Mar 302011

Recently Heather Chaplin wrote a criticism of Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, over at Slate.  I responded very negatively to her article, and I’m still trying to figure out why, exactly, this set me off.  I sat around last night and wrote some thoughts, which may or may not be worthwhile and certainly aren’t academic in nature, but just in thinking through my own reactions I’m baffled by the depth of the emotion.  I’m not, frankly, the largest supporter of the ‘gamification’ concept per se (and I hate the word).

My personal thought is that the ‘jury is still out’ – we might change the world through a game-like interaction layer, but might not- we don’t yet know what could be effective or the forms that it will take.  That’s what makes it worth the research: huge potential, but we don’t know “how this works” or even “if it works” just yet, and certainly not in all the contexts that either Jane puts forward or that are cynically derided in the Slate piece.  And yet, the underlying “this is just another tool for corporate control” context of the piece is so incredibly distorted from the original work I just can’t get it out of my head.

From the article:

“Chore Wars is a benign example—if pretending you’re being rewarded helps you do your chores, fine. But it reveals that McGonigal is not advocating any kind of real change, as she purports, but rather a change in perception: She wants to add a gamelike layer to the world to simulate these feelings of satisfaction, which indeed people want.

What she misses is that there are legitimate reasons why people feel they’re achieving less. These include the boring literal truths of jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, and a taxation system that benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and poor. You want to transform peoples’ lives into games so they feel as if they’re doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don’t notice how miserable they are? You could argue that peasants in the Middle Ages were happy imagining that the more their lives sucked here on earth the faster they’d make it into heaven. I think they’d have been better off with enough to eat and some health care.”

What a crushingly cynical and unimaginative view of the human condition.  Change isn’t ‘real’ if it’s a change in perception?  LOL, the entirety of the human mind disagrees.  The article implies that Jane wants to ‘simulate these feelings of satisfaction’ – I disagree: the point of her work is that by building a meaningful layer and interaction, people can legitimately feel these feelings of satisfaction: there is no simulation of the feeling, the simulation is the interaction and/or perception shift leading to it.

Two (small) examples from the “real world”.  1) My wife is a ‘to do’ lists person.  She makes lists of things to do, and then goes and does them.  We’d call her ‘organized’ and when she was working in the corporate world that was considered to be a positive trait.  Now riddle me this: aren’t to-do lists a way of framing your perception of a given period and scope of responsibility?  Aren’t they a way to simplify your perception of a number of disparate items into a seemingly single overarching theme, and in fact a simplistic narrative?  And is her sense of accomplishment at having checked off the list not as meaningful as if it were for the individual items on it?  Because I can assure you, when she has 1 item left on the list and it is mundane, she will make damn sure its done not because the individual item is meaningful or rewarding in any way, but rather to have completed “the list”.  And, interestingly, this view of work and accomplishment is not translatable to everyone: I’ve tried to be a ‘to do list person’.  I’m not.  I find the making of the list to be a chore, I don’t care if I complete everything on this list, or even if I do my pride and accomplishment will be for the 3 things on the list I cared about doing, not about the fact I got them all done, or that I was organized in constructing the list.  She places value in it, either consciously or unconsciously, and I do not.

Is her sense of satisfaction at crossing off all the items not the exact same thing Heather is attempting to pillory above when it comes from a more game-like interaction?  People have been using tricks in perception and rationalization (and even narrative) to motivate themselves since the dawn of human cognition – to say that change of that kind is not “real” is to define anything in the world that is not physically tangible as unreal: someone’s feelings are not real?  Someone’s happiness is not real?  Someone’s sense of accomplishment or pride is not real?  I can assure you that to most human beings their feelings are very real, and very tangible.

2) Heather mentions Jane’s example of Chore Wars and scoffs at the notion of virtual rewards or questing narratives: if someone ‘rewarded’ themselves each week with a carton of ice cream and a trashy TV show if the chores were done, we’d just chalk that up as ‘normal’.  So it’s the adaptation of game-specific interaction mechanisms and the virtuality of rewards that define the sense of ‘realness’ and of ‘doing something worthwhile’ in the first but not the second?

