# Aug 27, 2014

“[Education] is not simply a technical business of well-managed information processing, nor even simply a matter of applying ‘learning theories’ to the classroom or using the results of subject-centered ‘achievement testing’. It is a complex pursuit of fitting a culture to the needs of its members and their ways of knowing to the needs of the culture.”

Jerome Bruner, The Culture of Education

Gamification: Don’t say it, don’t do it, just stop


This post originally appeared on MediaCommons, as part of a series on gamification.

I think it’s time we had a frank talk about what gamification is, and why we should stop doing it — or at least, why we should agree that if we’re not going to stop doing it, we ought to stop calling everything that involves real-world game design by that name.

Gamification as formulated by its proponents — let’s thumbnail it as, “the application of points and badges and other representations onto real-world behaviors under the assumption that doing so will ‘incentivize’ or motivate certain actions” — is anti-human. It’s about closing down possibility rather than opening it up. When “successful” (which, to be sure, it often is not), it amounts to a sleazy kind of behavioral control system. Population control is anathema to what games are, or have been, or ever will be.

A true game is a set of rules and procedures that generates problems and situations that demand inventive solutions. A game is about play and disruption and creativity and ambiguity and surprise. A game is about the unexpected. Gamification, on the other hand, is about the expected, the known, the badgeable, and the quantifiable. It is about “checking in” and being tracked. It’s not about breaking free, but rather about becoming more regimented. It’s a surveillance and discipline system — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware its lure.

Of course, if your goal is to create compliant employees, students, consumers, or citizens, then maybe gamification is for you. What better way to hammer home the idea that innovation, intellectual development, identity, and citizenship consist of doing what one is told and checking off boxes than by, well, “rewarding” people for doing what they’re told and checking off boxes? This is the essence of gamification: here are X number of things that you can be rewarded for doing. Now do them. Your activity will be monitored, and you will be credentialed accordingly.

In education, gamification is the hellspawn of No Child Left Behind and other kinds of quant-led learning policies. It posits that the main role of the educator is to identify a finite set of things that students ought to learn and do, and then to make them learn and do those things by whatever means necessary. If trickery is involved, then so be it. The principal “trick” gamification deploys is to make the tasks it seeks to support feel like game activities by using scorekeeping metaphors drawn from videogames and role-playing games to track completion. But aside from superficial similarity, is this approach really any different from handing out As and Bs, certificates and diplomas, GPAs and SAT scores?

Make no mistake: gamification — for we must differentiate it from game design proper, else the term is meaningless — is a credentialing system, and while it sometimes poses as a way of honoring and acknowledging informal learning, what it really amounts to is an extension of the formal into the realm of the informal. It is not concerned with teaching learners how to learn, but rather shockingly exclusively with offering them a set of discrete objects that they must accumulate (in part or in whole) in order to be credentialed. This is not a recipe for creating the kinds of creative problem-solvers our civilization needs. This is a recipe for creating rule-followers who are more concerned with optimizing their badge collections than with truly exploring and engaging with the world in which they live.

So just stop. End this dark chapter, this Frankenstein perversion of all the beautiful and liberating things that games can do. Refuse the marketing pitch. If you want to design games to make your school or city or country a better place, then do it — design games and change the world. But don’t do gamification. It’s bad for people. And if you’re an acolyte who just won’t let go, then at least do the rest of us a favor and keep your dirty word to yourself.

Parsons Talk: Pervasive Games for Experiential Media Arts Education

If you’re in NYC, you might want to check out my talk at the Design and Technology program at Parsons The New School for Design. I will be presenting Reality Ends Here and some ideas about the role of applied pervasive games in education. Hope to see you there.

Talk info:
Monday, February 27th at 2:00-3:00pm
66 W. 12 Street, 5th Floor, Room A510

Innovation Ecotones

An ecotone — literally, a place where ecologies are in tension — is a transitional area between different biomes, such as the boundary between grassland and forest or between different kinds of forests. Such places are sites for evolutionary dynamism, conflict, and experimentation. Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Director of the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University, draws on the ecotone as analogy and inspiration in her provocative essay regarding the future of design education and other institutional systems, Innovation Ecotones (.pdf).

