Raging: how empowered learners respond to being outside the Zone

Getting a student into the zone of proximal development is a tricky business. If students don’t have sufficient background knowledge and skill in what they’re learning, they tend to switch off.  This often shows as distraction, disengagement and disinterest.  In extreme cases students become disruptive, knocking others who might be on the cusp of their ZPD out of a learning opportunity.  This seems to be happening more often in classrooms, I have an idea why…

That disruptive approach is common in online gaming.  It might be useful to look at how raging, trolling and ‘Umad‘ online interaction points to a foreign set of values that many students are familiar and comfortable with.  The vast majority of educators have no experience or knowledge of gaming culture.  When a student in the class room acts on values they’ve learned while gaming, shock ensues.

Teabaggging is one of many tactics designed to belittle an opponent

In a player versus player game, game balance and the opportunity for everyone to participate in a maximal way (in their ZPD) depends on the players all having sufficient skill to make a game of it.  In a randomly generated game, it’s common for a team of n00bs to get pwned by a more skilled team.  This is often accompanied by flaming with the intent to anger your opponents to such a degree that they quit (ideally vocally angry, allowing you to throw in a umad? before they storm off).  In gaming, ‘schooling‘ your opponents is a vital part of the learning process.  It’s the clearest way to state your superiority in skill over an opponent.  The goal is to make it so clear to a weaker player that they are out of their league (way outside their ZPD) that they give up in anger.  This is going to sound very foreign to the overly compassionate, no-bullying, we’re all to be treated as equals approach found in education, but this is where many students spend hours of their time when not in the manufactured environment of their school.

A gamer who is forced out of a game in this fashion is very angry in the moment, and quits the game, usually to pick up another game immediately.  In this game, if they are within their ZPD in terms of their gaming skills (which involves knowledge of the game environment, hand eye coordination, strategy and cooperative play, among others), they are immediately re-engaged.  Their recent failure does not hurt them or follow them in any way, and the adrenaline burst of anger has prompted them to intensively refocus on the game.  I suspect the stats for a player in a post-rage situation improve due to the residual anger and energy released.  They increase their skill with this hyper focus and rage less often.

When you meet a master player, they tend to shy away from the trash talk and simply demonstrate their skill, rather than yapping about it.  This kind of mastery is every player’s goal.  When they get there, they often adopt the degree of awesomeness Jane McGonigal talks about in her TEDtalk.  As nice as it is to see someone recognizing gaming awesomeness, it’s also important to recognize that gaming intensity requires accessing a full range of emotional response in players.  These responses can often seem cruel or unusual to non-gamers.

Gaming’s all-in philosophy is completely counter to the risk-averse, failure-follows you approach of education.  Rather than being allow to epically fail, suffer and re-engage, education does everything it can to ensure that epic failures (or failures of any kind) never occur.  Failure is increasingly impossible to achieve in the class room, and the result moves students further and further away from the culture of one of their richest learning environments.

If you want intense engagement then you need to offer access to a full spectrum of emotion, and a real and meaningful opportunity for failure, but you can’t be an ass about it and hang that failure around a learner’s neck forever.  Until we grasp this simple truth found in the forge of intense gaming, we’re going to appear increasingly foreign to our students, and they are going to keep learning more from World of Warcraft than they ever will from a teacher.


www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html (lies debunked about gaming)
janemcgonigal.com/: a great look at the positive power gaming can produce (I’m arguing here about how it’s negative aspects still offer useful truths too)
www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.04/genX.html: an interesting summary of the gamer generation
www.avantgame.com/: recognizing the power of gaming

Gaming Everything

Via NBCnews: the glory of the hardcore video gamer.  Not
 the kind of thing that’s ever going to challenge the Olympics
for public attention I think.

I’ve had a lot of trouble playing video games lately.  My problem seems to be around that idea of scripted experience.  If I’m playing a video game I’m working through a narrative someone else created.  I enjoy narratives but what irks me about video games is they pretend to have an element of choice in them when in fact they don’t.  They suggest that they are the next evolution in entertainment but the interactivity they offer is so limited that it’s really just a hidden script that you follow under the illusion of choice.  Gamification in general seeks to use this illusion to hook people into otherwise tedious situations.

The first step away from video gaming occurred when I found I couldn’t get into single player games anymore.  Even the good ones with epic narratives felt banal.  I went to multi-player games for several years hoping that the human element would create choice, but I find that these too are scripted, and worse, they force players into scripted responses to the point where you can’t tell the players from the bots.  When a game is so restrictive that it makes the people in it act like machines it’s not a game I care to play.

There is a particular situation in which we’re happy to turn people into bots if the illusion of engagement is preserved.  That situation also happens to be seen as quite tedious by many of its participants.  Education is eager to digitize if it ensures engagement, even if that engagement mimics the dimensionless engagement found in online activity.  Standardized testing feeds this thinking, producing learning outcomes that are easily quantifiable as data even as they fail to demonstrate learning.  Deep contextual human activities (like learning) are lost in simplistic digital data.

Doubt is cast on an individual teachers’ ability to teach a subject.  Consistency is demanded in modern education as a result of this doubt and the slippery nature of digital information encourages this by eroding the space between classrooms and lessons.  This is shown as some kind of great step forward in terms of fairness, but what it really does is reduce teaching (as it has done with many other human activities) to a vapid exchange of information, incidentally what digital machines do best. 

We fill in templates, teach centralized material and are encouraged to sync how we teach it.  Proof of success is found in standardized test scores.  There is little interest in assessing teaching or learning in any other way.

This digital infection also carries the parasitic idea of gamification, usually championed by video game evangelists who believe that the structure of gaming can overcome every obstacle.  Teachers are encouraged to design student success through scripted outcomes pretty much like a video game does.  If the game you’re playing is designed to have you eventually win it isn’t much of a challenge and certainly isn’t something you can be proud of, but then modern learning isn’t about challenge, it’s about engagement.  The idea of gamification makes me uneasy for this very reason.  When we gamify situations that aren’t games I’m afraid that we pollute complex situations with the implied success found in most gaming outcomes.  If education is supposed to prepare students for the world beyond school this isn’t going to do it.

Gaming the game has a long and storied history in geek culture. Can you suspend your disbelief if you’re always looking to subvert the delivery method?

If you offer open ended, ‘real’ experience many digital natives shy away from a situation where the rules can’t be gamed for advantage.  The hacking mindset implies that the system is more important than the content.  Perhaps that’s why I can’t play video games anymore.  It’s hard to get lost in a narrative when you’re constantly looking at ways to subvert the delivery method.

Wilful suspension of disbelief is lost in the digital age.  This is the root of the pessimism and disengagement you see in many students.  When education becomes another process you hack to guaranty your own success it becomes increasingly impossible to do anything useful with it.

This grew out of Scripted Lives which itself grew out of Unscripted Moments.  I’m pulling at a lot of threads here.  I’ve been a fan of RPGs since I got into D&D when I was 10.  I love sports and would describe myself as a serious gamer.  I’ve spent most of my life learning digital technology so I’d hardly call myself a tech-hater either, but watching digital technology and gamification aiming for society wide acceptance has made me very uneasy.