Zombies, Run!

“Gamification is the application of game elements in non-game contexts.” – Sebastion Detarding, MindTrek, 2011

Entering the second week of the University of Pennsylvania MOOC on Gamification via Coursera, I have to say it is better than what I was expecting in both content and delivery. Over 66,000 people from 174 countries are taking this 6 week course, and after enrolling with a large amount of skepticism about ‘gamification’, am quite enjoying the discussion taking place in the forums. Much use of the term ‘gamification’ is often grossly oversimplified or sometimes just plain wrong, but the discussions taking place in this course seem to be elevating the dialogue around this topic.

Zombies, Run! was mentioned in Week 1. Whilst hearing about Zombies, Run! when it was initially a Kickstarter project, I thought it time to see what it was all about. Zombies, Run! is described as,

“an ultra-immersive running game for the iPhone, iPod Touch, Android and Windows Phone. We deliver the story straight to your headphones through orders and voice recordings – and back home, you can build and grow your base with the items you’ve collected.”

It’s not too bad. Whilst you are running the story unfolds between songs in your playlist, you engage in interval training whilst trying to escape zombie hordes and you pick up objects (seemingly at random) that can be used back at base to unlock further missions. The results are collated for you where you get access to statistics on distance travelled, time, average speed, calories burned etc. As you can see below, I have just started an exercise campaign after 6 months of 100% inactivity…

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I’m going to continue using Zombies, Run! until I finish the storyline. What is interesting is that games or ‘game-like’ activities continue to invade real life – a real-life Zombies, Run! has already been implemented with http://runforyourlives.com/ events springing up everywhere.

Student Game Art

Game art design is a vital part of game development and one that is often overlooked by students. Game art is the process of creating 2D & 3D art for use as character models, scenery, items or even user interfaces. Below is some concept art for a new game character that a talented student at Quantum Victoria developed in under 30 minutes. (On a Fujitzu Lifebook T Series Tablet)

It’s awesome.

‘Jeremy’ had never thought of using his skills in this way before.

Jeremys Drawing

Mindsets of Nostalgia

Extroverted or successful people in social situations tend to be sensitive and appropriately responsive to verbal and nonverbal cues. 

On the nonverbal level, much information is communicated telepathically without our conscious awareness. Humans have evolved to notice body language and subtle clues during social interactions that allow us to adhere to societies norms. Maintaining eye contact with someone portrays confidence, but staring at the eyes of another person for too long won’t win you any friends. Mimicking another’s body language can lead to positive social outcomes such as an unspoken rapport or a sense of unconscious trust, and yet mimicking another’s dialect or accent is a bit weird (and yet I am guilty of this). Yawning can perhaps signal boredom and disinterest, and yet research suggests that yawning serves an important neurological function in improving alertness and concentration, lowering stress and regulating brain temperature. Verbal conversation functions simarlily; people who talk too much are annoying, but so are people that hardly talk at all. Over a lifetime people develop and learn the implicit social rules of responsiveness to a greater or lesser degree.

When engaging students in immersive gaming environments, people new to the medium talk about the difficulty they have relaying information due to a lack of visual body language clues, the lack of ‘control’ or the ‘impersonal’ feel of the space. Granted, it’s a little different at first but this is due to the medium’s affordances differing to traditional settings in both style and space – it’s not really the space itself though, but that the space demands a shift in control, and as a consequence people feel uncomfortable. Giving up this power/control struggle is seen as relinquishing one’s duty as a teacher – but this mindset is one that is steeped in tradition and nostalgia.

The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. ― M. Kundera

The story of Odysseus is a good illustration of nostalgia as it was originally conceived. Odysseus’s epic 10 year journey can be seen as a hero experiencing nostalgia as he struggles to return to the way things were and get back to his home and ultimately his wife in Ithaca.

