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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

GAMR: Having a Gaming Mindset

As readers of Edtech Elixirs over the years have probably noticed, I'm a big fan of gamification and game-based learning in education.  Often, this may involve specific tools such as Classcraft or Legends of Learning.  However,  bigger than a specific site or tool is the actual mindset that gaming can provide.  We often talk about fixed or growth mindsets, with the latter being the obvious preferred stance for a true learner to have.  In this entry, I would like to take that a step further and discuss the benefit of looking at learning through a gaming mindset.

Before we define a gaming mindset, let's take a moment to define games.  In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal states that games (electronic or otherwise!) have four key characteristics:
  • A goal that is specific, achievable, and gives a sense of purpose.
  • Rules that place limitations on how to achieve the goal, which therefore unleashes creativity and fosters strategic thinking. 
  • Feedback system, which provides in real time how well the gamer is doing and how close they are to the goal.  By fostering a sense of optimism that failing forward is actually getting them closer to the goal, a gamer is motivated to continue.
  • Voluntary participation to play the game in a shared, cooperative space, because it feels safe and pleasurable.   "Safe" assumes a culture where failure is welcomed as an opportunity to move forward; "pleasurable" recognizes that creative play has value and is not a waste of time.
It takes little imagination to see that most of these elements are integrated in successful classrooms.  Students should have academic goals within their zone of proximal development -- preferably, ones they set themselves and are tracked by the learner.  Standards, rubrics and deadlines are classic examples of "rules" that narrow the learning focus and outline the success criteria.  We know the importance of timely feedback that is of high quality and balanced quantity. (Feedback from peers or the teacher that is delayed is often diminished; as a former high school English teacher, I eventually discovered that simply filling a paper with a Jackson Pollack constellation of red marks will shut down most students.)  It is the last characteristic of "voluntary participation" that we, as educators, have to acknowledge is the Hamlet rub.  Students in most countries in the world will ruefully point out that we cannot honestly call our game of school a "voluntary participation" activity -- if a student opts out, a truant officer will show up at their door.  And yet, we also recognize this area is the crucial hinge where academic success for struggling or marginalized students is waiting to swing.  Students that are "taught at" instead of "learning with" (student as direct object of learning, as opposed to student as an active participant) . . . students that feel isolated . . . students that have learning challenges, feel vulnerable and don't believe it is safe to try and fail . . . students that don't see any joy in learning . . . these are often the very students that need intrinsic motivation the most.  So how can we create a classroom where they see the "buy in" and are willing to step forward and engage?   We must make a learning environment where they are motivated to voluntarily participate, not be dragged across a graduation finish line against their will.  And gaming may just be the thing to create that environment.

Let us move from the games to the gamer.  What goes on inside the brain of a gamer?

Greg Toppo, in the third chapter of his book The Game Believes in You, provides a treasure trove of research that looks deep into the human mind, showing that the way a gamer thinks runs in lockstep with best practices and theories on how we have evolved and learn.  The revelations are often startling and fascinating.   Among other points of prestige, video gamers often have "improved visual acuity," are better at thinking of objects in three dimensions, and can focus for longer periods of time.  Since our brains still have the original wiring for hunting, gathering, or fighting, we are "still hooked on 'adrenaline-generating decision making,' according to Lennart Nacke," and therefore "'our brain still wants to be stimulated.' . . . Since the modern world mostly frowns upon actual hunting, gathering, and fighting, we settle for simulations" (author's italics).   These game simulations make the brain release dopamine as we succeed, but interestingly, even if we almost succeed.  When games are constructed well, it is this almost-success that creates a persistent feeling of optimism.  I fail, but I can start again, and I really feel I'll get it next time!  "Learning theorists," Toppo shares, "would say that players have simply developed a vision of themselves as people who are about to succeed and won't let go. In the end, we try again because games let us try again.  It's the rare game that doesn't let us restart our efforts at a moment's notice" (author's italics).  Imagine a well designed classroom, school or district that could integrate into their learner culture such a fail-forward mentality!

Gamer brains also tap into specific strategies and outlooks -- some unique, and some similar to those used in other non-gamer roles. James Paul Gee, a linguistics and education professor, discusses in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy how video games capture the same "reflective process" of many endeavors such as medical practice and teaching.  This four step process involves probing their environment, forming a hypothesis based on the reaction, reprobing with the hypothesis in mind, and then reflecting, or rethinking, on the results.  This loop obviously repeats; with most video games, it can happen in rapidly occurring cycles.  (In reference to Gee's process, Toppo tellingly points out: "[G]ame studios had also created assessment systems that could tell players exactly how well they were doing on hundreds of variables without subjecting them to multiple-choice tests.")  In terms of gamer outlooks, it may be helpful to think of gamer "profiles" -- from my last entry, I almost want to call them competencies! --  in the same useful way that we consider student learning styles in order to see their strengths.  A gaming organization called International Hobo Ltd based their "BrainHex" survey on neurological research and other data.  What emerges is a determination of which one of seven profiles (Conqueror, Survivor, Daredevil, and so on) you tend to be strongest, illustrated in a PDF by Rob Beeson.  (You might have students take the survey, reflect on the results, and right-click-save their style icon as a "badge" they can share.)

