Danger! Gamification!

Today I was speaking at the Learning through Gaming event at Dundee College, part of the Festival of Dangerous ideas organised by the College Development Network. Gerry Dougan asked me if I wanted to talk about Gamification, and as I have fairly strong dislike for the term I readily agreed!

One of the main issues I have with Gamification is that is a fairly meaningless word to use - it can mean very different things depending on who is using it and in what context. A very common use of the term is found in marketing areas where it sometimes focuses on points and rewards schemes based on achievements in games – while others make the case very strongly that ‘pointsificiation’ is not gamification, that gamification has to be about using game mechanics – not the points or awards systems sometimes found in games but which by themselves do not constitute a game.

Danger! Gamification!

A surreal moment occurred when I found an article on pointsification that argued that extrinsic rewards should only be used where the activity/content is by itself insufficiently engaging. A pop-up on the site asked me if I wanted to sign up to a points based rewards scheme before reading the article, implying perhaps that the articles contained on the site are not actually worth reading were it not for the rewards. Or at least that was the message I took away from the experience.

I gave a mention to the badge schemes at http://diy.org which any child can sign up to – and which are IMHO so much cooler than the current badge schemes offered by the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts. So much thought has gone into these to make a range of badges to appeal to a wide range of children and try to encourage all types of creativity. Points, awards and badges are not bad – indeed, reward schemes have been used in education and the world of work since long before digital games came into existence, and they wouldn’t still be used if they didn’t have some measure of success. (Here I managed to squeeze in a mention for Robert Owen’s Silent Monitor, an industrial innovation for communicating worker productivity visually to both worker and supervisor)

But with reference to Chris Hecker’s great GDC talk on the use of achievements in games I tried to very briefly argue that reward schemes do need chosen with care as they can backfire or drive behaviours in different ways than we would really like (see the previous paragraph!). At the extreme, extrinsic rewards for doing something can indicate the activity itself is not worth doing without a reward.

In contrast to pointsification, The Fun Theory demonstrated a number of playful systems such as introducing musical stairs at an undeground station. With no score, no achievements, and no way to win or lose, they observed a significant increase in the number of commuters taking the stairs instead of the escalator. The only motivation for this is the sheer intrinsic joy of using a musical stair case. (Critically we could argue that interventions like this are quite gimmicky if there is attempt to affect or monitor long term behaviours, but that is for another day.)

After a little more discussion of Intrinsic vs Extrinsic rewards I made what was to be the final hazard of gamification – that creating *good* games is not simple, and is no simpler than creating good learning. If we are attempting to create new games that appeal to *everyone* we are bound to fail. For classroom use we need to think of the audience and what we are trying to achieve.

I also mentioned in summary that for use in learning, games don’t actually have to be fun - they simply have to be better than what they are replacing. So I doubt that the game for teaching research methods to nursing students created by some of my UWS colleagues is actually FUN, I do believe them when they tell me that the students like the game because it allows them to replace abstract lectures with a simulation that is more concrete and allows them to see how the theory actually works in a practical setting.

Which kind of brings me to the response to the opening talk from Chris Van Der Kuyl, whose talk was peppered with a really wide and diverse range of examples to illustrate how games can be good for learning. I think he was working to a very wide definition of games, and I would certainly argue that much of what he presented were things that use game technology, but a lot was not games. Modifying a WiiMote to hack an interactive whiteboard is cool, but is not a game. Using a Kinect to control a robot is cool, but is not a game. Unless we are going to argue that my games console has a CPU in it and so does my car and that means that my car is a game… But if he was arguing that games technology is worth teaching and is applicable to so much more than just  games, then I’m with him 100%.

His choice of examples to show – and the choice of gameplay Microsoft chose to demonstrate at E3 when demoing their game creation tool ‘Sparks’ – led me to bring in one extra slide, and one extra hazard of reckless gamification. This time based on the choice of games. Yes it *is* hard to make games that appeal to everyone, hard enough to appeal to, say, the majority of 10 year olds. But certain types of game appeal more to boys than girls, and if the types of games we choose, if the types of reward mechanisms we apply are those that draw in one group of children and repel another then we are doing something very wrong.

I referred to the chart from my recent blog post on Programming – Women’s Work to highlight the fact that a marked drop in female participation in computing and IT ocurred in the 80′s era of home computing when culturally computing became very much a boys thing. Whether or not games or gamer culture were responsible for this, or to what degree, is something that can be debated, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have helped. Another reason for choosing our games with care.

As my talk was quite negative, I was glad that Colin Maxwell and David Renton followed with a more upbeat talk and lots of good examples of games that can be used to support classroom learning. Also some great examples from their Minecraft competition where groups of students in Norway and Scotland worked to create their ideal future learning environments. The Skype call to Norway failed, but produced the biggest laughs of the day thanks to Oystein in Norway, Skype and an unidentified bird.

Derek Robertson gave his last talk from Education Scotland before beginning a new job at Dundee University. I won the Moshi Monsters pop quiz, thanks to intensive tutoring from my youngest child. That game of Moshi Monsters Top Trumps really paid off. Again Derek’s talk really emphasized the potential of games to drive engagment but he also emphasised how the students written off in the formal education domain are actually very skilled in other domains, and it is teachers who are failing if they are unable to tap into that. He also spoke of his disillusiment in trying to promote games in schools. Consolarium seemed to be working incredibly well, but was cancelled all the same, and where before it seemed like progress was being made now he worries that far too little has changed and the inertia in the education system has engulfed attempts to innovate. Game creation may be in the Curriculum for Excellence, but it isn’t in very many schools.

The final talk was from Dr Iain Donald of Abertay, where he discussed the need to improve the critical discussion of games. A number of the existing frameworks for game criticism were presented as well as a wide range of games that can be explored critically and which can challenge people to engage with issues of morality, with actions and consequences. How games present real events and incidents was also discussed – games can put players on the
ground in occupied France during Operation Market Garden, but do they teach lessons rooted in reality?

Finally, a panel was put together from the speakers during the day plus one of the students that had been involved in the Minecraft competition. I think the debate and discussion here was pretty good – with some excellent questions from the audience and some great answers from my fellow panellists. But during this I made the uncomfortable realisation that all the speakers and all the panellists were male. I had given Maxine Dodds from Scottish Women in Games a shout out earlier in the day – and I think she would have been an excellent panellist too, so I’m sorry she wasn’t asked and that I realised just a little too late. It was a great day, and I enjoyed the talks and the discussion, but for next year I think it would be good to get a bit (lot) more diversity in the speakers – an area where I think we need to do more to lead by example.

But it was a good day, and I do sincerely hope it does happen again next year – so thanks to Gerry Dougan & the College Development Network for putting it together. Hopefully see you next year.

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