Current definitions of nostalgia generally follow a sentimental longing for the past, especially in reference to how things used to be better (whether they were or not). Games have now been around for long enough that it’s not uncommon to encounter people thinking romantically about the good old days of gaming, when 20 cents got you three lives and there were no such things as health packs. (Personally, the other week, I found myself wanting to play the classic old arcade game Pengu…)

Nostalgia creeps into our everyday lives without people giving it any thought – the floppy disk icon for the save function in Microsoft Word or the most recent example of nostalgic nonsense of cc’ing someone on twitter when including them in a tweet.

Carbon copying was the technique of using carbon paper to produce one or more copies simultaneously during the creation of paper documents. With the advent of email, the legacy of ‘cc’ was kept and referred to sending someone who was a secondary recipient of an email a copy of the original. With Twitter this isn’t necessary, and yet people insist on ‘cc’ing…

Nostalgia causes ignorance. When you long and constantly think about the past you do not pay attention to what goes on in front of you and you apply old ways of thinking to new questions. You do old things in new circumstances. This isn’t to say we should ignore the past. We learn from others and become well-versed in the literature, but we see further than others because we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.

Will we ever overcome the nostalgic yearning for the good old days of education? Maybe. What we can do now though is have an open mind and come to the realisation that everything changes. Celebrate the power of being in the now and have a rational perspective on things. We cannot be dismissive of new ways of learning and new environments. An incredible amount of hubris and arrogance is involved when spending 5 minutes with something and then being dismissive of it. Playing a game for only 5 minutes is like listening to classical music for 5 minutes and then making a judgement – you are not going to be able to understand the nuances or the complexities in that short time frame.

Gaming environments are empowering for the introverts among us. They give introverts a sense of freedom, social agency and confidence that they would not have otherwise. The doubters need to throw away their nostalgic yearnings because many are using this as a way of avoiding the present – and by not thinking about the present, you risk your students’ future.

Games, Play & Porous Membranes

Game scholars often distinguish between two modes of play, ludic and paidiaic. Ludic from the Latin ludos, describes structured, rule-driven, competitive games relating to play or playfulness, while paidiaic describes unstructured play in open-ended metaverses that are often co-created by their inhabitants – or as Celia Pearce describes them in Communities of Play, “Paidiaic environments are designed for spontaneous play and creative contribution.” 

The two modes of play can be thought of on a spectrum – too much toward one end the game risks becoming a grind whilst too much in the other direction the game can often feel pointless (if a game at all), and indeed this game/not game binary distinction is often discussed when exploring the differences between games and virtual worlds.

Fixed Synthetic worlds such as World of Warcraft & Skyrim are characterized as ludic environments as they are primarily defined by Blizzard & Bethesda, who have complete control over narrative, world rules, mechanics and design. On the other end of the spectrum we have co-created worlds like Minecraft that include affordances for the customization of the environment that allows players to engage in content creation within the parameters of the world’s design. These paidiaic environments typically have no set storyline and are open for interpretation by the player, allowing players to build their own spaces and express their creativity.

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Regardless of where the world falls on this spectrum we see evidence of emergence as play ecosystems or communities of play that transcend the original game space.

The term magic circle was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872–1945) in his work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Huizinga basically states that the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins. The magic circle was often thought of as a circle where belief could be suspended, sacrosanct, one which bounds play in time and space from ‘reality.’ This definition is starting to blur as evidenced by our work with students from around Victoria in Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft.

Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft is for kids aged 4-16 in Victoria exploring digital citizenship, creativity and imagination using the video-game Minecraft. Hosted by Jokaydia as a pervasive online game environment, our current game has over 65 Achievements that children can undertake and each can be mapped to the ISTE NETs Standards for students using technology in learning.

Whilst originally developed as an innovative model for outreach in the STEM disciplines, we are seeing students mature and develop skills like self-efficacy, sharing, negotiation, conflict resolution, thinking skills, empathy and most importantly leadership.

