ELTM5B: Games-Applying the Principles; Alternate Realities

It’s possible—often desirable—to take that which makes games so much fun and apply those principles to real life. In so doing you offer the very real possibility of making lives so much more fulfilling; so much more worthwhile. As I drafted this post I was also struck by two nagging questions: “Is this for everyone?” and, more importantly “Are there any hidden dangers that we may wish to avoid?”

In part A (the previous post) it was described how the book “Reality is Broken” explains why games affect us in a positive way. Part 2 builds on this and explores how alternate reality games apply the related strategies to real life. Author Jane Mcgonigal lists and expands on three new fixes that game-related elements can bring to reality.

7. Wholehearted participation means that people (a) are involved voluntarily (b) are interested in the outcome and (c) actively participate. The chapter opens with a description of Chore Wars, a web-based application that allows groups (families, roommates, etc.) to compete for experience points obtained through completing common tasks. Being part of a household that also includes four young people between the ages of 16 and 22, as you expect, I often find myself at the centre of…creative tension…around the delegation of chores. It was therefore with great pleasure that I visited the site and created the structure for my household. I invited the five other members to the game and waited with eager anticipation. I also did my best to ‘market’ this to my fellow home dwellers.

It’s been a week now and, unfortunately, it does not seem to be working although I’m progressing fairly well and gaining lots of experience points.

I’m taking a break now to: sweep the floors, clean the bathroom, do some laundry, cook dinner and wash the dishes. Might even slip in mowing the lawn and watering the posies as there seem to be no takers from today’s list online. Pretty soon I should be ‘the boss.’ Yes, that’s irony.

Schools were next, noting that they are generally built around a series of necessary obstacles. These mandatory, standardized tasks produce negative stress and are increasingly disconnected from the virtual world inhabited by today’s young people. She does acknowledges the presence of educational games but states that these are more an add-on; not integrated and as such, are insufficient. One particular charter school has built its curriculum around gaming, much of which is collaborative. While most schools are organized around a series of necessary obstacles (tests, midterms, assignments, etc.) this one was designed to build in the unnecessary obstacles so vital in games. Students collect experience points by completing individual and cooperative tasks. Major milestones that would normally be achieved through major examinations and such are instead handled through a leveling up process. Students, of course, get ‘do overs’ when necessary and can take on optional quests (enrichment) for added value. As of the time of writing the school was enjoying great success and was expecting to expand in future years.

The veteran educator in me viewed this story with skepticism. At the risk of alienating some readers I admit to a deep suspicion around (a) schools outside the mainstream (many of them cater to only a sub-set of the population whereas as a public school educator my own passion is that ALL students avail of the same opportunities) and (b) wholesale and radically different approach to schooling (they generally centre on the efforts of one key individual who is more interested in THEIR view of the world rather than in the collected wisdom of all their colleagues; that is they are often ego-driven and unsustainable). I did, easily see how the techniques employed by that school could and should be expanded upon and put out there for all educators to use—powerful new tools to be added to the already-existing set; not replacements.

And for the sake of fairness I will emphasize that this is not the case for many, many alternative schools which have been set up with the earnest intention of bettering the lives of all the students where the existing public institutions could not. The school mentioned was also most definitely the work of a single individual. Clearly a large group of dedicated individuals had placed a huge stake in it.

Finally, “Super Better” was introduced; a game experience in which you complete five tasks:

  • Create a secret identity & storyline that’s meaningful to you.
  • Recruit allies who will help give and reward your achievements toward healing.
  • Find bad guys; activities & triggers that work against you. Prepare to vanquish them.
  • Identify power-ups; things that work for you.
  • Create to-do list and progress through it.

Looking through the above list you can see that the designer has very cleverly turned proven and effective approaches to wellness and has restructured them into a system that has powerful feedback and reward systems. Even the skeptic within me likes this one!

