Yoga Gamification

One of the great things I have discovered on our new adventureis yoga. Yoga is an intensely personal endeavor and I probably approach it very differently than most. Strangely enough, for me it ties in well with gamification– a subject I’ve written about a few times before in the context of some of the ways we are unschoolingVie and Aidan. Here’s how I think about connecting yoga with it.

I had tried yoga before Costa Rica, sort of. Deb and I used to do it as one of the modules of P90X. We did yoga moves, and many were hard, but they were the same every time. When we came to Costa Rica, we started taking classes from Sattva Yoga and experienced a much deeper and genuine yoga experience. That’s where my yoga quest began – and I use that word intentionally.

For some context, I have traditionally been more of a team sports person for the most part all my life. I tend to get bored with repetitive individual sports like running, bicycling, swimming, etc. The individual sports I like tend to have some challenges to occupy my brain as well as my body, like snowboarding. I know many folks who tell me about the zen qualities of long distance running, or the peace of swimming but that’s not how I enjoy sports. I also tended to try many sports rather than fully dedicate myself to one and be the best at it. Aidan approaches sports that way too. Just one was hard to hold my interest.

Yoga does a great job occupying my mind as well as my body when I do it. It was the larger landscape of yoga that really hooked me, however.

Here is where I apologize to all my yogi friends. What I will share will probably not feel like the “essence” of yoga to many yogis or even most people who know much about it. However, in yoga, it is always about you and what you can do – not what everyone else is doing. So, for me, yoga shares many aspects of games. In my view, it is highly gamified and that is what draws me in.

Once again the definition of gamification I like comes from Gabe Zicherman:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

As I started yoga here, I learned a number of new moves, or asanas (poses). Then, Deb saw a poster of 900 asanas and told me about it. I had no idea there were so many. So, I started doing some research to understand all of the moves. That’s when I created my somewhat geeky spreadsheet of yoga positions. I keep track of the Sanskrit and English names of the poses, a picture of each pose, and additional data such as type of pose, etc. I also track when I completed a pose.

You might think there was one site on the web with a full list of all of these asanas. There are several. None are complete. In fact, I keep finding new ones. My spreadsheet now has 1113 poses, of which I’ve completed about a third so far. My original goal was to complete them all this year. Of course, that seems unrealistic, I know, even though we practice yoga 5-6 times a week now. There are some incredibly insane poses and people spend lifetimes mastering a few. Still, I like big goals.

That’s where gamification comes in. The thing that motivates me is the exploration. I want to explore and complete every one of those moves. If you play video games in particular, it’s a lot like wanting to visit every place, every challenge, and try every move or skill. Master Yogis may spend years perfecting one asana. For me, I want to complete the asana well, but it doesn’t have to be perfect; I’d rather move on to try others. My spreadsheet is essentially my map of this journey.

So how do I connect yoga with gamification? Yoga, for me, meets many of the core criteria for gamification. It also is strangely similar to how role-playing games (RPGs) evolve. These are games like World of Warcraft and Halo (campaign, or “story”, mode). The one caveat is that most game mechanics* and game dynamics* involve games embedded in a social setting. I turn all of these inward in how I look at gamifying yoga.

Let’s start with game mechanics*. First off, for me, the range of asanas present clear goals and many paths to get there. It is not just about the outcome of attaining the goal, it’s also about how you get there. Many asanas require a lot of prep work and conditioning before you can even attempt the pose and there are usually particular ways of getting into the poses that enable more success.

The asanas present a series of progressively harder challenges. Each basic move has a relatively simple version. Tree pose (Vrksasana), for example, is pretty straightforward to start. Flip it upside down and you have Adho Mukha Vṛksasana, or a handstand. Add the lotus position to get Urdhva Padmasana in Adho Mukha Vrksasana. Now, make it one-handed and you get Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana. You get the picture. There’s plenty to keep me busy for years. Heck, even some of the basic moves are hard, like Bakasana:

yoga

Bakasana

Levels are a another common game mechanic. Yoga has no belt system like martial arts which could indicate one’s “level” or proficiency. However, I definitely feel a progression from simpler asanas to “higher level” ones. Things that were once very difficult are now easy. There is just no outward manifestation of your “level.” It is an internal feeling for me, and that ties well with the “spirit” of yoga.

