Fixing the Game of Education
It’s time to learn the lessons of interactive organized fun
By MARTIN REZNY
If you’re interested in education reforms or gaming, maybe you have heard a term that encapsulates the topic I’d like to address in this essay — gamification of education. First, I’ll explain the basic concept, and then I’ll propose to move it way further than how it’s currently being adapted even in the cases of those educational applications that already find themselves ahead of the curve.
Did you ever wonder why computer games are fun? How do they manage to keep you engaged even in trivial, repetitive tasks for hours on end? At its worst, conventional education is perceived by the majority of students as exactly that, a pointless grind, but in the case of school, not even meaningful exercises feel like fun, let alone grind. Well, neither is accidental, obviously.
At its least, gamification in education means adoption of simple reward features like points or merit badges, the effect of which should be surprising to absolutely no one, because even scouts in offline world get those for the same reasons. Even though such rewards are ultimately pointless, they seem to speak to some urges inside us for instant gratification or collecting of stuff.
Such a measure costs nothing to implement and would not even affect the system as a whole — same people will keep their employment or control over curricula. And yet, schools so far still seem to prefer negative threat of punishment for failure as the primary motivation, which clearly makes nothing fun. If computer games were like that, people wouldn’t play them.
The Playability Issue
Since education too has quests and challenges, rules and players, winners and losers, it’s really hard to see it as anything other than a game. The main difference until now between the game of education and computer games was that the education system doesn’t respond in the same way to both behavior and feedback of its players. Where games care to engage, education does not.
Beyond points and badges and similar subtle nudges and behavioral triggers, gaming fundamentally differs in the procedure through which the player pursues goals. Even completely linear games that don’t really offer any choice of change of direction to the player still at least allow the player to progress at her own pace, giving her any number of opportunities to try again if she fails.
Failure is not to be dreaded, it’s to be overcome. The response of players? They’re conditioned to keep trying until they succeed. Not surprisingly, this motivates the players to not give up on the game. Education forces its own schedule on the student and then punishes everyone that fails every time they fail, mainly by bad grades with associated stigma and closing of opportunities.
To engage players even further, games often go beyond the linear model altogether and give the players some actual choices of how to overcome the challenges (selection of character class or strategy), or even which quests to undergo in the first place, or in what order. This makes the game interesting and fun to explore. Education on the other hand sticks to near total linearity.
The State of User Friendly Education
Examples of current educational initiatives that apply gamification to improve the effectiveness of learning of course exist, but compared to what’s possible, they’re quite conservative, in addition to not being large in scope. Generally, they consist of the reward systems, interactive and online ways of conveying information from the curriculum, group learning, or serious simulations.
Which is all absolutely fine. To my knowledge there’s nobody saying that they don’t work as advertised, since an educational system processed by a computer is completely quantifiable and testable virtually by definition. When I reviewed Khan Academy again for the purposes of writing this article, I got hooked to do a couple of first grade math exercises for fun. I’m 28 years old.
Many games across a number of genres have since their humble beginnings incorporated especially math problems as an obstacle to overcome. I can’t even count how many times I have solved classical logical puzzles based for example on finding missing numbers in a sequence. I also happen to know more facts about certain game worlds than I do about real world countries.
The point is that games work. They’re sought out and enjoyed by the youth en masse and of their free will, they’re effective at both conditioning their players and conveying information to be memorized, and given their cybernetic nature, they’re super friendly especially to math and logic based quests and testing. If only there was a way to organize a game for masses.
The Real World Success of MMORPGs
Oh wait, there is. There are games that involve and coordinate more players than some entire national education systems. Of the target age groups. If Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games show us anything, it’s that a highly gamified model of education is entirely possible even on the largest of scales. I’d like to focus on explaining why that should inspire education.
First, the massive multiplayer online part. The technology exists to create a truly international or even global education system, and there are a number of reasons why that alone is a great idea. For starters, it would work against nationalist biases and work to undermine barriers between cultures, as well as to make sure that attempts at mass teaching of foreign languages actually work.
But the real prize is understanding how role playing game mechanics would be wonderful inspiration for education as an enterprise, all the way up to the highest academic levels and perhaps even social and political organization of communities. As someone who has spent years getting a masters degree in political science, I figured it out while playing a mage in Morrowind.
