Games people play Part 2: Let’s pretend

Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

Metrics

Fitbit Screengrab

Author is comfortably mid-table at 10000 steps a day. Less than Andrea W, more than The Phantom.

Last week was quite a fun post to write and I’m back with the semi-promised ‘Part 2′…

We do often get between 100 and 300 daily hits on a published post at the tomtom. But my post, the 100th post fell a little bit short. But since then there’s been quite a bit of activity and as a number of people pointed out in the comments, my threat to send it to blog-post-Heaven made it seem:

  • like a waste of my effort/their invested time
  • like an arbitrary requirement
  • unfair to demand a group of people to reach an aggregated target
  • churlish for me to take my ball and go home
  • that perhaps at 1400 words I just didn’t know how to end the post?

All true!

What a savvy readership!

And all so relevant to games- Are the rules clear? Are the rules fair? Who thought up these rules? Who’s the umpire? How do I win? How do I quit?

On to what I’d promised, first, extrinsic motivations and measurements.

There’s already a game in place in TAFE and HE that our students play. The game called, for instance, ‘Bachelor of X’ runs for three years, it’s assessed by former players and it will cost you upwards of $30 000 AUD. Insert as many asterisks as you’d like, but essentially you quit by dropping out, you win by graduating, you can cheat in a number of ways and at the end you’re awarded a badge called a degree.

A cynical sketch of the tertiary experience, yes. Shoulder angels should rightly counter with the intangibles and the intrinsic benefits that come with a tertiary experience. University is where students can grapple with ideas, create new knowledge, speak truth to power etcetera.

Click here to visit GEElab. Opens in a new window.

‘Trouble Tower’ app from RMIT’s GEElab.

It would be depressing (or worse) if we held the first view front of mind and didn’t encourage the myriad benefits related to what learning institutions offer. But you’ll find plenty of posts on the tomtom where you can read about graduate attributes, lifelong learning and that sort of thing!

Caveats

My point though is that adding another layer of achievements as instructors is problematic for a system that already has clear thresholds, ladders and badges. Completion of credit points, Competent/Not Yet Competent, Pass to High Distinction: these are the real points of the game. Universities bear the legacy of ranks and hierarchies in their inherited Latin and medieval terms. Just as more recently we have had the AQF imposing a kind of metric system of levels 1-10 on these old terms from guilds, knights and churches.

So an easier conclusion to this post would be for me to write about what could go wrong with adding a game element to your course. That it’s ‘pointsification‘, that it’s infantile, that there’ll be unintended consequences. That it makes university into (even moreso) a token economy. That carrots and sticks are for donkeys. Adding gameful design to your course won’t make up for opaque course outcomes or dated course materials.

But I did promise to explain why an individual instructor might still be interested in adding some sort of a game mechanic to their course.

Click to read the article at news.Discovery.com

A 5000 year old Bronze-Age game: “According to distribution, shape and numbers of the stone pieces, it appears that the game is based on the number 4.” Haluk Sağlamtimur, Ege University İzmir, Turkey. Click above to read the full article.

Case 1: You enjoy games (boardgames, word games or computer games) and recognise that games can add an element of fun to tasks. You want to allow students to learn, track their learning or to present the results of their learning in a modality that’s closer to one in which they’re spending some of their leisure time.

Case 2: You recognise that there’s an element of your course that’s an ‘eat-your-vegetables’ proposition: it needs to be done and many of your students find it difficult. As a result, it’s often skipped over by students or it becomes a point where their performance dips or where they disengage. It might be something like acquiring the appropriate vocabulary for a unit, or acquiring a set of technological skills that are required that can be applied later in the unit. You think that maybe some healthy competition or a bit of incentivising could do the trick.

To address the latter case, it’s worthwhile noting that psychologists talk about the overjustification effect, where extrinsic rewards reduce intrinsic motivation. As one of the examples in Alfie Kohn’s very quotable ‘Punished by Rewards’ goes:

Asked about the likely results of Pizza Hut’s popular food-for-reading program, educational psychologist John Nicholls replied, only half in jest, that it would probably produce “a lot of fat kids who don’t like to read.” (Kohn, 1999)

Kohn’s book has a bigger target of praise and gold stars in schools and performance bonuses in the workplace but his arguments that this type of vegetables-for-dessert bargaining is essentially coercive (and stacked in favour of society’s dominant power structure) and that the results are either counter-productive or short-lived (they end when the reward ends) are certainly worth keeping in mind. You’d better be careful about incentivising an aspect of the course that part of your cohort actually enjoys already for instance.

