Jan 292011

When Kevin and I first sat down to talk about this game, we came up with different classes of achievements that would indicate our students had broadened themselves, or developed skills, or went out and did something in, with and/or for the community. It wasn’t a bad first pass, and what we came up with is still pretty good – but the end goal has turned my idea around about who decides the achievements and where meaning comes.

In the end, this achievement system has to be self-sustaining and also portable – that is, it could be picked up and applied to the larger university, or another university.

Let me do a little Ciara one-two-step back.

The achievements need to be something that reflect not necessarily what the designers value, but the what the players/community value.

If the game is to be self-sustaining and fresh it needs to be largely driven by the players.

.: The players suggest and make the achievements. The players award the achievements. The players that gain social capital and trust run the game.

Don’t bother me with the “How?” bit…not yet. That’s another post. But this is the crux.

Not quite a tangent…I love playing minecraft. It is digital legos. I love it because it is what I make it. Designing a simple open ended sandbox is hard, but those are the best games – like a cardboard refrigerator box, a rubber band, a metric pantload of raw material…situate the environment so people are okay with putting a toe in and doing what they can. That is what I am talking about.

 Posted by at 1:00 pm
Jan 242011

As a thought exercise, let us compare undergraduate education to the hero’s quest.  In a general sense, the hero’s quest can be described as a long, arduous journey to accomplish some grandiose goal that is usually only vaguely defined at the start of the adventure.  And the fact that it is an ‘adventure’ is a key to the experience: there are many parts, many sub-quests, many initiatives, many goals, and, ultimately, success and fulfillment in more than one sense.  The journey itself is transformative: the hero comes not just to accomplish the individual goal, but to understand themselves and/or the world around them (or both) through the journey. 

We can compare this directly to the student experience through several obvious parallels: the hero sets out from home just as in modern culture college can represent the first extended departure from the home environment.  The hero recruits and establishes both camaraderie and shared purpose with fellow travellers just as students establish new support networks and re-evaluate the qualities of peers and mentors relative to their own position and achievement as they journey.  The hero sets forth with a vague notion of what they hope to accomplish and a high-level, life altering and world-changing goal, but very little concrete plan of how to get ‘There and Back Again’ (hahaha…), just as the student arrives on campus with bags, dreams, and a first-semester schedule, but sometimes not much else. 

A note about quest length and relevance:

One of the most interesting things about the hero’s journey is the fact that at any given moment not every element of the adventure is directly or relevant to the overall mission, or at least in a way that is tangible and immediate to the hero.  This also occurs directly in the student experience: students can struggle at times to understand how a given assignment, course, experience, or action relates to their overall plan/goal/ideal.  In fact, this is often the cause of sincere disconnect as students fail to recognize either the relevance of an element of the curriculum in relation to the overall field, the consequence of a given action relative to the overall culture and community of the academy, or the importance of a relationship or artifact that will later have significant impact on their endeavor.  In some sense this can be summed up in the notion of maturity or worldliness, but it runs a fair bit deeper, and may be more akin to the ‘coming-of-age’ quality of the hero’s quest. 

One interesting facet of this particular analogy is the concept of quest-length.  The hero’s quest is too big to deal with, it cannot be parsed, it cannot be processed, it should be kept quiet and unexamined until the moment of relevance, the climb at the end to the final confrontation or completion.  Along the way, several milestones and mini-quests litter the road, each with their own lessons, relevance, and engagement.  In a sense, this is exactly what we would hope for in curricular design – it is the notion of the capstone course, the culminating experience, and the integration of individual experiences.  But it also speaks directly to the notion of milestone, relevance, and adventure: in the hero’s quest these markers and milestones are their own achievements of significance that are both immediately tangible and significant, and relate later to the overall climax.  In academia, we can fail to take into account the notion of ‘adventure’ and immediate significance: we provide only the scantest of milestones through grades and courses, which are abstract rather than real.  Projects can at times provide the qualities of the tangible, but even then the relevance and in particular the significance relative to the overall is somehow often absent.

It could be said, perhaps, that the quest-length exceeds the attention span of the hero.  The hero would be driven insane if every step across the world was counted and catalogued in the largest possible terms: ‘1091 steps to Mordor, 1090 steps to Mordor, 1089 steps to Mordor, etc., and yet at the same time without the sub-quests and experiences during the journey they hero would be unprepared to complete the heroic task.  Without the length of the journey and the arduous nature of it, the hero would not develop into the hero.  We need ways to frame the growth, progression, and relevance of our current journey relative to our goals, but in a mixture of abstract and non-abstract ways: we need “you have completed 12 out of 16 courses” but also “here is what you know how to do, and here is what you still need to learn”.  I’ve yet to see curriculum that does a great job of defining what a student doesn’t know yet.

