” by Megan McArdle

“College Student Debt Grows. Is It Worth It?” by NPR

“The Ones We’ve Lost: Student Loan Debt Suicides” by C. Cryn Johannsen

“The Bad Habits You Learn in School” by John Coleman

“Dropping Out Was a Good Idea” by Nicholas Perez

“How the Young Are Indoctrinated to Obey” by Noam Chomsky

“When C’s Became A’s” infographic

“College in America” infographic

“What Is College For?” by Gary Gutting

“The Case Against College Education” by Ramesh Ponnuru

“Why Your College Degree Is Not Enough” by Jack Vincent

“How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education” by Anya Kamenetz

“An Open Letter to Students: You’re the Game Changer in Next Generation Learning” by Mark David Milliron

“Can You Get an MIT Education for $2,000?” by Scott Young

Liz Coleman’s call to reinvent liberal arts education

Share or Die: Voices of the Get Lost Generation in the Age of Crisis