Learning and games, games and learning

Posted by Doc
Mar 04 2011

I’m reading “Reality is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World” by Jane McGonigal. It’s fascinating stuff, talking about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and using gaming to teach, learn, collaborate, and learn to enjoy what we do.

Of course, it’s got me thinking.

Alternate Reality

Does this mean some kind of weird science fiction stuff? No. It means games that can be played in the real world or in virtual worlds that may apply different sets of rules or contexts. McGonigal mentions the virtual worlds of Halo and World of Warcraft in the book. These are two very different contexts and scenarios. Halo is warfare set in something like the real world we know. Okay, there are aliens. But other than that…

I’ve never been a big, enthusiastic gamer, but I do like shooting things and blowing them up. And yet, somehow Halo has never called to me.

And then there’s World of Warcraft, which is a fantasy world in which you complete quests, fight, and band with others. If you’d asked me last week, I’d have said that I had no particular interest. But thanks to Jane McGonigal, I decided to sign up for a free trial of the game. It was more what she said about Intrinsic Motivation (see Dan Pink’s “Drive”) and how the quests relate, and the overall idea of collaboration but not (necessarily) competition.

The quests are compelling. Nothing really happens. I don’t get any prizes or recognition or anything but leveling up in the game. Somehow, in spite of that, I want to keep doing quest after quest. There’s a feeling of satisfaction about it. Finish one, start another. Level up periodically. Fight monsters, deliver messages, get lost and wander around, go up trees and down into the earth… On one level, it seems entirely pointless. On another, I FREAKIN’ GET IT!


How does this apply? Is there a way to use this kind of approach in delivering what we oh-so-annoyingly* call “training”?

I’m thinking about the idea of intrinsic motivation, quests, achievements that allow each of us to feel a sense of accomplishment, and extending it beyond the specific educational situation. That last includes some form of “social medium” and also thinking about how to extend it into the workplace.

Agile teams are pretty good at this. Each time a person or pair completes a story, they get to move it on. There’s a sense of achievement in that. Of course, they don’t get a nifty “+1” floating over their heads. They don’t level up to the next level of developer or tester. Maybe there’s a way?

For now, my immediate focus is on how to apply this in the educational/learning situation. Is there a way to design and create learning environments that take advantage of the work of Jane McGonigal, game designers, and others?

* I say “oh-so-annoyingly” because we should NOT be doing “training”. We train pets to certain specific behaviors. When I’m working with a project team or a bunch of folks from an organization that wants to adopt Agile, I’m not training them. I’m leading them to think differently and adopt different behaviors. So “training” just seems the wrong word to me.

2 Responses

  1. Dale Emery says:

    Something I discovered only when I created my second World of Warcraft character: Those early quests are all about teaching you game mechanics, but you don’t notice that the first time you do them. The learning is so well integrated that you don’t notice that the whole point of the quest is to teach. It just feels like fun.

    And this style continues through about level 20 or so (and somewhat less beyond that). Every now and then you encounter a new game mechanic. Somewhere around level 4 you bump into enemies that will attack you first, even though you have not attacked them. Later (I forget when) you find enemies that can attack you fron a distance. Later (level 14 or so) you find enemies that heal themselves in battle. In each case, you’re learning a whole new game mechanic, but it just feels like fun.

    I (and others) wrote a lot more about this in Joshua Kerievsky’s Assessing Agility group, in the World of Agile thread:

    Not all games integrate the learning so beautifully. I’ve twice tried Second Life. Each time, I immediately run smack into blatant instructions about how to move here and there. It is clear that you are not yet playing the game; instead you are being taught about the game.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, the style of “training” I prefer is experiential learning. The idea is to create experiences from which people can learn, then help them to learn from the experience.

    The style of experiential training I learned from Jerry and Dani Weinberg is built on the concept of a learning cycle. The cycle has three phases. The first is exploration, in which people engage in some way to accomplish some goal. But there’s a “fly in the ointment” that presents an unanticipated challenge. People’s initial ways of tackling the task don’t work, or don’t work well.

    The second phase is invention. This is where the facilitator helps people examine their experience and create new ways of modeling and thinking about the challenge. Much of the facilitator’s job here is to help participants put words to their experience and their thinking.

    The third phase is application, where people apply their new ideas. In a workshop built on these learning cycles, it’s common to add a new wrinkle here, so that as people are applying what they just learned, they simultaneously experience the next challenge. So the application phase of one cycle becomes the exploration phase of the next.

    This way of learning builds up achievements, in a way similar to World of Warcraft, but the scoring is not so obvious. You don’t gain levels. You don’t buy new skills. But with each cycle, you learn a little something new. That’s one kind of achievement. Then you apply the new thing, and the satisfaction that comes from that is another kind of achievement. And you start to see how this might actually work not just in the constrained sandbox of the experiential workshop, but in your real work.

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