A Rant about Game Design and Education…

Saturday, January 18, 2014

So I got roped into going to the CUNY Games Festival yesterday. Kristana Textor gave a talk about the class we taught together and also submitted Gametron 7000 to their festival arcade floorshow thing, so I agreed to show up and participate. I’ve been so busy lately, I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own accord. But. The conference was enjoyable. I went to a few of the talks and enjoyed meeting people during the arcade.

Anyway, I had a few quick impressions and opinions that sort of fell into the “too long for Twitter” bucket, so I figured I’d dump them here. Note! This is more of a rant than anything. It’s definitely not an attack on anyone or any conference. It’s just some thoughts that have been building up in my little pea brain and that I need to get out…

And so.

Early in her talk Kristana asked for a show of hands: Who, amongst the educators present, considers themselves a “gamer?” Only a few hands went up. Now, the term “gamer” is loaded and people (self included) have a habit of not responding to “show of hands” questions at conferences. So this definitely wasn’t a scientific survey. But although Kristana kind of moved on from the point, I thought it got to the heart of one of the difficulties in many parts of the “gamification” movement in education and elsewhere: These “gamifiers” oftentimes don’t play enough actual games. And if they do, they’re not doing so critically. And so problems arise:

1) They don’t know what’s out there. For example, there are, in fact, very popular AAA games that deal with topics you can teach in high school. Civilization V comes to mind as a very obvious example. It uses elements of history to color the game world — real people, places, and things — but the core gameplay is built around a particular philosophy of history, one which (I would think) you could very easily identify and critique with high school or undergraduate students. This is just one example. If I had to take a stab as to why people don’t dig deeper to learn about existing game design practices and culture, I might argue that “games” are still perceived by many as frivolous and shallow activities. Checkers! Hearts! Hide-and-seek! So instead of being treated as a subject with just as much depth (or potential depth, at least) as literature, cinema, or music, people assume they “know games” via only a very surface-level exposure. Which leads to…

2) They don’t really understand what a “game” is — or what a game can possibly be. Almost all of what I saw in the talks had to do with either alternative measurement systems to the usual American A-F grading system or with incentive systems to get kids to do the same old boring work they’d otherwise be forced to do. The concept of procedural rhetoric made an appearance or two (although I never heard the term used), but generally the “gamification” I saw seemed to entail mostly just reskinning the same old educational strategies. Putting cheese sauce on the broccoli, so to speak. And this is actually fine. If it leads to the kids eating more broccoli, I won’t complain too much. But it vastly underestimates the power of game mechanics as educational tools. Again, to use Civilization V as a reference: The core game mechanics — how players’ civilizations grow and decay in the game — can be discussed in an educational context. It’s not just “write a history essay and get 50 points if you do it.” That’s the same old broccoli, but with cheese sauce. Civ5 is more like learning how to cook vegetables properly in the first place so the kids don’t require a pile of cheese sauce to eat right. To stretch the metaphor.

The lack of real-life context is, I feel, one of the major impediments to kids not being interested in some things. “I’ll never use calculus in real life.” “Who cares if I write a five paragraph essay about Millard Fillmore?” Games can simulate this context by creating situations in which these skills are required to play well. And I’m not ever talking about computer games. I think the board game “Diplomacy” could be another great one for high school students to play and then discuss their experience in the context of other historical diplomatic entanglements: The Cold War. World War I (Diplomacy’s setting, sort of). Being able to reliably pass a mid-sized orange ball through a ring of metal suspended ten feet in the air is just as esoteric as being able to take the square root of a number, when it comes down to it. Except kids have a shit-ton of context about shooting baskets that they don’t have for simple math. The former can make you in a rich celebrity with women and cars and your own line of sneakers. The latter? Who knows. Some job that’s probably boring. A well-made game can add some context that makes the simple math, in this case, relevant to the student.

Also, I’m not convinced that you’re going to reach tuned-out kids by substituting one “gamification system” — the traditional American A-F system — with another one that involves points and badges instead of letters. If I don’t care about an A, I don’t care about 50 points and a badge that says I know what a pronoun is. The trick — the very hard part of game design — is getting people to give a shit. There are strategies for creating engagement, but I really think this is the “art” of game design. You can learn techniques, but you really just need to have a sense of it and personal intuition about what could work. And room to test your ideas in the real world, of course. How do you create the building blocks to do this? Play games. See what works on you. Watch people play games. See what works on them. Then get to creating.

Side note: If you’re giving a talk about “gamification” in education or elsewhere, please don’t quote Jane McGonigal. She’s a lovely, bright woman who I’m sure does good work. But. Her book Reality is Broken is a mess and many of the talks I’ve seen her give have substituted colorful boosterism for serious thought. Reality is not broken. Game design is not a panacea. Game design is also not an “epic win” (a term I hate). Game design is a practice with a set of tools that can be used well or used poorly. For good or for evil. It’s actually quite easy to make shitty games. (Trust me.) And “gamification” is used all the time for nefariously manipulative purposes. Businesses and political groups use all sorts of little game-like tricks to get you to fall in line and do their bidding (especially technology and social media companies). So you must realize that you can make things worse by introducing any kind of “gamification” into your educational toolkit. I might guess that the biggest way to make things worse with educational games is to make them distracting so students have fun and remember the game, but don’t retain anything of what you were actually trying to teach.

There’s an increasingly tall pile of awesome books about game design which are very thoughtful and very accessible. They deserve your attention if you care about game design. For example: New to game design? Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun is a fun and quick read. Ian Bogost is also great. His How to do Things with Video Games is a good one for getting your brain stewing about different ways to apply game design.

Anyway, this is just a rant and not targeted at anyone in particular or even this conference in particular. It’s just some frustrations I’ve had at these kind of events and at these kinds of talks in the past. I love it that teachers have picked up on game design as a tool to get kids engaged and learning. And I hope this becomes more common and that some great new ideas filter into the academic mainstream.

PS: I don’t care for the term “gamification.” It’s a catch-all that’s too vague to be useful. If you’re trying to get people to do or not do something, that’s “incentivization.” If you are trying to increase engagement with avatars or somesuch, that’s “personalization.” Making things more exciting for the senses could be called “adding juiciness.” If you’re trying to teach via the game mechanics themselves, “procedural rhetoric” is a good term. Etc. I think using these more precise words make it clearer what you’re actually attempting than plain old “gamificiation” does.

End of rant.