Making school as compelling as gaming

(Half-written blogs haunt my google drive so I’m copying Toby Payne-Cook’s great housekeeping idea and publishing my 12 blog posts of Christmas. This is post 3 of 12 – I hope someone gets something out of reading these drafty ideas, but even if they don’t, I’ll feel better for being able to delete the drafts.) 

Given the free choice between spending a day at school or at home gaming, many (most?) students would pick gaming. The gaming industry has become the master of engagement. Perhaps this isn’t relevant to educators since we have legal instruments to make schooling an act of coercion rather than persuasion. However, coercion has its limits – we can force students to attend in person, but not to attend their minds to the process of learning. And we have less success in coercing many students into studying hard at home. 

In Jane McGonigal’s book called ‘Reality is Broken – Why People Play Games and How They Can Make Life Better’, she uses the principles of successful engagement in games to describe how to make society more compelling. In yesterday’s post, I described the four compelling attributes of games. In today’s post, I am going to pick out a few of her ideas to think about in relation to education.

Create the right level of difficulty, even by creating unnecessary obstacles where necessary

Some people dismiss gaming, saying that we have nothing to learn from it because games are easy and learning is difficult, which means that learning will never be enjoyable or addictive in the same way. The gaming industry would say that nothing can be further from the truth. The ‘work’ in gaming (be it mental, physical, creative, busy, etc…) is designed to be enjoyable and motivating by invoking two key sensations:

  • “Flow”, the state described by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi as being in the zone of complete absorption in what one does, so much so that it transforms one’s sense of time. It is a mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in the feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
  • “Fiero”, the feeling of pride in triumph over adversity. It is the feeling that makes you want to shout “yes” when you finally manage to do whatever it is you’ve been trying to do, whether it is to play a section of music without error or get two sections of piping to fit together or find the correct place for a piece in a puzzle. Games are designed to be punctuated with regular little sensations of “fiero”.

McGonigal writes about the importance of creating the right level of difficulty in tasks in order to create these feelings of flow and fiero. Often the real world is far too simple to create these sensations and so it creates feelings of boredom instead. As students ourselves, we will all remember these feelings of boredom at school – they will happen at different times for different people, of course (though I suspect most remember a feeling of boredom during assembly). Games overcome feelings of boredom by introducing unnecessary obstacles – rules that we agree to that make the game deliberately harder than it needs to be. Perhaps in my computer game assembly, students would be told in advance that they must compile a 10 word summary of the message of the assembly talk, or they would be required to response to relevant quiz questions as they listened to the talk.

What about the opposite problem? That some students never manage to invoke a sense of flow or fiero during school because the work is too hard? Well, I see this partly as a product of the lockstep problem – if everyone is forced to move at the same pace then it is no wonder that many cannot invoke these desirable feelings during lessons that are poorly attuned to their needs. But I’m not sure this is the whole answer since just doing the same curriculum, but slower, isn’t always what is needed.

Let me give my thoughts on this with reference to maths, a subject where strong students undoubtedly achieve flow and fiero during school and others generally do not. I followed a teach-yourself-maths scheme during the first two years of secondary school in the eighties. It was designed by SMP to deliver mixed attainment maths lessons and as students, we worked through small A5 booklets at our own pace. These booklets were brilliantly designed (as were many SMP materials) and introduced entirely new concepts to the students, as well as developing competency in topics first introduced in primary school. They were perfect at invoking sensations of flow and fiero for many students in the class, who could happily work through the booklets, getting quick feedback on success and maintaining a pace of work that they found enjoyable. But, perhaps predictably, about half the class never managed to feel that way. For those who have never liked maths or always found it difficult, they might feel it is simply impossible that they would ever experience flow or fiero in doing maths. Perhaps they are right, but I’m not so sure. I think the problem with the booklets, despite being able to work at your own pace, was two-fold. Firstly, if students had weaknesses in mathematical skills not yet mastered at primary school on which the booklets depended, the booklets simply weren’t pitched quite right for them. They needed a different curriculum, not a slower curriculum. Secondly, for any new idea being introduced, they didn’t just need to work more slowly, they needed the opportunity to practise far more examples of the new concept to fully understand and remember it. So, whilst the booklets fixed one of the common problems of the mixed attainment maths classroom – that those strongest at maths get to complete far more practice questions than those who are weaker – it didn’t fix the other problems through curriculum variation.

