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Games Can Make "Real Life" More Rewarding

Mary Beth Hertz

HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA
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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.

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Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

What a great list of "rules" (not really the right word for them), Dixie Diarist! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that room. It sounds like Miss Velvet has really facilitated the building of a strong community in that space. Did you tell her about your experience?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

The folks at Extra Credits are gamers and game developers first and foremost. It makes sense that their framing would emphasize those kinds of systems.

I agree though that it's something deeper that keeps people playing. The levels, badges, and experience points help, but more so, it's the challenge that matters; the opportunity to master something hard by learning about it (information, tactics, skills) and adapting until you succeed. That it's okay to fail continuously until you figure out the solution, and that you see how you're improving along the way.

It's the same reasons people play sports.

Going back to the video, one thing I appreciated was the tip about creating classroom-wide rewards, so that students became invested in each others' successes.

Ashley Cronin's picture
Ashley Cronin
Digital Resource Curator

Ha! Love the list of "rules" in Miss Velvet's Game Room, especially "LIGMO ... let it go and move on."

Samer, I like what you're saying about games making it okay to "fail continuously" until you figure things out and learn/improve. It's a lot harder to "fail continuously" in life and retain equanimity about it!

On another note, another thing McGonigal talks about in her book is one of her current projects, SuperBetter, a super-hero themed online game designed (in collaboration with scientists, doctors, and researchers) with the aim of helping people cultivate personal resilience. McGonigal started incubating her ideas for the game when she was recovering from a concussion and simultaneously writing her book. The game is really flexible, useful for different people with different goals, and I wonder if it might be a good resource for teachers, especially new teachers, who are regularly dealing with a lot of on-the-job stress.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

[quote]Samer, I like what you're saying about games making it okay to "fail continuously" until you figure things out and learn/improve. It's a lot harder to "fail continuously" in life and retain equanimity about it![/quote]

That's very true, and it's why the person failing shouldn't feel like they're all on their own. Ideally there's a community surrounding them that's exploring the same challenges. That way there's sharing and support and celebrations for the improvements (sometimes quite small) that lead eventually to victory.

In game terms, that means letting people share their gaming experiences and by finding ways to show progress and incremental growth.

Christopher Daniel's picture

I think games give us the courage to cross the obstacle in our life and achieve our goal. Games make you determined and strong and also gives you the chance if you fail for the first time. Same is with our lives.. Right??

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

I wonder how we give students the experience of becoming "determined and strong" from their own life experiences with failure?

Jennifer Williams's picture

I agree Christopher that games do bring out the best in you. When playing games you encounter so many emotions and it's your goal to win and to beat. Once you fail you find ways to overcome that level or strategize to getting more points. It is the same in real life we keep trying to we get better, get more money, better opportunities, or reach our highest goal. Games are a way of couragement and strive to getting to the next level in real life.

Mark Collard's picture
Mark Collard
Experiential Trainer, author & keynote speaker. Founder & director of playmeo

I'm all for games, but Jane is quick to caution her readers (in her book, and elsewhere on the blogosphere) that we must balance the real world with the virtual world. All of the positive elements which can be gained from virtual games (and I concur) can be found in real-life, hands-on, active games - BUT with one very important distinction - real games involving groups develop critical social and interpersonal skills which virtual gaming does not. Period.

Another issue is that virtual gaming infers that success can always be achieved (as a result of continuous failing), because it is always baked (programmed) into the game - but we all know this is not how life works sometimes. As Helen Keller says, "Life is either a daring adventure, or it's nothing at all." While at first glance it may appear that virtual games are 'adventurous,' the truth is that they are not - someone has to have programmed for all of the various twists and turns in the game, there is nothing ever random in these programs.

And this is OK, but let's not get over excited about substituting virtual games with the real thing. I am certain that a whole lot more is learned in the playground about failure, sharing, co-operation, strategy, competition, etc, than will ever be learned in front of a screen pressing buttons.

Mark Collard -

Mary Beth Hertz's picture
Mary Beth Hertz
HS Art/Tech Teacher in Philadelphia, PA

Mark, one of my favorite parts of McGonigal's book was her "alternate reality games," which are very different from "virtual reality" games. I found your reflection on the idea that virtual reality games are controlled by a "puppet master" and nothing we do hasn't been foreseen by the developers. I definitely get that and see it, but I do know that there are times when gamers find "bugs" in a game and make it do something that it was never intended to do.

Surprisingly, when I asked my 9th graders to compare face to face and online communication, nearly all 120 of them said they preferred face to face communication. There's got to be something there.

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

Games are the positive experience, which helps in the strengthening of our body and mind. Some games are also considered are structured activities like cycling, cricket, swimming etc that helps us to take active decisions and sharpens our thinking process.

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