Friday, March 11, 2011

My Problem With Gamification

This blog post is indicative of the kind being thrown around by so-called "gamification" aficionados. I've seen a number of others along the same lines, but this one is fairly succinct and direct, and I think it can act as a proxy for other similar statements. If you're in too much of a hurry to read it, the practical upshot can be summed up in three points:
  1. The education system in the US is broken.
  2. Grades are an outdated game mechanic. This is part of the problem.
  3. Replacing grades with other extrinsic motivations such as virtual currency is superior and will give students the motivation they need to learn.
Okay, so I have no problem with saying education is broken. It's hard to find anyone who thinks otherwise these days. What about the other two points?

Grades may be part of the problem, but they are not an "outdated game mechanic" because they are not a game mechanic at all. Very often I see rewards classified as "game mechanics" but they are not. The term "game mechanic" has a specific meaning to game designers; roughly speaking, a mechanic is a description of a systemic reaction to an event (such as a player input or a given kind of game state). A reward system that describes the conditions on which a reward will be handed out, and the exact rewards tied to what actions, would be a game mechanic. A grading rubric is a game mechanic. A grade or other reward itself is, in game design terms, a resource or a reward (but not a mechanic). Anyone who is going to speak of something as a game, needs to learn their terminology.

Second, and this is where a lot of "gamification" things fail: extrinsic rewards destroy intrinsic motivation. This has been documented so many times, I'm amazed I even have to say it. You could make a valid argument that by their nature as an extrinsic motivator, grades reduce a student's intrinsic love of learning. But to say that replacing one form of extrinsic motivation (grades) with another (virtual currency) seems flawed in the extreme. They have the same problem! Here's a recent example, where the introduction of 'badges' made students concentrate on earning badges to the detriment of their learning. Well, duh!

You might be thinking: Okay, Ian, if you're so smart, then what is the fix to grades? I would say that we need to do a better job separating the grade (assessment) from the actual learning. Let the reward for learning be the fact that you're learning something awesome and it's giving you new skills and abilities, and you are "leveling up" merely by learning it. I understand we can't do away with assessments entirely, but how about we be clear that they are assessments, not rewards? Young kids start out looking at the world around them with a sense of wonder; in theory, it should not be that hard to simply not get in their way as they enjoy learning stuff.

Look at any expert that is passionate about their field... say, a physicist. Do you think they were motivated to learn physics because they got good grades, or because they thought it was inherently awesome to learn about how the world around them actually works? For that person, this fascination with How Stuff Works is their reward, and as teachers we would do well to find out what makes it so fun for that person to do physics all day, and how we can show our students how awesome that is for them, too. And this is something that the external reward systems propagated by "gamification" systems simply doesn't seem to account for.

Let me be clear. As far as using best practices from the field of game design and applying that to make other tasks more fun and enjoyable, I'm a huge fan of doing this, especially when it comes to teaching. At its best, this is what "gamification" is, and I'm all for it. But all too often I see the term "gamification" used synonymously with "external rewards such as points or virtual goods" and that is something we must all be very careful with, because that may solve some problems in the short term but is probably ineffective or even detrimental to learning in the long term.

Monday, March 07, 2011

My Education Rant

At GDC this year, I was given ten minutes to speak at the Game Educators Rant. I actually went over by a few minutes (with apologies to my fellow panelists) so I had to cut the end of the presentation a little short. What follows are my notes (sans slides, and edited for strong language since this is not meant to be an M-rated blog).

I’d like to start with an apology. I like futurists. They’re really entertaining to listen to, and their picture of the future always sounds so bright. But sometimes when I listen to them, maybe you feel this way too or maybe it’s just me, I feel like they’re from another planet. Ray Kurzweil has said at a past GDC that we are approaching a time where our lifespan will increase at a rate faster than +1 year per year of time (indicating we’ll live forever); Jane McGonigal’s current spiel with her new book is that games will save the world. I’ll have a hard enough time just living through GDC week, and making games that are fun. Now I’m supposed to live forever and save the world? No pressure, right?

By contrast, I normally consider myself a pretty down-to-earth guy. But for this rant, I’d like to take a very rare opportunity to put on my futurist hat, so I hope you’ll indulge me as I metaphorically leave Earth and start making some pretty wild-sounding pronouncements.

