What the kid who slammed his teacher taught me.

At the risk of lumping ‘gamification’ into one basket, it seems to me that many are using the term interchangeably with serious games and educational games. The differences between them are arguable, although gamification has emerged from pop-media-culture. Gamification is the ‘tag-line’ of Gabe Zichermann and adopted by several other social-media active brands such as Jane McGonigal and Bryron Reeves.

While games in education are not new, in order for new brands to sell books, conference tickets and consultancy gigs, it clearly pays to invent a new idiom. In essence, motivating and engaging learners is a piece of cake with gamification.

Except it isn’t. In fact I believe that attempting to gamify-content is the wrong direction. That content could be subject fodder, it could be problems or work-place practices. Attempting to gamify the substance of the action is fraught with problems, a useful argument with which catch the attention of the common herd.

Rather than improve performance or stability of a learning design, games work best with they highlight the discrepancies between act and content, between performance and proposition – in the mind of the player.

We play games for many reasons. The content of the game is the landscape, the environment which is represented to the player in one form or another, but is interpreted in a multitude of ways. This leads to each player’s performance being unique. Although the idea might be, solve a set of problems and earn the points, it’s a false proposition to suggest the player has understood anything new, or anything that will be transferred to other situations.

What great games do, is provide the player with an internal image of themselves and their abilities when in this environment and provoked to act on the content. They act in legal and illegal moves. A game such a Minecraft teaches players what these are in the context of sub-goals that they player proposes. For example, I want to create a bridge with a lava-trap for un-welcome visitors. In Warcraft, the player wants better PvP gear, and so has to learn the moves needed for that sub-goal.

Games are not about leveling or progressing from A to B, they are about learning about much more complex reasoning. I seems crazy to gamify content as a response to the long held view that in order for people to solve problems, we need to generate problem content. This isn’t what schools do, or publishers. The problem is only to past the test and to do that you don’t need to solve problems, but remember which content to repeat and which to ignore. The legal and illegal moves in school are extremely primate in comparison to the problem content presented in Minecraft (what content?) or Second Life (what do I do?) or Call of Duty (what killed me?). Kids are learning how to opimise their performance by reducing the number of illegal moves it takes to solve the content-problem.

Why do kids Google? You might believe it is because they are lazy, or that the Internet is filled with great information for free. I think they do it because it reduces illegal moves – even if the problem is just that of getting though boring content and please their teacher.

Of course there are many types of problem content that have been used for years outside of games. Sadly school-designers didn’t believe this was needed. After all, what schools we’re to produce are workers, who will operate in a system. Giving them problem content would give them the ability to not just find ‘bullshit’, but to create it, and feed it back to any system no smart enough to filter it.

To me, any declaration that the way lessons are designed falls under ‘gamification’ would be sufficient for me to avoid it. For example, gamified lessons are almost always state specific and content specific. Students learn to identify correct information by the responses they receive. What makes gamers very good at problem solving is their experience at reasoning over several problem types.

In school age education, this isn’t required. Addicted to the Blooms step-ladder, the questions presented are predicable and isolated from reality. To pass the test, one must learn to pass the test, not test the problem. If we allowed kids to test the problem, we would accept lies as correct answers as being evidence of their understanding. When you see lies (or illegals) on an exam paper, they are marked in-correct and often put online examples of a student being a smart-arse or dummy. The over-arching need is however to determine which students pass and which fail.

I think that in looking at games, educators should be able to firstly demonstrate they know about information processes, and how to evidence them with technology. This isn’t points or badges (please keep up). These are the vital performance components we need to find any validity for using a games with present one form of problem content or another.

So, if you know what information processes happen in Warcraft, you can use it to teach anything you like, in any manner you like – provided you know how to MAP THESE ELEMENTS back to current situation. To know if you are teaching them, not just wasting their time on personal vanity excursions – then the student must be able to perform analogous experiments. That sounds dense – try this. Kids building over and over in Minecraft are teaching themselves in this way. They don’t need help, they just need valid problem content. This is what went into Massively Minecraft, and why I was, from day one, opposed to the idea of lessons. Lessons are not about reducing illegal moves, creating new sub-problems and experiments. Lessons have outcomes that can be ticked with a red-pen and uploaded to government statistical propaganda websites.

Is this a literacy? Perhaps. But the Blooms triangle is wrong and in-compatible (sorry Edlandians).

Games require ill-defined problem spaces. These can be made of anything. The nature of the problem has to be established before any content is needed. It must relate to past analogous experiments. From this, we can construct – not the game, but the player.

  • Encoding
  • Inference
  • Mapping
  • Application
  • Comparison
  • Justifications

They must be challenged to do this using combinations of operations as the combinations of problem content determine the ease or difficulty. This is essential for a student to perform each successive operation successfully and to remove those which are not needed.

In effect, you can play Warcraft and learn how to pass an exam when the information processes are well structured – but not declared to the player at all. They will learn to be ‘good at’ because they are learning what information processes reduce illegal moves.

What we don’t know is how information is represented in human memory. Why is it a kid with elite gaming skills and creativity finds it hard to complete classroom tasks

For the most part, school rarely requires students to act, merely to remember the packets. I was interested this week by the kid who slammed his teacher. I think, he said “Packets” and to me that’s an important phrase. He’s talking about teaching as an information process (how would he know much educational theory). He’s a player and the packets are not reducing the moves he needs to succeed. This doesn’t relate to gamification as much as memory organisation packets or “MOPs”. Something popular in research during the 70s that I won’t delve into here.

So my suspicion is that learning about gamification is a red-herring, but it keeps some popular-media names in business. What matters is how well we learn to construct information packets for a generation playing games. This should have a lasting impact on the memory as well as being entertaining and building efficacy in the player.

I wish my kids could learn a language at the same light speed they learned Warcraft. Packets in games are use information process that target normative methods (this is how I did it), associated states (I could try this) and associated actions (I could do it like this). All the time, a game deals with elements in a present situation. Despite being a fantasy environment, games present situations in ways school processes don’t. The student is not actively present in the problem – and therefore often not in a receptive state of mind.

There are of course massive problems and gaps in this post (which is just me thinking out loud). No least age, individual differences and so on. What does seem essential to me is that students benefit from being given specific lessons on problem-solving skills (especially girls). This has, over generations shown that students, when given future problem content have greater insight.

There isn’t a video game out there that doesn’t do this, but there are classrooms everywhere which ignore it – or worse, assume it’s only the gifted or smart kids that can handle it. I guess the big deal here is that you don’t need any technology to do implement this at all.


2 thoughts on “What the kid who slammed his teacher taught me.

  1. Hi Dean,

    I got his drift however I I perceived his reference to the term “packets” a little more superficially. I took the term literally… “packets” of stuff. The students were given packaged self-contained lessons with little or no interaction. Correct me if I am wrong. I have not watched his subsequent interviews.



    • Oh quite possibly John. I just heard packets and then started thinking about packets. Another brain-tab opened.

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