From the article: “In a gamified world, corporations don’t have to reward us for our business by offering better service or lower prices. Rather, they can just set up a game structure that makes us feel as if we’re being rewarded. McGonigal goes even further. She talks about an “engagement economy … that works by motivating and rewarding participants with intrinsic rewards, and not more lucrative compensation.” This economy doesn’t rely on cash—rather, it pays participants with points, peer recognition, and their names on leader boards. It’s hard to tell if this is fairy-tale thinking or an evil plot.”

And: “For McGonigal, Wikipedia is one of the most-convincing gamification success stories—a user-generated encyclopedia built on 100 million hours of free labor. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with people volunteering to write encyclopedia entries. But to advocate this as a model to build on, explaining that “positive emotions are the ultimate reward for participation,” is thoughtless at best and diabolical at worst. People might get off on points, but they need to be paid for their work.”

I’ve read Jane’s work, and nowhere in it do I get the sense that there is the notion that corporations should expect to receive work for free to the eventual enslavement of the majority of the population.  Rather, what I see is a “stinging criticism” that people are now understanding, to a greater and greater degree, that we are not motivated by compensation alone, and particularly not motivated by compensation in the abstract.  People are, in fact, motivated by a sense of meaningful reward, a sense of contribution, a sense of accomplishment, by their sense of enjoyment and engagement with work, etc.  How many times have we given the advice to our children “Do what you love” rather than “Do what makes you the most money”?  The point of the Wikipedia example, in my reading, is not that a corporation somehow got a bunch of work “for free” but rather that a group of people created something immense, powerful, and capable in a manner that allowed them each to feel personally involved, engaged, and that their contributions had meaning and value to the degree that each of them wanted to contribute or be involved.

That is the argument behind gamification, not the nonsense of corporate greed: every point cited in the Slate piece that refers to the monetization and corporate hijacking of the gamification movement is a comment made by a CEO or similar figure that (of course) is seeking to use these concepts to maximize their position.  It goes almost without saying that a corporation will act in the interest of the corporation, and (as recently proven) not necessarily in the humanitarian interest of the general population.  Citing a bunch of gamification examples from companies that seek to extend the control and market position of said company is the lowest of low-hanging fruit – but there is nothing in the notion of gamification that says that these efforts can or must spring forth from corporations, or that efforts from corporations must by necessity be taken up by people over other efforts.  Gamification efforts could come from communities, professional societies, governments, educational institutions (ahem), and others – the degree to which they are effective will be the degree to which they engage and endear the communities that interact with them and whose players derive value from that interaction.  Yes, corporations do that rather well and sometimes rather callously, but to lay that at the feet of the gamification concept is shallow at best.

Furthermore, pointing out examples of attempted corporate hijacking of motivational concepts doesn’t negate the power of the human psyche or the fact that as individuals and groups compensation and “real world” rewards ring hollow to many (or most), that perception of these ‘rewards’ is the only thing we have going.  The logical extension of the arguments in the Slate piece, that one’s perception of reward/compensation is irrelevant, that only the actual intrinsic ‘value’ has weight is truly the cold face of corporate capitalism and materialism: what message could be more enslaving to the corporate cause than one that defines worth through monetary compensation and material rewards alone?  Is there one?  I can’t think of it.

The other interesting point of Wikipedia is, of course, is that as things become ‘gamified’ they become community driven.  There is currently no better check on the power of corporations and commercial interests than a well-informed, highly engaged, and connected community.  What if, instead of the cynical and antagonistic view of the situation that forms the backdrop of the article, gamification efforts results in a populace that is happier, healthier, and more engaged with both its government and the education of its citizenry?  What if, through this work, we come to understand more about motivation, interaction, engagement, and the human condition, and that as a species we begin to focus both groups and individuals on problems that fall outside the narrow commercial interests of the corporate world?  What if people are motivated, through a ‘change in perception’ to focus significant portions of their energy not on the perpetual message of “I have it pretty good as a serf in a feudal society” but rather on the message that “I and my fellows can change the world, and that each of us can have a meaningful contribution in doing so”.  How’s that for a ‘change in perspective’ ?

