Journal Index

Why You Should Think Twice Before Putting a Sticker Page in Your Educational Game

"Learning is fun. We don't make it that way," is what Daren Carstens reminded attendees of the 2010 Dust or Magic AppCamp. "It's possible to wreck it," he continued, "It's possible to make it not fun. But learning itself really is fun."

When crafted well, games create an experience that can make the player go "Oh, wow!" They feel a balance of both competence and challenge, familiarity and wonder. When that occurs, engagement should naturally follow. But these days, it isn't uncommon to see extrinsic motivators being used in kids games. The player completes an activity, and is rewarded with a sticker, or other virtual item. But why? Can't we let kids just enjoy the game? If the game is good, wouldn't the child already be motivated to play it?

Some people believe that motivation is something we have to give a child. Take a look at this parent review of the iOS app First Words: Animals:

Good interface... My 23 month old loves it. My only suggestion would be to add a reward every five or so words. Like a sticker or show those animals playing or something like that. Just to break up the cycle and give motivation. Otherwise, great app.

If the child "loves it," why is it necessary to provide additional motivation? And what effect would that have? 

Extrinsic motivation’s effect on behavior has been studied for decades. Chris Hecker discussed this at length in his 2010 GDC presentation, "Achievements Considered Harmful?" Video of the talk is behind a pay wall, but you can read a summary and see slides on his blog. Hecker cited meta-analysis that reviewed hundreds of these studies. (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999) The findings they agreed on were:

  • Expected rewards decrease a person's intrinsic motivation.  
  • Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback increases intrinsic motivation.  

Preschool children in particular have been the subject of several studies. Turns out, you can wreck a child's love for drawing, if you tell him you'll give him money for each drawing he completes. Suddenly it becomes all about the money, and when that incentive is gone, what is the point? 

What about those sticker reward pages we see in kids apps and web games? Sure, preschoolers love stickers, and virtual stickers are no exception. But when you offer a reward for doing a task, you send a message that the task isn't worth doing for its own sake. You've created a situation where the reason to do the task is to receive the reward. The focus has been shifted away from any joy or satisfaction that might have been in the activity itself. 

It isn't enough to say "Well, some kids like the stickers. If a player doesn't like the sticker, that kid can ignore it." You've established the dynamic of the whole interaction. Educational games that hook players with real learning and real discovery don't need no stinkin' badges, to borrow a phrase from Jane McGonigal. Your sticker still draws attention away from the inherent satisfaction of the activity.

Of course, extrinsic motivation isn't always a bad thing. It can provide incentive for dull, but necessary tasks. If the goal of a program is to get players to do the chore of memorizing vocabulary words or multiplication facts, or perhaps to practice forming a letter of the alphabet, then sticker rewards or achievement badges might be highly effective. But these aren't really learning games. They're mastery or practice games. It's rare to see something accomplished in these types of games that hasn't been done before, or couldn't be done more efficiently with traditional classroom supplies, like index cards.
If you're designing a game that incorporates stickers or achievement badges, take a close look at the second bullet point above and see if they could be made more effective by placing them in unexpected places, or writing them to be directly relevant to the subject matter at hand.

In designing educational games, we should create experiences that bring out the natural fun of learning, and carve away anything that stands in the way of that. This is why design is difficult. It's all about determining where that balance of player confidence and challenge lies.

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Photo credit: Paul Mayne. Shared via Creative Commons license.


New Girl Scout Badges for Fall 2011 Include 'Making Games' and 'Game Visionary'

'Games For Life' badge, © 1997 GSUSA I was taken aback a year ago when the Boy Scouts of America introduced a set of video game related merit badges, and it made headlines. The Girl Scouts have had a game badge available for grades 7 through 12 since at least 1997. It's called 'Games For Life' and includes activities on video games, as well as board games, card games, and games you play with a group of people and few or no supplies. The requirements to earn the badge are a fairly even balance of playing games, critiquing games, and planning games.  

According to the press coverage, the Boy Scouts' game badges introduced in 2010 are for grades 1 through 5. The requirements include studying ESRB ratings, making sure time spent gaming doesn't take away from chores and homework, and game console system installation. No activities regarding game planning or design. 

It's always frustrating when one group gets credit for being innovative when in fact, another group has already been doing the so-called new thing for years.

But that's all last year's news.  

I'm a Girl Scout troop leader, and a supply catalog arrived in my mailbox this week that includes a section for the new badges being introduced in Fall 2011. Requirements to earn the badges will be published in the new handbooks that aren't available until September. But these pages in the catalog show what they look like, and what the titles are. There are many that look great, but I'm most pleased to see these badges related to media literacy and technology, including two about game design:

BROWNIES (Grades 2-3): 'Computer Expert' and 'Making Games'
JUNIORS (Grades 4-5): 'Entertainment Technology' and 'Product Designer'
CADETTES (Grades 6-8): 'Digital Movie Maker,' 'Screenwriter', 'Netiquette', and 'Comic Artist'
SENIORS (Grades 9-10): 'Game Visionary' and 'Website Designer'

More details to come! In the meantime, you can see the new badges on the catalog pages below. Click on a page to see it larger.