Students are engaged in artefact creation, collaborative building, Machinima, Fan Fiction, thematic Journal writing together with learning about aspects of Computer Science. The Achievement System that has been built augments the game – students can complete the Achievements if they want but they are not required to. The Achievements are not sequential, meaning that students can jump in and out as they see fit. What we are finding is that students want to complete these Achievements in their own time – as Celia Pearce states,

“Especially in co-created worlds, productive play becomes a major engine for emergence, the prolific player-producers can play a significant role in emergent cultures. The creation of artefacts is identified as an expression of social agency, promoted by feedback that encourages player-producers to produce more.”

Students as young as 12 years old are taking ownership of the space and exhibiting leadership well beyond their years. This feature of emergence was intended – having students teaching and mentoring each other so that the space becomes a self-sustaining learning/play community.

The magic circle coined by Huizinga can be better described as a porous membrane with culture invading the game world, and the game invading culture. (eg. Students designing and creating Creeper’s on our 3D printer similar to this one).

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Western culture demands that play be productive – many say that to be seen in a positive light it requires a metamorphosis from play to creative output. The irony here is that whilst much of students work in a paidiaic environment like Minecraft would be seen as unproductive by those who don’t ‘game’, the reality is that at all times students are engaged in community building, identity building and social construction of knowledge whilst under the guise of ‘unproductive’ or free play. This is in stark contrast to those who try to emulate the power/control climate of the classroom – whilst genuinely trying to engage students using GBL in the classroom, they are in fact just replicating a 100 year old paradigm and not seeing these spaces for what they allow – radically different types of learning. (in relation to a previous post: Play Ecosystems.)

Einstein said that,

“Play is the highest form of research.”

Most adults above a certain age will struggle to ever make it back to a place where they will permit themselves the freedom to play. But they should at least give the time for students to engage in the pursuit of this form of research – summarized succinctly by Celia Pearce,

“Play has a life of it’s own. It can be guided, but never controlled.”

Play Ecosystems & Why You Can’t ‘Teach’ Games

from http://minecrafteduelfie.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/kids-are-just-kids-sometimes.html

“I caught up with her after the lesson and she said she had a lot of trouble with them, they were not listening to her instructions when asked to not to dig tunnels into the mountain and generally being uncooperative. I must say I am a little disappointed in the students, however does the saying “kids will be kids” excuse the behaviour?

I have been very upfront with the students about how what we do in class, while being used to teach them, is also being used to help other teachers see how this can be used in classrooms to make learning more interesting, both at our school and further afield…

Now I have this class tomorrow, and I will be having a discussion with the class about what they did, and what it means for them, me and other teachers. So my question to you is, how would you approach this situation?”

Roger Caillois in Man, Play & Games (building on Huizinga [1938|1950]) describes the essential characteristics of play as being: 1) free (not obligatory) & 2) uncertain (outcomes are not determined in advance). The emergent behaviour in games and virtual worlds like Minecraft, arise out of a complex interaction between players and the affordances of the play space they inhabit – the affordance of the play space leads to a dichotomy of freedom v control. Freedom in a relative sense compared to absolute freedom (but still freedom) as opposed to the culture of control in the classroom. In this case the teacher is trying to exert control over a space where she has none – this is why as Lisa Dawley from Boise State explains,

“We don’t teach games, we game games.”

Borrowing from complexity theory, an environment such as Minecraft can be characterised as a play ecosystem. It has been designed to facilitate networked play, and has specific features and affordances (freedom & uncertainty) that differ significantly from school environments (control & certainty) – but at it’s core is the fact that it hinges on intrinsic motivators of students wanting to be there, and the fact that students’ experiences are not obligatory and certain. Many educators and indeed parents differentiate between a time for play and a time for learning without seeing the vital connection between them – play is not unproductive – saying that we need to cover ‘x’ in ‘x’ amount of time misses the forest for the trees.

The teacher in the example above, introduces a magic circle of freedom and than attempts to battle the affordance of the space – in MInecraft you can’t tell students to build a model eye for example – more likely it should be creating a space and designing the ‘activity’ in such a way that they want to create an eye. The game world is non-linear which has its own rule set – trying to overlay a rule set that doesn’t make sense to either the game or the player will not work out that well in most cases. This post doesn’t touch on the social aspects of such a space – but I echo Dean Groom’s comments.