I don’t know whether we can regularly invoke these feelings for flow and fiero for all students in all subjects at school, but I’m interested to think more about how it might be possible. In one or two subjects, I’m quietly optimistic that technology will help.

Remove the fear of failure and create a better hope of success

Games are designed to evoke what Martin Selzman calls “flexible optimism”, the act of continually assessing abilities and adjusting effort to reach a goal. Failure in games is designed to be short and transient. It has to be, otherwise, the player will just log off! Games don’t create environments where all players are reliably successful since that is no fun at all. Instead, players know that they will achieve their goals; the only question is how quickly they can get there.

School often asks students to complete goals that are identical to all their peers (e.g. learn the curriculum), in the same finite time. It is the equivalent of telling gamers that they must complete a particular level of World of Warcraft by 6 pm tonight. That’s going to be pretty stressful for many, with a very genuine fear of failure! Where we ask students to repeatedly pursue unrealistic goals with a high likelihood of failure, psychologists say that depression becomes a real risk.

I don’t know how schools fix this because mass education simply isn’t designed to allow all students to achieve goals that are unique to them, or to achieve common goals albeit at different paces to each other. We could break the principle that students of the same age are always educated together, but this introduces another set of motivational and societal challenges. That said, I am not sure we have the balance right at the moment. (This is something we discuss in Chapter 4 of The Next Big Thing in School Improvement.)

Create more satisfying and meaningful work

McGonigal says that games are often better than reality at creating work that is satisfying and feels meaningful. This seems ironic, given it is just a game! She has a few ideas about why gamers feel this way.

Firstly, she says that the feelings of relentless optimism discussed earlier make games feel satisfying. Secondly, she feels that games often provide clearer missions and well-marked next steps than real life does and that this alone creates greater purpose for humans. Thirdly, she says that many modern games evoke stronger social connectivity than school or work does. This is not always about collaborating or working together – we know that many learning activities are best done alone. Instead, games create ambient sociability – the sense of playing alone, but together.

Finally, she says that many games are epic! They make us part of something bigger than we are alone and they give epic meaning to our actions. Adults often seek out experiences on an epic scale – joining the effort to get food out to shielding households during the pandemic, building a business, renovating a whole house, going on a demonstration, raising money through a sponsored run.

How often do children get epic experiences in schools? I know that the children of the 70s and 80s in my part of the country got to dig out swimming pools in school grounds, look after the animals on the school farms, fix cars or mechanical devices for the public on the school site. These things are largely (though not totally) lost.

Epic doesn’t have to be complicated – I remember knitting squares for blankets to be sent to Ethiopia whilst at secondary school and that felt epic to us because we were part of something bigger than ourselves. Big collective experiences, such as working towards a school play or sports tournament feel epic to the students involved.

I think there are schools that try to create these feelings of taking part in something epic in every aspect of the school day, but they are rare. In creating the School XP, I suspect Gwyn ap Harri and Andy Sprakes have created projects that feels epic to the students involved. However, it’s hard to align tasks that feel epic with the school curriculum. I suspect it is usually a less direct and therefore often inefficient way of delivering learning objectives. I understand why schools don’t feel they can do it – and if they’ve successfully engaged all their teenagers without giving them epic experiences then that’s fine.

I like McGonigal’s perspective on gaming because she isn’t trying to persuade us to naively gamify learning. Of course, some learning lends itself well to gamification, but other parts of the curriculum don’t so much. Instead, she tries to explain why humans love playing games so much, and how we can use these principles to help humans love reality too. Including school!

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