Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 21, 2011

gaming the system

Oliver Burkeman writes:

[Seth] Priebatsch's declared aim is to "build a game layer on top of the world" – which at first seems simply to mean that we should all use SCVNGR, his location-based gaming platform that allows users to compete to win rewards at restaurants, bars and cinemas on their smartphones. (You can practically hear the marketers in the room start to salivate when he mentions this.)

But Priebatsch's ideas run deeper than that, whatever the impression conveyed by his bright orange polo shirt, his bright orange-framed sunglasses, and his tendency to bounce around the stage like a wind-up children's toy. His take on the education system, for example, is that it is a badly designed game: students compete for good grades, but lose motivation when they fail. A good game, by contrast, never makes you feel like you've failed: you just progress more slowly. Instead of giving bad students an F, why not start all pupils with zero points and have them strive for the high score? This kind of insight isn't unique to the world of videogames: these are basic insights into human psychology and the role of incentives, recently repopularised in books such as Freakonomics and Nudge. But that fact, in itself, may be a symptom of the vanishing distinction between online and off – and it certainly doesn't make it wrong.

Note the covert assumption here that, while we can totally reconfigure how we evaluate student performance, we can’t think of it as anything but “performance,” and we can't resist the student tendency to think in terms of competition for grades or professorial approval.

In this case I think gamification would simply make a fundamentally unhealthy, counterproductive way of thinking somewhat more fun — at least for those who thrive on competition. (For those who dislike competition, and there are more such people than is commonly realized, it would just make things worse.) I’d rather see if we can re-think our educational system to limit or channel the ethos of competition — which, I grant, would be much harder than game-ifying it.

11 comments:

  • When the ludification boosters talk to one another, it's all about how their visionary solutions will fix social problems, like education in this example. When they talk to investors, I imagine the truth is less inspiring: they promise to make the rest of us behave like schoolchildren, grubbing for gold stars and approval.

  • Michael Straight said...

    The idea of using models from games to give students better feedback and incentives doesn't necessarily have to involve competition. There are plenty of games and hobbies where one is mostly trying to improve a personal best (running a 10K, getting a better golf score on a particular course, beating your high score in a video game).

    I think it's possible there might be things educators can learn from game desginers. Game designers talk about how learning to do something, mastering a skill, is inherently pleasurable. The trick is finding the appropriate difficulty curve so that you're always being slightly challenged to get better but never hitting a wall that keeps you from making any progress. Good video games can be extremely sophisticated at gradually introducing new concepts and getting players to combine and apply them in increasingly challenging ways.

    Good game studios will spend lots of time watching players, developing tools to keep careful statistics about where players get stuck, where they get confused, what is too easy, what is too difficult, and using those results to refine the process by which players are introduced to and learn the concepts and skills needed to play the game.

  • There are plenty of games and hobbies where one is mostly trying to improve a personal best (running a 10K, getting a better golf score on a particular course, beating your high score in a video game).

    Which, for good or ill, is still competition.

  • My Klout score is 55, which is 55 more than zero and one less than @ayjay.

  • "Which, for good or ill, is still competition."

    I see what you mean, but I think that maybe there's a more important distinction between gaming in general and head-to-head competitive gaming than you're crediting.

    I'd say that there are a lot more people who like "competing" to improve at something and earn direct personal rewards than there are people who are "competitive" in the sense of enjoying beating other people at something.

    So your statement in the original post about "people who dislike competition" might apply a lot more to those who dislike player-vs-player than to those who dislike gaming as such.

  • In addition, I don't see treating education as a performance game as necessarily unhealthy and counterproductive. For some students, it's incredibly productive.

    Some might be competing for approval or "high scores" against their classmates, others might be competing for (in their minds) the *real* high score of mastering a topic or technique. I think that both of these can be real, valid, and legitimate spurs, not just to "academic achievement," but to actual learning.

    I definitely agree, though, that a competitive gaming-model education system isn't the best thing for everyone. What's fundamentally unhealthy and counterproductive is assuming that every student can thrive under the same sort of educational system. That's the worst thing about the standardized mass-schooling system as it presently exists.

  • And now for a little personal anecdote (can you tell I'm really interested in this topic?).

    When I first went to public school in 6th grade, part of the spelling curriculum was a "spelling game". We divided up into teams of 3 or 4, and every week we'd move around a fantasy game board, fighting monsters and finding treasures based on how we'd done on our spelling tests. I love games. When the teacher introduced it, it sounded like the most fun thing in the world to me.

    Now I was an extremely good speller. Much better than anybody else in my class. Everybody knew this. In 5th grade, in home school (with harder words than 6th grade public school) I only misspelled two words all year long. I kicked ass at spelling. I was ready to win that game.

    But I was so good that I got stuck on the team with the two worst spellers in the class. And I couldn't stand it! It pissed me off so badly that I spent every day at spelling time seething about it. It didn't matter how well I could spell, my teammates dragged me down like refugees on a helicopter out of Saigon.

    So I went from loving the game to hating it, not because I was unsuited to competition, but because I was *too* competitive to bear the unfair aspects of it.

    Make of that what you will. The coda is that when I *did* get a chance to compete solo in that year's spelling bee, I lost in the first round ("Student 1, your word is house. Student 2, your word is boat. Ethan, your word is calliope."). In retrospect, I realize that God was trying to teach me some humility, which I needed way more than some treasures or trophies.

  • Tony: I don't know what a Klout score is and I am not going to find out.

    Ethan:I will acknowledge that competition can be productive, but I want to ask, productive of what? And what are its side-effects? A blog comment is no place to develop these ideas, but at some point I hope to find time to explain my hopes for a model of education based in generosity rather than competition.

  • RE: Generosity

    Did you see Parker's last post at James Fallows' blog? The one with the video from the L'Arche community?

    Dingy Belgrade hotel rooms aside, what's gone out of civic life, or at least what's missing from my civic life is service.

  • Another new, improved program of education, now based on gaming? Harrumph. I left the field of education before I got started because even then it was clear to me that professional educators had lost sight of the fact that the essence of education is humane and social. It's never been a panacea for what ills us, but it provides one relatively normative experience most of us share. More recent obsessions with esteem building, educational technology, and measurement and evaluation have not produced better learning. I don't think there was ever a time when someone wasn't selling a new program, but there certainly was a time when wizened teachers could easily recognize what helped get the job done.

  • Michael Straight said...

    After thinking more about it, I think I agree with Alan. A good education, especially in the humanities, is not going to have an easy "scoring system" by which someone could measure their progress.

    You're not going to be able to say, "After taking Dr. Jacobs class, I can read The Great Gatsby 30% better than I could before the class!"

    In fact, a good education may often feel like the opposite of beating your previous high score: "Before I took this class I thought I knew lots about American History. Now I realize I hardly know anything."

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