There be monsters, pt. 2

Today I finally succeeded in submitting an application to have www.chorewars.com unblocked from the departments internet filter – though I don’t know how long it will take to be approved or rejected. Doing so has prompted a bit of thought into the integration of gaming into education, and as much as I am interested in exploring new ideas, I feel like the current critical interest in gaming in education is a little bit… skewed, somehow. But I have yet to fully work through my personal thoughts and feelings on the issue to the point where I can articulate a clear plan of development. In what I expect to be a series of posts I’m going to attempt to work through some of the things giving me pause and see if I can reach a conclusion.

First, in the interests of full disclosure, a bit of personal background and context. I’ve been playing computer games since I was about 7 years old and my parents bought a Commodore 64. I’m now 32 and I still play computer games with some regularity. My friends and I still get together for the increasingly rarer session of LAN gaming. I have never engaged in any formal  critical study of games, although I have done a bit of personal research into the psychology of gaming, largely due to the years I spent working around poker machines and wondering why people were so obsessed with playing them (THAT led down some dark paths, I have to tell you. It was prompted by an incident of a mother and daughter who came in to play the machines daily for hours on end. One day mum had a heart attack while playing a machine and we had to call an ambulance. At no point did the daughter stop playing her machine or offer to help, and when the paramedics asked if she was going to ride with them to the hospital she said no because ‘she was on a good streak on the machine’.)

Anyway – as I see it, the interest in games as tools in education has largely come from recognition of the fact that there’s something about these computer games that motivates children to spend hours on end focussed on a single activity in a way that educational activities can only dream of emulating. Indeed, by incorporating gaming in education, that says to me that there is an active hope of emulating such success. Or at least appropriating it.

So what do games offer that so successfully hook people, particularly students, in?

The first and most obvious is the concept of achievement and reward. Games have become increasingly more sophisticated in the way they reward achievement, with PS3 games (as an example) having complex systems of awards and achievements connected to games that encourage continued and repeated play – with some game awards even having a direct effect on the experience of playing the game (from something as simple as having access to costume changes for characters to unlocking new weapons or items that can radically shift the balance of power in a game). In World of Warcraft (which I feel has arguably become the world standard for measuring the success of the current online gaming culture) overcoming challenges or obtaining achievements is rewarded with experience points that allow character improvement, gold or magic weapons and artefacts that can be used or sold for gold.

So for the player, is the reward in the completion of the activity itself? Or in the rewards promised at the completion of each task? I would argue that the second is more likely, and the rewards offered are the goal for many players, with the challenges to be overcome as an enjoyable part of the process. This is one thing that computer games share with poker machines, in that it is the promise of potential rewards that keep people playing over and above every other factor.

When you compare this to educational practices, it seems obvious that this is simply another manifestation of positive reinforcement. A player does the right thing, perseveres to the end of a task, learns how to use an item/skill/aspect of the game world and is rewarded positively for their efforts. It’s a concept as old as education itself, I expect, yet what is it about gaming awards and achievements that are different to those used in a classroom? First of all, in a game, they are immediate. You complete the task and the game, an objective logic-based entity, provides the expected reward instantly. No need to wait for an arbitrator to review and assess your efforts before assigning a reward, it is a much more direct, immediate and objective concept of success or failure.

Also, the rewards and achievements in games are much more personal. Regardless of the social element of online gaming, the players ultimate relationship is with the program itself, and when they complete a task and earn a reward, their computer screen is somehow filled with recognition of that award. In World of Warcraft, achievement of a new character level is met by a glowing gold aura that is visible in game to any character in the vicinity. In non-online games, usually a visual representation pops up on the screen to celebrate the achievement. For the player, they exist in a world of themselves, their computer, and for a brief moment, it is dominated by their achievement. There is not a classroom full of other students getting the same award at the same time to diminish the experience, nor are there those belligerent few who might sneer at the sole award winner and make them fear that their success has in fact targeted them for future negative experiences like bullying.

For the player, all achievements exist in almost exclusively positive terms. The emotional context in which someone can achieve things in a computer game has the potential to be much more self-affirming than the kinds of achievements offered in real life. Also, they have the potential to be much more frequent. A couple of hours of game time in WoW can earn a new player (or an experienced player with a new character) several levels of character advancement, each one recognised and celebrated in the same uplifting way. Compare that emotional experience to the need to spend a couple of hours writing an essay or completing a research task, knowing that it may be weeks before you get and feedback, and fearing that factors other than just the standard of your work may play a role in the rewards you receive (Whether based  on reality or not, every student has had some experience of fearing the mood-driven subjectivity of a teacher in the marking process, and the few conversations I’ve had with students on the matter have shown it to be a significant factor in heightening anxiety over unfamiliar subjects come assignment time).

One final factor to the concept of achievement and reward in games that is regularly commented on is the ability to retry at will. As a gamer I well know the strategy of saving a game before a crucial point so that if something goes wrong and you fail at your task or failure seems imminent, you can simply hit reload and try again and again until you get it right. There are some games I played as a teenager that I would spend long hours replaying a single section of a game in order to ensure I completed it to the best of my ability. If only I had the same tenacity and willpower towards my studies!

The ability to do this, however, is entirely dependent upon the instantaneous nature of feedback and recognition that a game can offer, and that educational practitioners are desperately trying to emulate. The challenge here is in the nature of providing feedback on the quality of student work. Educators and software designers need to find a way to combine instantaneous feedback with assessment measures that are not simply ‘right or wrong’. Learning programs in Maths, Science and Literacy based English skills have been around in varying levels for as long as I’ve been using computers, but such black and white responses do not engage the higher order thinking and problem solving skills that are evident in recreational computer games.

It would seem that in order to successfully and fully utilise gaming-style reward systems across the full spectrum of education, much more sophisticated programming is required, such as the kind that can start to assess concepts such as quality in a students work. This suggest computers capable of interpretation and some sort of complex reasoning, which brings us into the territory of

artificial intelligences – maybe not fully-self aware and sentient computer systems (I’m not quite ready for Skynet, thank you very much) but certainly a computer program that has a sophisticated enough grasp of language to be able to pars and evaluate sentences and paragraphs of varying complexity, and to understand and interpret concepts such as relevance (as in a responses relevance to a question, or the relevance of evidence to a point of argument, etc).

Far-fetched as it may sound, this would allow a student to have instantaneous feedback on their achievements and the ability to instantly retry a task until they have mastered it – getting rewarded and encouraged at every step of the way.

Of course, having a 1:1 teacher/student ratio would also be able to provide a similar level of feedback and reward – though that raises questions of what the student values as a reward for their achievements, and whether praise from a teacher is worth as much as a level 5 sword of fairy-smiting.

One way in which I hope to use www.chorewars.com to overcome this need for instantaneous feedback is to offer rewards for the completion of tasks, as well as various levels of awards at a later date for the standard of achievement. For example – offering rewards for completing a draft for review/editing by the teacher before the deadline and rewards for submission on time. They might not be instantaneous, but at least they reward desirable steps in the process of completing work of a higher-standard. Of course, this is entirely dependent on the level of interest the students maintain in their fictional character on chore wars – which risks waning given that the character and experience system exists entirely in isolation. Perhaps the challenge here is to find a way to use those characters in some form of game…

More on this in my next post…

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Filed under Gamification, Technology in Education

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