Dissecting the terms (again) – words and terms in conversation

I’ve had conversations – conversations with game designer friends, gamers and programmers. I have noticed that a great number of them seem to disagree on the terms ‘edutainment,’ and ‘serious games.’ I remember having a conversation with one of my friends – she was working as a junior nurse inside a major hospital. I asked her: do you get to play many simulations, or games as a nurse in training? Her answer: simulations yes, games no. Then she said to me – why games? Nursing is a serious field, why should we have nurses play games? I thought that was a fair question.

At the time, I was reading Karl M. Kapp’s book on gamification and training, and for the most part – I felt somewhat convinced that gamification was the way of the future. Whenever I taught music, or took contemplative solitary walks, I saw the world through the lens of a gamer. My internal dialogue was filled with lines that sounded something like this: ten points for sprinting round the oval, twenty points for jogging around it twice, etc… I guess my thoughts weren’t so different to Jesse Schell’s address at the 2010 DICE conference.  When I talked to my nursing friend, I felt like I had to defend myself. Not sure why because by default, I like to observe arguments and I tend to sit on the fence (and I’ve noticed that my ambivalence can annoy people!), but I suppose when I spoke to her, games started to become my worldview – I saw so much potential in gamifying my own reality. I told my friend about the book I was reading, and I also told her that games can be serious – in fact that there is a whole genre of games called ‘serious games!’ I kept trying to defend myself, saying things like: I know that people in the medical field train their newbies through simulations, which aren’t really games, but games give the player real-time rewards, instant feedback, by means of points, levels and badges – and this is a highly effective teaching tool. Besides this, games give their players a safe environment to make mistakes, if you say something highly unethical to a patient in a game, the repercussions aren’t as bad, and you can make mistakes and learn from them in a safe environment. Conversation after that was light, rather than engaging ourselves in an argument on words and the appropriateness of games in a nursing context, we started to agree with each other on the implications of games in learning, on games and their limitations, and on how games can be effectively applied in education and training. It made me think more about the term ‘serious game,’ and whether it was a term used ultimately to get the skeptical people into believing in the powerful potential of games and learning.

Later on, I had a conversation with a friend who is a gamer and indie games designer. This friend said to me that he hated the term ‘serious game,’ mostly because it implied that games in this context (i.e. education and training), couldn’t be fun or interesting… And since he was a human being with a sense of humour the word ‘serious’ just seemed a little bit, well… too ‘serious’ for him. Another friend, who happened to be studying computer science right now (the same friend makes basic games for fun) said he liked the term ‘edutainment’ but thought the term ‘serious game’ was a tad bit silly – why does learning have to be ‘serious’ anyway?

It’s interesting… interesting because I have it flipped – I really don’t like the term ‘edutainment.’ To me, edutainment implies that the skills learned from the digital game are trivial, frivolous and unsophisticated. Furthermore, I have noticed that ‘edutainment’ as a term is often seen as some sort of a balancing act. Have you ever played an educational game that is so preachy that it made you cringe? You know those games that desperately try to be ‘cool’ and ‘fun?’ Rather than wanting to play them, you feel turned off by these games, and bored… See, that’s where a game has too much ‘edu’ and not enough ‘tainment’ – at least that is the case if you believe in the idea that you have to balance these two (apparently) conflicting worlds. The neutral term that I have come to adopt and use somewhat frequently is game-based learning (GBL)… However, I like to use the term ‘serious game’ because it tends to get less eye-rolls and more wows in everyday conversation… but I would love to know about your thoughts on the terms ‘edutainment’ and ‘serious games.’

Dissecting the Terms

I have been using both terms: gamification AND game-based learning in my writing, however I noticed that I haven’t yet defined or explained these terms, so this post will do just that!

In short, ‘gamification’ refers to taking digital game components (e.g. points, progress bars, levels, badges, instant feedback, avatars, aesthetics and narratives) and applying them to non-game related contexts. Gamification can happen in the workplace, or the classroom, or even inside your own home! Linkedin is a good example of a gamified system. Their progress bar for instance, gives the user (or in gamification terms the ‘player’) a sense of progression, furthermore, the labels that they give to the player (i.e. professional, expert and all-star) are essentially levels, which further enhances this feeling of progress. Gamifying something does NOT make it a game – the progress bars in Linkedin are digital game mechanics BUT Linkedin is NOT a game.

Game-based learning, also known as ‘serious games’ and edutainment refer to games that have non-entertainment objectives. Mathletics, Darfur is Dying, Flashnote Derby, Where in the world is Carmen San Diego? are all examples of learning games, or ‘serious games,’ that is, games designed with very specific educational outcomes.

Then there are entertainment games – games like Mario Party, Need for Speed and Grand Theft Auto.

