Class Week Five: Gamification and Transfer

This week in class, we talked some more about Jane McGonigal’s TED talk on gaming, gamers and their potential to change/save the world. I think we were all happy for the chance to discuss the substance of her talk after listening to it the week before. There was certainly some skepticism about whether gamers would be able to transfer their productivity, urgent optimism, and work ethic to a different kind of game–an educational game, essentially. I appreciated that, as a class, we approached the topic conservatively, using Henry Jenkins’ framework of a “spinach sundae”; that educational games don’t taste very good and aren’t very good for you either, that “most of the ‘edutainment’ games on the market have all the entertainment value of a bad game and all the educational value of a bad lecture.” There seems to be a fine line between those two elements, entertainment and education; most kids would be able to see right through the “sundae” portion of a mediocre game. What makes some, like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Oregon Trail, more engaging (and legendary) than Math Blasters?

One instance of gamification that I’ve personally seen be successful is the AADL’s Summer Game. The first summer I felt a bit sheepish playing along, since I assumed it was meant for kids and teens. But some of the prizes are unmistakably aimed at adults (I played chiefly to win the excellent RoosRoast coffee beans and AADL mug set this year, for example). Everyone benefits: you earn points for checking out books and movies, points based on how many pages or minutes the item has, as well as points for reviewing, rating, and tagging items in the catalog. There are also many different badges to earn by tracking down information on the library’s web site and in their online collections. You can then use these points for some very cool prizes. The game greatly increases circulation, increases knowledge among patrons, and engages users with their library. The AADL gets more people in the door and has their catalog greatly enhanced. While this type of game doesn’t quite fit with McGonigal’s view, as the AADL’s game isn’t completely online nor is it as immersive, the AADL is still taking advantage of gamers’ competitiveness (the Summer Game has a leaderboard) and intense work ethic to achieve something good for users and the library.

Talking about gaming and the traits of gamers fed nicely into our discussion about transfer and working with prior knowledge. I don’t know if I’m an overly cynical person when it comes to school, but I was feeling some cynicism when we looked at the example of comparing the French Revolution and the Egyptian Revolution; if I imagined myself as a teenager in the class, I might feel as though I could see through the exercise and through the teacher’s intentions and be a bit skeptical of investing time in the exercise. But as I reflect on my reaction, I’m not feeling the cynicism anymore. I know the use of “hook” questions, like the example of a teacher saying, “You’re a grad student whose parents offer to buy a car. How do you decide on one with the best gas mileage, cheapest insurance, etc.?” would automatically make my want to flex my problem-solving skills, versus hearing “Today we’re going to look at Consumer Reports Online.”

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One thought on “Class Week Five: Gamification and Transfer

  1. Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Traill… thanks for reminding me of those blissful hours! I guess in answer to your question about what makes them better than others, I would guess it’s because they have a sophisticated narrative structure. Also, Oregon Trail lets you choose characters and (in the version I played in elementary school) name them after your friends, making it a personalized experience and giving you something to joke about when one of you “died.” Altogether, I think the success of these games is that they are not just a front for a lesson, but more of an immersion experience. When you think about it, that’s a lot closer to how a lot of us played as young children, (e.g. “house,” “cops and robbers,” etc.) so it’s a natural way for us to both entertain ourselves and learn about the world.

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