Likewise, there are no points per se as a game mechanic. However, every time I complete a new asana, I log it in my spreadsheet. Only I see it. But, I know I got a “point” for that particular asana. It essentially becomes my own leaderboard.

Now we get to the softer game dynamics*, such as reward, achievement, status, competition, and even self-expression. They are all there, but as inward manifestations. If I accomplish a difficult asana, for example, I get the same dopamine hit gamers get when they accomplish a challenge. It’s an internal reward.

What excites me is trying, and accomplishing, new asanas. I don’t need an achievement badge on Xbox to feel the same result as getting an achievement. My spreadsheet shows me the ones I have and the many, many more I have yet to earn.

Self-expression comes with the territory in yoga. We are all built differently and are differently-abled. The way I complete a pose or even try to get into it (often awkwardly) is different than others. What I lack in grace, I have in tenacity, and that fuels most of the things I accomplish.

Competition is a tricky one. I am competitive. Very competitive Debbie would argue. However, yoga is not a competition for me with others. In fact we all love seeing someone accomplish a tough move that they hadn’t before. Rather, the competition, if anything, is internal. I push myself to do more and do it better. But, doing it better takes a big second seat to trying something new. I play RPGs the same way.

There are a few final ways that yoga is “gamified” for me. These come more from the world of RPGs than more basic “gamification” concepts.

Take skill trees, for example. If you look at a map of asanas, they look like skill trees in many RPGs. In RPGs, as you advance and get more experienced in the game, you “unlock” new skills that you can now use, such as new spell if you are a spellcaster. There are often different “trees” of skills for each type of character, such as fire spells or cold spells. Likewise, you can see “trees” of asanas. There are standing asanas, seated asanas, arm balance asanas (Bakasana is one), etc. Like RPGs, some skills may come more easily than others and they get more difficult the further you go (in “level”). As with RPGs, to get all the skills, you need to do it a long time.

For me, there’s even the concept of “quests.” I am currently on one of my own to achieve the Lotus position (or Padmasana). Once I do, I can “unlock” a number of variations that I have yet to try (that’s the quest reward). My ankles are pretty tight from soccer and don’t seem to bend the way most people’s do, so I have to work on trying to open my hips more. It will be quite an achievement for me when I get there.

Finally, there are “bosses” – those super-difficult opponents in games that you need to face, and defeat, before you can continue. Some asanas, like Lotus, are tough for me now, but I know I can work through them, like an easier boss, and get through to the other side (all those poses that become “unlocked.”). Then, there are a few asanas that seem so crazy difficult, like Eka Hasta Padma Adho Mukha Vrkshasana, that I’m not sure yet how I’ll get there. I tend to approach those sorts of challenges in steps and work methodically toward them. Eventually they yield. Just like a hard boss.

I’m sure I’ve managed to unsettle my yogi friends by bringing gaming into the picture. To a greater degree, I probably also unsettled my gamer friends by, gulp, bringing yoga into the picture. Unsettling is good though. It’s an attribute of change. And here in the land of pura vida I think I’ve found that elusive “sport” that I care about dedicating some serious time to, which is a big change for me.

A big thanks goes out to all my yogi friends and teachers for making this an incredible journey. Namaste. And pura vida!

 

* There are several good sources on game mechanics and game dynamics. I tend to like. Bunchball’s simple and accessible Gamification 101 white paper.

The Paper Quest

In our young adults’ first unschooling project, they collaborated to create an amazing 28 page multimedia paper. Deb and I were excited, surprised and very, very proud of them. We were also really excited to see that our first unschooling “experiment” worked. That was important because it is a big part of our new adventure. The project revealed the power of passion and motivation. Here’s the story. I hope it is as inspirational to some of you as it is to Deb and me.

As I noted briefly in Unschooling Begins, we actually ended up starting the unschooling with a “quest.” In gaming terms, this is often a side activity to the main game plot in Role-Playing Games. Quests involve the players performing some task or accomplishing some goal, usually for reward.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest.” The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. That was a great spark to start with.