My only suggestion would be to lose the specifics – instead introduce students to a fairly broad driving question, and then giving them sufficient time, see what they are capable of. Trust the students and maybe, just maybe, some of them will surprise you.

Why Children Need Make-Believe Violence

Children play – its how they make sense of the world.

In societies where guns are part and parcel of media and culture, children inevitably at an early age play toy guns and ‘shootouts’. In other cultures, where guns are not part of the local symbology, children play instead with toy spears or bow and arrows.

The act of imaginary weapon play and violence in itself provides children a sense of power as they struggle to make sense of the world around them. In all of popular culture, from Harry Potters magic wand, to the ‘One Ring’ in Lord of the Rings, Excaliber from Arthurian Legend to destructive spells emanating from a child’s seemingly normal open hand, a single object becomes a vehicle for story and a symbol for power – this act of ‘violent’ play is important for the development of a child.

From when they are born to the time they are independent, all children feel powerless to a certain extent. They struggle to learn how to walk, they are dependent on their parents for meals, and what seems easy for adults can be frustratingly difficult for children. This feeling of powerlessness can be especially amplified if the child grows up in an environment of abuse, neglect or poverty.

A Grade 4 student in the school yard who is reenacting a scene from Call of Duty where he’s avatar has snuck up behind an enemy player and slit their throat with his knife, knows that what he is doing is play. The same child who with his friends pretends that he is a Wrestler from the WWE knows that he is not actually a Wrestler from the WWE. Children are using this reenactment to develop emotionally – they are reenacting a story and using it’s emotional power to aid in their development of character. Games enable children to play with certain realities and to take power over them to an extent. Gangsta Rap and movies about seriel killers are similar tools – in engaging in this culture children feel that they understand things better, and feel stronger in the face of such realities.

Most adults are anxious about this type of behaviour. The cybersafety consultants who do the rounds in schools would most likely say to be vigilant in the look out for this type of behaviour. Won’t children who play guns or video games like Call of Duty become desensitised to violence and grow up thinking it’s ok to shoot people? Won’t this act of play, turn out kids who enjoy violence? These anxieties are natural. From years of experience, we know that in reality guns are bad and do lead to violence – but adults mistake play with reality – kids don’t. They have an innate sense of what is play and what is real. 

Children need to fantasize, and play, and lose themselves in stories. It’s how they learn. Most anxieties and fears about make-believe violence and violent video games come from ignorance, media ‘beatups’ and hyperbole or perpetrated soceitel ‘myths’ – Henry Jenkins debunks these myths about video games in his article Eight Myths About Video Games.

Gerard Jones in his book Killing Monsters states,

“Nearly all the violent stories that kids play with deal with lessons about courage, resiliency and development. It is the action itself – the process of identifying with a character who is faced with a physical threat and fights back with every resource he can find – that transmits some basic life lessons:

Achievement feels good.

Goals are achieved through complete commitment.

Clear Choices must be made.

Sometimes conflict is useful.

Sometimes shattering old ways is necessary.

Loss and defeat are survivable.

Risk has it’s rewards.

We can feel fear – but do it anyway.

Monsters can be destroyed.

Self-assertion is powerful.

Simply being me is heroic.”

Cloak of Darkness: Using IF for systems thinking

Having first written about using Text-Based Adventures in education back in 2009, my interest in them as a tool for teaching programming concepts, game design, literacy and systems thinking has been renewed. Exploring Interactive Fiction (IF) design systems such as Inform7 and Adrift, I have found Quest to be probably the best for small projects ideally suited to K12 education. The desktop client is currently for PC only, but a beta Chrome Store Quest app is now available for use on any platform.

Following the tutorials available to familiarise with the tool, I decided to attempt to write my own small game based on Roger Firths “Cloak of Darkness” specification. This is the programming equivalent of ‘hello world’ in the IF space. Firths specification for this game are as follows:

There are just three rooms and three objects.