Finally, I’ll close by saying that I specifically wrote this as a rebuttal, and the truth (if there is any) is probably in the middle.  But when you start out by putting a piece on slate and posting to twitter that “I can’t take all the gamification BS anymore.. Got some of it off my chest in Slate today: #gamification” – well then that isn’t asking for rational discussion and commentary, either.  I’d like to read a careful and well thought out piece in dissonance to Jane’s work, such as the what Ian posted at  Also, this picture says it all:

And finally, I absolutely want to be a super hero.

 Posted by at 8:08 am
Mar 272011

We’ve been thinking a lot lately about motivation. How do we get students to begin playing the game in the fall? How do we keep them engaged over the long term? There’s been a lot of excellent research and writing on motivation over the past few years, from Deci & Ryan’s groundbreaking work on self-determination theory to Daniel Pink’s engaging and accessible book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us — and most of it tells us that in both work and education we’re doing it wrong. We tend to focus on extrinsic rewards (like money and grades) rather than intrinsic rewards (a sense of accomplishment and pleasure in our work).

A recent Harvard Business Review study by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer provides more evidence for the importance of intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. Most of the original article is behind a paywall, but this newspaper article summarizes the findings:

“On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review early last year.

“On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.”

Those findings are highly relevant to what we’re trying to do with “Just Press Play”–providing our students with that tangible sense of progress in their educational process, and giving them support to help them overcome obstacles. It’s nice to see more support for the basic premise of the project, though there’s still a lot of work to be done in determining exactly how to provide them with that evidence of progress and support for their endeavors.

Mar 272011

So I’ve been thinking about our ethos of making all the quests and such around things that arent repetitive, or more correctly around the caution in the achievements literature on ‘if you make an achievement someone will optimize for it’ and thus the issue of ‘don’t make an achievement such as ‘produce a new piece of code each day’ unless you expect to get a whole bunch of ‘print(“today is ” +;’ over and over and over and over, which doesn’t teach anybody anything and is in fact fairly lame.

But then I got to thinking about art school, and the notion of required sketchbooks, and this meshed perfectly with WoW’s required dailys.  (well, ok, not ‘required’ but c’mon…).  There are certain things that you have to do them every day, no matter how poorly, in order to improve.  Art.  Musical instruments.  Writing.  (ahem… writing code…).  So I’m not so sure that there should ‘never be’ achievements like that – but rather that there has to be credence and though such that the activities are the kind of thing that can become self-rewarding over time, that the ‘badge’ becomes irrelevant in the face of the accomplishment.

I spent every tuesday and thursday morning for 3 years drawing figures.  Most of the time, I hated it, both because it was morning, and because I was frustrated with my own work.  It wasn’t until 2.5 years in that I could look back and be hugely satisfied with the progress I had made as an artist.  How do we ‘interject’ some motivation at the outset, but not lose the overall sense of the activity in the face of the ‘gamification’ of it?

 Posted by at 1:24 pm
Mar 272011

Gah, it ate my long glorious and wellcrafted post :(

Here goes in a few sentence re-recreation: Most of the time, we don’t want to think about technology.  In fact, we want to forget about technology.  And essentially, we mostly succeed – good technology is like a good toaster: interactions as simple as possible, desired outcome achieved, don’t know and don’t care how it works.  What could be better.

This gets more interesting in thinking about computing.  Operating Systems are a hard problem, for example.  We all use them, we all notice when they DON’T work, but by and large we don’t think about them.  They are created by people, usually a lot of people, none of which the general public can name, nor do they particularly care.  But kids are even more interesting: to them, the computer (there is no distinction between an OS and the physical machine) just *exists*.  It just kind of sprang into being fully formed and capable of performing certain actions.  The rest of us are satisfied if our email is sent, we can browse our pictures, and our bread isn’t completely black on the edges.  This is one example of something that happens over and over again: oh, here’s an iPod.  Apple made it.  But never a *someone* at apple, never a team of engineers that have families that play frisbee or struggle with learning to play the violin or that eat more donuts than they should whilst skipping the veggies.