In response to the first case, I think it’s important to recognise the range of games and the types of players you’re likely to be teaching. It will be impossible to design a semester-long game that engages all of the players, all of the time. Even a leader in the field, Kevin Werbach (whose videos and articles will point you in the right direction) shies away from using an actual game mechanic in his MOOC: Gamification (run through The University of Pennsylvania on Coursera).

Conclusions

So why, as a teacher or lecturer, would you be looking to introduce game-mechanics to your classroom? The short answer is that I think it gives you another way to experiment with your teaching in a way that brings students along for the journey.

If you begin by asking ‘What is the problem that I’m trying to solve in my class?’ you might end up with a dilemma like:

*Survey results indicate that students don’t feel I’m giving enough feedback to them.
OR
*I’m not getting the quality of answers/creative output that I’d expect from this level of students.

What I think game design opens up here is the possibility for you not to simply answer ‘I’ll work harder.’ Making a game of it means you will work with students and you will help them to work with each other to solve problems.  For you, this problem of practice may or may not be openly shared with them- you’ll find a way to link it appropriately to their real success in their course or program.

I think that’s one of the powerful things about games. The ‘let’s pretend’ aspect of them imagines a world where things are simpler and clearer. Where things work. Where there are bright lines, winners and losers but also camaraderie among the players (and the umpires). It’s where achieving 10000 steps with a pedometer or staying ahead of an opponent in a ladder can be the askew goal that keeps you on track for the ‘real’ goal.

I’ll post my ‘feedback game’ ideas in the comments but to bring it back to Skinner (the Principal from The Simpsons, not the behaviorist) his error was not in the silliness of the game (all games are silly) but in assigning a game that he didn’t play himself, that he didn’t play alongside his student. And that’s the great opportunity of games in higher education — more time playing alongside instead of umpiring. Let’s continue this particular game in the comments section…

Share your thoughts about games, gameful design and gamification in the comments!

4 responses to “Games people play Part 2: Let’s pretend

  1. Thembi 10 October, 2013 at 14:43

    Kevin Werbach does include a game element in his MOOC. He plays a game with the items on his bookshelf in each video. I know as I watched all the videos at once trying to find the answer! And through the game I learnt a lot about gamification (the content he was trying to get across) too. It was riveting and much more fun than simply watching videos. :)

    • theteachingtomtom 10 October, 2013 at 14:50

      Ah ha- true, I remember you mentioning that. His official line for his 2014 FAQs about the course- mention Yes, good videos and good mindmaps:

      “Given the novelty of the course and the massive open online format, I didn’t feel I could implement a gamified system that was technically feasible and supportive of the learning experience in the available timeframe. Gamification isn’t a solution for everything, and it’s not always easy to do well! That being said, in the course I’ll discuss examples of educators using gamification in effective ways. And there just might be a game-like aspect to one or two of the lectures.”

  2. theteachingtomtom 17 October, 2013 at 13:09

    So I’d better post my idea for a feedback game too… My advice would be to use a framework like Kevin Werbach’s or Professor Gilly Salmon’s e-tivities model in setting up the activity. But first some background- The premise here is that a teacher or lecturer has identified feedback as the playing field: As Anthony Bedford and his pointed out in an analysis of the CES in 2009 in The RMIT Teaching and Learning Journal, items 5 & 20 (‘The teaching staff normally give me helpful feedback on how I am going in this course’ and ‘The staff put a lot of time into commenting on my work’.) “…correlated most highly with good teaching in 29 of the 41 subject areas for which a distinct Good Teaching Factor could be ascertained in Semester 1, 2007…”

    What would be a game that a class could play then that increases the level of feedback (quality and quantity) and one that perhaps takes the emphasis away from only the teacher giving feedback? Perhaps you’ve got an open-door policy but you’re rarely visited by students except at the last minute. Perhaps you’re a sessional staff member and you have to do most of your feedback online. Maybe you work in an online delivery model and you’re just not seeing that work in progress or the discussion that you hoped would be sparked by your weekly readings.

    So you’ll need to explain how the game will be played and what’s in it for the students. My advice on playing together is important here too- explaining what’s in it for you, and that you’ll also be a participant is key.

    What sort of games and game mechanics could be appropriate for these educators? Happy to receive suggestions- More in the next comment!

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