Gamification

One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

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

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, gamification.org talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is DIY.org. It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, there are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!

More Updates

It’s been a little while since I posted some general updates about our life on our our new adventure. A lot has actually been going on despite the fact that we now don’t have jobs (mostly) and we live in a tropical paradise. We are definitely acclimating to tropical life, the slower pace, and pura vida. At the same time, we are who we are(!) and we are not sitting still much. We are finding lots of things to keep us busy.

I mentioned a few things in recent posts:  Deb finished working remotely for her job in Seattle at the beginning of February. She went back to Seattle to complete everything and brought us back more supplies. Around that that time she also took over a lot of the unschooling, giving me a little break.

Deb has added back more structure in Vie and Aidan’s unschooling and despite a little resistance, that seems to have helped a lot. She’s also brought in more structured/planned physical activity – “PE” if you will – so the young adults are getting out more and using technology less. We are also planning, with them, some excursions around Costa Rica now that the “high season” of tourists is winding down. One fun event we are working on this week is doing paintball. There is a course by Liberia airport and so we’ll all go out and try a “real-world” video game.

Another brilliant addition is structured time for “unstructured” discussion; i.e., just talking with Aidan and Vie. We have already had several great discussions including microeconomics, although that’s not how Deb introduced it. It was about simple basics like supply and demand, cost of items, etc. Then that led to microeconomics videos on Khan Academy, write up of understandings and questions, followed by more discussion. These are all things we experience daily and yet we rarely look at them as learning opportunities. So far, the young adults have been really engaged in these discussions.

Deb is also working on developing some possibilities for a business in real estate. She has always been interested and took a class while she was in Seattle. Her instincts are incredible and, not surprisingly, she has some creative and innovative ideas for rental properties here or in Seattle. Right now we are looking at interesting properties here as she finds them. We’re taking it slowly as she does her research. It’s one of several things we have going on here on the “side burner.” She loves the idea of having rental properties and I am fully on-board – at least as long as she deals with the people aspects, which she loves. I am happy being the “numbers” guy behind the scenes. Besides, wouldn’t you want to buy or rent from Deb? J

Aidan’s new activity is swim team. There is a local school here – Country Day – that allows non-students to participate in sports and other activities. They have a great pool and great coaches who are friends of ours from Spanish classes (everything here is really two degrees of separation from everything else). He is an awesome natural swimmer and has Deb’s talent. Now he’s starting to discover a bit of a competitive streak! Doesn’t he look like a young Michael Phelps?

SONY DSC

Aidan is also still cooking and loving it, of course. He started positing his recipes up on Food.com. He has his famous steak recipe I’ve mentioned before as well as a host of new ones. You can find them all under “enderSpartan828 the chef”). You have to read a few of his descriptions. He has a fun, and goofy, sense of humor. You’ll definitely get that as you read his recipes. Here’s his latest creation: KFC Copycat Chicken. I think it tastes far better and is far less greasy than KFC.

SONY DSC

As an aside and for those of you who did not instantly get Aidan’s alias, it is not, as you might think, tied to Ender’s Game or the Spartans from antiquity. It’s a combination of an “enderman” from Minecraft and the modern version of Spartans from the Halo video game franchise.

Vie has been doing some pretty incredible digital Anime artwork using a tablet. It’s pretty amazing what you can do now on these. They really feel like you are drawing on paper with all of the subtly of hand drawing, plus digital capabilities that make it richer in many ways. Vie is way better than me on the tablet. I wish I could show some examples, but, well, Vie has an artist’s temperament and isn’t satisfied with anything enough to share it. Yet. News flash: Vie just sent me this and said I could show it!

friends forever

Vie is now starting to take the digital art the next step and work on animation. Vie is going down that long path of learning Adobe Flash. The first few weeks will likely be frustrating but it’s a tool that can take you from animation through coding to video game development. I’m still working on getting Vie to do a video game with me J .

Both Aidan and Vie have really taken to DIY.org, one of many cool resources on the web we use in unschooling (see our Resources page for others). It combines gamification with topics from DNA to crafts to game development to coding and lets learners earn achievements for various accomplishments. I’ll be talking more about this later in an upcoming post on gamifying unschooling. And for grammar geeks, I did just use gerunds in a row.