Present Day, 2011

First let me start with what’s going on present day, because even if I can’t predict the future, at least I can predict the present. Within the past year, maybe a dozen or so entrepreneurs all got the same idea at the same time. They identified an underserved market need: there are a lot of people out there who want to learn something, without having to deal with formalized education such as colleges and universities. I’m sure that each of these has an identical business plan, which goes something like this:

  1. Become an open education platform.
  2. Attract educators who are willing to put their content on your site for free (maybe you’ll pay them to develop content, just to get eyeballs on your site), and pitch to other educators who want to charge some nominal amount for access. The site collects a percentage to pay its expenses and make some profit that’s used to fuel growth.
  3. In a few years, become THE place for people to go for this, the Amazon or eBay or whatever of casual learning. Be the first to market; perform a big land grab before anyone else realizes just how wide open and in-demand this space is.
  4. Get acquired by Google, pocket the money, and that’s the exit strategy to tell to the VCs to get funding.

In Entrepreneur magazine last month there was a full article on this emerging trend of what they called “casual learning”. So this is clearly something that’s happening right now. But before I talk about what this means in the future, I want to talk about the past and how we got here.

Distant to Recent Past

Maybe I’m an idealist, but I like to fantasize that some time long ago, the primary mission of universities was education, research, and service. Somewhere along the line, funding got cut, and schools had to make a decision: make due with less even if it means not fulfilling the mission as well as they’d like, or shift focus to getting more money to continue the mission. There was a shift towards the latter; a focus on education changed to a focus on tuition. Instead of just doing research, it became important to write grants and get research funding. In place of community service, there was a shift to profit generation through fee-for-service. Eventually schools seemed to focus on money entirely, and the original mission was backgrounded or forgotten.

Maybe we were hoping that people wouldn’t notice, and maybe for awhile they didn’t, but when we started squeezing our students with tuition increases that were higher than the increase in cost of living, we started to look like greedy bastards. And not only were we greedy bastards, but we’re arrogant greedy bastards: not only do we charge an arm and a leg for tuition, but we won’t even let them pay for tuition unless they first apply and are accepted to our school; they have to be good enough to give us money, at least for the private schools.

Side rant: when looking at tuition increases, many academics are quick to point out how their school offers a generous financial aid program that most of their students take advantage of. Don’t try to convince me that financial aid fixes any of this, unless you’d be happy going to the supermarket to get a gallon of milk and being charged $50,000 for it, but you can get it at a reasonable price if you fill out an application showing your financial need. Financial aid isn’t help for students, it’s market segmentation to extract the highest dollar possible from our students, so let’s not pretend that we’re doing any favors here.

Anyway, people got tired of dealing with formal higher education and started looking for other ways to get their education without an extra helping of bureaucracy. One of the more notorious side effects of this was the “correspondence course,” and I’m sure there were times in the past where pundits would say that this was going to totally disrupt and displace higher education, and of course it hasn’t. I mention this because it seems on the surface to have a lot of similarities to these kinds of online casual learning experiences I’m talking about, and I’m about to tell you here that online casual learning is going to slaughter formalized game education, so it’s worth saying why casual learning isn’t just the next fad in correspondence courses.

The main thing that really makes a difference is that it’s on the internet. Web 2.0, in fact. This sounds terribly cliché, so let me explain by taking my first tentative steps into what I see as an inevitable future, and you’ll see what I mean.

The Future, Part 1: 2016

There’s obviously enough demand today to support casual learning as a business, so at some point in the future, one of the existing services, or another like it, will almost certainly emerge as the clear market leader. I give it 5 years tops before this happens, probably a bit less. Look at other spaces where a need was identified and there was a big startup gold rush to capture and monopolize the space: how long did it take during the dotcom boom to go from there being a ton of competitors in the online auction space to having eBay be dominant, or for Amazon to corner the market on online book sales? How long does it take a new Web browser to totally displace the previous one? Time flies fast in Internet years, so it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to say that within 5 years at most we will have one company that is the single undisputed household-name go-to site for this kind of learning.

Two days later it’ll get acquired by Google, because it’s just the kind of thing they do.

The Future, Part 2: 2021

Once a single casual learning company dominates, their website will start to become a giant education collective that attracts everyone. If you want to learn something, this is going to be the first place you’ll look. If you’re a leader in your field and want to teach something, put your information here. It’s just like why everyone goes to eBay for auctions: if you want to buy something at auction you’ll go there because that’s where the sellers are, if you want to sell you’ll go there because that’s where the buyers are.

It’s obvious that learners will go here because they can get their education more cheaply than with a university, if nothing else. But you might wonder, why would an educator take their course content and put it up there, instead of doing what we’ve always done, by teaching classes at a school and publishing textbooks? The answer is our commitment to service, because we believe in our hearts that information and education should be freely available to everyone.