8. Meaningful Rewards when we need them most. Many modern-day game designers are followers of the “new games movement” which likely draws its roots from the 1970s when overall efforts were undertaken to make games increasingly: cooperative, social and inclusive. Whether the games are electronic, a hybrid mix of online and traditional activities, or, for that matter any type (and, hey, this includes ordinary sports such as Tchoukball) it is reemphasized that the ‘thing’ is in playing the games; not winning.   It is on increasing the overall quality of life. Even when gamers lose, much pleasure is still to be found. Good sports, for example, will have no problem in shaking hands or in typing “gg” (good game) after a game is over, regardless of the outcome. It’s about the competition, about giving your personal best within the boundaries of the rules, about finding and then extending your limits.

It’s especially nice when games can provide rewards when they are most needed. Two flight-related games are worth noting; games that could easily enhance the experiences of weary or fearful flyers. “Jetset” is a game that ‘knows’ which airport you are at encourages you to perform simulated  airport screening as accurately and quickly as you can. It rewards you for new locations and efficiency. In so-doing it may also make you more sympathetic to what’s behind the whole process, both good and bad. “Day in the Cloud,” sponsored by Virgin, empowers teams on different flights to compete based on puzzle-solving and general knowledge. The tasks require the cooperation of teams on each flight. This activity helps draw cohorts of flight mates together while actively engaging them during their time.

Nike+, is another example. Getting its data from chips implanted in the shoes it motivates and rewards runners for real achievements and then sets new challenges.

Foursquare, the online ‘check-in’ application that encourages participants to log their current location and then share it is also worth noting. One particular reward of note: the mayor. For any given location, the individual with the most check ins is regarded as the unofficial mayor of that location. This leaves open the possibility for friendly competitions on who can become the mayor of that place.

Throughout all of this, I have the most uncomfortable feeling right in the pit of my stomach, Perhaps I am getting too old and too jaded but frankly that stuff just throws me off. Why?

Mile One Centre is a stadium located a short distance from my home. It’s a well-designed and well-run place that does an excellent job of putting off sporting events, especially Ice Hockey (Mile One is home to the St. John’s Ice Caps) and concerts of every variety. It’s civilized, comfortable and the prices are not too bad. I enjoy attending events there. I’m seeing KISS there on Aug 4 :-)

Then there’s that damned score clock: right up there above centre ice. It’s a four-sided behemoth that provides you with game stats and instant replay among other things.

And from time to time it exhorts the crowd to cheer.

The damned electronic clock wants the crowd to cheer. “Get Loud!” it proclaims in 2 metre high letters.

My arse!

If I want to get loud I’ll damned well get loud. An electronic clock will not make me do it. In fact NOTHING at Mile One gets me as annoyed as seeing that message. When I see it I sulk—on principle.

That, more or less, explains what I dislike about this. But, nonetheless, here it is in bullet form:

  • Games like jetset also try and make me feel less annoyed with the airport security screening process. No, thanks. I shall choose to be annoyed with it no matter what you all do. No, don’t stop. I want to you keep the weapons and people who hold them off my flight. Just don’t expect me to smile my way through it and I’ll afford you the same courtesy.
  • Joining with the others on my flight playing trivia? Nope. I brought a book; several in fact, right here on my Nexus 7. Always do.
  • Foursquare and check ins? Lord save us! Where I am at any point during the day is none of your $@#!% business! Do you really think I’m stupid enough to think you’re not using my location/shopping information for your own purposes? Get real!
  • Oh, and Nike+, you just plain scare me. Until it says “We absolutely guarantee you that we are not selling your biometric data and here’s the form that says you can sue the pants off us if it’s ever found otherwise,” Just not doing it. 😉

9. More fun with strangers is another suggested benefit. While friendly introverts like me are generally inclined to leave strangers be, I read on with interest. The first example,  a game called “Ghosts of a Chance,” was designed to generate more real community involvement in part of the Smithsonian. The scenario involved a pair of ghosts who needed the museum to better reflect their own history so visitors to the museum’s website were challenged to contribute homemade ‘artifacts’ that would fulfill the need. A second example, “Bounce” endeavoured to get young people more interested and involved in the lives of those older than them. A “senior experience agent” (senior citizen) was paired with someone much younger and the challenge was to find as many points of connection between them in 10 minutes. The questions were chosen from a list by computer. Both projects were successful. By adding the elements of gaming to the overall interactions people were more inclined to perform them.

