Game-Based Learning

Games Can Make "Real Life" More Rewarding

Photo credit: tedconference via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Game designer Jane McGonigal speaking at TEDGlobal 2012

In her 2011 book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, game development expert and author Jane McGonigal describes a number of ways that games can improve our lives by using experience and research to link games with feelings of connectedness, self-worth, fulfillment and happiness.

For instance, McGonigal describes her experiences with using the Nike+ app while running. If you use Nike+ with an iPod or Smartphone, it will give you real time feedback on your progress. You can even share your progress on social media while running, and if your friends leave you an encouraging comment, the app will read the comment to you. Another running app, Zombies, Run!, turns your run into an epic escape from flesh-eating zombies. The more runs you complete, the more you can build up your zombie apocalypse base with supplies.

Foursquare is an app that allows you to "check in" at locations based on your GPS, leave comments, post photos, locate any of your friends that may be in the area, and compete with total strangers for the title of "Mayor" of your favorite spot. McGonigal explains how this app can encourage you to explore places you may not normally go, interact with strangers, get motivated to leave the house, track your travels, and reward you for being a good customer.

Augmented Reality games overlay games on top of "real life." These games essentially turn real life into a game by having the game's "action" occur in the player's everyday surroundings. At an edcamp a few years back, I learned about Aris, an open-source platform that allows users to create GPS-based games. For instance, you could create a challenge or artifact and "place" it at a specific location on a Google Map. Players have to be standing at the right spot in order to "find" the artifact or place. One really fun game that I play on my phone is called Alien Attack. When you start the game, it uses the camera on your phone, so you are basically looking at whatever is in front of you. However, at the bottom, you have a "life meter" and a map with little dots on it. Those dots are aliens that are coming to attack you. Slowly, you begin to see little aliens appear in front of you, right next to your coffee table or even the person sitting next to you. The goal is to destroy the aliens before they destroy you. The app can also be used with a "blaster" that attaches to your smartphone.

Incentive to Improve

While games are, of course, fun, McGonigal states that due to their tendency to meet our needs of connectedness, self-worth and happiness, games also improve our lives. Games have "a clear goal and actionable next steps." They provide challenges that are often missing in our everyday lives (like running from zombies). They provide opportunities to collaborate and connect with strangers (like role-playing games or trying to steal the "mayorship" from a stranger in Foursquare). They teach us how to fail and learn from our failures. (like paying more attention to my left side so the aliens don't get me).

Games are the world that our students live in. As McGonigal states, in the game world, "being really good at something is less fun than being not quite good enough -- yet." Games challenge our students. They provide them with immediate feedback, a safe space in which to fail and learn -- and they provide social connections. Still, McGonigal writes, "We need games that make us happier even when we're not playing." This is the new trajectory of many games and the goal of many of today's game developers.

We need to give our students opportunities to experience challenges, collaborate (both face-to-face and virtually) and experience validation in their "real life," not just when they are gaming. I am not advocating that we turn everything into a game (I am not a fan of rewards, stickers and bribing students), but by breaking games down to their basic elements, we can learn a lot about what motivates us to take on new challenges, collaborate with strangers, embrace failure and, in a word, what makes us happy.