Here, Pendleton-Jullian outlines the continuum between linear (“twentieth century”) and elastic/non-hierarchical (“twenty-first century”) learning and innovation models:

The left side of this continuum corresponds to models, methods, and mechanisms associated with twentieth century learning and the right side corresponds to how we are beginning to conceive of knowledge construction for the twenty-first century. A twentieth-century approach to education holds fast to the notion of teaching as a systematic delivery of knowledge—knowledge that is vetted and sanctioned and delivered in discipline-based packages from expert teachers to students. It is education in which one learns about specific stuff and how to do specific things.

In contrast, twenty-first century learning environments are about learning that extends far beyond the classroom (it scales), which in turn promotes elasticity and agency. The assumption is that we need to prepare for futures in which the specific things we will be doing, and specific stuff we will need to know, do not yet exist. Implicated in an education for the twenty-first century are all sorts of new mechanisms—cultural, social, and intellectual mechanisms—that are either directly or indirectly affiliated with the digital age as a global phenomenon.

Intuitively, we understand that a twenty-first century approach to learning is radically different from education that focuses on the accumulation of information and the simplistic transfer of culture and ideas associated with this information. But what is it more precisely? I would suggest that it begins with an epistemological shift in which learning how to learn and act (learning to be), in a highly situated manner, replaces learning about something. And then it is about how this scales, so as to create elasticity and agency.

Agency is the key word here. In the staid and siloed ecologies of traditional education, everyone has their place. Agency is reduced to choosing which silo you’re going to set yourself into — a choice which can drastically scale back your exposure to what’s going on in other silos. As a result, your world — your learning ecology — becomes smaller and less diverse over time. And the less diverse a given ecology becomes, the slower its pace of evolution and innovation.

In an “ecotone culture,” what once was siloed begins to collide, mix, and cross-pollinate, opening new vectors for discovery and collaboration. The results are unpredictable, but rich:

Because the students of the ecotone culture share the space and their work with others unlike themselves – with diverse species – there will be those cases in which one enters as one thing and evolves into something else: an architect, for instance, evolves into a musician/architect; or an astronomer evolves into an astronomer/environmentalist. Like the Greenbul [a bird whose song pitch and aeronautical capabilities adapt in response to its environment], though, it is not a change of song but a new tonality that honors both the song structure and the new context. This means that this new talent will acquire the ability to contribute in more than one field and maintain a key presence in multiple camps.

The ecotone analogy is extensive and highly productive. Diversity of species, new species development, keystone species as engineers, distribution of nutrients, corridors for transfer of creatures and stuff—even the idea of microhabitats (smaller habitats within larger habitats, like a tidal pool)—are all intensely relevant in terms of conceiving, designing, and implementing organizational structures and mechanisms for this innovation ecology model. Each component might independently have an impact and add value to the system, but the fact that the ecotone is a system, rather than a collection of components, means that their collective impact scale.

It should be noted that establishing an innovation ecotone in an institutional setting does not mean that one must completely change the entire system overnight. As I’ve observed over the past few months, a lightweight and entirely opt-in pervasive game geared around peer discovery and collaborative production can have transformative effects on an otherwise siloed educational environment. Once the channels for agency and disciplinary elasticity have been opened, it’s hard to close them again. After all, young media artists, theorists, and designers (among many others) are eager to find their niche in the world, to discover their identities, and to make a contribution — and in diversity, there is opportunity.

Download the complete text: Innovation Ecotones (.pdf)

Learning by ARG: an interview with Mela Kocher Lennstroem

Mela Kocher Lennstroem is a Swiss games researcher currently living in San Diego, where she conducts post-doctoral research on “the blurring of reality and fiction in digital media, especially in ARGs.” I caught up with Mela via Twitter and email after she co-presented (with Ken Eklund, Stephen Petrina, and PJ Rusnak) a “mini ARG” at the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Conference in La Jolla, California — an event I wish I’d attended, especially after talking to Mela about what happened during her session.

