A lot of the discussion about why teachers might use video games in their class has centred around the belief that video games are motivating. It’s also the central controversy about children playing games at home — they are so motivating that they are reluctant to put them down. Education often puts forward the theory of flow — to suggest that once motivated, children are in an optimal learning zone, a view presented by Jane McGonigal (2012) from which she claimed games are optimal learning environments, which predicated the launch of her book – Reality is Broken. It’s a compelling story, bursting with emotion, pop culture and ‘common sense’ – a way to rescue the shallowing of society and death of childhood. I don’t believe this is the case, or rather that video games have somehow found secret success factors no one else has.
For most people, tweenager and above, the construction of success is now deeply linked to their construction of themselves. This is partly visible in the identities, routines and rituals that they engage in. This engagement is also one based in consumerism, where material objects are part of personal expression and communication – their Y-Phones, Tablets, Game Consoles etc., These things all combine to influence their overall motivation towards everything. For example, it influences what they say and how they behave when told to get off the Xbox in the same way it draws them to it. Parents and teachers are not dealing with opposing forces — good and bad machines, books, games, behaviours and so on, but with one behavior.
Motivation is bound by two things for the ‘screenage’ generation, expectancy and value. Expectancy is comprised abstract elements: confidence, experience, importance and success. Value is perceptive: extrinsic motivation, social motivation, achievement motivation and intrinsic motivation. These things are so complex and variable, that video games are not universally motivating, nor are they a way to engage the disenfranchised or isolated members of society. Reality is not therefore broken, but variously experienced — particularly outside of the snow-globe of TED Talks.
People enjoy games because game-designers put ‘community’ to work. To me, this is at the heart of games-based-learning and project-based-learning. Community has numerous subtle components, however four main archetypes need to be considered when we’re talking about motivation and what spaces kids are in that might tap into that: Participation; Cohesion; Identity and Creativity.
Consider Minecraft not as a game but as a community space: it’s physically located on a device, but conceptually located in media consumer culture. It has the necessary attributes of a ‘good community’ and therefore is more likely to motivate players to participate. This is what all game designers are learning to do, and is critical to the commercial and every day pop culture discussion of those games inside their respective communities.
Now ask yourself, how connected is my kid to the local corporeal community: re-visit the four factors and ask yourself are they participating in ways that are sustained over time, have they become part of a core-group and do they have an emergent role in that group. Do they find cohesion? Is the group supportive, tolerant, allow turn taking, responsive, funny and playful. Do they have an identity? Is the group self-aware, does it share vocabulary and language, does it give them a personal space and brand … and finally, is the community creative?
I’d argue some schools have massive community and others are people-factories that pretend they are a community. The thing with games is, there is no pretending. Games which are motivating have communities that are motivating … which is why gamification at school or work is not about points, badges and rewards — it’s about community.