Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Better at games than at life?

A reader sent me a link to the TED talk of Jane McGonigal about Gaming can make a better world, in which she observes that gamers show "blissful productivity" and "urgent optimism" when playing games, and thinks that we could solve real world problems if we applied those traits to real world problems. I do agree with some of her observations: The same kid who gave up on his math problem for homework after the second attempt and fail will then cheerfully wipe a dozen times on the next raid boss and still keep going. By showing greater persistance and being better motivated he ends up being better at games than at life. But I'm not so sure that is always transferable into real life. If the kid kills the boss mob on the thirteenth attempt, will that motivate him to persist on his math homework, or will it motivate him to avoid homework and stick to games where he can achieve greater success?

This talk is a more optimistic version of a story you usually hear the other way around, in versions like how playing violent video games will make kids violent. I don't really believe either version fully. I think the people looking at the influence of video games on real life underestimate the players' ability to make a sharp distinction between virtual and real. There is a real difference between the real world and the virtual world in terms of risk and uncertainty, and that difference has a strong influence on how people react in these different worlds.

That is not to say that you can't learn soft skill while playing video games, especially social multiplayer online games. For example it would be perfectly feasible for somebody to pick up some basic management skills while leading a guild in a MMORPG, and then later apply those skills in real life after having been promoted to a supervisor position. But that is more about learning a few tricks about what works and what doesn't work, and not so much about acquiring some attitude in a video game and then carrying it over into real life.

Video games are safe environments, and players are aware of that, and react to that absence of risk accordingly. Jane McGonigal's observation of optimism in gamers stems from the gamer *knowing* that there is no risk. You *know* that dying in World of Warcraft is just a minor inconvenience, thus persisting after several deaths isn't all that much of a burden. In the real world there is more risk, and even more importantly there is more uncertainty. This is why Jane McGonigal observes that when facing real world failure we are more likely to feel overcome, overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, frustrated, or cynical. Not knowing about the potential consequences makes us even feel even more anxious and fearful.

Let me give you an example: My parents are both over 70, and while I grew up with computers from as far back as the ZX81, they only bought home computers for themselves after they retired. So now every time I visit them, I spend several hours solving their computer problems, and those problems are trivial for anyone who is comfortable around computers. Like they start the computer, and a little window pops up from Windows or some application like Java or their Antivirus telling them there is an update available, and whether they want to download and install that now or later. And my parents are terrified, don't know what this is about, can't decide whether to click OKAY or CANCEL, and end up telephoning me for help. They aren't sure if that popup is supposed to be there, have read stories about how accepting all such invitations to download and install stuff can lead to you installing viruses and trojans, and are afraid of the consequences they don't understand of making that decision. Me, and most of you probably, aren't so afraid of computer applications, because we know more about the possible consequences. If I have a problem in lets say Excel, I'm not afraid to click through various options I don't understand until I find the one that does what I want. If that fails I can always reload the backup file. It is understanding the risks that enables me to treat that real life problem like a game, in a playful, optimistic, and ultimatively productive way. But that doesn't mean I can apply that same attitude to the rest of my life, like lets say my tax declaration, where I'm much less aware of how that is supposed to work, and more fearful of the consequences of messing up.

Thus I believe that in real world situations where the *real* risk is low, the application of methods from gaming can work, for example by setting up a better structure for motivation and rewards. Lee Sheldon at Indiana University set up his courses to give experience points instead of grades, and has students leveling up instead of graduating. The consequences of getting less xp for your paper, and thus needing more for the next level, are actually more transparent than the consequences of getting your paper graded 'F'. By making the system easier to understand, the fear and uncertainty are diminished, enabling people to approach the real world problem of studying with a more playful attitude.

