ELTM5A: Games-Why they’re Powerful

For the majority of the people in today’s world, reality does not offer enough pleasure, motivation and rewards. Increasingly, then, those same people are turning away from reality and are immersing themselves, more and more, in the alternate realities brought about through modern-day electronic gaming. If things do not change this will become ever more true; people will exist, increasingly, in virtual worlds.

Reality is broken.

What to do? Stay this course and let the chips fall where they may? Block it—actively discourage or even ban gaming?

There is a third way: we could examine the gaming industry and its associated culture, glean from it just what it is that is being offered and then attempt to layer these features in over normal reality, thus, hopefully creating a world more suited to our present wants and needs.

This is the central thesis from the opening of Jane McGonigal’s “Reality is Broken,” part of the research I’m doing in response to my colleague Eric Nippard’s challenge that I’d been entirely too dismissive of Gamification in one of my recent posts. While I’m not a gamer by nature I admit that the concept does offer much to us educators and will attempt, over the next few posts, to pass along some of what I’ve learned, and continue to learn.

McGonigal’s book is in three parts:

  1. How games give us what we want;
  2. How games can reinvent what we perceive as reality;
  3. How large scale games can change the world.

In the interest of readability, this post will just deal with part one.

I’m an educator; been one since I started university back in 1978 when I began a conjoint degree in science and education. I never had any doubts; it’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. Since that time I’ve not only been a practitioner; I’ve also been a student of my own craft: the merging of teaching & learning theory; instructional design/development and technology integration has been by ‘thing’ for as long as I can remember. It’s what I do; what I think about.

And I do not use jargon unnecessarily. It’s condescending and generally counter-productive to baffle the people I’m working with while effectively alienating me from them; certainly not a good thing if progress is the goal!

That said, I’m comfortable with it when appropriate. There are terms and concepts associated with the craft and using technical terms can be useful in professional publications as it brings clarity, precision and efficiency. Overall, industry-specific terms, appropriately-used, make for effective communication within the community of practice. When I read professionally I therefore expect to see use of specific terms.

But the ones I’m used to are not in McGonigal’s book to any great extent.

That’s to be expected. First, the book was intended to be accessible to a wide audience so the use of jargon would have been inappropriate. More importantly, though, it’s because she’s part of a culture that sees the world through a different set of filters than do most educators. Especially older ones like me.

That is why this book is so intriguing. McGonigal, like most gaming professionals, knows the science behind teaching and learning but she’s not resorting to traditional jargon. She’s using ordinary language and introducing new terms as needed. They’re not the ones traditionally used in Education…emphasis on ‘traditional.’ Her way of expressing ideas, the terms and the ideas themselves are all new to me. They’re not necessarily all her ideas, mind you, but those ideas did not exist, at least not in the form presented, a generation ago.

For an ‘old timer,’ then, McGonigal is very much the voice of a new generation. Reading her work gives insight not only into a world of new ideas but, perhaps more importantly, into the thoughts of a whole new generation; one that sees things differently from the way I’ve been taught; one with different aspirations and values.

She begins by explaining what is, and what is not, to be considered a game. Games have:

  • clear goals (e.g. put the puck in the net more frequently than the opponent);
  • specific rules that all players must abide by;
  • feedback systems (e.g. experience points, strength levels);
  • voluntary participation.

Her sphere of influence is very broad—life in general, in fact. The educator within could not leave it at that, though. Throughout the book I found myself constantly coming back to the question: what does this mean for education?

She then proceeds to elaborate on six ‘fixes’ that can be associated with games. Here they are, in brief.

