Mor(on) Gaming

Lately, being unemployed, I’m doing a lot of gaming. Well, it’s not playing games (not all the time) but it’s the game of find a job. It goes like this: find an appropriate job to apply for, massage resume/cover letter, format, review, send off resume, hope for reply. It’s seemingly a simple game, except that like most things, it’s complex. Each step adds a layer of complexity, which adds further options, which takes time away from what one wants. In what seems simple – apply for a job – it can get really difficult fast. Having played this game for a while, I’ve learned what keywords to pull out and add to my cover letter, how to rephrase passages to accentuate my skills, and how to get to an interview.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the gaming idea in education and how it’s different than education as it exists. With that said, I present a couple presentations that have assisted me in getting to the nitty gritty of gaming. First: Don’t Play Games With Me, which is a good primer for the prevalence of games in today’s society. It also brings up a question of autonomy – it’s OK to game if it’s a choice. What happens when you don’t have a choice to play a game? If a course you are taking is only taught with a gaming theory underpinnings, does the course then become so unfun that the benefits of gaming the course become drawbacks? Second: Pawned. Gamification and Its Discontents which also discusses some of the unintended consequences of gaming.

To me the crucial point is on slide 23 of the second linked presentation, gaming is based on pretty simple behaviorism, which most enlightened educators respect as not the most effective way to learn something. Some of us will remember corporal punishment (going to kindergarten in 1978, I remember hearing the principal’s strap, although I can’t recall if anyone got it) and how it was used as a motivator for learning.  The rest of the presentation is excellent (gold, Jerry, gold!) and well worth the half hour or so to go through.

Life Is Just A Game?

There’s been quite an upswing in talk about gaming your life, where you add an application to assist yourself in achieving a goal. For instance, you could use the Nike app for the iOS platform, and track your progress as you walk 5k, or more like me, walk to the fridge. Naturally, educators have seen how people learn on their own, usually with a great passion, and want to leverage that into the classroom. The common one I’ve heard is that people will memorize the various class requirements and bonuses on a piece of gear for World of Warcraft, but of course don’t bother memorizing the times tables, who the president of Nicaragua is, or any other mundane information that is useful but ultimately discarded in favour of how many bonuses Cloudsong has.

Full disclosure: I actually played World of Warcraft, and the game Dark Age of Camelot, and did in fact have my Cloudsong stolen during an artifact raid in Dark Age of Camelot. I also knew the bonuses for a level ten Cloudsong, but since then I have forgotten them. I’m sure I could look it up, but it’s not that important.

The simple conclusion is to make education more like a game – add “achievements” and “unlockables”… oh wait. Education has already tried that. Achievements like diplomas, and unlockables like second year. So what’s the difference? Well, now we add gaming designer to the crew of people who are involved in curriculum design. Actually, we already had a gaming designer, except the “games” (ahem, classes) weren’t that well designed. The problem isn’t that classes need more “gaming” elements or achievements, the problem is simply that education practice has not kept up with changes in society over the last (I’ll be generous and say) fifty years. Adding more gaming elements that don’t have a purpose for learners is not going to help them learn, it will only frustrate them. Moreover, anyone asking an instructor to be a gaming designer and not only be a web designer, engaging lecturer, techno-guru, curriculum designer, tech support for their class as well as subject matter expert, well, that’s not going to happen. One can only wear so many hats.

It’s interesting that television really brought this to my attention. I was flipping around the dial after the Daily Show, and up popped an interview with Jane McGonigal, the author of  the book “How Video Games Will Save The World”. Of course, anything with that title is going to pique my interest. I wasn’t that interested as it’s the same ground being tread by Stephen Johnson’s book about popular culture’s effect on society. Towards the end of the interview, Jane mentions a charter school in New York that has employed a game designer in addition to the  usual battery of curriculum designers. Of course, it was out of the scope of the interview, but it would have been really interesting to see what were the drawbacks of this approach. In gaming there is a relatively harsh penalty for not completing a task – your character dies, your game is over. Learning is not so binary (of course, good games don’t have to be that binary either).

So ultimately, I think gaming in education will be a marginalized thing for formal education, and it will continue to drive informal education as it has done for the last decade.  I think that gaming can learn from education though – and that hopefully gaming will learn not to push out so many crap games year after year.

Questions for 2011

So, as we approach the end of a year, we start to see the predictions, wrap-ups and trends for the next few years as well as the year that has passed. Seeing as I almost always end my blog posts with a question – here’s five questions for the year 2011.

1. What makes anyone think that the video games push (mostly by the iOS platform devices, but Xbox, Playstation and Wii) has anything to do with formal education? Trying to harness gaming to teach formal concept is like riding a chicken. Useless (for both you and the chicken). People play games to escape what they don’t like about their own life – much like why people watch TV, use the Internet or whatever other hobby one might have. They don’t necessarily want to have learning forced on them in their own homes. That isn’t to say that educational games can’t be good (although they mostly are dreck), or shouldn’t be attempted. They shouldn’t be expected to fill more than a niche.

2. Why haven’t educational institutions really pushed for a mobile learning environment? It seems like logical growth from the LMS, and there’s a lot of affordances that can enhance learning. Situated, just-in-time learning has a greater impact for learning than plain old quizzes in the LMS. Why haven’t the engineering departments demand more Geo-location devices? Why haven’t literacy skills groups put forth the same sort of effort that the BBC World Service has in Bangladesh? That sort of ingenuity could help the impoverished and undereducated in Canada (and in Hamilton). One of the biggest hurdles the urban poor have is literacy skills. Why is no one doing this locally? Moreover, why are our LMS’s so pisspoor as a mobile website.

3. Will the consolidation of the web conferencing tools that education typically use (Wimba and Elluminate) mean that new companies with new models will arise? We’ve locally seen a couple of contenders – BigBlueButton is easy to use and has most of the features one would want, as well as SabaCentra for Northern Ontario – but will most institutions just cave in and use Blackboard Connect? It seems like that may be the case.

4. Wither edupunk? Much like punk rock did after the halcyon days of 1977, the widespread punk phenomenon died out and either got co-opted into new wave or went further underground, got harder and faster, became hardcore and rather dogmatic by 1984. Since then, there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the genre, except that the music has gotten uglier and more punishing (and less like music). Edupunk seems to have hit that moment where people either pass the moment or become more underground. I have hope that much like punk music in 2010 (which has been a weak year for new releases – on vinyl no less – in the genre), edupunk will be a vibrant, thriving option in 2043.

5. What will Pearson as a publishing giant and accredited University mean? Well, it’ll give the hucksters at University of Phoenix and Full Sail a run for their money. I’m not saying those institutions are bad per se, I’m sure a quality education can be had there. I’m not sure that an educational institution should have profit as it’s motivation.