But that isn't a catch all solution. Poverty, hunger, war, global warming, and other problems that Jane McGonigal mentions aren't easily tackled with the same approach, because the risk and uncertainty are real, and can't easily be dispelled. We can't just go like she says and turn 11 million World of Warcraft players each playing on average over 20 hours per week into the equivalent of 5.5 million real full time jobs and solve all the worlds problems with that manpower and gaming enthusiasm. Just because somebody is fearless and optimistic when facing the Lich King doesn't mean he will be fearless and optimistic when tackling real world problems. It is more likely that this fearless leader who killed Arthas last night through much persistence will feel overwhelmed today by some minor real world problem like his car not starting in the morning, his kid having a fever, or him having problems setting up a shelf from an IKEA flat pack.
I agree with you.
What I personally have learnt from computer games is that dedication and subsequent fun can have amazing result.

So, if the peope you are supposed to manage (motivate) aren't dedicated, but just afraid, exspect a bad result. Especially in the long run.

If somebody is really dedicated he can do amazing things. But to reach that kind of 'flow' for more than a few days is very hard. And perhaps not even desireable as it often makes you a one-dimensional person.

At some work I sometimes manage to get into that kind of flow. It always pays off :)
Mostly, however, I'm not in 'flow' and I even wouldn't like to be really about 'this boring topic'.
The opening argument about studying math for school as an alternative to playing WoW as activity is interesting. I might argue that WoW is better at teaching math to some students than a decent volume or real teachers.

Somewhere in this mess with the value of playing games lies a conflict between the industrial age and the digital age. In the digital age we need other things from each other than what we needed the prevous hundred or so years.
I've actually seen this video when it was posted previously somewhere else.

I think that she is speaking more within the context of designing games that can make use of some of the skills that she mentions. Notice that she mentions some of the games that she has been a developer of. If you are able to design such games that actually have some use besides just entertainment for the gamer then those gamers are an untapped potential resource. It could be like having people work for you for free.

The theme of the games she mentions seem to be of saving the world kind so the intentions seem to be good.

This should probably work, if you are able to design interesting games. The big problem is really to design games that are interesting enough while trying to solve these problems. Not the easiest thing to do.
Gaming are made to be rewarding. That their whole point. If you succeed downing a raid boss its not because its hard to achieve- it was designed so you could do so

Downing a raid boss is in wow is accessible to no any "average" (read dumb) person, it does not require any skills beside memorizing a trivial routine

All serious real life problems are hard. They take serious time investment and require intelligence , hard work and persistence, often for long time without any rewards
I've watched her lecture, and while she has some fair points, the real problem is getting the kids playing the games that would actively *help* the issues.

Millions of people are playing Modern Warfare 2, but that's not stopping war or working towards a solution for world peace. Millions play World of Warcraft, but that doesn't mean that they're going to fix the problems of society.

Her idea's critical flaw is simple - people play games for fun. While it is true that getting millions of gamers to spend millions of hours applying a gaming-oriented mindset to today's problems could probably solve them, it won't happen because those problems aren't *fun* to solve.

We'd need game developers to come up with something that accurately encompasses those problems and is still fun. They'd need to entice that brain trust of millions to spend their time doing it, and that's the hard part.

If the kid kills the boss mob on the thirteenth attempt, will that motivate him to persist on his math homework, or will it motivate him to avoid homework and stick to games where he can achieve greater success?

I think Jane would argue that math teachers should create games that force the kid to use math in order to slay the boss mob.

There is a certain grain of truth to this idea. There really is no doubt that gamers work to master a lot of mundane tasks in order to be successful.

Although, that idea isn't terribly unique. There have been lots of learning games over the years.

The issue, however, is that they aren't as fun or well-made as Modern Warfare or World of Warcraft.

I think that's why Jane's concept to use games to change real world behavior is doomed to fail. Not because the theory is poor, but because the games can't be made interesting enough to compete with other forms of entertainment.
Clearly the solution is to get kids to play games that solve problems without them knowing it, a la Ender's Game.

... right?
As a parent to several young children, this is a problem I have given much thought. I suspect that applies to almost all parents.