First off, I noticed your dissertation, “Follow the Pixel Rabbit,” on your website. Even though I can’t read German, I found it interesting to flip through the pages. Speaking generally, what’s your dissertation about — and what does the Alice reference in the title mean?

I wrote my dissertation on storytelling in video games around 2002/2003. At that time game studies was still a pretty new thing at universities in Switzerland (and games not really accepted as a serious academic subject). With the reference to Alice in Wonderland I wanted to make the statement that digital games offer a magic, bizarre and wonderful world for the one who dares to enter. My dissertation is about different ways of storytelling and player engagement of video games, hyperfiction and interactive movies – latter being a genre that failed remarkably in its beginnings – just watch/play I’m Your Man!

Obviously you are engaged with a lot of different fields of inquiry, from game design to narratology to aesthetics. How did you end up deciding to study/make this kind of stuff? What path did you take to becoming a theorist-practitioner?

Besides frenetically playing Games & Watch as a child, I lead a pretty video game-free life until my roommate in college got me into Myst and Riven. I studied German literature at that point and was curious to test the traditional literary theory frameset on games – and luckily my professor was encouraging that. Writing a dissertation on the topic was a pretty natural step (since it was fun, challenging and exciting), and during that time I played lots of games and taught many game workshops for teachers and librarians. In the past years I’ve been getting more and more intrigued by ARGs and their vast potential for storytelling and blurring the lines between fiction and reality – so I was more than happy to have gotten a research grant to study, play and now even make ARGs in the USA for two years.

You recently appeared on a panel at the Digital Media and Learning conference entitled, “Storytellers, Storymakers and Learning by ARG.” As a part of the panel, you and your co-panelist, game designer Ken Eklund (World Without Oil), designed and ran a mini-ARG. What was the purpose of this game, and how did it work?

The conference theme was “Diversifying Participation”, and our team wanted to discuss ARGs & participatory learning. Since it would probably take an hour to explain what ARGs are (and people still wouldn’t get it!), it seemed more effective (and way more fun!) to have the audience engage in one first hand. The game plot went like this: One of the speakers (which ended up being me) got lost on campus and was not be able to show up for the session in time. While Ken explained this to the waiting conference attendees, he had a “stress-induced narcoleptic attack of 20 minutes” so the audience was completely left to themselves (while our other two team members, PJ Rusnak and Stephen Petrina, stayed incognito in the room for possible trouble shooting).

I wish I had been there. How many people ended up participating?

You should have! There were around 40 people in a quite tiny room so it was packed. It was amazing which strategies the participants came up with – they started a Facebook search, tried to sneak Ken’s phone from his sleeping hand, they tweeted me, tried to call and text me and physically went out on campus to search for me – unfortunately for them, in my fictional world my phone was malfunctioning and I could only send them pictures from my location via tweet to ping.fm. That constraint gave way to lots of creativity, though (as our PM team had hoped for), and the participants truly engaged in their storymaking efforts.

What kind of feedback did you get? How was the notion of “learning by ARG” understood by the assembled educators?

There was definitely excitement in the room during the game (I watched the video later on). Most of them immediately understood that it was a game, and got into play mode. My favorite reaction was the (failed) gamejack attempt of one man who offered to hold his own speech while they were waiting for the scheduled speaker. Another person doubted that I was truly lost but suggested that I might just need a bit of comforting to take up my role as speaker. Lovely!

Even from this short ARG performance, people saw the great potential ARGs bear for learning – via features like creativity, collaboration, common goals, instant player feedback, immersion, role play, problem-solving… Most attendants thought of the ARG as an inspiring experience during an academic conference stuffed with formal one-to-many presentations.

On a more meta level, how do participatory game constructs like storymaking ARGs complicate or extend your thinking on narrative in digital games? Are the categories of “story” and “game” collapsing into one another, or do the traditional boundaries still hold?