I’ve defined these terms somewhat simply and in the literature that I have been reading, I have noticed that these two terms (gamification and game-based learning) are often contrasted, differentiated and juxtaposed against each other. Time and time again I read that gamification is NOT learning through games and vice versa. Reality is never that black and white, so perhaps these terms should lie on a continuum. I say this because entertainment games are at times used for learning. Take Minecraft as an example, although it was made for entertainment reasons, a great number of teachers use Minecraft to teach things like architecture and construction. And further to that, where does one draw the line between a game and a gamified system? For example Zombies, Run! is an application that tracks a runner’s route through the use of a portable device. Is this a gamified running application? Or a game? What is the aim of the game? To run from the zombies? Or to make the seemingly arduous task of exercise fun? Perhaps these three terms: entertainment games, serious games and gamification ought to be put on some kind of continuum that looks something like this:

Entertainment Games ———> Serious games ———> Gamification

Just some food for thought… I have noticed mind you, that my game design friends seem to shudder at the terms ‘serious games’ and ‘edutainment’ but that’s a topic for a different post!

How my interest in games started… some reflections and questions…

So I have a confession to make: I’ve always struggled… at school, at sports, at writing and at music. It doesn’t seem like it … but, I hate studying. I love learning, and I really love reading but I hate studying. Sure, I did do well in school, I also did well in university, and I’ve enrolled myself into two masters degrees at the moment … so I guess I’ve learned a thing or two about how the ropes work … but I’ve always struggled with motivating myself to study, with retaining things, with keeping a good routine, with the concept of self-discipline… the list goes on and this struggle is one that I continue to have to deal with to this very day. It’s what drew me into teaching, what made me fall in love with learning about the process of learning. When I teach, I feel that I can empathise with the struggle of learning, and that I have come to embrace this struggle with open arms and a heart full of love (rather than to fight it off and get frustrated with it).

I guess you could argue that this struggle is not so much a ‘struggle’ but more of a challenge (- it’s all connotation isn’t it?). Still, when I learn something new, whether it’s a new concept, a foreign language, a new piece of music or even just the act of reading a book that is peppered with meta-language that I am unfamiliar with, it is a difficult, non-linier process that can be frustrating and tiresome. As a student, and more particularly as a teacher, I have often wondered at what I could do to mitigate these feelings of frustration and weariness that can come with the process of learning. When I started teaching, I found myself repeating things related to piano playing, practice, music theory and musical notation. It left me wondering why my students struggled with retaining things that seemed to be so very simple. I wondered: What am I doing wrong? Is the way I deliver the information inherently boring? Are their notions of practice ineffective? Do they understand what I am saying?

I realised also, that the process of reading musical notation is difficult. It is a process that I have often taken for granted. However, in my undergraduate studies, I completed a number of music education units – many of which involved playing on instruments that I was unfamiliar with. I also had to learn to transcribe and notate music in alto and tenor clef – more unfamiliar territory! Of course, this whole experience made me empathise with my students. I have come to understand that reading musical notation is difficult – you have to play the right note(s), and you have to hold them for the right amount of time, all while positioning yourself at the instrument correctly. I found that these processes could be simplified with games that had very specific learning outcomes. Of course, a game with learning outcomes is never enough to win the heart of any gamer because the element of fun should never be dismissed!

So I started to go out and develop a couple of simple board games for learning. Before ‘releasing’ them to my students, I tested these games on my (then) eleven year old cousin. She was a great critic! Watching her played the games, and also hearing her comments gave me tremendous insight into what worked and what didn’t work. After some fine tuning, I started to play them with my students. I noticed that games were a highly effective way to teach a great range of skills from music theory, to technique to listening skills. Another thing I noticed was that many of the children who I taught wanted to play games – they asked if they were allowed to play certain games in their lesson – I guess there is no surprise there, but I suppose it verifies that many of us are intrinsically motivated to play games. A few months later, once I started to make and play the games in the lessons, I came up with the idea of having a games lending library. I started to make several of the same games, and I loaned them to my students on an as needed basis. The idea was that the parents would take the games home, to play them with their children, so that basic music theory concepts could be enforced in a fun and interactive way, and as a side-effect the parents could be informed and involved with what goes on in their children’s music education.

It was interesting to watch the flow on effect of what these games did to my students’ retention. I wish I could say that games were a magic antidote that solved my woes that led me to stop repeating myself week after week, that teaching became so easy… but reality isn’t never really that simple. I found that certain students with busy schedules didn’t have much time for music practice, let alone for games. And more than this, in order for retention to happen the games needed to be played several times, not just once or twice in the week. Still, I’m not here to write about how I don’t believe in educational games, or gamification… because my degree is centred on game-based learning and gamification. And I still use games in my teaching, because I can see that there are a great number of benefits that come out of playing games with my students. I have found that games are interactive learning experiences, and because of their interactivity, it gives me a great opportunity to truly assess whether or not my students understand something. Asking ‘does that make sense?’ can be less effective than watching them name a note in a simple flashcard game. Another thing I have found is that thanks to games, my students enjoy learning technique, music theory, history and aural skills. When I started teaching music privately, one of my students (a nine year old boy) stated that he hated music theory and frankly didn’t want to do any of it. Since his music theory experience was (regrettably) limited to worksheets in a book, I didn’t blame him!