Deb and I added additional Spanish learning through duolingo now, at the invitation of some good friends who will be coming to visit in May. It is also a “gamified” learning site. Look for us there as “delyca” and me as the very unoriginal “andycargile.” The young adults are also extending their Spanish through StudyStack, another great online resource.

I’ve had a few interesting activities myself. I just returned from a trip to San Jose to give a colloquium to the brand new interaction design program at University Veritas. The Directora of the program, Ana Domb Krauskopf, has put together a wonderful and new curriculum and assembled a very talented set of students. This is the inaugural year. From everything I’ve seen, this looks to be a world class program and an excellent place to recruit interaction designers in the future.

I have to thank Mariana Lopez, one of the instructors at the University, for this serendipitous opportunity. She recently graduated from CMU’s program and happened to spot me on LinkedIn “on a family adventure in Costa Rica”. She invited me to lunch and we chatted about interaction design. She connected me to Ana and then things progressed from there. It’s pretty amazing how things just come together sometimes.

I had barely put away my heavy tech gear (big monitor, keyboard, etc.) that I used to work on my colloquium deck when I got a ping from Mylene Yao, the CEO of a startup in Silicon Valley who asked if I was interested in helping them with an Angel pitch deck. This turned into a really interesting and fast little creative project. Univfy is a remarkable startup that uses some hardcore predictive analytics to help women on their journey of in vitro fertilization make better decisions by giving them far more accurate assessments of their chances to conceive.

It was an interesting transition from my “normal” routine here to a fast-paced, focused project. It’s been awhile since I had the luxury of working on a creative project for 7-8 hours straight a day. I mean that in the best sense. Even before coming to Costa Rica, it was rare in my last few positions that I had even a few hours outside my days of mostly meetings to really focus on something creative. I either had to spread projects out over time or do them “after hours.”

This was refreshing. It was invigorating. It also made my brain hurt in a good way! Most importantly, this project went very smoothly even though I was completely remote. In fact, it was ahead of schedule. I’ve done a lot of decks like this working with execs and the remote nature didn’t create challenges at all. I firmly believe, contrary to conventional wisdom, that creative work, at least like this, can be done remotely without the work suffering. It’s happening more and more globally (see oDesk and Elance as growing examples). For me, it gives me the ability to balance everything better. I’m hoping more opportunities like this come up.

On the “home front”, we are still searching for a new place. Our current rental house isn’t terrible, but it’s a bit dark and the kitchen is small, especially when several of us are working on a project. We are also hoping that if we can find something closer to the beach that the young adults will be able to get to the beach more often on their own. Our search for a new place actually led us to a bit of an unlikely adventure.

Deb found an incredible place on the hill overlooking Playa Penca, a nearby beach. While we were willing to spend a bit more to get closer to the beach, this was out of our range. Deb, wanting to practice her negotiation skills offered a deal where we’d rent it for 8 months (through the low season) but for less than half the asking price. Surprisingly, they said yes! We went and looked at the place and fell in love. It was on 6 lots, had three large bedrooms and a lot more space. It had an outside palapa and a huge kitchen, along with a handyman who lived on site in a separate house. That’s when the adventure part kicked in.

The owner wanted us to pay for the whole rental up front, which was a lot of money, and sign a contract in 3 days. That wasn’t too odd for rentals here, but asking us to wire the money to London was. As Deb investigated this erratically-communicative owner, she learned that in fact this wasn’t the owner. The actual owner, who was quite nice, never got our emails; they were intercepted from the VRBO site. It seems someone hijacked his email and was looking to scam him, and us. Even follow up emails about this never made it to him. Sadly, he never got our proposal nor agreed to our negotiated price.

We had aspirations of tracking down the culprit, especially since we had his bank and routing information. I really wanted to set up a sting. Unfortunately, the owner didn’t seem to be terribly interested, so we dropped it, along with our hopes for renting that house.

Fortunately, we did not wire a lot of money to a scam artist.  Deb’s diligence and “spider sense”, along with good karma and pura vida, combined to keep us from that fate. We have one back-up plan but are still looking. We know something will come through. It always does when you least expect it. At least, it has consistently come through here for us.sche It might be a little metaphysical, but we really do think that if you contribute to the system of good karma it comes back at some point.  It probably sounds far more off the beaten path in Seattle than it does down here with all of the yoga, surfing and pura vida, but that’s okay. We are, after all, intentionally off path. Pura Vida.