Playing, Studying and Designing Games

20121209-124333.jpgI’ve been searching for a book like this one for a while. A comprehensive overview of game play, academic research, application of games in all sorts of learning situations, lots of ideas and examples written in a fast-paced format filled with examples, illustrations and recommendations for further investigation. Give Bloomsburg University professor Karl M. Kapp the full one- thousand points for a terrific, accessible, smart book, but deduct a few points from the publisher’s total because the appealing title, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction isn’t really what this book is about…mostly, Kapp is writing about game design and not gamification.

What’s the difference? Well, that’s precisely the kind of issue that the professor addresses. Turns out, the distinction matters.

I like this definition of a game, provided by Raph Koster in a Theory of Fun and quoted by Kapp;


a game is a system in which players engage in an abstract challenge, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome often soliciting an emotional reaction.

Kapp attempts to define gamification as:

…using game-based mechanics, aesthetics, and game thinking to engage people, motivate action, promote learning, and solve problems.

In short, gamification seems to be game design with a pro-social purpose.

Certainly, the book is filled with examples of purpose-built games for use in elementary school classrooms, training for firefighters, process improvement instruction, road safety, medical operations, and so on.

Most of the book is about game design, and associated psychology. Some examples:

When designing to teach high-level skills and high-order thinking, as applied to teaching leadership talent, it’s important to focus on ultra-quick decision making, the split-second shifts that a leader must make when considering and sometimes over-riding consensus, the encouragement of risk-taking for greater success, and thinking about leadership not as a role but as a task that can be passed among team members as the situation requires. The overarching idea here is “game thinking” – shorthand for an immersive environment in which real-life is reshaped to emphasize specific issues and de-emphasize others.


I appreciated Kapp’s recap of Man, Play, and Games by the French philosopher, Roger Caillois. It was Caillois who identified for types of games: Agôn (competition), Alea (chance), Mimicary (simulation, role play) and Ilinx (state of dizziness and disorder). The last of these, Ilinx, is “the pursuit of vertigo, and trying to destroy the stability of perception”–children spinning around, and mountain climbing are examples.

There is a rundown on studies by serious researchers that suggest a string connection between games and learning, most with small sample sizes and narrow perspectives. To a greater extent than we may wish to admit, the connections between games, intent and measurement are young. We’re all learning what all of this means, and, in a world where digital engagement can be so closely aligned with learning, what it’s all going to mean as schools, K-12 education, and adult learning take their rightful place in the 21st century.

Tech Changes Education

The Schoology logo connects classroom management, online learning and social networking.

Late in October, just before the storms, Forbes ran a useful summary of several trends that promise to reshape classroom education. It was swritten by Jeremy Friedmanthe CEO of Schoology, a company that makes software for the classroom.

No surprise that the key trends emphasize individualized learning based upon technology. Certainly, the ubiquity of cloud computing encourages document sharing, and collaboration regardless of each individual student’s location. “The 2012 Horizon Report, which provides insights into education technology trends, predicts that collaborative environments are about one year away from mainstream adoption.” That seems ambitious to me, but I’m sure that the most advanced, well-funded, tech-enabled schools will begin to make this statement true.

Given the realities of most schools, the idea of cross-platform integration may seem like an impossible dream, but vendors are beginning to work together to unify their approaches to digital learning. Forbes believes more strongly in this future than I do, or, perhaps, than most teachers probably do.

It’s now nearly impossible to imagine a classroom without mobile technology, but again, imagination is ahead of reality. Certainly, “(Mobile apps) are abundant, inexpensive and easily accessible…” but the question is not the apps, it’s the devices. A new movement toward BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device,” of course) is gaining traction. In itself, this is remarkable: just two years ago, many teachers, principals and administrators were doing everything they could to keep Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and other “distractions” away from the classroom. Still, the levels of coordination present major challenges: Apple, Android or Windows? Curriculum at the national, state, district, school, classroom, or individual level? For all students, advanced students, average students, challenged students? Apps are easier to develop and produce than traditional software, but it’s not the software engineering that’s the issue, it’s what it does, and how what it does fits into any sort of master plan.

This raises the issue of adaptive learning, a domain that is already being addressed by at least one company: Knewton “responds in real time to the activity of each user on the system and adjusts to provide the most relevant content…” What’s more: “Knewton is able to capture every move a student makes – scores, speed, accuracy, delays, keystrokes, click-streams and drop-offs. The platform collects this data and the software adapts to challenge and persuade the user to learn based on his/her individual style. Pretty amazing stuff!

The buzz idea of the year seems to be gamification–that is, just about everything becomes a kind of game. At first, this seems to be a frivolous undertaking, but you need to think more broadly about games and how they work. A good game is a simulation of life, a design for activity within bounded rules. In this regard, games are a simplification, a reduction of real life situations that allow learners to focus on specific learning objectives. And, these learning objectives are readily scored, and, under the best of circumstances, presented in a way that connects learning and fun.

There’s funding behind this approach: “Game-based learning is even one of the priorities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which earlier this year helped launch the Games, Learning and Assessment (GLASS) Lab. According to the organization, GLASS Lab is “based on the understanding that digital games and simulations can support student learning by providing immediate feedback for students, teachers and parents on students’ progress toward established learning goals”” The article describes even more funding from the game maker Electronic Arts, and the Entertainment Software Association, and, also, from the MacArthur Foundation. The non-profit at the center of all of this: Institute of Play. I looked at their website. I need to visit. Soon.

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