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.