Seeing your four-year-old child learn all the moves in Lego Star Wars and, perhaps even more impressive, the names of all the characters in a matter of minutes is a manifestation of successful learning/teaching techniques. In this, I disagree with Max. It is not intrinsically "harder" to learn the names of every regent in Dutch history or that Topeka is the capital of Kansas than it is to learn the names of the Rebel leaders or that Order 66 was initiated in the middle of the battle of Kashyyyk.

The human mind appears to be capable of learning at a completely stunning rate if given sufficient initiative. Personally, I doubt that this kind of learning can be "trained" or "transferred" from one area to another. One simply has to have the proper initiative. Exp learning, such as you describe it, may encourage some to learn more intensely. It is not entirely dissimilar from the many popular "research"-based teaching techniques used in many primary schools nowadays.

Next up: scientists identify the substances that activate "hyper-learning"; Big Med invents the Pill™; Major Debate ensues. :)
is a manifestation of successful learning/teaching techniques
it is not intrinsically "harder" to learn the names of every regent in Dutch history or that Topeka is the capital of Kansas

It is simple rote memorization. Learning games are good if a kid is smart enough to benefit from them

You cant stretch though that playing games is good for solving real problems. Because real problems require an order of magnitude higher set of skills and abilities

For example : task is down the x boss in n instance. All it requires is memorization of trivial steps and abilities. Its an analogue to successfully buy groceries.

Its a trivial task , only difference is in a game its wrapped in reward mechanisms to make it fun

But say you need do some real task -,say, design a database engine, or a plane ,or a CPU, or a car.

You not only need a much larger area of knowledge already acquired (which takes years) but also much higher level of cognitive ability.

Without artificial barriers (level grinds etc) anyone smart enough to do real work can master any mmo in a matter of weeks, if not days.

games are useless time sinks, which do not help anything more complex than elementary school curriculum.

Yes and no. I completely agree with you that games aren't difficult and that they are very consciously designed that way.

But they can be very complicated, and many of them are. Learning those patterns, that mechanical process, it is not at all dissimilar from the learning required of our young children. That's what I was trying to point out.

If I were mayor of my home town, I wouldn't hire a guy as chief city planner based on his super-awesome SimCity 4 model, no more than I'd trust someone to defend me in a murder trial just because she'd finished Phoenix Wright. But I also don't expect my kids to invent the cure for cancer.

This amazing learning ability that children (and adults do it too, by the way, but it's less impressive to see it displayed thus) demonstrate when their minds and focus unite, it is not restricted to games. It applies to everything. It applies to everything Lego, everything Star Wars, everything Barbie, all cartoons, etc.

But as I already pointed out, I don't believe that playing lots of WoW makes you better at math, or even that it prepares you better for the frustration of math class. Of course, spending a lot of time over at Elitist Jerks is probably likely to bag you some math skills that you'd have a hard time picking up in school. But I digress.

Journalist Steven Johnson wrote a book, "Everything Bad Is Good For You" a couple of years back, where he touched upon this subject, and many others. It is a good read, and I warmly recommend it. Not because it's "true" but because it provides a good source of reflection.

Games are fun. That's not useless. Fun is good for you. Games that aren't any fun, though: yeah, I'd agree they're useless. And are you saying that elementary school is useless?
You make some really good points, but her talk is still worth listening to.

But, I feel that I play games to get away from the real world. I like the disconnect and it helps me relax. As soon as I start playing a game about a hunger crisis that is really happening I am not having as much fun. I want to get away from the news of tragedies and injustices the world over.

Virtual worlds are a great escape for recreational purposes, but I definitely make a distinction between a virtual world and the real one.
People will always try to find the easiest way to solve a problem. Trying to "make" a kid do/learn math by somehow hiding it in a video game is not going to work. If the goal of the game is to learn math, it's going to come across loud and clear.

Those of us who do simple math to improve our WoW output already like math, and are good at it. Those who don't just go to blogs/forums and copy/paste.

I've played probably thousands of hours of WoW. The level of math I've had to use is basic high school algebra. That's pretty inefficient as a teaching tool.