New Brownie and Junior Girl Scout Badges - Fall 2011 New Cadette, Senior and Ambassador Girl Scout Badges - Fall 2011


Gamification Hits Education

Although the term ‘gamification’ may only be a couple of years old, the concept has been with education for ages. Gamification attempts to make routine occurrences like doing errands, exercising, and keeping on task at work more game-like. Many implementations thus far involve earning badges for passing certain milestones, and a leaderboard, so you can see who is in first place, who is in the top 100, and so on. For the competitive-minded among us, these badges and milestones serve as motivation to exercise more, or perhaps drive your car more ecologically.

It all reminds me very much of formal education. You go to school. You ‘check-in’ and earn a mark in the attendance records. You’re awarded credits for completing homework assignments, writing essays, and scoring on exams. Passing certain milestones grants you eligibility to ‘level up’ and begin work on the next milestones. Leaderboards are published quarterly in the local newspaper, in the form of an honor roll or Dean’s List. High scorers receive loads of praise, in the form of scholarships and boasting by parents, teachers, and community figureheads. Some students are keenly aware of their numerical rank on the board, even as it updates every semester. It’s common knowledge who the ‘mayors’ of certain subjects are, and who is enrolled in the honors and AP courses. Some students call it out as being ‘just a game’ their parents and society want them to play, and don’t pay much attention to it. But for some students, this game is life. Being on top becomes a separate entity to the value of learning itself.

Tap the misspelled vocab words before they hit the ground.Since gamification, in its modern incarnation of graphic badges, Facebook integrated progress updates, and local leaderboards has already been applied to so many areas of daily life, it was only a matter of time before someone brought it to education. MindSnacks, a new app for the iPhone and iPod Touch, brings these elements to their Spanish vocabulary flash card and speed drill program. Like many gamification apps to date, there isn’t anything game-like about it, beyond the score ranking on the iPhone GameCenter integrated leaderboards. The speed drill quizzes are cute, challenging, and fun, but I don’t think those things truly classify them as a game. Last year, I expressed desire for a term for computer-based quiz programs that are mistakenly labelled as games, for lack of a better word. Perhaps ‘gamification’ is that term we need. 

Games are about so much more than just who wins, or extrinsic motivations like a badge or grade. A well-designed game gives players meaningful decisions to make at every step of the way, and provides the players means to contemplate the consequences of their options. Studying a system, devising a strategy, executing it, seeing how it turns out, and thinking about how you might do it differently next time are higher order thinking skills that students exercise in games. They’re intrinsically fun. Gamification, on the other hand, is closely linked with the concept of dressing up a chore, to turn it into a more enjoyable experience. There’s certainly a place for it in education, because the chore of drill and practice will probably be around as long as there are things to memorize. 

So while it isn’t what I consider a game, I don’t want to leave the impression that I don’t like MindSnacks. Healthy competition with oneself and others is what some people like to keep them motivated to study, and MindSnacks delivers. If you have other friends interested in learning Spanish, it would be fun to set up a routine and keep track of one another’s progress. MindSnacks probably works best as a supplement to other language instruction, because it only covers vocabulary words and spelling, not phrases or language usage. Future editions of the app will cover French, Italian and Mandarin. I look forward to purchasing the French edition, and put my gaming time to good use blowing the dust off all those words I learned in school and haven’t used since. Maybe I'll blow away all of my friends' scores in the process, too.


Things to Consider in Designing Educational Technology & Games for Kids

I just finished a book on kids, technology, and education that was published earlier this year. The tone of the book was that youth today are different from previous generations. According to the author, they multitask more than older people, even young 20-somethings. Their attention spans are shorter than previous generations. His message was that if you don't utilize technology, kids today won’t listen to you.

Initially, I intended to write a review of the book, but instead, it seems better to respond to the common misperceptions that the author was voicing. A review, had I written one, would have read like a tedious list of attacks and counterarguments. I think it's more constructive to instead address this recurring theme that there are special things you need to know to work with this generation of ‘digital youth’. Because really, kids are just kids. No matter how recently they were born, or how much technology they use, children are not cyborgs, I assure you.

Student in the front row is unimpressed with the abacus; state of the art educational technology for 1930.Myth #1: Kids are bored at school because most schools lack sufficient technology.  The fact is, kids have been bored at school for decades. Possibly since the invention of school. Although it may be true that youth today use technology more than previous generations of young people, it isn't correct to assume that technology has become the only way to reach kids. Kids, like all people, are attracted to meaningful experiences in any form. Schools should absolutely incorporate technology, but there are still many great ways to immerse kids in a subject that have nothing to do with technology. 

