Friday, 5 July 2013

Jane McGonigal and Gamification

One of the keynote speakers at ISTE 2013 was Jane McGonigal who is the Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. I was unfamiliar with her work prior to the conference, although I had some vague awareness of the idea of gamification as it is being applied to education. Her presentation was engaging and stimulating (see this TED talk for a representative sample) but I had difficulty making the connections between the examples that she was presenting and the work of a classroom teacher. Nonetheless, I bought her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World to read on the long flight home.

I was completely engrossed - and far more amenable to being convinced of her thesis (as signalled in the book's title). In this, and the next few posts, I will do some summarising and some interaction with her ideas. 

As a starting point, I am coming from the point of view of someone who is attracted to games and who has spent significant chunks of time at various points in my life attempting to conquer games of various sorts. However, I have always seen this as something of a guilty pleasure, feeling intuitively that it is a 'waste of time' and not having a frame of reference by which I could explain/justify my interest. Apart from anything else, this book has given me a better understanding of myself and my interest in games.

As I see it, when thinking about the size and ubiquity of the gaming industry in its digital form but also in its ubiquity in human history and culture), a key question is "What is the appeal? Why do people devote so much time to games? What itch are games scratching?"

McGonigal argues, informed by the field of positive psychology, that there are four core human needs/drives that are met by games. These are:

  • the need for satisfying work
  • the need to have realistic hope for success
  • the need to be connected with others
  • the need to be part of something bigger than self
I won't go into detail about how she explores these needs with reference to games, but I found her arguments and details to constitute a strong case. One thing that added to the explanatory power of her argument (to me at least) was the resonance between these four identified needs and a thoughtful theological anthropology (that is, a theological description and explanation of humanity). Work, relationships and mission are all easily identified aspects of the human condition in the Bible. The issue of 'realistic hope of success' is harder to ground in the Scriptures - although common wisdom certainly recognises the truth that we need to have realistic hope of success if we are to persevere in anything; despair and disengagement are the only other alternatives!

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