I do see a potential for learning geophraphy, history, and maybe even literature, however. Designing an amusing game with the "lore" of world history might be possible. And if the last WoW expansion was set in Europe instead of Northrend, I'd certainly be better at Jeopardy.
I never understood how people use any form of entertainment to "escape". Personally I can never shut my brain off or stop myself from thinking. Even when watching a great new movie in the theatre or deep in a gaming session with a game I can't put down, I never find myself forgetting about the outside world (both the literal one, and just the fact I have other things to worry aboutL: I have to work later, do some work on the property, or text back my gf soon so I dont get put in the dog house).

On the other hand, I never find myself sitting there thinking about how bad a place the world is, whether it be whining about my own life or thinking of horrible things in the world. I guess I just dont see the sense in being troubled about anything beyond my control or in the past.

Great points, you actually summed up my view so well I dont need to say it.

Pretty sure you meant this as a joke, but any math you are using for WoW (at Elitest Jerks or anywhere) is covered in any reputable school system. If you break down what MathCraft really is, you will find that 99.9% of the time it is only basic algebra.
All that motivation and optimism would shrivel pretty quickly in a game where the work/reward ratio was even half that of real life.

The whole attraction of MMOs to the highly dedicated players is probably that the MMO presents an easy route to success. Even the hardest, grindy mmo has a much small ratio of work to reward than real life. In what other field will a few hundred hours of work put you in the top 10% of your field?

There is no where else that you could develop into an elite member of your group within a few months of practice and training. Whatever you want to do, in real life it takes years of work to get to a high level of achievement. In an MMO, pretty much anyone who is willing to invest their spare time can achieve at a high level (or at least feel they are at a high level).

It's easy dopamine. Make it realistic by making people do genuinely hard stuff, like math or something, and the entire reason they are playing is gone. The really hardcore player is there because the virtual world gives him an easy route to achievement and social status. It's a flimsy achievement and social status that is only impressive from the inside, but that's the driving force behind obsessive play, imo.
Things which you're uncertain about overwhelm you...

I think you just explained why the masses don't stick with EVE: There's no happy tutorial that says "You have to do X, Y, and Z in this order." so they get overwhelmed and stop playing.
"We can't just go like she says and turn 11 million World of Warcraft players each playing on average over 20 hours per week into the equivalent of 5.5 million real full time jobs and solve all the worlds problems with that manpower and gaming enthusiasm."

agreed, mostly becasue playing games, any games is a non-productive leisure activity and people would just substitute one fun activity for another. they will not suddenly become productive and persistent.
You all make excellent points that games are just games, and that they won't ever be a good substitute for real education or real experience. I particularly like Toxic's point on what motivates people to play.

But why the resistance against the idea that you can learn some useful stuff while playing games? Important facts do not have to be difficult or take ages to learn in order to be important. J. DangerouS, I was serious about Elitist Jerks. Not because the math is difficult or particularly advanced, but because it provides a context for learning that will motivate some people. Math is peculiar in that it is so abstract. Many children have a hard time getting into math, and one of the reasons for that is that their teachers aren't good enough at providing context. Almost all of the math taught in school, from the basics up to the more advanced can be contextualised and thereby made easier to understand. But at least in my country, math teachers are mainly educated in math, theoretically, than math in practice. So if her hobby all of a sudden encourages your 14-year-old daughter to start doing basic algebra to determine whether armor penetration or agility is the way to go for her level 80 hunter, chances are she actually will learn something her school has so far failed to teach her, simply because it has now become interesting to her, important in a way.

Although I do accept the copy/paste point: I am not saying that everyone will take these odd opportunities for learning – indeed, it is likely only a small minority. Again, my argument is not that WoW is a substitute for education.

Like Void and Leah say: games are just games. We play them for entertainment purposes. Learning is ancillary.

What I meant to ask from the beginning, what I meant to highlight was that entertainment has a power to focus people's minds in a way that makes them amenable to picking up facts, information, in a very powerful way. The challenge for our educational systems is to find a way to harness that power.
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