What this means for designers:  When planning educational content, always think about the experience you are crafting for the learner. Whatever your project is, it's probably costing somebody a lot of money. For heaven's sake, don't let it be boring. What actions could a learner do that might help her become more familiar with the content? It might be a game to play or a simulation to tinker with, but it also might be a series of suggestions on what to do outdoors with a team of friends, or something to try the next time you're at the supermarket, and the cell phone app you've built walks you through the steps. Keep in mind too that the experience you design won't be the only chance the learner has to master the content. Don't bog it down with everything a person should know about the subject. Instead, just feed them what they need to know to have a meaningful, frustration-free experience right now, and leave them hungry to learn more about the topic when it is finished. Research has shown that people who play Civilization have more success remembering what they read in history textbooks than people who don't play. The best games serve as a springboard, not a stand alone lesson.

What this means for educators:  If using technology in the classroom frightens you, or you don’t have the resources of time or money that you wish you had, that's OK! Work with the mediums that are your strengths, whatever they are, and branch out when you feel comfortable doing so. Try to craft engaging, interactive experiences without technology. The word 'interactive' doesn’t have to be synonymous with technology. You could create an interactive activity where you tell a short story, then turn students loose in groups to do some problem solving related to the story. After they've worked for awhile, use the input from their work to continue the story and repeat the cycle. There are many themes and subjects that could be made into interactive activities like this. Just use your imagination!

Myth #2: Technology always makes for a more immersive experience than books or lectures.  The book I’m not reviewing in this post spent a chapter making this argument.  I would say that the inverse is often true. To me, immersion is when you forget other responsibilities and distractions and focus solely on the experience at hand. Sorry to say, there’s no magic quality of technology that makes it instantly immersive.  Novelty might make a new technology engaging for a short period of time, but a truly immersive experience takes a lot of design work. It can be easier to become absorbed in a novel than a video podcast or even a video game. It all depends on the design, and your interest in the subject matter.

Short attention spans can always be overcome if you have engaging content, and a delicious user experience. Have you seen the thickness of some of those Harry Potter books?  You can’t look at the line of kids who lined up at book stores as recently as 2007 to buy this fat novel and say this is a generation of youth with short attention spans. If kids are getting bored with your content, you need to try harder to craft an engaging experience. It isn’t easy. Involving kids in your development process and getting their feedback on alpha builds (or maybe even earlier!) is a good way to start.

Myth #3: Kids today have to multi-task. They won’t concentrate on one thing at a time.  Distraction in the classroom is not a new thing. It doesn’t matter if a student would rather text message than listen to a lecture, or if she’d rather draw doodles in the margins of her notebook. The end result is the same. The problem is not the technology. It’s the lack of engagement. The solution is not to remove technology from the classroom, because you could never eliminate all distractions. The solution is to make education more engaging, across all methods of instruction. No method is inherently bad. There’s room for improvement and innovation in all forms.

However tempting, it's important not to overuse gross generalizations, like "Kids today all ______." Just like any previous generation of people, the youth of today are individuals with unique qualities and preferences. Some kids boldly try every button when you place a new technology in their hands, and some wait and watch what others do with it first. Some teens seem to text all day every day, but sixteen year old Abby Sunderland wasn't texting all day when she attempted to sail around the world earlier this year. I have met teenagers who say they don't 'get' Facebook. You could probably find at least one teen or tween in any classroom who wished his or her friends wouldn’t always resort to social networking sites and text messages as their preferred methods of communication.

Kids today are not so different from you as a child. Sure, the world has changed, and experiences of generations of youth always vary from decade to decade, but don’t lose sight of the commonalities. Kids are still kids. They love a good story, and anything that’s pure fun. They like games and toys that encourage creative thinking. They worry what their friends and classmates think about them, just like you probably did. Personal relationships with the adults in their lives are important to them too, even if they don’t always say so. Think about these things when you design, and always question your own assumptions!

Photo credit: Nationaal Archief of The Netherlands


21st Century Skills for the Great Recession

There's a lot of the buzz in the field of education these days surrounding the topic of 21st century skills.  That's the latest term for practical skills we all need to learn, beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic, which are still important, too.  But what are 21st century skills? 

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills does an excellent job of pursuing the answer to this question, and their many reports are recommended reading for anyone working in educational media.  Their preferred method of determining what skills students need is to poll executives and HR professionals at Fortune 500 companies.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and many skills they've identified, like creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are useful in many realms of life.  But the current economy makes me wonder.  What skills do we need when those Fortune 500 companies aren’t hiring?  Here is a partial list of additional 21st century skills for hard times, built from my own experience with the job hunt.