But games are different – from the earliest possible interactions with a game, we understand that games are a *created artifact*.  Someone made it.  Someone made it to tell a story, to provide you with a certain experience, to entertain you.  It was *authored* specifically.  Which then immediately brings to the forefront of imagining oneself creating these types of games, and thus the phenomenon of games as a motivator to the study of technology: you can’t create modern games without technology, and so the motivation to create and extend the experiences that are currently relevant in today’s media ecology becomes the motivation to figure out why and how your toaster works, at least to the extent necessary to do what you want to do.

How do we capitalize on this basic ‘even a 3 year old gets it’ understanding of games as created artifact in designing our system?  How do we constantly put forward the notion that games, as a designed experience, constantly challenge us to understand all of the components necessary for that experience in order to produce elegant and thoughtful designs that express the authors intent?

 Posted by at 12:49 pm
Mar 202011

My mother believes in ghosts. This is not a bad thing. She believes that the spirits of relatives gone are still with us, watch over us, take care of us. She believes in the power of prayer and holy water.

I do not believe in these things, and in a way, I am diminished.

House of Spirits” by Isabell Allende, “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers have stories infused with spirits, of super humanly beautiful beings, of impossible scents and the imposition over the ordinary with the supernatural. This “Magical Realism” isn’t magic to one whose daily life is infused with belief.

Is it possible to infuse a place with magic? To make one believe? Magical Realism as a genre is serious. It is not fantasy. It is fantastic. These are not light words.

Is it possible to imbue someone with a feeling of agency? of power over their surroundings? To make the ordinary extraordinary?

Conceptually, it would be lovely to give one a lens that allows them to see the world differently, to see the eddies of power and stuff of manipulation – to make magic.

 Posted by at 12:30 pm
Mar 172011

As this develops, I continue to learn.

I had believed that to beat the game, one graduated from the college. It seemed the correct ending to our hero’s journey. And if that was the case, then putting in the time and credit hours allowed you to win thegame.

Total rethink.

Liz pointed out that in that scenario our students can beat the game without even playing it. (I love when we have discussion that make me change my view of the world). She articulated several points, that I am sure she may better explain in another post.

This is the picture in my head.

There is the real world (as real as one believes) and the game overlay with its attendant metaphor. It is the purpose of the game to highlight certain actions, events and behaviors.

Liz has pointed me to various publications, among them “Drive” by Daniel Pink. A key idea is that when one is motivated by reward/pay that is essentially work. Intrinsic motivation, that “drive” — because the action is fulfilling unto itself — is a different thing. Recognition for these behaviors are a perk, not the goal. It feeds play. It is not pay.

Students work toward graduation. It is, in a sense, their job…even though ostensibly they are paying for it. Graduation is the logical and correct reward for this work and should be celebrated. It is separate from the game.

A return to monsters…what is the developmental boss in this  student journey? Liz, my walking font of reference material has pointed me to “Leaving college: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition” by Vincent Tinto.

I know the first year monster, and I am well aware of senioritis. I spoke with Jennifer Hinton, who is our Assistant Director of Student Experience. This is a new position dedicated to not only academic advising, but looking at all aspects of student life to ensure their success. Jen said we throw a lot of resources at students when they begin, and have much for them as they transition out. As yet, the in-between portion is not as well supported.

Back in the sad 80′s, I dropped out of college and went to work full time. It was the right thing for me at the time. If the objective of the game-if it were a game- was to graduate from the program I began, I failed. If I look at the journey not as completion to graduation, but instead maturation and getting a sense of myself and where I belong in the world, gaining independence and confidence in my abilities – I was right on time.

So the answer to the title of this post, is that I have none as yet. We are still defining the scope of the game. Feel free to chime in.

 Posted by at 8:44 am
Mar 142011

To beat the game – one graduates. So the levels really are directly related to how many credits have been completed. Do we indicate quality of the journey? or is it sufficient to see that Indiana Jones dotted line from Istanbul (Not Constantinople)?

I’m playing WoW again.

Wonder if I can get the department to pay for the account?

It’s informative.

