September 2012

This week in Meaningful Gamification, we’ve been looking at behaviorism, and the ways in which it influences game design (and hence gamification of all kinds).  Like any good biology major, I came across Skinner’s theories here and there in college; like any good Darwinist, I didn’t retain them in the Permanently Useful room of my memory palace.  As I attended to the class materials, and worked to re-learn these concepts, I became more and more grumpy about them without being able to clearly identify why. Finally, as I watched a contemporaneous video about Skinner’s experiments, one sentence jumped out at me:

“Skinner did this by keeping individual pigeons at about three-quarters of their normal weight, so that the birds were always hungry, and food could be used as an automatic reward.” (0:39)

75 percent of normal weight is not just a way to keep animals peckish: it’s starvation weight.  I won’t link to the medical studies I looked up to verify this, because they’re too depressing, but basically when researchers want to study starvation in pigeons, they aim for 60-80 percent of normal body weight.  In barn owls, it is also 80 percent. And, here’s the statistic I already knew, the one that made me stop and pay full attention to the video in the first place: Standards of care for people with anorexia require hospitalization if someone is at or below 75 percent of body weight.  Risks of non-hospitalization include suicide.

Skinner’s pigeon experiments thus included abuse, cruelty, and desperation as continuous conditions. The pigeons weren’t “blank slates” as they responded to rewards and punishments – they were undergoing continual punishment. The extrapolation of results obtained under such horrifying conditions to human beings suggests that Skinner and his followers shared an incredibly pessimistic view of the human condition.  If Skinnerian analysis applies to human existence (as plenty of human psychologists assert it does), then human existence must be pretty miserable. No wonder reading about behaviorism puts me in a funk.

Fortunately, I managed to cheer myself up. First, I reminded myself of the existentialists, particularly Albert Camus.  Camus’ brilliant essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, argues that life’s tragic absurdity can be overmastered by the power of contemplation, that “[t]he struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”  Even if all our actions are perfectly meaningless, and we have no freedom of action, our will itself remains free. Like Sisyphus, or Molly Bloom, we can say yes to our lives, and in so doing, imagine ourselves happy.  Both the despair of mechanism and its anodynes predate Skinner, and he does nothing to overturn them.

In other words, even if Skinner is right about the implacable details of stimulus and response,


It would be possible to represent any human activity as pure math, to boil everything down to equations at a mechanical, biological, or chemical level.  Nothing would be left out, and someone looking at the event through a mathematical lens could be perfectly satisfied that everything was described as it should be.  That accuracy would do absolutely nothing to take away meaning. Knowing the math behind first love, or great art, or deep loss, would explain these things trivially, and allow reliable predictions about the mathematical characteristics of future occurrences. It might even spark some new insights about them, or the ability to influence their particulars – but it could never tell us what they mean.  Likewise, Skinner’s mechanistic claims imply nothing meaningful about the experience of being alive.

A starving pigeon might transcend its box, and Skinner would never know.

I’ve been more focused on my day job than on my classes this week, mostly because I’ve started training 7 new circulation student workers at once. Since they work 2 hour shifts and I’m at work 8 hours a day, you can imagine how full my days have become… and yet, I still took some time to ponder my classwork, and how it intersects with what I’m doing at my job.

In Meaningful Gamification, we’ve been talking about points, and levels, and what information they convey to game designers about how well player behavior matches the designers’ intention, and to game players about what they are supposed to be doing. By training our students, I mainly intend to teach them what they should be doing on the job, and to learn how well they are adapting to it, so it’s probably quite natural that I see some parallels. I’ve been eyeing my own training methods with an eye to how they are already game-like, and puzzling over whether I would even want to make them more game-like, and if so, how that might work.

Student workers don’t overtly earn points during their training, but they do have a checklist of things we need to cover, and I do point out their progress along this checklist on a regular basis. “Look! 7 out of 10 things on this page complete! Look! We finished this WHOLE PAGE!!”  I suspect their reaction to my enthusiasm about these milestones is similar to my reaction when I score points or level up in a game: that is, some mixture of “Woohoo!” and “Big deal.” Part of me would love to set up an online checklist, with progress bars and milestones and maybe even a quest narrative… and part of me cherishes the informality, personal interaction, and flexibility of throwing in those enthusiastic checkins when I feel we need one, rather than on a pre-set schedule.

Another way in which training resembles a game is that we build skills in some activities through a series of increasingly more difficult tasks, similar to a tutorial followed by a set of game levels. Shelving training starts with a dramatic speech about the underlying history behind the library of congress (intro cut scene), followed by some time spent using a simple online shelving game (tutorial), then reorganizing a mixed-up shelving cart (level one), and finally shelving in the actual stacks (level 2). If a student doesn’t ace level 2, they have to keep retrying it with new books until they “beat the game” and their shelving training is complete.  I even provide them with a (literal) walkthrough: we go through the area they were shelving in, looking at the books that were misshelved and talking about strategies for vanquishing similar obstacles next time.  There are also “players” at this stage who identify different goals than the ones I would like them to use (for example, they might shelve for speed instead of accuracy), and (just like any non-sandbox video game) I have to remind them of what they need to do to move on.  After talking in class this week about how many of us have different goals in mind than the ones a game sets up for us, I found myself having more sympathy for these students, and being more explicit with them about how their goals would eventually become part of the “game” as well.

