Games, gamification and why we can do better

I was asked to do an impromptu lunchtime session today on a topic of my choice, which I thought would be a timely opportunity to unpack a particular bugbear of mine. And because I do so love an overworked allegory, I’ll tell you a story.

People like cars. They buy them a lot and spend hours a day driving them everywhere. One day, Bill and Bob, who were refrigerator salesmen who had never driven a car, noticed that people seemed to like cars an awful lot and got a bit jealous of the success of the car industry. They thought if they made their refrigerators more like cars, people would like them more and buy more of them. Bill said to Bob ‘Gosh Bob, how can we make our refrigerators more like cars?’. Bob said to Bill ‘Well, Bill, it seems that cars have wheels. Maybe if we put wheels on our refrigerators they would be more like cars and people would love them’. So this is exactly what they did, and they spent a lot of time going to refrigerator conferences telling everyone about it and all the other refrigerator salesmen got excited and put wheels on their fridges too. Then everyone got all surprised when people did not actually want a refrigerator with wheels on it, and only bought a few of them for novelty value.

You get my point. Gamification – that novelty “engagement layer” of points and badges smacked on top of completely unchanged content and materials – fundamentally misses the point of what games do, why people play them and the benefits we get from them. Especially when implemented by people who have never played games. Going further and shoehorning content into level structures or game models is no better (in fact arguably worse). You cannot take traditional content, -ification it and voilá, engagement. Shameless bribery is not innovation. If we’re really serious about pulling the benefits of gaming into education we need to knock the playing field flat and rethink everything.

Take Angry Birds (I know I keep going on about Angry Birds, but it’s a good, solid, easily accessible example). When you first open it, you get this:

Angry Birds screenshot

What you do not get is a list of learning outcomes, a bunch of lecture notes and an assignment. They’re in there (learning outcome: able to utilise trajectory to inflict damage; lecture notes: help screen; assignment: destroy all pigs), but none of it is explicit and none of it is the primary goal of the design. When we use educational concepts as designing principles, we’re doing it wrong. Games design for one thing and one thing only – engagement. Rovio give not two hoots if you learn anything, they care if you keep buying and playing their games. Frankly, legislation and a culture of credentialing are the only reasons the education industry is even remotely competitive with the gaming industry in terms of dollars and seat time. Our obsession with counting and tracking learning shoots us in the foot when it comes to the type of engagement that games enjoy. I’m not saying that we should ignore the realities of the systems we’re working in, but we could be doing a lot better than just -ification with points and levels.

S0 – how can we do better? Put the edu stuff down for a minute. Start with – if you were taking your unit (course/class/MOOC/whatever), what’s the most interesting thing you can possibly imagine that you would want to do? What would make you want to engage and keep coming back? Go from there, and then once you get to the end, then you can ask – did I achieve all my learning outcomes? Explore a narrative. Give people a place to explore and find things rather than prescribing. Use badges if you want, but use them for humour or to encourage exploration, not to bribe people to log in, read articles or post in forums. Lots of other ramblings, ruminations and cases in point here.

And finally – Dinosaur Comics on the cars and gaming metaphor :D.


WordPress-fu for the entry-level edupunk

The above is the title of a workshop proposal I’ve submitted for Ascilite this year. It occurred to me that I did quite a lot of workshoppy practice-sharing type work around what I was doing with games-based learning and Moodle stuffs but (largely for baby-related reasons) I haven’t done much at all with where my focus has been for the last while, which is building outside-the-box (I hate the phrase but in this case it’s more or less literal if you take ‘box’ to mean ‘institutional VLE’) spaces for doing cool stuff in WordPress. Which seems remiss of me given WordPress is free and dead easy to use and lets you do cool stuff but not many people have ever explored it from an admin/maker perspective or used the self-hosted version.

So assuming it’s accepted, the workshop will be a hopefully entertaining half-day exploration of running and using your own WordPress install to create spaces for learning/teaching/research/admin/whatever. The ‘entry-level edupunk’ thing is a reference to those who might be frustrated with the restraints of their LMS (etc) and would like to do something different but don’t know where to start and also don’t want to be too anarchic about the whole thing. The point here is that it’s not about being a complete cowboy and running a rogue server from under your desk, I’ll also be talking about how to make a case for institutionally-sanctioned projects, how to work well with IT etc.