ARGs have a potential for storytelling and storymaking that video games do not have, because of the possibility for real time interaction with the puppet masters and the actual chance for the player (or the more believable illusion!) to influence the course of the game. Narrative adventure video games are in comparison to that so limited and often incoherent due to their closed programming. Of course, more open structured video games like GTA offer completely different ways of experiencing and creating a story as well which also extends beyond the realm of the screen, but ARGs just take this idea much further. But new options bear new problems, and ARGs rely on the puppet masters’ coherent and instant feedback and their fair choices – and on the collaboration of the fellow players.

To your second question: I’d rather keep the concepts of “story” and “game” apart for analytical reasons, even though they tend to overlap [in the case of] ARGs: [that is,] I can play by being part of the story or by trying to crack a code. I would say that ARGs make story playable, but they are more story than game – but then this also depends on what the player is looking for. I myself love to ‘stalk’ a character and get into the game through character interaction while others love to solve puzzles etc. – the more traditional game-aspects of an ARG.

What’s next for ARGs — and for your research in general?

I’m curious to see if ARGs will develop towards shorter, replayable and even payable game formats for wider audiences (and therefore blend with features of video games).

I myself got very intrigued by having experienced a challenging setting like the academic conference as a playground, and I hope to investigate further in that direction. I’m not a fan of serious games per se, but I do believe that “play” in general provides at its core some of the most valuable experiences for living and learning.

Thanks, Mela!

ARGs in institutions: museums, libraries, schools, and beyond

This resource contains examples of alternate reality games (ARGs) created for museums, libraries, schools, and government agencies. Also included are links to related resources, designers, observers, and policy-makers. Please see my dissertation project, Reality Ends Here, for more up-to-date information about this topic.

Know of something that should be listed here? Please get in touch with me via the comments and I will update the resource.



  • Ghosts of a Chance (Smithsonian, 2008-2010) “We live in a world in which information and entertainment are customizable and immediately available. The Internet has become a larger part of everyday life, and so too have networked games, as people seek community, activity, a sense of achievement, and the chance to be part of something bigger . . . Museums can reach out to their audiences in more ways, using blogs, podcasts, video, and social media, but can they meaningfully engage visitors using games? In the fall of 2008, the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosted an Alternate Reality Game titled “Ghosts of a Chance.” We did this with three goals in mind: to broaden our audience, to do a bit of self-promotion, and, most importantly, to encourage discovery around our collections in a new, very interactive way. This paper will discuss the challenges that the museum faced, evaluate the successes and failures of each part of the game, and make recommendations for other museums interested in trying something similar.” (Archimuse)

  • More on Ghosts of a Chance: Georgina Goodlander’s paper, Nina Simon’s blog writeup, Anika Gupta’s piece on Smithsonian.com and goSmithsonian, Washington Post coverage, and NPR’s coverage.
  • PHEON (Multiple institutions, 2010) “For the past couple of months CityMystery has been building a new game, called PHEON. (A pheon is an ancient Greek arrowhead that has come to symbolize nimbleness of wit.) The purpose of our game is to celebrate (and reinforce) the American impulse to innovate. An economist friend of mine recently said that we have to “invent” our way out of our current mess. With PHEON I am promoting the idea that Americans understand innovation as a reoccurring utility of our democracy, one that matches our ability to adapt and succeed. PHEON’s subtext has to do with how ideas are passed along: how one person articulates a wish that another fulfills.” (“Sneak Preview of a New Museum Game“)
  • More on PHEON: see Pass on the PHEON!.
  • Many museums are also developing location-specific games and storytelling activities (like this or this) that don’t fit comfortably into the definition of an ARG. For some starting points for looking into these kinds of projects, see my locative media and ambient storytelling resources, and visit Nancy Proctor’s site, Museum Mobile.

Articles and discussions

  • Reshaping the art museum June 2009 article from ArtNews: “Confronted with urgent demographic realities, art-museum directors are drawing on game theory, interactive technology, and a host of other new strategies to help people feel welcome, engaged, and emotionally fulfilled.”
  • Smithsonian 2.0 “The two-day Smithsonian 2.0 gathering explores how to make SI collections, educational resources, and staff more accessible, engaging, and useful to younger generations (teenage through college students) who will largely experience them digitally. Over 30 creative people from the web and new media world will meet with 30 Smithsonian staff members to generate a vision of what a digital Smithsonian might be like in the years ahead.”