As I checked all those books for shelving accuracy, I found myself wishing we had an augmented reality shelf-reading set-up like the one they’ve built at Miami University.

Not only would that approach make shelf-reading, and shelving training, a lot easier, it also looks ripe for the addition of overlays that would turn both tasks into a game.  Maybe I’m just sleep-deprived after my busy week, but I can imagine all kinds of gamified layers we could add, including point-scoring, leaderboards, and so on…

Despite my enthusiasm, I remain hesitant about what long-term effects outright BLAP gamification of routine tasks could have on the morale of our student workers.  Right now, we have a strong spirit of camaraderie and mutual appreciation in our department.  There’s a balance between having each other’s backs and “live and let live,” and the full-time, experienced staff work hard to instill that culture in our students, and to fight off any tendencies they have to be hard on each other. Maybe it’s because we’ve been studying organizational cultures in my other class this week, but I can easily imagine that turning everything into its point value could destroy our laidback, productive culture, and turn it into a competitive and adversarial one. Even if we set common goals for the group as a whole, they might become rather ruthless in prodding fellow students into contributing their fair share.  (I’ve seen that kind of behavior during charity drives in other workplaces, and it creeps me out even more than straightfoward competition does.)

I suspect that next week’s game elements, badges and achievements, will have similar drawbacks.  I’m looking forward to studying more self-contained game elements, as the course moves forward, and thinking about how we could gamify our students’ jobs in more meaningful ways.

It’s been another promising week in my Meaningful Gamification class, with lots of material to mull over.  As is my usual wont, I’m full of tangential and only slightly related thoughts. Here are three that coalesce around the idea of blurring the lines between games and reality:

Course Schedules: We’ve been getting our course schedule for this class a week or two in advance.  This also means we are getting our assignments a week or two in advance. I think it was three days ago that I first read about the Hazard that is due on Sept. 23rd, and I have almost no idea what the next major assignment will be.  As our professor, Scott Nicholson, says, the future is “shrouded in fog.”  Going into this class, the lack of ability to plan ahead was quite worrisome; somewhere along the way I’ve become the kind of student who starts each semester with a daybook and a pen, filling in deadlines and planning away.  I was afraid that I couldn’t cope with the uncertainty of not even knowing what our assignments will be, let alone when they will be due.  Surprise! I LOVE IT. Not knowing what I have to do next means I don’t have to worry about what to do next, and Scott has been foreshadowing all along, so the assignment we just received clicked into place right away. “Oh, right,” I thought, “of course that’s what happens next.” I’m not sure whether this particular game element was included in the class from expediency (it’s a new class), or purely as a pedagogical decision, but either way, I approve.  We’ll see if I still feel that way next month, when I’m on the road :).

Playing  Games with Texts: In a discussion thread, Scott mentioned that he prefers to approach games from a social sciences rather than a literary perspective, because of how important the players are to the game: that he doesn’t want to study a game like one would study a static text, without including the people playing the game in his lens.  My contrarian brain responded to his entirely valid remark by protesting that reading can be incredibly game-like.  The obvious example is that many mystery novels are also puzzles, with a commitment on the part of the author to give “fair play” clues along the road to the solution, and readers who challenge themselves to beat the fictional detective to the solution.  Well-designed fairplay mysteries are a delayed game between author and reader, satisfying to that reader no matter who wins. Even in less obvious contexts, my general experience of reading often feels gamelike: the author is setting out some rules and some structures for a shared imaginative experience, and my own goals as a reader may or may not align with their apparent intentions for me.  When they line up very closely, I do feel that we’re playing a game together; whereas when I find myself dividing up endless dull pages of assigned reading into chunks of a certain size, and seeing if I can read each chunk faster than the last one, I feel like I’ve put one over on the author (or the assigner), and won the game of “how to make anything fun.”

Alternate Reality Games: Our study material this week emphasized the difference between game-based learning and gamification. Just because you learn something from a game doesn’t mean it’s gamified learning; gamification is strictly a matter of adding game elements to non-game contexts.  I am having a bit of trouble with this distinction, clear-cut as it may seem, because I keep thinking of the edge cases.  For me, the line between playing a game and not playing a game is often blurry in the first place (see my previous two paragraphs).  Also, I can’t stop thinking about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs).  Rather than adding game layers to a non-game “real world” context, ARGs pull in non-game “real world” contexts to shape and enrich a game. A circulation student worker of mine designed and ran an ARG once, and he colluded with me to use our reserves section as a clue. To advance in their game, students had to come to the circulation desk, hear our spiel about the reserve rules, and actually check out an item that was on reserve. The overall purpose of the game was purely to entertain, but that particular clue required a real-world action which achieved a real-world objective of mine: familiarizing more students with the reserve check-out process.  Was that game-based learning, gamification of a common library task, or real-world-ification of a game? Does it have to be just one?