Part of the workshop will also be along the lines of my previous post, looking at plugins etc that weren’t designed for an education market but that can be appropriated to do some nifty stuff. Plus some fun unstructured design time and free fiddling with ‘OH GOD I BROKE IT’ assistance. Ultimately I really just want to show people how easy it is to do neato stuff with an extraordinarily rudimentary grasp of web dev principles and php (because that’s all I’ve got), and that you can be a little bit cowboy without being very cowboy :).


I’ve been a bit slack about getting this up here given it was a couple of weeks ago, but better late than never, yes? At any rate, SAFFIRE was a festival of innovation-y things and general pot-stirring hosted by UC as part of their SAF-funded initiatives. A few of us who are known for liking to poke the beehive (was in good company with @marksmithers, @type217 and @jonpowles) were invited to present on whatever tickled our fancy. My presentation focused on getting outside of the higher education echo chamber and taking some cues from the ways other places were approaching innovation. The annoying thing is that I presented by live-drawing some ‘slides’ using Screenchomp (an iOS app from the same guys who make Camtasia), but the sharing feature completely failed and now I can’t get at the recording at all to even screenshot some highlights for you. So instead, you get the non-visual Cliff’s notes version. Enjoy.

What if we thought like game designers?

Academia (and most forms of education really) have a rather insane reliance on the written and spoken word as method of delivery. But – if you look at games like Angry Birds, they manage to conduct the entire experience including all the necessary instruction without using a single word. Everything is visual. Would you be able to express the last thing you wrote (paper, topic notes etc) in a purely visual form?

For some inspiration from people who can, check out Dance Your Thesis:

What if we thought like product developers?

Let’s pretend that Apple, prior to bringing out the iPad, had asked people what they wanted in a tablet device. They probably would have said they wanted a nice physical keyboard, an input device, probably running a full OS etc. Et voilá, they have created the laptop. People didn’t know that they wanted a touch-only, mobile-OS, non-keyboard device until one came out. It was panned in initial reviews then promptly sold eleventy billion units.

However – the iPad didn’t happen overnight. In the late 80s and early 90s Apple brought out the Newton – a neat little brick of a tablet device that was stylus-only, and had cool things like a mobile OS, handwriting recognition and rudimentary bluetooth. People weren’t really ready for that kind of thing and it was a giant flop, getting axed entirely in the mid-late 90s. But rather than binning it entirely they developed it in the background until they could release something people were ready for at a more opportune time.

Conversely. In higher education we slavishly adhere to the student review process of units – units are judged almost solely on how they fare in the end-of-semester student reviews. Effectively, we keep asking our customers what they want, and what they want by and large looks rather like the type of education we’ve had all along. What we need to start doing is selling them on something they don’t even know they need yet and probably doesn’t look like anything they have a concept of. And if it fails, we need to stop shelving it and start tweaking, redesigning and reimplementing.

What if we thought like MacGyver?

Ah MacGyver. Paragon of mullets, purveyor of duct tape, the stuff of every good 80s woman’s dreams. MacGyver is a champion of kludging, cobbling together anything at hand with his ever-present duct tape to solve any problem he encountered. What he did not do, interestingly, is sit around making a whole bunch of feature requests on the duct tape, pushing them through user acceptance testing and hoping the duct tape would eventually turn into a boat or a bomb or whatever he needed.

We waste so much time in higher ed trying to make our LMSs into something else – if we just added this plugin or patched this or if this looked a bit more green then we could finally do something innovative. I call bollocks. I’m interested in what we can do with what we have at hand, in exactly the form it currently exists. We can already do some really innovative stuff, we just need to turn our approach on its head. There’s nothing stopping us from starting something now, today.

EDITED TO ADD: Several of the questions I fielded following this presentation were along the lines of ‘that’s well and good but how do you marry this with the restrictions lecturers face?’. My response is – someone has to not care about them. The restrictions and red tape are very real and limit a lot of what goes on, but if we all just throw our hands up in disgust and say nothing can be done we’ll never get anywhere. Somebody has to be the cowboy who says ‘bugger that, let’s do some stuff anyway’. May as well be me.