The opposite of play is not work – it is depression
These words by psychologist and play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith were central to Jane McGonigal’s EDUCAUSE 2013 keynote address, entitled Higher Education Is a Massively Multiplayer Game. Through her research, McGonigal has shown that not only can games be hard work, but by incorporating gaming into work and education these endeavors can be much more productive and enjoyable.
The back-story to the keynote is that in 2009 McGonigal suffered a traumatic brain injury which left her bedridden and suicidal. At her most despondent, she turned to gaming as a possible solution, and dove into scientific research that ultimately led to the creation of a healing game, SuperBetter. As she recovered, McGonigal concluded what she had suspected all along: Gamers are on to something. Her ground-breaking TED talk on her experience, The game that can give you 10 extra years of life, has received over two million views.
Fast forward to the problems facing today’s workplace. Gallup has found that 71% of workers are not engaged, resulting in an annual cost of $300B in lost productivity. Schools face a similar situation. The more time students spend at school the less engaged they become. According to another Gallup research report, engagement drops from 76% in elementary school to 61% middle school down to 44% in high school.
McGonigal proposes tackling both of these challenges with advanced gaming techniques. Research has found that gamers experience ten positive emotions during their gaming sessions. Experiencing three of these emotions for every negative emotion you feel will make you resilient, more ambitious, and likeable. It is this resilience that enables gamers to fail 4 out of 5 times, yet have no desire to give up. McGonigal notes that experiencing too many positive emotions can backfire. If the ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions goes up to 13 to 1, people may start to hate you.
McGonigal advanced her talk from gamer theory to education practice, by quoting Joichi Ito, director of the M.I.T. Media Lab: “I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process of establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity. … What has been a wildly successful model for consumer Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley turns out to be an extremely good model for learning in a wide variety of fields and disciplines.”
She described three projects that have been phenomenally successful at applying the benefits of gaming to education and solving real world problems.
- Foldit is a game created to solve protein folding challenges. Protein folding happens to be similar to a 3-D game of tetris, so this project put the well-honed tetris skills of gamers to good use. Shortly after an invitation to join the project was published in Nature, gamers solved an HIV challenge that had daunted scientists for 10 years. It’s interesting to ponder a Nobel Prize being awarded to 50,000 gamers.
- Project Evoke taps into the fact that 43% of students want to start their own business, and 42% think they will invent something to change the world. The Evoke game was developed by the World Bank Institute, the learning and knowledge arm of the World Bank Group, and directed by Jane McGonigal. It is built around a graphic novel and has parallels to the game of Grand Theft Auto. Student participants (almost 20,000 in all) were asked about major world problems, as well as what superpowers their personal character possessed. The players combined real-world activities with on-line social media collaboration to develop creative solutions: like adapting a McDonalds-style franchise model to spread libraries across Africa.
- The third game, Find the Future, draws from the statistic that 82% of young Americans aspire to write a book. The game started with 500 selected participants gathering at the underground stacks of the NY Public Library to track down 100 unique items that changed history (like the Declaration of Independence written in the hand of Thomas Jefferson). During this phase, teams learned the behind-the-scenes history of famous events. In the next phase, the teams were asked to make a declaration of their own, related to the modern world, and get 56 signers (there were 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence) to endorse it. By the end of the game night the 500 players had written 1,184 stories about the future and the role they wanted to play in making the stories happen.
Where will this lead? McGonigal believes that these examples show how education and even work can benefit dramatically from concepts of gaming. In the future, gamification, MOOCs, and special live events will blend into an extreme learning environment, where you can learn anytime, anyplace, in an atmosphere of strong collaboration. Extremely personalized, extremely spontaneous, and extremely connected learning environments will make students feel a part of what they are learning about and even enable them to make creative contributions while they learn.
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