As Thomas had rightly pointed out, it’s the surprise that causes delight. So I am fishing, and I get “100 fish!” It’s a small thing, and I was fishing anyway, but there is that marker of progression. I wasn’t fishing for that one hundred, I just got it. This came at a good time as I was fishing and thinking (because that is what one does when one fishes) about work versus play, and why I was fishing instead of killing things?

It’s an ancillary skill that nominally feeds into the larger game, but is not crucial to it. But hey! I got an achievement! Delight.

Some achievements that we can skim from their journey:

  • “Getting Better All the Time” – if the current GPA is greater than the previous quarter/semester
  • “On the Board” – an “A” was earned
  • “Well Above Water” – GPA exceeds 3.25
  • “Come Back Kid” – some formulaic way to note a considerable positive difference, say someone who was on probation but has turned that around two quarters in a row.
  • “Well Rounded” – Students often do well in their area of study, not-so-much in their liberal arts. If the gpa and the I-forget-the-name-of-the-number-for-major are basically the same, then that would indicate similar effort
 Posted by at 7:24 am
Mar 092011

Charlie pinged me to see what he could be working on (because that’s how he rolls).

Can I just take this moment to say that everyone on this project kicks ass? /aside

Told him to work on levels as actual states, and a means of indicating progress in-level. Some interesting side discussion:

  • Both he and I are accustomed to RPGs (Role Playing Games), and my gut says a descriptor of the design style of those games is “EPIC”. The word “EPIC” is not on the short list of words to describe the site nor the game. My take, is that the word feels very masculine. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think an important one.
  • FYI the adjective list is: playful, light (as in both weight and value), engaging, young, colorful, dynamic. Vision documents contain an overarching description of content objectives. The short list is vision vibe. (Note the absence of the word “EPIC”)
  • There will be levels roughly equivalent to freshman, sophomore, junior and senior levels of college. Additionally, there will be a graduate and alumni level. Faculty and Staff will be playing as well – are they a level? or a class? Should they be collapsed into one grouping? We will not be leveling as the students do. Hrmmm…I think I just answered my question. Class it is.
  • The last bit was just my assignment to Charlie – this is ideation week. We’ve already seen the XP bar in a gilded frame. How many other ways do we indicate empty to full? Dials? Multiples of things? How do we measure volume of air, liquid or solid? How do we gauge changing states of matter?  of mood?
 Posted by at 2:21 pm
Mar 082011

So I’m at my favorite bar and ask Erin, the bartender, “What would you like an achievement for?” I’ve been springing this question on random people since the project began. She answers without skipping a beat, “Random acts of kindness.”

Brilliant! an achievement one would give to someone else to recognize that unasked for something that made the day better. Not something I would get, but something I would give!

Liz said, “Yes, but…” because it is her job to be the pragmatist and to tell me that unicorns do not exist. How will you prevent 25 kids from gaming the system? What is the validity of such a system if they do? F I N E. I will make this work.

Here goes…

The hero’s journey narrative lends itself to the idea of leveling and this can be gauged with meaningful experience points. (XP) In fact, one cannot beat the game unless they graduate. This does not eliminate a subsequent alumni level, but that is so next week.

Parallel to this are badges and achievements that do not necessarily contribute to XP. These would be badges created by the players and reflect things they value.

When a player submits an achievement for acceptance, or when they submit the accomplishment of an achievement or badge, they will have to submit a story/proof of completion. The community will be able to “like” it. This unit of “like” is distinct from XP; what it indicates is street cred (CRED).

The value of CRED is that at some threshold beyond the noise, there is an indication of investment in the game. Those “like”s translate into others’ appreciation of their wit or way of doing the tasks. I say translate that CRED into a superuser (but with a sexier name).

Ultimately, the community should be self-moderating. It’s the superusers who should be the moderators.

There could be button or some way for someone to “call shenanigans”, and the superusers could sort it out. But I digress a little…

Maybe another benefit of cred is this, for x units of cred, you earn the ability to bestow a random act of kindness to someone else. So the cred is a currency used to take recognition you’ve received and reflect it on someone else. After seeing how quickly these units accrue, we can make the cost of giving that award a real sense of preciousness and honor.

What other tangible value could CRED have?

 Posted by at 10:35 am