Gamification is a popular buzzword among futurists these days. But it’s far more than a fad. Gamification is pretty much the process of allowing learning and innovation to piggyback on people’s natural predilection for seeking enjoyment through play and skill mastery. Win-win in other words.
Earlier this year I attended two different events that prove games are moving way past the socially deviant designs that could thrive only in the dim, dirty bedrooms of anti-social adolescent boys. First, I was invited to attend the launch of PBS KIDS‘s and CPB’s (Center for Public Broadcasting) “It All Adds Up” program. PBS, known to provide high-quality programming for children, has carried out a study revealing that young children are not receiving adequate support for learning early math skills. This deficit is particularly significant in lower-income families. Since math skills at kindergarten entry is an even stronger predictor of school achievement than reading skills, entertainment that fosters this ability early on could improve educational outcome later in life.
It All Adds Up seeks to correct this shortfall and help families and children build early skills in a fun, interactive way. The program contains an impressive number of pedagogically constructed, multiplatform games. Familiar characters like Curious George and Cat in the Hat guide children and their parents through colorful obstacles that require mental skills to solve. The wide variety of games can be selected based on age, skill type, show or character, and device type. On October 7th PBS will also launch their new characters PEG + CAT aimed at preschoolers.
I tested these games on my 6-year old kindergarten twins. I was surprised when they said that they are already using these games at school during free center time! The variety alone put these games above the earlier Nickelodeon games their older sister used to play on desktop computers only a few years ago. With an almost 3 month long summer break coming up, these (free) games will be downloaded to our household’s electronic devices to sneak in some math and literacy training.
The second event that improved my knowledge of games and what it means for learning was a conference I recently attended in Orlando, Florida. I am a member of Association of Professional Futurists (APF), and gamification was the theme of this year’s annual conference. APF members working for Disney helped set this up and brought us to Institute for Simluation and Training at University of Central Florida. Here we learned how high-risk professions such as firefighters and police officers get their training. Fire fighters learn how to put out a fire based on the color of the smoke, location of the fire, material of the building and the airflow. Policemen learn car chases, which in a simulator is a far cry from car chases you see on film! Simulators are expensive, but the cost effectiveness of simulation training is obvious. Simulation training is so pervasive these days that next time you board an airplane there is actually a chance your pilot is lifting a plane of the ground for the first time! Scary thought, huh?
But simulation or gaming is also useful for more theory driven education, innovation and even scenario building. This last part tends to rouse futurists. You can learn about evolution and how color-coded Pac-Man looking “species” adapt to changing environmental conditions. These changes, which in nature take millions of years, are made possible to replicate in minutes by using dynamic software. By slightly changing the initial parameters, you can get widely different results.
The last day of my conference we learned from presentations and workshops facilitated by Starr Long and Dr. Mary Flanagan, two impressively experienced game developers who do deep dives into the psychology of gaming and, “gaming of psychology”. In stark contrast to the stereotypical violent videogames that nurture pubertal anti-social fantasies such as Mortal Kombat, Dr. Flanagan uses games to identify pro-social attitudes and understand how social norms change over time. Through gaming she is able to reveal idiosyncrasies, children’s relationship toward intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations and other psychological experiments that are hard to replicate outside of a gaming context. What surprised me was that most of the games she introduced to us were of the old-fashioned board game type, not the typical screen games that you would expect.
Which sort of brings me to a conclusion. Gaming has been around at least since Backgammon 5000 years ago. With 10 million players worldwide currently playing World of Warcraft, gaming is definitely not on the endangered species list. What seems to have changed is the interface used for gaming and the number of players. The number of players a game can accommodate has vastly increased from being limited to how many can sit around a table to the number of people who have internet access, which is growing exponentially. Yet by virtualizing the game experience the very act of gaming has become a rather unsocial experience, at least if physical proximity to people and tangible objects count. This leads to questions as to which degree interactive multiplayer games like SimCity or Minecraft build civic skills and how to deal with changes in a real natural environment or if it mainly alienates people from the real world.
I wonder if the rise in interest for gaming these days is the confluence of two trends that only seem to be intrinsically connected. One is the amplification and aesthetical enhancement of digital games. A distinct other variable is that scientists and educators are starting to exploit the game logic’s full potential, the idea that games are particularly useful for crowdsourcing knowledge work or to facilitate learning experiences. When these two trends interact you get a generation so immersed in it that they sometimes forget the real world. In this context the true meaning of the word ‘play’ is radically transformed and more often associated with electronic play rather than that which takes place with pebbles and horseshoes. Insert a third variable, the “dangerification” of the great outdoors. This aspect warrants it’s own post, but suffice it to say, kids are given decreasing access to outdoor play, especially unsupervised. The result is one we’re all aware of, the fact that kids spend way too much time with screens. So if educational games are to be useful and not contribute to game overload, they need to replace some of the time spent on ‘mindless’ games rather than simply add to the total screen time. And that’s where I think we’ll hit a problem. Educational games will have to compete with other, potentially more addictive ones. Will they succeed?
Images: PBS, YouTube