The Foyer of the Opera House is where the game begins. This empty room has doors to the south and west, also an unusable exit to the north. There is nobody else around.

The Bar lies south of the Foyer, and is initially unlit. Trying to do anything other than return northwards results in a warning message about disturbing things in the dark.

On the wall of the Cloakroom, to the west of the Foyer, is fixed a small brass hook.

Taking an inventory of possessions reveals that the player is wearing a black velvet cloak which, upon examination, is found to be light-absorbent. The player can drop the cloak on the floor of the Cloakroom or, better, put it on the hook.

Returning to the Bar without the cloak reveals that the room is now lit. A message is scratched in the sawdust on the floor.

The message reads either “You have won” or “You have lost”, depending on how much it was disturbed by the player while the room was dark.

The act of reading the message ends the game.

You can play my attempt at Cloak of Darkness online at http://www.textadventures.co.uk/review/468/ 

In the classroom, I would have students first play one of the Infocom Text Adventures and perhaps unpack verbs, nouns, game mechanics, space and narrative and maybe even get them to do a mapping exercise of the world in question. (A discussion could also be included about Choose Your Own Adventures and Fighting Fantasy.) This would be followed by an introduction to the Quest editor and a discussion about verbs, nouns, objects, rooms, dialogue, first, second and third person narrative perspectives, If->Then statements, attributes etc. and their first project would be to create their own version of the “Cloak of Darkness.”

This would be approached by having them map out the required rooms on A3 paper and then use brainstorming cards to map out their proposed game. Students would be routinely asked to go through the process of rapid prototyping and iterative design by having their peers playtest and provide feedback. By engaging in something like this, students are building their skills and confidence leading up to their final project, which would be a game of their own design. Assessment of their final project/game would include:

Competence – the game should handle the user interactions expected for a piece of interactive fiction.

Immersiveness – the degree to which a player loses him or herself in the game world.

Completeness – the world should have a reasonable number of room and objects.

World Design – non-linear story with several puzzles to solve.

Prose Quality – the room descriptions should draw the player into the game.

Interactivity – the player should have interesting objects and environments to manipulate.

Fun – the game should entertain the player and motivate him or her to play often.

A question that educators at all levels should ask themselves is “What would you do with a computer if their was no internet access?” Using Interactive Fiction enables students to engage with game design whilst not having to worry about skill in designing digital art – and it is a great literacy workout too.

IF resources:

Welcome to Interactive Fiction

IF Delicious Stack

Interactive Fiction Wiki

Zork Library

Brainstorming Cards

Interactive Fiction Authorship

Play IF Cheat Sheet

Red Dead Redemption: Liars Dice

One of the mini-games in Read Dead Redemption is Liar’s Dice.

Liars dice is a game of incomplete information which distinguishes it from games like chess and backgammon where you can always see what your opponent is doing. The art of liars dice is filling the gaps in the incomplete information provided by your opponents bidding, and at the same time preventing your opponents from discovering any more than what you want them to know about your roll.

Originating in South America and originally going by the name of Perudo, this game is inherently engaging for students.


•2 to 4 people are the ideal number of players

•Each player starts with 5 six-sided dice and something to conceal their roll

•All players initially roll their dice for everybody to see. Highest numerical total starts play

•The ‘One’ is wild

•All players now roll their dice so that they are concealed from the other players

•Each player in the game, proceeding clockwise, must make consecutively higher bids or call ‘liar’.