Ha ha, just kidding, it’s all about the money. The fact is that you’ll put your course up here because you can teach a class and get paid, oh, somewhere in the range of $2k to $5k (US) for a single 10-week course if you do the math. Or you can put it on a casual learning website, charge $100 per student, fill 100 seats and make 2x to 5x more money per class, even after Google takes their 10% cut. 100 students sounds like a lot of work until you remember that this is casual learning, so there are no assignments, no assessments, and no grading, so you’ll actually spend less time making more money for the same class. The students of course are happy to pay $100 for a class that would normally cost them thousands if they took it through a school, so you will fill those seats.

Now that you understand the opportunity, here’s the big paradigm-shifting area where online casual learning is a huge step beyond those correspondence-by-mail courses: the ability to form online communities. Just like with Amazon, students won’t just be buying a product (taking a class), they’ll also be asked to rate the quality of the content and instruction. Before too long, all the best courses will bubble to the top. You couldn’t do this with correspondence which I think is why it was always so marginal; maybe a tiny fraction of those learn-by-mail classes are actually halfway decent, but as a consumer you have no way of knowing which ones are worth it and which ones aren’t. But with technology that’s already available today in Drupal, students in online casual learning will be able to interact with each other as a community, they’ll be able to provide feedback, rate content, and generally enrich the course consumer experience.

At this point, maybe ten years from today, we will have recorded lecture series and even live lectures, given by the best lecturers in the field, accessible to students at pennies on the dollar that they’d pay at our school. TED has already done this with individual talks, so it’s only a matter of time before it happens with entire courses and even entire curricula and degrees. We’re not quite there yet but it’s not that far away and there are already people working to get us there.

So here’s the math that our future students will see. Say they want to take a course in differential calculus. They can pay $4000 to take it at a private university. Or they can pay $400 to take basically the same course from a community college, and those of you at community colleges already know this is happening because every one of you that I talk to is talking about how you have record enrollment and problems with fitting everyone into the parking lot, because you basically came along and ate the private schools’ lunch when it comes to “general ed” requirements. But 10 years from now, those students who are at community college today will instead be able to take that calculus course from Sir Isaac Newton himself, who traveled forward in time just to record a lecture series on this new branch of math that he invented, because that’s just how awesome he is, and they’ll be able to take it for $40.

And when a prospective student comes to you and says, well, what can your school do for me that I can’t get on my own, what’s the value added, why can’t I just do this on my own… if we just keep going the way we are now, we’re not going to have a good answer.

What are we we’re going to say, that we have live instruction? They can offer live instruction, and their lecturers are better than ours. Seriously, think back to when you were an undergrad… how many of your classes did you really think were outstanding, life-changing experiences taught by really skilled teachers, maybe two or three out of all the classes you took? Let’s face it, most of our faculty suck at teaching! If you put your entire faculty roster up against an entire curriculum of the best lecturers on the planet, you are going to lose, and lose badly.

Maybe you’re thinking the one competitive advantage we’ll still have is our accreditation, and the fact that our diploma actually acts as some kind of certification that a student didn’t just sign up for a bunch of random classes, they actually were able to demonstrate that learning of some kind actually took place, and the online courses can’t certify. But there’s two problems with that.

Most relevant to us as game educators is that the video game industry doesn’t care about degrees. At GDC you can see over 10,000 employed, experienced, professional game developers who only care about one thing when hiring: can you help them to make a great game? And if the answer is yes, they don’t care if the reason you can help them make a great game is because you’ve got a PhD in Computer Science from MIT, or if it’s because you taught yourself assembly programming at age 11 and have been constantly building your skills ever since and you never bothered with college because it took time away from making yourself a better programmer. If you don’t believe me on this, ask a bunch of developers for yourself and they’ll tell you the same thing, especially in fields that aren’t Computer Science. And at this point we will all be well and truly screwed.

Sure, our colleagues in the math and computer science departments will be laughing at us because they’ll still have students, because some fields will still require the certification of a degree at an accredited school. But that’s going to change too, it’ll just take a little longer for them, because of the second problem with the argument that schools offer certification as their one competitive advantage over online lectures.

The Future, Part 3: 2026

Let’s suppose I’m right that online casual education really takes off in ten years. Then I give it another 5 years out for this whole business cycle to repeat itself, but this time with certification and testing programs that will pop up all over the place to support online learning, because that will then be identifiable as a clear market need. Probably these things will be offered by the people who run testing centers for things like SATs, or medical board exams, or stuff like that, so we’ll see all these places you can go in person to take a certification exam to prove that yes, you actually do know differential calculus, so now you’re paying maybe $50 for a class and then another $50 for certified testing if that matters to you, and these test banks will actually seek and be granted accreditation of some kind so they will have the same legitimacy as our diplomas do today. And at that point the other departments will be just as screwed as you are.

