Desert of My Real Life

{June 30, 2013}   Gamification and Education

A trending buzzword in today’s digital culture is gamification. According to most sources on the Internet, the term was coined in 2004 by Nick Pelling, a UK-based business consultant who promises to help manufacturers make their electronic devices more fun. Since then, the business world has jumped on the gamification bandwagon with fervor. Most definitions of the term look something like this: “Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.” The idea is that a business will add game elements to its interactions with consumers so that consumers will become more loyal and spend more time and money with the business.

We can see examples of gamification all over the place. Lots of apps give badges for participation and completion of various goals.  Many also provide leader boards to allow users to compare their progress toward various goals against the progress of other people. Airlines and credit card companies give points that can be redeemed for various rewards. Grocery stores and drugstores give discounts on purchases to holders of loyalty cards. Businesses of all types have added simple game elements like goals, points, badges, rewards and feedback about progress to compel the consumer to continuously engage with the business.

This type of gamification is so ubiquitous (and shallow, transparent, self-serving) that a number of prominent thinkers have decried the trend. My favorite is the condemnation written by the game scholar Ian Bogost. Bogost writes, “Game developers and players have critiqued gamification on the grounds that it gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity.” In other words, gamification efforts focus on superficial elements of games rather than those elements of games that make games powerful, mysterious, and compelling. Those superficial elements are easy to adapt to other contexts, requiring little thought or effort, allowing the marketers “to clock out at 5pm.” The superficial elements are deployed in a way that affirms existing corporate practices, rather than offering something new and different. Bogost goes on to say, “I realize that using games earnestly would mean changing the very operation of most businesses.” It’s this last statement that most interests me. What would “using games earnestly” look like?

Since 2007, I have been teaching a class called Creating Games, which fulfills a Creative Thought general education requirement at my university. The class focuses on game design principles by engaging students in the design and development of card and board games. And because of that content, I thought it would be natural environment to test out some ideas about gamification and its role in education. So I made a number of changes to the course starting in the Fall of 2010. I added some of the more superficial elements of games to the class to help support the gamification effort. In addition and more importantly, I added some game elements which I think start to change the very operation of the classroom. I think these deeper changes involving “behavioral complexity” are motivational for students, resulting in a more thorough learning of the content of the class.

To determine what to change about my class, I started with Greg Costikyan’s definition of a game, which he articulated in the article called I Have No Words and I Must Design. Costikyan says, “A game is a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.” If we use this definition, then to gamify an activity, we would add players, decisions, resources to manage, game tokens and/or a goal.

I thought about whether and how to add each of these game elements to my class and decided to add a clearly articulated goal, similar to the kinds of goals that are present in typical games. I focused the goal on points, which we call Experience Points (EP). So at the start of the semester, students are told that they will need to earn 1100 EP in order to get an A in the course, 1000 EP for a B, 900 EP for a C, 800 for a D, and anything less than 800 would result in an F in the course. Students can then choose the letter grade that they want to earn and strive to achieve the appropriate number of points to do so. I added a series of levels so that students could set shorter term goals as they progressed toward the larger goal of reaching the specific grade they wanted. All students start the class at level 1 and as they earn EP, they progress through the levels. The highest level is level 15, which requires 1100 EP to achieve and corresponds to earning an A in the class. The number of points between the levels increases as the levels increase so that early in the class, students are making fairly quick progress but as they gain proficiency, they must work harder to reach the next level. So, for example, the difference between levels 1 and 2 is 30 EP while the difference between levels 14 and 15 is 100 EP. Costikyan also mentioned game tokens as a mechanism for players to monitor their status in the game. I added a weekly leader board to my class so that students would be able to determine how the number of EP they’ve earned compares to their class mates. These superficial elements of games were easy to add, just as Bogost suggested. I then started to think about how I might add game elements “earnestly” in a way that creates something new and different for the students.

In 1987, Malone and Lepper published a study called “Making Learning Fun: A Taxonomy of Intrinsic Motivations for Learning.” Their taxonomy includes four basic kind of motivations for game players to continue to play games and they suggest that educators think about ways to use these motivations for classroom learning. The four categories focus on challenge, control, curiosity and fantasy. Adding points, levels and a leader board all relate to the category called challenge, which involves clear goal statements, feedback on progress toward goals, short-term goals and goals of varying levels of difficulty. I then focused on the category of motivations called control.

According to Malone and Lepper, control involves players making decisions that have consequences that produce results with significant outcomes with those outcomes being uncertain. In fact, Costikyan says, “The thing that makes a game a game is the need to make decisions.” So for him, decision-making is the most important element of a game. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Malone and Lepper found control to be an important motivational factor in games. But in most classrooms, students make few decisions about their learning and have no control over their own activities. I decided that my gamification effort would focus on adding decision-making to the class. Therefore, no activity in the class is required. Students get to decide which activities from a large (and growing) array of activities they would like to engage in. I give them the entire list of activities (with due dates and rubrics just like in other classes) at the start of the semester and students get to decide which of the activities they would like to complete. As a student moves through the class, if she thinks of a new activity not currently on the list that she would like to work on, she can work with me to formalize the idea and it will be added to the list of possibilities for the rest of the students and will become a permanent part of the course for future offerings. The first time I taught the course, I had thought of 1350 EP worth of activities and required 1100 to earn an A. The latest offering of the course had 1800 EP worth of activities and still required 1100 to earn an A. I also have made a semantic shift in the way I talk about points in the class. In most classrooms, when a student earns a 75 on an exam worth 100 points, the top of paper will show a -25 to signify the number of points the student lost. I never talk about points lost but rather focus on the EP that has been earned. One of the nice consequences of this flipping of the focus is that students understand that if earning 75 points on exam does not bring them close enough to their next goal, they will have to engage in additional activity in order to earn additional points. They could also choose not to engage in any additional activity. There are significant consequences either way but the important point is that the student is in control and can make decisions about the best way to achieve his/her goal.

