Chloe Varelidi has been playing around with a small team thinking through how to make games hackable, free and open source. This work makes me happy. Somewhat relatedly, Greg Wilson has just written a terrific blog post about web literacy and why we need to provide pathways and tools that provide for creativity. What ties these two things together and loops in where we’re headed with Webmaker Badges is their open ended, non-deterministic approach to learning. I believe that games and game design should be deeply integrated with Webmaker.org. Why? For a number of reasons I’ll discuss here but perhaps most importantly it’s because games are typically fun. True, they’re not always fun but when they are, they can act like mental catnip.
Games present a number of opportunities for learning and tie in really beautifully with a variety of potential learning objectives, as well as outcomes.
There are a few books that point to games being effective teaching and learning tools—surprisingly tools that can have quite a positive impact upon personal perception and well-being (see Reality is Broken). And there are a number of research studies that are being focused on games. But the one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that what makes games great is the way that they provide immediate feedback, thereby diminishing the negative charge that usually rides shotgun with failure. We’re taught to avoid failure and still, failure is a quotidian occurrence. We might more commonly refer to failure as making a mistake. Yet, learning to develop resilience in response to failure (an ability that tends to make people feel happier and helps them thrive) can be quite helpful. Games can help us to do just that.
It may seem obvious that games and learning go hand in hand but here are a few reasons why I see them as intertwined. Games generally do not hit you over the head with what they’re teaching you. Nor do they often tell you why they’re teaching you something. Heck, they don’t even tell you that they’re teaching you anything at all. They don’t always provide instructions; this means that a player must discern how to play them. As Mario Herger said at the CalTech Entrepreneurs Forum: Venturing in Serious Games for Simulation, Education, and the Enterprise, “They don’t come with a 200 page manual telling you how to use them.” Players must use their own judgment about what’s important and what comes next. This also means that a player typically makes a lot of mistakes about those things—and that’s perfectly okay. In fact, it’s expected that the player will make mistakes. Mistakes are built in to the process. Intentionally. How many other activities have the user’s mistakes planned for and built into the process?
Perhaps what games teach more than anything is the value of persistence. If failure is anticipated, so is persistence. Extra lives anyone? I’d also argue that games teach the value of a community as well. What’s the use of playing a game if you can’t share it with someone else? Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement because there are games meant to be played entirely by yourself. Solitaire is one of them. But even within solitaire you play until you absolutely can’t play anymore. And then you start again. Resilience.
Do we learn in games? Most certainly indirectly and directly as well. As mentioned earlier, we can come to understand persistence, social and moral values, community, the concept of multiple possibilities, how to assess options, the importance of planning, soft skills, hard skills—this list could go on and on and we could examine each property endlessly. But for now, let’s just consider the ways in which games provide multiple pathways to achievements despite numerous and difficult obstacles: we like a challenge.
So, what does all of this mean for Webmaker.org? A lot. There’s a huge opportunity for us to leap into the gaming boat; to set up a few challenges of our own. To ask people to not only play games, but to code games, to design and test them. Because developing a game for someone else puts you inside the mind of that someone else and encourages you to anticipate that person’s next move. And the move beyond that. And this is the nexus of playing and learning. How can you make something fun and compelling and difficult enough to excite people but easy enough for folks to win every once in a while. This is precisely what we’re aiming to do with Webmaker.
How might Webmaker Badges fit into all of this great potential? I’m guessing that some of this may appear obvious to you and I’d love to engage on that point. My next post will address how we might best integrate these two protean elements but in the interim, if you have ideas, send them my way.
McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken. New York, NY: Penguin Press.