For some “back story” context, Aidan hasn’t generally been excited about writing at all. When we’ve helped Aidan with papers in the past, it was really tough pulling out more than a sentence or two. He seemed to be pretty typical of students his age. Vie enjoys creative writing, but doesn’t enjoy writing “school” papers. Notwithstanding that, both Aidan and Vie had a very good understanding of the basic components of a good paper and the steps to take to get there (rough draft, review, revisions, etc.).

Vie and Aidan worked on the paper for about 6 days, a few hours each day. This work included playing and watching games to get details, identifying details they wanted to talk about and then organizing these into larger themes, arranging the themes into an ordered outline using card sorting, writing a rough draft, gathering images and audio samples for the final paper, revising their content several times, and assembling everything into the final paper.

As an active and passive observer in all of this, I saw a number of interesting and noteworthy things. First off, their observation skills were beyond what I expected. They both knew the games pretty well. I suggested in addition to playing that they watch someone play. I humbly volunteered to play Diablo III while they watched J. For about 90 minutes they watched, commented, discussed, debated, and critiqued both the game and how I played it. They made some very shrewd and unexpected observations, such as noting that there is a definite pattern in Diablo III when a “rare” (mini-boss) monster appears. You can generally identify it by the type and cluster of “minions” it has before you even see it. It was pretty subtle. Their attention to detail was amazing; it would give a good field researcher a run for their money.

Another heartening thing was their focus. Several times in several of the days, they would work for 2-4 hours straight, writing, editing, formatting, capturing images, etc. I was there in case they needed help (which they rarely did), but they were driving their own focus. It wasn’t until the third time that I realized they were working like I (and many) do when I am in “flow.” I think this is important so here’s a brief description:

According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand (Wikipedia, from Csikszentmihalyi).

This is the state we all strive to be in on a good day at work. Even in the best circumstances in school, I don’t think we could see this. Inevitably there are class distractions and certainly more limited periods of time to actually work on something. There were of course some occasions where they needed a little motivation to get started or they themselves got distracted, etc., but the fact that I was even able to see this is pretty surprising – at least to me. And when distractions came up, we just took a break and picked it up later. They drove their schedule.

One of the more surprising things to me was seeing them collaborate so well. They wanted to work together from the beginning. I was hesitant, but open to it. I think collaboration is an essential skill for kids to learn, which is why I like project-based learning. Like most siblings, though, they have their share of arguments, periods of bossiness, etc. I wasn’t sure if the two of them could really collaborate well. I was definitively shown that they could and they could do it well. Vie was more of the driver in the project but they both worked together on every part of the paper writing experience. And, testimony to good collaboration, the final result was stronger than either one would have been able to do alone.

Finally, they were really developing their critical thinking skills. Coincidentally, I, and then all of us, just watched the excellent documentary Race to Nowhere. It is an emotionally powerful look at what the volumes of homework students are now being assigned are doing to them. I highly recommend taking a look if you are a parent. One outcome the film pointed out was that because students are so over-tested, they are studying and memorizing for the test, only to immediately drop that “data” afterward. They are not learning how to learn and they are not developing critical thinking skills – two skills that are essential when confronted by novel problems. This is at the core of creativity and innovation.

When students study for tests, they may pass the test, but they likely won’t figure out how to solve the problem. As a pre-med at Stanford many years ago, I sadly saw this there as well. In a particularly tough Physics class after a test where I did poorly, the TA told me I as taking the test “wrong.” I needed to memorize more formulas and just write down all of the ones that applied so I could get partial credit. We weren’t really developing the skill to solve problems. I found it disillusioning that if I was a “real” physicist, or doctor, and could not remember a formula, I could look it up. But, if I didn’t know how to solve a problem, then I am at a loss in my field. Many pre-med classes taught you indirectly how to study for the tests through memorization primarily. The Race to Nowhere, showed the same exact behaviors, only now penetrating high school, middle school, and even grammar school.

We’ve always tried to teach the young adults that “I don’t know” is ok and that we often don’t know something. When we don’t, we go figure it out. We try different approaches until we get what we want. The internet makes this a bit easier as there are experts and “how to” videos everywhere, but the principle is the same. In the case of this quest, there was no test and no right answer. There was no model of what a good result looked like. They found no example papers on the Internet (not that they looked or wanted to). I wanted to see them create something they were proud of. They did.