Relevance.  Knowledge of social media technology tools like blogging, video production would make many people's lists of 21st century skills.  But YouTube has amassed millions of video files, and there are thousands of blogs out there that never get read.  It isn't enough to simply know how to do social media.  You need to know why to do it, and you need to know what your audience wants.  The Gregory Brothers are a terrific example.  They're an innovative young group who fueled their comedy career on YouTube, parlayed it into hundreds of thousands of sales on the iTunes Music Store, and have recently been invited by Comedy Central to create a pilot for their own series.  That’s how to use YouTube. You've got to make relevant content.

The same applies to game design and production.  I can’t claim to be a connoisseur of student-produced video games, but I have played a fair number.  Enough to know they're often quite boring.  Kids certainly know what they like in a video game, but sometimes we all need motivation to push ourselves harder, in order to produce something beyond the minimum requirement.  If a game a student produced isn’t something a student would choose to play in his own free time, what is its relevance?

In the 21st century, you can't afford not to be competitive.  Jobseekers have to compete with more people than ever before.  Manufacturing jobs have been exported overseas for decades, but now service and support positions, technical jobs (like design and programming), and creative positions are starting to go, too.  When someone in another country can do your job over the internet for less pay than you can, because they live in a place with a lower cost of living, how will you compete?  What will you offer that is unique?

Just do it. You don't have to wait for someone to pay you to do what you love.  If you're a writer, write.  If you're a game designer, design games.  The Henson Company often gets asked how a person can become a puppeteer or puppet builder with their organization.  Their answer is that you don't have to work for them to make and perform your own puppets.  Do that on your own, if that's what you want to do.  You must be self-directed.  Then, when an audition opportunity for Henson does arise, you'll have a body of your own work to show off.  You simply can't sit on your hands and wait for the audition notice.  This metaphor extends to many creative disciplines.

How to sell yourself.  When you're unemployed, you have to sell yourself every day.  What is your value to other people and organizations?  What can you contribute?  If you can't articulate this, it will be very difficult to get a job.  Knowing how to convince others is a 21st century skill.  So is being concise.  An essay might need to be 15 pages for your high school civics class, but it's doubtful that anyone will read something that long in the real world.  Know how to get to the point.

Stick-to-it-iveness & Dedication.  In this economy, you're going to encounter a lot of failure and disappointment.  The number of unemployed people is far greater than the number of job vacancies.  You're likely going to face a great amount of rejection, and you really can't afford to let it get you down, or accept defeat. 

Life is not a set of steps that have to be carried out in any one order.  High schools like to be able to show that a high number of their graduates go to college after graduation.  Consequently, many high school students are pushed in that direction when they are not personally ready for it.  There's nothing wrong with working before pursuing higher education, and in fact, your life might be improved and enriched by doing so.  Follow your passion!  I have two friends who work for the same company.  One has a degree from a prestigious university, and the other has 'only' completed high school.  It is the HS grad who is earning more.  This is an atypical example for certain, but one thing about the 21st century is that typical is becoming less and less common with each passing year.  It's important for students to understand that success in school does not entitle you to much in life.  Degrees alone do not get you jobs.  

I've never had the challenge of teaching a classroom of students, so I feel presumptuous suggesting how to incorporate any of this into formal education.  But here are some things that could easily be included in the classroom.

  • Media literacy.  In June of last year, I was working with a small group of graduating high school seniors in one of their school’s computer labs.  The task I had given them encouraged using the internet to inform their solutions.  One student expressed frustration that a search return listed by Google appeared to be just what she needed, but she couldn’t load the page, because her school had blocked the domain.  She thought the school should have Google unblocked and used language that indicated she was under the impression that things in Google were in Google, much like articles in the encyclopedia are in the encyclopedia.  A classmate explained to her that this would be problematic, because a person could find just about anything with Google, including things the school might be justified in blocking, such as pornography.  Personally, I was shocked that someone could graduate from high school in 2009 and lack a basic understanding of how an internet search engine works.  I think we as a society should be just as concerned for this young woman as we are about a student who gets a high school diploma without having learned how to read. 
  • How to design things.  Everyone has an object that frustrates them because of design flaws.  Could be a can opener.  Could be a video game or TV series.  Could be our government.  Why is it flawed?  How could it be improved?  How will you explain your suggestions clearly to someone who might have the power to effect change? 
  • Passion.  It's difficult to shine in anything if you don’t care deeply about it.  Whenever possible, students should be encouraged to incorporate their passions in assignments, be they essays, dioramas, or media creation projects.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley, Frank Oz recalled the best advice he received when he moved to New York City to start his career.  He said it was that "Talented people are a dime a dozen.  What matters are the opportunities you take."  I couldn't agree more.  Seeking out, making, and taking advantage of the right opportunities is the key to making good progress in life.  I think that's the most important 21st century skill a person could obtain.

Photo of a rejection letter by Jen R.  Shared via Creative Commons license.