10. Happiness hacking refers to translating practical aspects from positive psychology into game mechanics. Three examples:

  • Kindness of strangers. The “jen ratio” refers to the ratio of positive human interactions to negative ones. Clearly it’s desirable to have as high a jen ratio as possible. One way of achieving this is a version of “Assassin” called “Cruel to be Kind.” or C2BK. In traditional assassin players are divided into two teams and attempt to ‘kill’ one another with harmless weapons such as water pistols. In C2BK the two teams can only use certain pre-chosen ‘kind’ phrases such as “What a nice shirt!” or “I hope you have a great day!” to ‘kill’ opponents. In assassin, when innocents are struck (by the water pistol) it’s not necessarily a pleasant occasion for anyone. In C2BK, by contrast, the collateral damage is just a misplaced kind phrase. Overall, the expectation is that, while having fun, the teams are helping to spread random acts of kindness.
  • Playing Respects. That’s not a typo. “Playing” is indeed the correct term. In this admittedly controversial game, intended to get more people out to visit cemeteries and, hopefully, discover and celebrate the lives of the departed, players use features of headstones to build poker hands. The game Tombstone Hold ‘Em is played by teams of pairs. The headstones can have one of four shapes (square, round, statue or pointy), each corresponding to a suit. There are additional simple rules that allow you to easily determine the value of the “card.” Pairs of player partners must be able to touch the two stones needed to make their hand. Highest “hand” wins. The intent is not to be disrespectful but, rather, to get people out to visit the graves and to discover the lives of those who were one among us.
  • Dance secret: Top Secret Dance Off is a game that encourages people to express themselves through dance. At each challenge you must video yourself (in disguise, of course, else it would not be top secret) and upload your video to the game website where other participants help you with the scoring/leveling up process.

So that’s the end of part B and once again I find myself conflicted. Clearly the games have a place. They’re popular—people all around the world play them. Once again, though, I often find myself saying, “It looks like a lot of fun for many people but it’s just not for me.”

But then again I’m older than most of the typical players described in the book. Maybe this is just a good example of how wide the generational divide can be.

Or maybe it’s just that there’s no one thing that works for everyone and this time I’m one of the members of the group for whom this is not well-suited.

Part C looks at how scaling this up and getting real can benefit the whole world.


12 thoughts on “ELTM5B: Games-Applying the Principles; Alternate Realities

  1. You’ve done an excellent job at distillation Maurice (I especially enjoyed reading #8) although I’m sorry to report that I’m gonna have to stick firm to my original position which is that these folks have taken their eye off the target. It very much bothers me that the system is catering to perceived changes in the clientele. Yes, the social psychologists will, I’m sure, tell us that, for a myriad of reasons, the kids within two standard deviations of the mean described by that notorious bell-curve are different than they were thirty or forty years ago … but does this beg a wholesale change in the system? I think not. You said it in your Part #7, all of these new approaches perhaps provide, ” … powerful new tools to be added to the already-existing set; not replacements.” If there are folks out there in support of a wholesale move toward an educational system comprised entirely of cooperative, feel-good, games … count me out. These perhaps work well for some kids in some situations … but to argue for any larger applications … sorry.

    Sincerely your Pennsylvania Neanderthal

  2. We would be lost without our games, I use them as rewards to get tasks done. Minecraft seems to be a very popular game for my children, with one on the spectrum this world is his world. One day he wants to create his own games and so I as a non gamer involve myself in their world and take a virtual beating. On schools I am thankful that our small school uses ipads and educational games to engage the special needs of some students. I watched a video of a child they were trying to teach the alphabet on paper, no interest from her. Introduce the ipad and the animated program the child engaged and started learning. I am also a little skeptical of schools that don’t allow computers as part of the curriculum at school, we need to move with the times and my child is connected to that world due to his autism it speaks his language.