•A bid consists of a number and the value of a die. For example a bid of ‘Three Sixes’ could be followed by “Four fives” or “Six fours”

•As long as the bid is either numerically greater or contains more of the one bid it is valid. For example, if player 1 bids ‘Four Sixes’ player 2 could bid either ‘Five Sixes’ or ‘Five Fives’ as 5 x 5 = 25 which is greater than 4 x 6 =24

•If the opening bid consists of ‘Ones’, ‘Ones’ are no longer wild

•When a player is called ‘liar’, all players reveal their dice. For example, if you bid ‘Four Sixes’ and someone calls you ‘liar’ your bid is correct if between all players at the table, there are at least ‘Four Sixes’

•If you are caught ‘lying’ you lose a dice and play resumes. If there is at least the number of dice that you bid the person who unsuccessfully called you a ‘liar’ loses a dice and play resumes

•The last player with dice is the winner (of course, as with any game, there are variations to these rules)

The skill of liars dice consists of knowing when to tell the truth and when to ‘bluff’ and also when to call someone’s bluff. Obviously the optimum strategy is to mix bluffing with statistical estimation of what’s on the table.

Since the other players have to base their estimation of the dice on what you bid, if you can get away with a bluff in the early rounds you can affect their estimates of what’s on the table. 

For example, all players roll their dice. Player 1 has 3 3 4 5 2, Player 2 has 6 6 3 2 4 and Player 3 has 6 1 3 3 5. Player 1 opens the bidding and bids ‘Three Sixes’. Player 2 has two sixes himself so bids ‘Four sixes’. Player 3 also has a six and a one so bids ‘Five Sixes’. Player 1 holds no sixes so can fairly confidently call liar with the odds being in his favour.

The early bluff is misleading information designed to skew the perception of the other players. When a player makes a bid that the information he has does not support, that bid is likely to be accurate based on simple probability, but other players will think the bid was made because the player had some part of the bid in his own dice. This in turn causes the other players to inflate their own bids based around that value, increasing the likelihood that those bids will be false.

Once other players are aware that you like to bluff with an opening bid, it can be to your advantage to start semi-bluffing. Lets say you have the opening bid and you roll 6 6 1 3 2. Bid ‘Five Sixes’. Player 2 thinks that you are bluffing and calls you ‘liar’. The probability is definitely in your favour that Player 2 and Player 3 have each got either a one or a six.

Position is one of the key elements affecting virtually every bid in liars dice. The game is heavily weighted in favour of the player acting first. Aggressiveness in this position ensures that you control the round. For example, an opening bid of ‘Three Twos’ is relatively weak and gives the other players a lot of room to move, potentially exposing yourself to a precarious situation later in the round. By demonstrating weakness on the opening bid, you have relinquished your powerful position to the next player who can then take control of the round. A much more dominating and aggressive bid might be ‘Five Fives’ or ‘Four Sixes’. An aggressive opening like this one puts pressure on the other players immediately and gives you control of the round.

A complete strategy of liars dice is inherently complex because it takes into account not only the dice that each player is holding but also the state of the game in general. After experimentation you will find that certain players exhibit certain tendencies and that their are subtle differences in game play between a game involving two players and a game involving more than two.

Good liars dice players, to one degree or another tend to possess knowledge of game theory and the following characteristics:

•Mathematical proficiency – Ability to accurately calculate probabilities

•Reading skill – Ability to determine if a player is telling the truth or is obviously bluffing

•Flexibility – The ability to modify their approach to the game based on their opponents and what their opponents ‘know’ of their game

•Awareness – Constantly scanning opponents, looking for clues that assist in decision making

•Aggression – An attacking dominating style

The movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest, also gives a variation of Liars Dice (seen below) and an online version of ‘Pirates Dice’ has been created by Disney, where you get to wager your soul as you play against Davey Jones and his crew.

I have provided here a brief overview of an opinion on liars dice. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but instead is provided to guide thinking when developing your own strategy and to help you guide students in their own exploration of this game. 

Feedback welcome.

Make Chrome Store Games With Construct 2

Construct 2 is a relatively new HTML5 game making tool. Currently available only on PC, this powerful engine allows you to make Chrome store & Facebook Games, with zero game making or programming experience.

There are lots of tutorials available, but if you are the type that feels that they need a bit more direction than you can currently take a Construct 2 course on Udemy for $149.

Catch a short demo of Construct 2 by the Scirra team.