  1. Unnecessary Obstacles can lead to better work. Consider soccer. It would be much easier to place the ball in the net if we were allowed to use our hands. We can’t. That, therefore, adds a challenge; makes it all more interesting. She used golf—I can’t afford golf. The presence of unnecessary obstacles often leads to better work owing to the emergence of two states of mind. Fiero is the term used to describe the elation one feels after achieving a major victory. Achievement—YESSSS! That’s fiero! Flow is the state of mind that arises from doing something to which we’ve become accustomed to the point of mastery. Both states are conducive to good learning and good living; both states arise from playing well designed games.
  2. Emotional Activation is particularly strong with games. External motivators (bullying, even money) are notoriously ineffective. We need people who desire to do good work, for reasons that matter to them. Games are good with that. It’s not necessarily about winning. Many, including me, don’t care about winning. People do care, though, about playing the game well and are more than willing to practice until they get to that point.
  3. Satisfying Work can come about from having clear goals and well-articulated next-steps. These are, of course, part and parcel of gaming. See the bulleted definition above! Just imagine—students having a clear-cut idea of what they needed to do. 🙂
  4. Better Hope of Success is something endemic to gaming. Fail at a level: do-over until you get that bit done; no need to start from scratch. Contrast that to what often (but by no means always) happens at school. Failure at a task (and, for the second and last time I stress that this is NOT the case for many schools and individual teachers) often results in being held back or at least stigmatized. What if education could be more organized along those lines? Gaming is one powerful way we can bring about the learner-centered teaching and learning model we all pursue.
  5. A Stronger Social Community can be nurtured through gaming. The first games console I bought for my kids was a Sega Dreamcast. It came with a dial-up modem. At the time I thought, “how novel—connecting with other players and playing together online.” Subsequent consoles, of course, took this to a whole new level. I’ve always been particularly amazed to see my own children playing online, headsets on, while chatting away comfortably with players in that game as well as with their friends who are playing different games. Alien to me, yes, but I’m not part of that scene. To them—it’s just life. The ties between them and their friends are strong.
  6. Being a Part of Something Epic is powerful. Why do we attend movies/plays/concerts/sporting events/religious celebrations en-masse? Because there’s nothing quite like being a part of something big. Games, especially ones played massively and online, do just that. Millions of people around the world pay a monthly subscription to play “World of Warcraft.” Together they collect experience points while cooperating in groups both small and large. What if we could make those quests more in-keeping with our educational goals?

At this point I admit I’m left in a position where my instincts are slightly out of kilter with my reason. I’m not a gamer; too much of a contrarian to derive pleasure from following rules and I’m not alone in that sentiment. I prefer not to follow the pack, choosing, instead, to jog along the periphery, sometimes joining in but mostly making my own path. If I were a student in a gamified classroom I suspect I’d be a disruptive influence and would instead try and convince the instructor to let me break away and do it my own way.

But we educators are not self-employed. Our education ministries and school districts choose not only what we teach and, but also, to a large extent, how we do it. Besides, as professionals, educators must not just go with what they like. They must instead go with what works best under the circumstances. Just because I do not much like gaming is no reason to dismiss it—there’s every reason to believe that, skillfully layered in, the classroom can become a much more enjoyable and effective place.

Part two explores how games are transforming the world right now.

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal, published by Penguin.

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17 thoughts on “ELTM5A: Games-Why they’re Powerful

  1. I had to read through this carefully when you wrote about gaming. Here gaming is the euphemism for gambling. We have big gambling companies based in Gib. Provider of jobs and income generator for Gib.

    I went for a job with one company which, luckily, I didn’t get, as I have a moral issue with it anyway.

    So it’s interesting that when you are talking about gaming you are actually talking about playing computer games (yes?) rather than gambling. See how our language gets sloppy? One word can mean two very different things.

    I’m not convinced about computer games (apart from draughts). We’ve probably still got a version of Civilisation from the days when we had a computer that only had a floppy disc and no hard drive.

    But there again, I would rather read a book anyway.

    1. WHOOPS! You are right–we use that sanitized term here too. And my sentiments about that whole instry are roughly the same as yours. Provincial and Federal governments in Canada are totally addicted to the ‘gaming’ industry. The only good I see from it is that at least they’ve, to some extent, taking gambling out of the hands of criminals. I’ve just gone back in and changed the title to ‘games’ instead.

      I’m now well into part two of the book and can see that McGonigal is dealing with games at all levels. Most of the games she describes in part two are not of the electronic variety. Here’s one as a bit of a preview: http://www.cruelgame.com/games/default.aspx

      1. Aaagh! It’s beyond me. I waste enough time as it is without doing that! I played a couple when I was on Facebook, and just chucked them all. Sure I can see the arguments in favour of it all, but basically I don’t agree with it. But there again, I’m not a fan of the internet anyway 😀

        Anyway happy to help re the games/gaming vocabulary. Apart from the job interview, I did some research on the whole gaming/gambling industry in Gib a while back. http://wp.me/p22GQH-18
        Gib being a small place, my partner had actually worked in Anurag’s flat (mentioned in the post) so I’d obviously been beavering around to find out more about party gaming and just got sucked into the whole story. It’s an interesting take on American protectionism.

        My idea of ‘games’ is playing word rounds/matches on Sploofus and ensuring I get into the top ten.

  2. As you know, in this family we have been living and breathing the Battle for Normandy for some time now. I am always heartened, and sometimes, frankly, astonished, that some of my more challenging pupils at school have a pretty fair knowledge of our recent history because of computer games such as Call of Duty and Brothers in Arms. There surely, is a huge learning tool for kids who think history lessons are boring. I think we could incorporate a gaming element quite easily if only our narrow curriculum would allow it.