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Transmedia and Education: Three Essential Readings

Henry Jenkins’ New Media Literacies class at USC has been a treasure-trove of readings and insights. Three recent articles covered in class — read alongside Jenkins’ own book, Convergence Culture, and his excellent MacArthur-funded New Media Literacies white paper — struck me as particularly essential for anyone who’s looking to build an understanding of what multimodal communication is and how transmedia relates to education, literacy and literature. Most of these readings can be found in various corners of the Web, but I’ve also posted them here (along with a brief gloss and anecdote) for those who are interested. They are:

Ito’s succinct article makes the case most directly: “technologies of the imagination populate even the most mundane corners of our lives,” (34) and, contrary to the fears of those who worry that new media threatens to compartmentalize and disembody, the media mix is in practice productive of a culture that is “extroverted and hypersocial, sociality augmented by a dense set of technologies, signifiers, and systems of exchange.” (32) Buckingham and Sefton-Green hammer the point home: skeptics ought to consider examples like the “striking contrast between the high levels of [multimodal reading, sociality and production] activity that characterize the Pokemon phenomenon and the passivity that increasingly suffuses our children’s schooling” (30); and who could disagree that banning such phenomena from the school yard would do anything other than increase their “forbidden appeal” and “prevent schools from building on the enthusiasms children possess”? (31)

Of course, we have a long way to go before these kinds of messages can establish a critical mass in institutional and creative practice. Last week, I attended an experimental literature conference and found that while many of the assembled authors and scholars were keen on experimenting with new media, few if any of them were open to a wholesale redefinition of what literature is/can be. (( …and here I’m thinking not in either/or terms but in both/and: the novel will always be around and will always be the best at doing those things that novels do best. But there are other kinds of literature lurking in the shadows, and that’s what I’m interested in here. )) The works presented would inevitably employ language — spoken or written — as their core expressive resource (unsurprising for a conference largely run and constituted by poets and English professors), which they would then back up with video, flash animations, sound effects, etc. The effect of this was to reduce any image, sound, interactive or procedural elements present in the works to subordinate “supporting” status, lending credence to the commonly-expressed concern that the use of new media “in” literature amounts to little more than gimmickry. As Kress argues, we need to not only shift our definition of text to include “any instance of communication in any mode or in any combination of modes, whether recorded or not,” (48), but also our concept of the role design plays in both reading and writing. “Design does not ask, ‘what was done before, how, for whom, with what?” Kress writes. Rather, Design asks, “What is needed now, in this one situation, with this configuration of purposes, aims, audience, and with these resources, and given my interests in this situation?” (49)

The easy analogy here is that of the early cinema, wherein fiction films were shot using the conventions of the proscenium drawn from the theatre. It was only after a thorough interrogation of the affordances of the camera and the film splicer that the cinema began to reveal itself as a space for artistic endeavor. That is, once filmmakers let go of the notion that the cinema should attempt to create the same experiences as earlier forms of narrative art, they found themselves liberated to discover the unique way of “speaking” that film affords. What complicates this analogy is that we now confront a dynamic multiplicity of media modes. Like Gardner’s multiply-intelligent children, not all authors are going to be able to work well across all media. But in an age of expanding definitions of words like “text,” “author,” and “reading,” creators of literature, as educators and thought leaders, need to ask themselves the questions Kress’s personified Design asks: “What is needed now…with these resources, and given my interests?” Intelligently using new media is not about adding bells and whistles or referencing the Web — rather, it’s about selecting the right mode (or modes) to express what it is you have to say.

School For Corn


The school is set up on ten tabletops with different learning stations, with the corn seeds learning through audio speakers as well as by the use of electric fans behind a row of books, which carry knowledge through the air like pollen. In this program of accelerated learning, the individual kernel is not expected to learn everything — the species as a whole will absorb the knowledge collectively. The variety of knowledge bases is hoped to heighten the corn’s wisdom, especially since despite their enormous acquisition of knowledge, humans have acquired so little wisdom. (WMMNA)