Weez mentions counting telephone posts on a long drive, or playing car-games, etc.  Part of this is a need to account for progress, part of it is enforced distraction.  We look at mile-markers (where we know the milage of the trip) for an absolute, or at the map on the back of an airplane seat.  But we turn to games, puzzles, competitions, etc. as well, in part for other measures of progress, or perhaps to feel a sense of progress in one arena when we are unsure or cannot deal with scale in another, and in part to entertain and distract from the situation at hand.  And this, too, is part and parcel of the hero’s journey.  In thinking of achievement systems relative to the student experience, perhaps we should consider the notion that such a system must effectively work on both axis – the tracking of abstract progress in a way that is consistently relatable to the overall goal, and the tracking of progress in a non-abstract way that is meaningful to the student in the context of where they are, what is locally important to their current situation, and how that relates to the overall.  It must convey the individual notion of adventure, self-direction, and exploration, while simultaneously expressing the concept of the ‘hero’s journey’ both as a record for self-reflection and an indicator of forward direction.

A note about transformation:

The notion of the hero’s transformation is, of course, only glossed over here but forms the very core of the goals of the academy.  The goal of the academy is not merely to dump a bunch of facts and figures into the heads of our students and turn them away the same as they were when they arrived with arguably more ‘knowledge’ than before, but rather to nurture and foster the growth of the individual towards a goal of producing globally-aware, independent learners and critical thinkers.  I’ll have more to say about transformation in an upcoming post, but I just want to put it out there that this is a key element of what we’re about as an institution of higher education: the journey is more than the sum of its parts, and the hero goes on forever changed by their adventure.

 Posted by at 1:09 pm
Jan 212011

“Are we there yet?”

“Yes. It’s just a 500 mile driveway.”

Things to say to the kids on a cross country trip…that and, “Stop touching your brother.” and “Really? Again?”

But we slog through. It’s so much easier when there are landmarks along the way. Otherwise, it’s just undifferentiated mileposts. So we stop at the ice cream place they like, and if it’s open and I have enough money and I am not cranky (it’s like the travel equivalent of a syzygy – look it up, it’s just a great word) we stop at Reptileland. There’s Country Cupboard. There’s the appearance of Sheetzes, and Waffle Houses – then I know we’ve gone South enough.

Life is like that. It is an undifferentiated repetition of things to do to get through the day. It is a repetition of normal. Most times we like that. Normal is not surprising, it’s a groove – sometimes a rut.

But like the fox said to the prince, an hour can be an hour like no other because it is made special.

Andy said he thought that our students’ time here in school is like the hero’s journey. It is. It’s not on the scale of saving the world. This is good because I prefer that we lowly professor/mentors don’t have to die is some spectacular way so they can go on to prove themselves without us. Graduation is sufficient for that. But like the endless road trip, what differentiates one moment from another?

Achievements. There, I said it. The word. That thing we are creating. It’s a game; it’s pedagogical; it’s bird, it’s a plane, it can jump over tall buildings in a single bound…

In some contexts this gamification can seem a silly thing. I do not think it is silly at all. What we choose to celebrate can potentially be downright stupid, but there is a purpose in making note of moments: specific incidents, the passing of a point, that we did one thing over and over again in such a large number that it must be amazing,…that my socks match. (You do no realize how infrequent this is).

We do this thing in the car. Each time we come up to that border, “Welcome to <Insert State Name Here>” somebody counts down – pick a random lucid son. The sign approaches…”Three…two…one…” We all give a loud “WHOOO!” and we’ve made it to Pennsylvania! (or Maryland, or Virginia, or…)

And we know we’ve progressed. We’re that much closer, and we accomplished something.

 Posted by at 9:25 am
Jan 112011

Just asked Nick.

His response? “Sometimes. It depends.”

“Lame.” My answer is a straight up, “YES (and why would you even need to ask me?”

But that depends is informative. Depends on what? Well…I might not want to get dirty. Maybe I need to look nice. I hate getting my feet wet.

There is a barrier to play (that is clearly smaller and thinner in my case). But it’s there. So two questions:

  1. What would stop you from engaging in play?
  2. What would free you to play?
 Posted by at 3:35 pm
Jan 042011

One night, over wings, Steve O and Brad said, “We should have achievements for being awesome.”

How awesome?

In so many ways. What we have here in the Interactive Games and Media department is all kinds of awesome, of sick, of of of…but how to define it? And how would we measure it? And what would you do to get that indicator of your oh-so-awesomeness?

This begat an email to Andy, our most wise leader, which spawned the academic version of, “Let’s put on a show! I’ve got costumes and a barn!”

So we are in the process of creating an achievement system for IGM. “JUST PRESS PLAY”

This is the design and process blog for this endeavor. I have entitled it “THINK PLAY”.

Well, that is the original idea of what this is. I promise there will be lots about the design process, but it is my nature to be a storyteller so I will likely riff off that idea of “think play”. There are others here who think and play. I think they may very well jump in here and throw in their two cents, four bits, or bushel.


 Posted by at 8:48 pm