A New Hope

These changes are coming. If we just keep doing right now what we’ve always been doing, these changes are inevitable because they logically follow from what we’re already seeing today. And they are going to be highly disruptive to higher education, and we should be scared about them. So… what can we do, other than panic?

First, we can talk about these issues, acknowledge that change is coming, and put our really well-developed brains together to figure out how to best address it.

Second, the price of education has to come down. MIT has actually put their course material online for free, so have Stanford and a few other schools. If your school hasn’t, ask why. I mean, seriously, do you really think that your course material gives your school a competitive advantage over MIT? How about showing some humility here?

Third, following from above, our schools will need to start seeking alternate sources of funding. I don’t know what these sources will be. Maybe we’ll start going the public broadcasting model, make tuition free, and every semester we pass out a collection plate and ask students to donate. Maybe if we’re really smart we’ll do this the week before finals, and promise with a wink that the size of the donation totally won’t affect their grades.

Fourth, we need to get smarter about marketing so that prospective students understand the value we’re giving them for their money, because they’re about to get a whole lot more demanding from us in this area. We have an image problem, and it’s not going to get better on its own. (Don’t believe me? See how many people in industry still remember the phrase “tighten the graphics on level three” and that commercial is seven years old.) We do still offer things that can’t be matched by do-it-yourself online learning: the campus experience, for whatever that’s worth; a structured environment to those students who will benefit; integration of education and research. You can probably think of some other things to add to the list.


Change is coming, the elements have already been set in motion, and we’ve got this huge gift of maybe 5 or 10 years’ lead time to figure out what to do about it. So let’s use that time effectively while we’re all still here and our departments still exist.

Take a deep breath. I’m returning to Earth now, where I promise you’ll find me firmly planted for the rest of the year. Thank you.


If you are interested in the other rants at this session, Brenda Brathwaite has posted her rant here (short version: if you're teaching game design, you need to teach coding), and Colleen Macklin has posted hers here (short version: stop making "games for X" [learning, health, etc.] and start making games for their own sake). Will update this again if I find that the other panelists, Frank Lantz and Mary Flanagan, post their rants anywhere.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Culture Shock: Broken Terminology and How to Fix It

Going through the Expo floor at GDC is a rather unique experience. Like a highly expressive game (Minecraft or Sim City, for example), the experience is different for each person depending on their personal actions and goals. Students and unemployed developers looking to get jobs will be networking in the aisles, hanging out at the company booths, and maybe walking randomly through other areas to pick up swag or play with cool-looking toys. Professors network with industry on behalf of their students, and also visit the other school booths so they can all compare notes on who is best representing themselves. Exhibitors do... um... whatever they do. And so on.

Personally, I walk around looking for themes (this year I saw heavy representation of IT companies, cloud computing services, social media support services, middleware, geographic regions trying to attract companies, and schools trying to attract students - note the irony here, since most students at GDC are already at a school so it's a bit late to recruit).

School booths are interesting. Some show off student projects and allow you to play them. Others just show video. One showed a bunch of design docs and art bibles and other written works for a current student project in progress. Most have at least some printed documents talking about their academic programs, classes and curriculum. I always look at these to see what they're teaching kids these days.

One particular school I encountered, I won't name names, had a degree in "game design" (those were the exact words used). When I look at the core classes, I see: a token programming class, a level design class, and a dozen art/animation classes. Hopefully anyone reading this immediately sees the problem here. Obviously, the school did not.

I brought this to the attention of someone at the booth, who pointed me to a director-level person in the same booth. This director looked at me like I was from Mars, as if she couldn't understand why I was concerned or what the problem was. It concerns me because this isn't just a problem with a single school, it becomes a problem for every school. Imagine if a biology degree at School A was equivalent to a chemistry degree at School B, a physics degree at School C, and a science degree at School D. And biotech labs have to put this all together to figure out who actually learned the skills they need to hire. Even if just one school screws this up, the message to industry is "ignore the name of the degree on every resume you receive because it might be lying to you about what it means." But I'm an outsider to the school, and I have no influence to fix this myself, even though it totally screws me over, even if I'm teaching somewhere else.

I think the solution here has to come from industry. I would love to see more industry professionals stopping by the school booths, taking an honest look at what they're presenting, and calling them out on it -- in public, right there on the show floor, if need be -- if they are peddling the academic equivalent of snake oil. If every developer that passes through the expo takes five minutes to do this with just one school, any school that is just blatantly lying to its students about the value of its curriculum will hear that message over and over, loud and clear. So... any takers?