    1. Yes, the thing is to find the right technology that fits the expressed need. There are two extremes to be avoided: Some schools refuse to embrace new methods altogether. They just plain need to take a good hard look at what it is they are about in the first place. If they are, for example, refusing students access to computing technology because “obviously students need to learn to hand write” then perhaps they should take a closer look at the English language arts outcomes, which no doubt also talk about expressing and representing and NOT just about developing manual skills. When it comes to communications there are always better technologies than the old ones. Some schools, though, go much too far the other way and, suddenly, the tools become the object of study. The happy medium puts the stated learning outcomes first and then matches technologies and methods to them. for some
      …and there are no magic formulas! While there are no doubt many similarities, the fact remains that thankfully we are all each somewhat different from the other. This means our learning needs, too, differ.

      1. Maurice this is the battle we fight for our children, the system needs to accommodate those who learn differently (my son) instead of trying to squish them all in the same box. I agree with you totally.

  3. This post was a “riot” 🙂 What would have become of me and my “FL team” who commuted by plane together every week to D.C. for work – for years? I’m sure we’d become unbeatable champions in “Day in the Cloud”! I had no idea that half of this existed…and, maybe naively, I believe it doesn’t have much to do with age. Many of us simply don’t want (even less need) these games in our lives – we already have a hefty dose of reality and learn to deal it the way we want to, including C2BK… But on a second thought, I may want to improve my swirls on the dance floor by playing the “Top secret dance off”? Who knows how good I could become…

    1. Ha ha! Yes, it takes all kinds! In fairness to “day in the Clouds” I think that, at best, any flight only involves a few people out of the several hundred that may be on board. I doubt that a team will even include me, even though when it comes to trivia I am an irrepressible know-it-all. 🙂
      Actually I didn’t give the topic of dance near enough attention. The whole idea of synchronized movement that is endemic to dance is something that is known to produce a ‘flow’ high. As such, dance is one of the best ways of releasing pure joy. Ask my daughter–she knows 🙂 “On with the Dance! Let Joy be unconfined!” (taken completely out of context from “The Eve of the Waterloo” by Byron)

  4. The games you have described sound no different to the FaceBook promoted ones such as Farmville and Mafia Wars.

    The basic principle is the same, you do something and you play lots of it and you move on, ie your reward. Bigger farm, advanced level, more guns to kill people, whatever.

    Why do you do it? Addiction. Competition. To prove that you are as good or better than everyone else because you can get to Level 304472.

    And, if you want to get on really fast, you can pay to do so. Hum. Oh no.

    I think there are other attractions to the games, you play the ones that suit you. But basically I see no difference in the design.

    Oddly, I’ve just read a novel based on a game, where naturally it’s about killing people. Except real people ended up dead too. Nasty.

    Years ago I was watching a friend’s son playing a game on a TV screen ie BC (before computers), and he was busy mowing down as many people as possible in his car. What a strange thing to enjoy doing, I thought.

    And that’s partly the point. There are better things and more intellectual, challenging, learning things to do in life than playing games. Like writing blogs 😀

    To me, the games are mindless. But I’m no expert on them. They are like watching soap operas. An aimless diversion from reality. And, there is online interaction.

    I question why we need this so much in our lives? I chucked FaceBook years ago, and all the forums that I was on. And the chat rooms. My internet use is now solely for writing and any research of whatever type. It’s easy to get sucked into spending far too much time that results in nothing.

    If I want to play games I’ll get out a pack of cards or the draughts set. If I want to be really challenged (and know I will lose), I’ll get out the chess set. Do internet games really teach you more than those three examples?

    I’m obviously too old as well.