To give you just a little flavor of what they did, here’s a short excerpt from Aidan and Vie’s paper that shows some of their analysis and how they crafted it:

Along with many things, the gaming styles are different. Borderlands being a first person view, and Diablo being third person. Each having their own advantages and disadvantages. Such as Borderlands with first person view

DIABLO borderlands

you are not able to see all around you and can’t see out of the line of sight straight forward. This can be an advantage sometimes, since you are able to aim accurately, especially with a scope.

scope

There are also some disadvantages though, for example enemies can sneak up on you easier when out of your line of sight. In Diablo however, you can see most of your surroundings and can see all directions. Your line of sight is a lot wider…

We saw a lot of potential in this “quest” for learning across multiple dimensions, but as I reflect on the kinds of skills they learned, I see several nuanced ones I didn’t initially appreciate. If I break the skills into two groups based on what we expected they would get out of this activity and what we discovered that they additionally got out of it, I get the following:

Expected”                                                

  • Expository writing
  • Research
  • Collaboration
  • Proficiency with Microsoft Word
  • Writing process
  • Critical thinking
  • Value of written communication

 “Discovered”

  • Observation
  • Finding “flow”
  • Forming and defending an opinion
  • Planning and organization
  • Time management
  • Design tools (e.g. card sorting

And since every activity is a learning experience, here’s what I learned in the process:

  • I really had to resist trying to have them fix every grammar issue. I focused on key principles and issues and left the rest for other papers. This could have easily become exhaustive and I did not want to lose their energy. I’m hoping it was the right call. It felt right.
  • I had no comparable bar to gauge their writing, since I had no other students to compare them to. I had to resist using my own bar. I can get really anal with some things. Vie and Aidan are still only 13 and 11.
  • I had to appreciate and celebrate their improvement and success, which was incredible. It was hard for me. I had to step out of my Microsoft (or in fairness, tech industry) mindset of focusing on the flaws.
  • I had to let them make mistakes, and watch it happen. Intellectually, I knew this was a good way to learn and wanted to engender it. It was just tough sometimes when I knew the path wouldn’t work out and I wanted to save them time.
  • On that note, I had to ignore time. I thought they could do it in a week. They could have if we didn’t take time for other fun things. But, this was my schedule, not theirs. I needed to remember what I tell them a lot: “do it well, not just quickly.”
  • And while it is something I firmly believe, it was reinforced again and again in this project: “kids” can do a lot more on their own than we (adults) tend to think they can.

One of the things I am excited about with unschooling is that I expect to learn a lot too. We don’t have much experience here. We’ve read a lot, but there is no “manual” of how to do this. Every learner is different. We certainly won’t get everything right. We’ll make mistakes. Then, we’ll iterate and make them better. It’s just like real world problem solving. And if Vie and Aidan see us making mistakes and figuring things out as we help guide them on this journey, then hopefully they’ll have a model that this approach is not only “ok”, but that it works.

 

Unschooling “Begins”

This past week we started the process of unschooling with a “warm up” week to help transition from vacation to more of a regular unschooling “schedule” as our new adventure officially begins its fourth week. As Deb noted, it’s a bit hard to say that the unschooling is “beginning” because, truly, it has been going on in a background way for several months. But, let’s call this the “structured beginning”.

Deb and I have read a lot about unschooling, starting with John Holt, who is one of the early pioneers of unschooling. One of the other best initial sources was Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. One of her and other’s recommendations was to give the unschoolers a “break” from school – a time in which they can disconnect from all of the unhelpful structure, memorization, tests, and directed work. Essentially, that’s what we were doing with Aidan and Vie from September, when formal school started this year, through our departure and arrival, until now.

Deb and I thought the transition from “vacation” to unschooling mindset might be a little abrupt and so we decided to do a “warm up” week. The goal was hopefully to get the young adults inspired and ready to jump in to unschooling pursuits following their interests. Part 1 was some light reading, exploring, reflecting, and video-watching. Part 2 was surf camp. The other benefit to the warm-up was helping and I and Deb prepare for something we’d never done before.

