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:
- How games give us what we want;
- How games can reinvent what we perceive as reality;
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 🙂
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.