Student comments on my course evaluations suggest that students initially find it difficult to understand this grading system (because it is so different from what they are used to in their other classes) but once they understand it, they love it. They enjoy being able to decide whether to take an exam, for example. One way to determine whether students are learning the content of the class is to look at final course grades. Here is a comparison of a random Fall semester section of the course before I made this change to a random Fall semester section after I made the change:

—Fall 2009 (before this change)
—A  4
—B  6
—C  8
—D  4
—F  6
—Fall 2011 (after the change)
—A  18
—B  4
—C  2

On average, the students in the Fall 2011 section of the course did more work and engaged more often with the course content than did the students in the Fall 2009 section. And as I said earlier, students often think about the material independently to come up with their own assignments that are added to the course for everyone to choose from.

I wouldn’t suggest that I have changed “the very operation” of education. But I do think that an earnest focus on giving students more control over their own learning is a huge step in the right direction and moves us away from the bullshit that Bogost rightly complains about.

{June 19, 2013}   Software Controls Users

I’m often surprised that some of the most valuable lessons I learned back in the late 1980’s have not become standard practice in software development. Back then, I worked for a small software development company in Western Massachusetts called The Geary Corporation. The co-founder and owner of the company was Dave Geary, a guy I feel so fortunate to have learned so much from at a formative stage in my career. He was truly ahead of his time in the way that he viewed software development. In fact, my experience shows that he is ahead our current time as most software developers have not caught up with his ideas even today. I’ve written about these experiences before because I can’t help but view today’s software through the lens that Dave helped me to develop. A couple of incidents recently have me thinking about Dave again.

I was talking to my mother the other day about the … With Friends games from Zynga. You know those games: Words With Friends, Scramble With Friends, Hanging With Friends, and so on. They’re rip-offs of other, more familiar games: Scrabble, Boggle, Hang Man, and so on. She was saying that she stopped playing Hanging With Friends because the game displayed the words that she failed to guess in such a small on her Kindle Fire and so quickly that she couldn’t read them. Think about that. Zynga lost a user because they failed to satisfy her need to know the words that she failed to guess. This is such a simple user interface issue. I’m sure Zynga would explain that there is a way to go back and look for those words if you are unable to read them when they flash by so quickly. But a user like my mother is not interested in extra steps like that. And frankly, why should she be? She’s playing for fun and any additional hassle is just an excuse to stop playing. The thing that surprises me about this, though, is that it would be SO easy for Zynga to fix. A little bit of interface testing with real users would have told them that the font and speed at which they displayed the correct, unguessed word was too small and too fast for a key demographic of the game.

My university is currently implementing an amazingly useful piece of software, DegreeWorks, to help us with advising students. I can’t even tell you how excited I am that we are going to be able to use this software in the near future. It is going to make my advising life so much better and I think students will be extremely happy to be able to use the software to keep track of their progress toward graduation and get advice about classes to think about taking in the future. I have been an effusive cheerleader for the move to this software. There is, however, a major annoyance in the user interface for this software. On the first screen, when selecting a student, an advisor must know that student’s ID number. If the ID number is unknown, there is no way to search by other student attributes, such as last name, without clicking on a Search button and opening another window. This might seem like a minor annoyance but my problem with this is that I NEVER know the student’s ID number. Our students rarely know their own ID number. So EVERY SINGLE time I use this software, I have to make that extra click to open that extra window. I’m so excited about the advantages that I will get by using this software that I am willing to overlook this annoyance. But it is far from minor. The developers clearly didn’t test their interface with real users to understand the work flow at a typical campus. From a technical standpoint, it is such an easy thing to fix. That’s why it is such an annoyance to me. There is absolutely no reason for this particular problem to exist in this software other than a lack of interface testing. Because the software is otherwise so useful, I will use it, mostly happily. But if it weren’t so useful otherwise, I would abandon it, just as my mother abandoned Hanging With Friends. When I complained about this extra click (that I will have to make EVERY time I use the software), our staff person responsible for implementation told me that eventually that extra click will become second nature. In other words, eventually I will mindlessly conform to the requirements that the technology has placed on me.

Dave Geary taught me that when you develop software, you get the actual users of that software involved early and often in the design and testing. Don’t just test it within your development group. Don’t test it with middle management. Get the actual users involved. Make sure that the software supports the work of those actual users. Don’t make them conform to the software. Make the software conform to the users. Otherwise, software that costs millions of dollars to develop is unlikely to be embraced. Dave’s philosophy was that technology is here to help us with our work and play. It should conform to us rather than forcing us to conform to it. Unfortunately, many software developers don’t have the user at the forefront of their minds as they are developing their products. The result is that we continue to allow such software to control and manipulate our behavior in ways that are arbitrary and stupid. Or we abandon software that has cost millions of dollars to develop, wasting value time and financial resources.

This seems like such an easy lesson from nearly thirty years ago. I really don’t understand why it continues to be a pervasive problem in the world of software.

{June 12, 2013}   A Possible Return

I have been away for an entire academic year. It was my intention this year to find time to regularly write entries about various technology and society issues. But it didn’t happen. I blame the fact that I’ve been a department chair for two years now. The increased administrative tasks that come with being chair leave me fairly mentally exhausted so that the only scholarly activities that I’ve engaged in are things that result in actual presentations or publications. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about blog topics, however.

So I’m declaring it here as a way to hold myself accountable. My goal for the upcoming academic year is to write at least one blog entry per week. It feels daunting but so worthwhile since I like thinking about technology issues way more than I like doing administrative tasks. I need to make the time for this.

et cetera