Mage guilds in a game like this one are already modeled somewhat on the example of real world academias, and within the game, the similarity is very close. You need to run errands for superiors, learn information from heady tomes, collect samples and perform experiments, that sort of thing. What was strange to me was that I enjoyed it more in the game than at the real college.
Structures That Bind and Structures That Free
If I had to boil it down to a single word, it would be freedom. Even though all the pathways in any computer game are always predetermined, what’s not is the pace, the ordering, and the level of completion (beyond minimal necessary limitations). In comparison, studying at a university felt more like being in the military — authority of superiors was law, rewarding obedience.
But more than that, there were all of these arbitrary walls. In Elder Scrolls games, you could play as a mage, a warrior, or a rogue, or any combination of the three. Classes are fluid in a way in which fields are not. I studied a combination of journalism and political science and I faced real difficulty in trying to actually combine the two in front of my teachers. The link is there.
If the subjects to be studied were instead of clear separation broken down into individual skills just like in many RPGs, a completely dynamic generalist approach would be possible. While I wanted to combine politics and media, my interests didn’t end there. I’m also seriously interested in subjects that range from poetry to astrophysics, but no university is that flexible.
But it can be, and not chaotically so. If you break down all studiable subjects of science and arts into a skill tree, you can make requirements for instance of transitional continuity, making it a map with connecting web of pathways between subjects that has to be navigated like a game board. You can divide skills into levels and require a student being a certain level to unlock options.
In this model, education wouldn’t have to have a clear beginning and an end, but by tracking the progress of the player, you’d see exactly at all times what level she is at which skills in her character profile. It would actually be much more transparent than the current black box of a diploma. If you don’t want it to get too crazy, you can always put some limits on combinations of classes.
As such it would also break the age cohort barriers and allow for dynamic changes of pace of progress. Some real world material limitations would still apply, naturally, because there wouldn’t be infinite number of teachers with infinitely flexible schedule, but using the online databases and networking, a great deal of learning wouldn’t require a living teacher in real time at all.
If testing would still be important to get certifications, in such a system it would be easier to automate or self-administer the tests using cheating countermeasures that games like this use, not to mention that students could be analyzed in much more complex fashion if more of the learning was computerized. People would enter the equation to measure quality.
And finally, much like players organize in clans, an MMORPG-like education system would allow for much easier and much more powerful peer to peer learning mechanics. Teachers could shift from a military dictator like status to a much more helpful moderator, advisor, and administrator status, or become the equivalent of NPC characters of a game, helpers or challenge facilitators.
At first glance, that may not seem necessary, but atomization of students so that they cannot effectively cooperate on problems (because that’s cheating) is one of the most egregious unexamined settings of conventional education systems. Another thing that helps nothing is putting teachers into position of unquestionable authority forcing the students to do something they hate.
The Battle Over Our Future
There’s one more thing I feel I should mention. Look, I’m not naive. I realize that there are pragmatic reasons for leaving the education systems exactly as they are. To a variable degree based on a country in question, they’re supposed to inculcate nationalism in the students, to train unquestioning obedience of authority, and a sense that one has a place in a strict hierarchy.
I recognize that there aren’t unlimited jobs available, which means that there have to be some losers, even if one needs to manufacture them. I see that resources are limited and you wouldn’t want to spend them on the dumb and the disobedient. I’m not at all surprised by the existence of various vested interests that want to keep making money or remaining employed, and so on.
I just respectfully choose to fuck all that noise. It’s inhumane, a form of intellectual violence, and detrimental to the future of almost all individuals involved and the human race as a whole. It’s cowardly, petty, greedy, scientifically backward, stirring pointless conflicts, and breeding sheeple. It may be happening, but that doesn’t make it in any way defensible.
Advanced gamification of education inspired by the MMORPG structure and mechanics would bring many actual educational benefits. If it is to be examined, criticized, and rejected, it should be on its merits, not politics. Specifically, it having merits should not be a basis for its rejection. If we can’t do it, then we can’t do it, but I remain convinced it’s something we should try.
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