  3. I enjoyed this post for a myriad of reasons, too many to put here in comments so instead will try to summarise: The concept that reality is broken is an interesting one – I wonder whose reality and in what way is it broken? In our Western civilisations we seem to have slipped into the more, more, more lifestyle driven by material wealth and worldly possessions. Sad but mainly true. Reality is only an issue when it differs from our expectations – maybe reality isn’t broken? Maybe expectations these days are out of control?
    Accepting the gap between reality and expectation, I can see many reasons why gaming and education could sit together quite happily. When we’re very young we learn through play – building sand castles, pitch and catch, charades… seems to be a game for everything from language development to spatial awareness. When we go to school everything gets a bit more serious, quizzes become tests and some of the childish fun vanishes. This is a great shame – some children go from enjoying learning to seeing it as hard work where failing to do well is very bad news indeed.
    Games in their various forms retain some of the childish fun. There’s a level of challenge, something or someone to compete with, quests to be accomplished. One thing I’ve noticed about well-designed games (and Im not sure if McGonigal mentions this but the gambling ‘gaming’ business certainly does) is that games are also addictive. Well designed games make the players come back for more… If education could harness that facet of gaming I suspect it would be a potent combination.

  4. I am happy I haven’t missed this – balanced and thoughtful – post 🙂
    Despite my anti-gamification rants I agree with you. It would be interesting to know how and if these gaming pupils perceive the workplace and life in general – as adults. I assume that “gaming at school” does not necessarily make people later consider workplace a game (?) I guess, it can’t be that simple?
    The Being a Part of Something Epic part is a bit scary, though.

    1. I also plan to explore this further. Interestingly enough, the games Mcgonigal mentions in part 2 of the book are not ‘computer games’ in the normal sense of the word. They are ‘ordinary’ games but with some computing/communications technology thrown in; often in the form of using social networking to make contacts and such. Overall I think there’s a place for some of it. The key is, as always, to intelligently balance the gaming aspects along with everything else.

  5. Hmmm … I don’t like the smell of this Maurice. Seems like generation-x coming up with new rules as accommodation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the old rules! Having said that I believe that there are, perhaps, limited applications of gaming in the educational sphere … but I am not in favor of wholesale change in support of appearing trendy and on the cutting edge of pedagogical science. I’m sure McGonigal makes an excellent case on paper and can even point to primary research which makes the case for gaming in the classroom. Nonetheless … I’m in favor of a tweek … not a new system. I can’t believe I’m going to say this … be here goes … I didn’t need games and I turned out OK. Hrmph. D

    1. LOL! As it turns out we are very much of the same mind on all of this, including the last part (but I am very glad that softball and ball-hockey were very much a part of my youth). Yes, alterations intended to be enhancements is what I would like to see too. Frankly I believe that games have limits and are one more good tool in a very large toolbox.

  6. One thing that continues to make me. Uneasy about gaming and education, despite the obvious appeal and theoretical potential is that this world often – for whatever reason – is a turn-off for girls. As one who has been part of the unsuccessful challenge of encouraging girls to pursue paths in technology and applied science, I fear the outcome of using the very thing that seems to turn them off technology – gaming – as a teaching tool. Unless the developers find a female-friendly approach …

    1. You are absolutely correct, especially around many of the more popular electronic games. Fortunately, though, the numbers are shifting. According to the entertainment software association the M:F ratio is currently 55:45; an improvement. The context here, though, is not necessarily purely electronic gaming. I’m particularly intrigued by games that hybridize physical components with electronic ones. I’ll go on some more about that in part 2 (hopefully during this weekend).

  7. johnlmalone

    I remember when I used to play computer games with my grandson on his X box. I was really drawn into them. I loved thhe challenges of the different levels. Don’t play them now. Don’t think my grandson does either. But you’re right: we all love being a part of something bigger than orselves

  8. johnlmalone

    you got that one right, Maurice 🙂 atm our writing group — there are twelve members — are working on our second print anthology [which may also end up as an ebook] , this time a collection of surreal stories. It’s the worthy project of which you speak 🙂 and after that? who knows. As the saying goes: we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it

  9. Mary

    Interesting post and comments Maurice – I know lots of young people who would be delighted to have gaming incorporated into the school system – and if educators took that challenge on – games that led to learning – say – French or Science could possibly compete with “Warcraft” for our young people’s time – I also agree with Jane – Perhaps this is a niche for someone to develop female friendly educational games.

  10. Very interesting post Maurice, and balanced. I can see limited usefulness of games in education and I understand the importance of being part of something…but would rather see that being part of something real rather than something virtual. I’m 100% with you on the sentiment that put in a gamified classroom I’d “be a disruptive influence and would instead try and convince the instructor to let me break away and do it my own way”!

  11. johnlmalone

    I guess the secret is — and as a former educator I didn’t always achieve this — is to incorporate fun into your subject. Certainly when I run writin workshops I’m most conscious of this

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