I’m writing this to start the discussion on educational games – If you teach, or are learning/studying – do you play games and what have your own personal experiences told you?

Games and Self-Efficacy, an introductory post

I just completed a course on Coursera called ‘Teaching Character: Creating Positive Classrooms.’ I even have a verified certificate to prove it! I am generally not a huge fan of MOOCs, because I think the pedagogy leaves something to be desired (as a gamification/game-based learning enthusiast, I find myself thinking that MOOCs could definitely be more interactive). Having said that, I like the idea of having an education that is accessible to anybody… and I have to say, there is something very special about watching lectures and interviews conducted by some of your most favourite people. In fact, it is very, very inspiring to watch a lecture conducted by the same guy who wrote the book that you just finished reading! MOOCs aside, I loved this course, and I would highly recommend it to anybody who works with children.

What I mostly took away from this course was the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their capabilities. Tied into the concept of self-efficacy is motivation, grit, mindset and confidence. ‘Mindset’ is a term coined Carol Dweck. In her research Dweck asked the question: do you think intelligence is acquired or innate? This inevitably led to the students falling into two distinct groups – individuals who believed that intelligence was innate (fixed mindset) and individuals who believed that intelligence was acquired (growth mindset). Dweck found that individuals with a fixed mindset tended to stick to things that they were good at, the same individuals were afraid to venture out and try new things. Conversely, individuals with a growth mindset didn’t mind challenging themselves, they accepted failure and saw it as an opportunity to learn. According to Dweck, praising children with terms like ‘smart’ or ‘genius’ communicates to children that their abilities are not acquired, but innate – which in turn promotes the idea of a fixed mindset.

Educational psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth furthered the discussion on self-efficacy by coining the term ‘grit.’ ‘Grit’ can be defined as a person’s ‘perseverance and passion for long term goals.’ Grit, according to Duckworth, is integral to success, and also more important than I.Q. Before getting into educational psychology, Duckworth was a mathematics teacher. From her experience, she found that the students who succeeded did not necessarily have higher I.Qs. However, what they did have was a high level of grit, these students tried, and kept trying even in the face of failure. In an interview conducted on Coursera, Duckworth talks about her own personal experience as a parent, and she says that she tries to promote grit by praising effort, not talent.

I remember watching this interview/lecture feeling moved, thinking that I should be really conscientious in my praises to my students. Nowadays, I reward hard work, not talent, and I try to be constructive and specific in my praises, because I see praise as a kind of feedback. In the past I would just say something bland like: ‘Wow, that’s impressive! Great work!’ OR ‘you are really very, very clever and talented’ but in recent times my praise now sounds like: ‘Wow, I really loved the way you opened the piece, it really drew me in as a listener, especially since you started it very loudly and confidently. I can tell, you’ve been working really, really hard on this! I think to make this piece sound even better, you could try detaching those notes in the beginning… How do you think we could make this piece sound better?!’ OR alternatively I often say ‘that took you twenty minutes to learn up, and in that twenty minutes you managed to play through that section again and again until it sounded right, do you see how clever you become when you work hard?!’ I also find myself saying that mistakes are awesome because we can learn from them.

This all made me wonder: can games teach self efficacy?

When I started to read about gamification and game-based learning, I came across an idea in a book written by Karl Kapp titled ‘Gamification of Learning and Instruction.’ In his book, Kapp stated that games provide players with the opportunity to try again after failing. They give their participants a safe environment to make mistakes. Games also give players instant feedback (often through points, but also in words) and this in turn gives the player the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. I watched another lecture conducted by Jane McGonigal, where she stated that we fail at games 80% of the time – but think about it, when we do fail, we don’t give up, we want to keep trying. Unlike standard worksheets, tests or other traditional methods of assessment, games give the player an infinite amount of opportunities to try again after failing. All of this made me think that games, when designed effectively could do great things to self-efficacy. So I wanted to investigate what games did to mindset – do games promote growth mindset? Can they teach grit? I just came across a moving speech given by Dweck where she talks about the power of the word ‘yet.’ You can check out the video here, but if you are short of time, what got me excited was the fact that she talked about an online mathematics learning game that she helped design. Unlike typical maths games where students are rewarded for the correct answer at the correct time, this game rewarded students for strategy, effort and progress. The results, according to Dweck, were positive as many of the students put in more effort, more strategies and they were also engaged for a longer periods of time, they also had more perseverance when they came across the more difficult problems. It made me think – so games can be an effective way to teach grit and growth mindset… I have done some more reading on the area of games and self-efficacy… and all of this will be explored in another blog post. Stay tuned!