    1. Funny–I wish I’d said/written that. I think you just stated that which I was reluctant to: specifically that many including you and I have difficulty seeing the ‘point’ in games. I think that is also why I’m struggling so hard right now to do this justice. Throughout the research I have done I have seen several writers speak passionately to their love for games and of the power with which the experience effects them. I can also see that they are not kidding. For gamers–“The game’s the thing” (hoping poor Will S doesn’t smite me for this). On several occasions in the writings I have noted the gamers speak especially to the fact that it’s the process of playing the game that’s most important to them, not necessarily the winning. This, then can easily turn to obsession, can’t it? Once again I’m left feeling (but even more strongly now) that games are a very powerful tool that can be applied to a lot of things, especially all types of organizational behavior BUT there are serious limits. (1) games are just plain not for everyone and (2) the gaming rewards must not be taken to the extent that the the gamified reward system becomes the only reward system.
      As to your last point, two friends from my work (Tim G and Frank S) made a beautiful mahogany cribbage set for me. They ‘get’ my idea of fun 🙂

      1. Nah, no need. Your post so you choose to be objective. My comment and I choose not to be.

        I’m still waiting for the added value of games that can’t be obtained otherwise.

        If kids are academic, then they need to learn from books. If they are practical, they need to learn those skills.

        For example, how would a game help my partnner spray paint? Not in a million years. How would a game help me negotiate my way through legal documents?

        I just don’t buy it. And I doubt games help organisational behaviour either. So there were have it.

        But in the meantime, cribbage …

        See here, last pic on the post (pre wordpress post so need to biggify pix) of dominoes.


        Cribbage board used to score for dominoes. I play crib too of course.

        Beats internet games, IMO. I don’t get a reward, I don’t go up a level. I don’t need mates. I do need to think. I might lose a game because I haven’t thought well enough, not because I haven’t clicked correctly. Big difference.

        I think to be able to pontificate about online games/gaming, people need to have played the money games eg poker, or even dominoes for money, or know someone who has stolen to fund his gambling habit (one of my best school friends did that)..

        Playing games for small beer is fine. Literally. I win, you buy the beer. Whereupon I walk with my winnings. ie a beer. Cerebral entertainment and a small reward.

        If you, or anyone else, can explain how an internet game can be more intellectually challenging than a) poker b) whist c) gin rummy d) dominoes e) draughts f) chess g) even snap! for goodness sake, then I’ll consider it.

        Process of playing the game? = how to waste time. Been there done that.

        Looking forward to part 3 😀

  5. This post and the previous one raise so many interesting points and pauses for thought. The skeptic in me senses that gamification of education is just another way for some smart company to make profit from any educational budget that might be sitting around. But what’s the return on investment because as you rightly say, gaming isn’t for everyone and its been well researched over the years that we all have different learning styles so the trick is to match as many of those styles as possible – I’m not sure commercialised games will do that. I also get a little concerned about addiction and isolation. Creating a future society that can only interact digitally/virtually doesn’t sound great to me and here in the UK we’re already seeing a tranche of teenagers who are reluctant to use the telephone or do things in person. It’s great that they are technologically capable but I don’t believe this insular stance is sustainable – sometimes you just have to pick up the phone or go sort out an issue face-to-face. Gaming also draws upon the fact that some of us have addictive personalities and once we’re hooked, we’re hooked. Just as the line between so-called soft and hard drugs is a very fine one, the line between gaming and gambling is equally flimsy. We’re already seeing people rack up debt through their not-so-harmless pursuit of online games – even things like bingo that look completely innocuous! (NB. If there was no money in this we would not have seen the explosion of online bingo and gaming organisations that has taken place in the past 5 years, most of whom regular advertise on TV here or sponsor TV programmes).
    I think you make a very pertinent and valid point. There is a place for games and gamification within education but its alongside and in addition to a plethora of existing (and still to be developed) teaching methods. There is a place for games and gamification within our adult lives so long as it is part of a rich tapestry experiences and activities, not the only thing we spend our time or money on.

    1. Hey Tracy, agreed. I’m particularly concerned about the ‘addictive’ part. Yes, in classrooms and in other organizations we can channel it through gaming structures and get every possibility of success. But the second part is also true: this all has particular appeal for those with addictive personalities and while it’s a good idea to channel it we need also to be aware of the fact that this may also have unintended consequences.
      I particularly like the way you summed it all up 🙂

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