Games & School: The Failure Argument

Failure is a concept that we are all familiar with. In school you likely passed or failed. You made the basketball or football team or you didn’t. And if you did fail, perhaps your parent or guardian was there to tell you, “don’t worry about it, we will try harder next time and you will succeed, mark my words.” Except in rare circumstances where a students intrinsic motivation, life at home and belief in oneself is in perfect harmony, the most likely result from students failing at something is that they will expect to perform similarly on similar tasks in the future. Failure engenders a feeling of incompetence or helplessness in most people.

In Perceiving the Causes of Success or Failure, Weiner states that when one thinks of success or failure, the four factors that come to mind are effort, ability, luck and difficulty. The first two factors, effort and ability are features of the student, whilst the last two are external. 

When the emphasis is on how students are performing, like it is in most schools, the perception of static intelligence is perpetrated throughout the community, usually during conversations between parents and their children, “I was never any good at math,” which in turn becomes a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy which alienates children from the subject area that their parents were no good at. This mindset is the ability mindset, and hints at the fact that no matter how much effort one puts in, they are just not that intelligent when it comes to mathematical thinking.

Alfie Kohn, in The Schools Our Children Deserve, states that,

“When kids are led to focus on how well they are performing in school, they tend to explain their performances not by how hard they tried but by how smart they are. Research demonstrates that when students who explain how well their doing on the basis of ability, tend to think less deeply and carefully about what they’re learning.”

As an aside, this is my main problem with gamification – the adding of an extrinsic layer is at odds with what makes a learning activity or a game good in the first place. What typically motivates a student/player to gain mastery over a game and spend a great deal of time with it is intrinsic. The reward mechanic of a game or learning activity (leveling up, unlocking an ability or item) is only a small part of what makes it successful. By adding a rewards layar to something in the classroom (badges, experience points – Lee Sheldon, The Mutiplayer Classroom), sometimes the focus then becomes the reward, to the detriment of what you were trying to achieve initially – mastery over content. In a ‘Gamified’ classroom, how many students are just brushing over content superficially in order to ‘level up’ as quickly as possible? Gamification assumes that a player/student isn’t especially motivated to begin with, and then provides incentives to ramp up that motivation – with games it is the opposite – students are motivated to begin with and it is the design of the game that provides motivation, namely that students are always within their zone of proximal development. A consequence of this is that gamification than has the potential to glamorize a poorly designed curriculum, or curriculum that may have been no good to begin with.

The argument or comparison about failure in games and schools is something I have been struggling with. At it’s most basic level it seems too simplistic.

Failure is discouraged at school – in school, typically the process is that students would hand in an essay, project etc. for the teacher to grade. This assessment is summative and depending on the circumstance, one could argue that the student learns very little about the process, irrespective of the depth of feedback obtained from their teacher. The student either fails or they pass. And then they move onto the next topic. Whereas with well-designed games, a culture of informal formative assessment is present, where failure is a form of progression rather than being a sorting mechanism, and the feedback gained in real-time allows the player to adapt and overcome any and all obstacles in front of them.

James Paul Gee often talks about video games creating a psychosocial moratorium – that is a learning space in which the learner can take risks where real-world consequences are lowered. The cost of failure in these environments is not prohibitive, as it is so often in schools. As Gee is one of the definitive scholars in using games for learning, most cite his work and say that school should then be more like a game. And this is where I have difficulty. Think of the most complicated game that has levelling mechanics, maybe World of Warcraft, maybe Skyrim, and apply this process of failure as a form of progression. A player grinds toward the next level up, often fails, but then gains mastery or unlocks a new skill such as the ability to cast a new spell. Relating this to the current state of education; the grind is the process of gaining mastery, whilst the level-up is the point in which one can fluently wield the destructive powers of say, Calculus.

I don’t think I like the comparison. Yes, the structure of the curriculum should allow repeated failures and allow students to go through a process of iteration in relation to their coursework. And yes, as educationalists, I believe that we have much to learn from games designers and can leverage much of what makes games so compelling in our design of engaging curriculum. But something doesn’t sit easy with me when making this comparison between games and school… 

What am I missing?