We sent several good warm-up references to Aidan and Vie. As articles/blogs, we sent them a few good descriptions of unschooling (Earl Stevens, John Holt, Wikipedia), as well as some tenets Deb and I will try to strive for, and a third article espousing what Vie often does, which is that teens and pre-teens can do a lot more than we (adults, as well as Deb and I) give them credit for.

The videos were mostly TED videos to get their juices going. They included the excellent TED talk by Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education.  Another key one was a TEDx talk by 13 year-old Logan LaPlante: Hack Schooling. We actually love the term “hack schooling”. I think it fits what we are doing even better.

Finally, we gave them some links to Khan Academy as well as Coursera and edX to explore their areas of interest and potential “classes” they could take on those subjects.

The tricky, and interesting part, was figuring out what indeed they were interested in. We like to think that we had a good idea but we were happily surprised in several cases.

To understand what they were interested in, we relied on our own background in design. As designers, we use a very simple process to design things that really provide value to people. Some people use the now controversial term “design-thinking” for this. High-end design firms like to coin their own steps for the process – even using the same letter for each step to seem more unique and cool. It truly is a very simple process and is really just a step above common sense.

The steps are simply:

understand – create – iterate

You begin by understanding your customer – what they (think they) want, what they are trying to accomplish, their hopes and desires, and what they truly need. You need to take what they want with a heavy grain of salt though; rarely do customer descriptions of what they want lead to good or successful products. What they say though helps designers empathize with what customers want to accomplish. In this case, our “customers” are our young adults whom we are unschooling.

You then create a prototype solution, which you know will initially be wrong, but it gives you something you can try out with your customers and test your assumptions. Then you listen and learn as your customers try the prototypes and you iterate, making the product better – until you get it right. It’s worked well for designers across the world as well as for us in our careers spanning education, startups, web sites, healthcare, legal software, Microsoft software and hardware, aviation and more.

We started by asking Aidan and Vie to give us their “top ten” list of favorite “things” to do or “things” they are interested in. They could be “subjects” like chemistry, activities like “writing”, just topics they want to know more about. The one topic we asked them to include was learning Spanish. We felt that was a “must have”. Here are their lists (they also provided descriptions of why they chose these):

Aidan                                                   Vie
1. Surfing                                             1. Drawing
2. Cooking                                            2. Photography
3. Making videos                                  3. Creative writing
4. Building on Minecraft                       4. Sewing/costume making
5. Baking                                              5. Transgender studies
6. Making my own video game             6. Cosplay
7. Making a card game                         7. Computers
8. Making my own board game             8. Coding
9. Make my own cereal                         9. Gaming
10. Spanish                                          10. Spanish

We won’t do all of these things at once, but we wanted to start with things they are interested in and then work towards things they might not think that they are (such as math) but which they will need.

We then asked them to think about 2-3 projects that might combine some of these things, such as Aidan creating a game involving cooking. We didn’t lock in on anything specific yet, but that’s because we unexpectedly found a great collaborative project for them this coming week, and we went with the flow.

It started with a conversation at dinner about Diablo III and Borderlands II – two Xbox games we all play. We were talking about their game mechanics a bit and then we got a good idea. I offered them a “quest” (a popular component of Role-Playing Games). The quest was for them to write a “paper” comparing and contrasting Diablo III and Borderlands II across many different attributes/dimensions.

And then it happened. A spark. We saw Vie get visibly excited.  Really excited. Aidan followed quickly. We talked about what dimensions they could use, whether they wanted to collaborate on it (they do), and even what form the “paper” might take. It’s now this week’s project. You’ll hear more about this soon. But the big takeaway for Deb and I was that we saw them get excited not just about something unschooling related, but writing a paper no less. That was a great spark to start with.

After a few days working on the warm-up activities, we switched gears a bit and ended the week with one of the top surf camps in the world: Witches Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo. We spent 4 days learning to surf and practicing. It was incredibly fun and incredibly exhausting. It also provided some good physical balance to the mental work.

As a start on our first week of unschooling, I’d say we had some good initial success, but Deb and I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve. True to our process, we didn’t get it completely right, but we learned what worked and what didn’t and we’ll make adjustments (iterate). One key thing we need to evolve is how to get the kids more engaged in discussion about what they like and what they are doing. We have no doubt that will come. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more on the “paper”. It looks to be an exciting week.