I think the game elements in our class, including the slow unveiling/development of our course schedule, are pushing my experience solidly toward what I would expect from an ARG.  Of course, I’m still taking it seriously (dude, no one is more serious than a committed ARGer!), and of course, some part of me is still gunning for an A, and thinking about how to use this learning in work-related contexts … but it still feels more like play than like work.  Where do you draw the line between a gamified classroom and a classroom ARG?  The line I’m seeing is narrow, and it keeps flickering in and out of view.

Hello, gentle and neglected readers! After an incredibly busy winter/spring, and a recuperative summer,  I’m back at school, and taking part in a class that encourages blogging.

I’ve joined more than a dozen other hearty adventurers as participants in Scott Nicholson’s experimental course in Meaningful Gamification. This week, we’ve devoted ourselves to introductions: introducing ourselves (and our personas), studying introductory gamification concepts, considering our introduction to games and our experiences thereafter, and so on.  For me, this class is also a welcome re-introduction to the feeling of being gleefully obsessed with an idea. Our discussions about gaming, and my own thoughts and memories of it, have permeated and stimulated my thoughts all week.  At first, I worried that all-gamification-all-the-time would lead to a quick burnout, and then to apathy.  After a day or two, though, I realized how richly associational the idea of gaming is for me, and how many related avenues of thought I’ll thus be walking in the weeks to come. I’ll share the first four of those byways with y’all tonight; this may become a series as the semester goes on.

Learning: It’s fairly obvious that some parts of the learning process can be turned into games, and that games sometimes lead to accidental learning (we’re already talking about these ideas in our class). This week, I’ve also been thinking about what aspects of learning transcend the gamified scoring system of formal education, and about how much of traditional game-playing actually offers a present-moment, sometimes fleeting reward of “having learned something”. Even the “behind-the-flap” books that little kids like to read follow that pattern, don’t they? And there are few things I find more satisfying in a tabletop game than using my wiles, er, interrogation skills on that recalcitrant NPC until he finally spills a needed location. “Eureka!” is one of the best game feelings I know.

Ritual: Rhythm, and predictability, and ceremony, are deeply meaningful play components for me. I’ve been pondering the ways in which my personal gaming rituals resemble the other rituals I participate in (private, religious, musical, social), and how they differ. I’ve also been musing about the ways in which many games themselves depend on ritualized activity. Poker, in particular, comes to mind in this context; every action has to take place in a certain sequence, and every word or movement has a special significance, whether it be a fundamental part of the game, or an unwelcome tell.  Not every game is a ritual, not every ritual is a game – but often the difference seems to lie in how the participants perceive what they are doing, rather than in the sorts of things that they do.

Performance: For Scott’s class, we’ve developed characters that he can use to pseudonymously post our progress, without crossing any FERPA boundaries we don’t want crossed. He had us introduce those characters in an anonymous forum this week, and most of us eagerly seized on his suggestion that we could tell our characters’ stories, even though we had no obligation to do so. Inhabiting a role in this way is delightful, but performing with other people, particularly when we don’t even know who is who, is somehow even better.  In the other class I’m taking, Management for Information Professionals, our textbooks and readings have been using “performance” in the casual and narrow way that business jargon tends to use it: how well are employees or groups measuring up to preset standards and goals. It’s wonderful to be sharing a very different context for the word with my classmates here, thinking about what makes a character compelling, what aspects of story different individuals most want to convey, and so forth. It enriches my experience of that other class, too, to stop every so often and reinvest the word with all of its meanings.

Belief: Consciously suspending disbelief is a necessary part of many of my favorite games. I’ve often experienced a cross-over where the suspension stops being conciously chosen, where I just believe in the unfolding game narrative, for the hour or two that I am thinking about it.  Even once I stop playing, with my feet firmly on the ground, it’s a fuzzy line.  Obviously, those are just characters; obviously, there’s no such place; obviously, none of that could ever really happen.  Yet some of the characters I’ve played, or interacted with, are as clearly and richly depicted in my mind as any real-life acquaintance.  I don’t believe in them, but my imagination is quite convinced! Thinking about games always makes me think about how blurry reality can be, especially in an online class where we interact with each other’s online presence.

I could go on and on about any of these topics, but I think I’ll draw to a close for now.  Before I go, I want to give a shout out to my very dear friend Megan Macdonald, who recently graduated from a doctoral program, after many years of hard work and smart thinking. She studies the connections between belief and performance and ritual, most of the time; I’m sure that the scholarship she’s shared with me over the years has something to do with how I’ve talked about these concepts tonight.  How do you cite a lifelong friendship, and deep mutual understanding? If APA had a stylesheet for that, this post would have a “References” section.