One last thing to consider before analyzing a gaming mindset is the matter of video gaming perspective.

Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Many video games have a third person objective viewpoint.  This could be a classic interface of a "side scroller" like in Pitfall! or Super Mario Brothers (your character is always in profile) or possibly an "over and behind the shoulder" view like Temple Run, where your entire character/avatar can be seen on screen.   There is also a first person subjective viewpoint, where you appear to be inside the head of your avatar and seeing the environment through their eyes, such as in HALO.

It is the synthesized thinking of many parts of the above -- along with key elements of competency-based and personalized learning --  that fed into the tool I've designed for analyzing and reflecting on a gaming mindset: GAMR.

Click here or on the image to view it larger. 
This is a revised version; Version 1.0 was created last year for a PD presentation.


The four levels of GAMR, and the descriptive indicators for each level from lowest to highest, are:

  • G: Go-Getter.  Self-directed, responsible learner who expresses voice and choice in a personalized system created and guided by an instructor. Demonstrates clear initiative. Can objectively see outside of self to determine mastery and next steps.  Effective collaborator who does his/her part.
  • A:  Adventurer.  Interests of the learner starts to become a major driver of instructional path.  Risk taker, begins to challenge the status quo. Student sees failure as natural reflective process to try out other modes of thinking.  Makes their own choices in ways to demonstrate understanding, within their academic structure; even while students set and track their own goals, teacher still provides significant instructional support.   Creative collaborator who begins to push boundaries of time or space.
  • M: Modder.  Student active customizer of content acquisition and effective in independent creation of exhibitions / capstones /assessment of mastery. Student begins to recognize networking power of affinity groups and how different outcomes require different roles. Their actions begins to have meaningful impact when working with (and for the benefit of) others. Learning is primarily the pursuit of the student’s personal passions, and teacher begins to pull back into facilitator/mentor role.  Optimistic that failure will lead to success.
  • R: Redefiner.  Student as scholar (and other roles as needed: writer, historian, scientist, mathematician, artist, etc.), fully in charge of exploring his/her own educational path.   The student’s answers, findings, and solutions to real-world learning (such as PBL work) authentically impact their community and the world; collaboration in such work is not limited to immediate geography. Teacher is one of several potential sources of expertise and mentorship. Eager to fail as a process of starting again and improving. True inventor and designer who strongly demonstrates competencies for success as an independent, creative, lifelong learner.

Follow the descriptors that indicate how the role of the teacher changes from G to R, and you can begin to see the reasoning for the "third person student to first person scholar" evolution indicated on the left side of the graphic. At the beginning of the spectrum,  students start with an ability to see themselves objectively, but there is still a close, fairly traditional kinship of teacher to student.  As the mirroring with video game perspective suggests, the image of a teacher close by and looking over the student's shoulder is apt, even as we recognize the focus is on the student and is not teacher-centered. Between Adventurer and Modder, a significant crossing of the threshold occurs where the student takes a more meaningful ownership of the learning.  By Redefiner, you have a "first person scholar" where the learning is fully situated from the perspective of the learner.  As the descriptors for Redefiner explain, the change of wording from "student" to "scholar" is not merely semantic; the learner lives that scholar role, as he/she lives inside other roles (or avatars, to use some video game parlance) as needed.

Based on the name alone (and similarities like the "threshold crossing" from A to M),  I obviously do not hide the influence of SAMR when I created this tool.  However, while both SAMR and GAMR have a hierarchal spectrum of lower to higher, note that GAMR's lowest level (Go-Getter) begins with a type of learner we might all be thankful to have as a pinnacle for most school systems.   There are two reasons for this.  The first reason emerges from looking at the indicators for a Go-Getter.  If average gamers did not possess at least the majority of these traits, they would never even pick up a joystick or a pewter token, much less complete a game.   The second is based on a deliberate choice while constructing the tool, and in fact, is a major part of my inspiration for creating GAMR.   While absorbing various texts on what gamers achieve, I realized that we may actually lower the bar by merely settling for a Go-Getter.  Learners in general, and gamers in particular, are capable of more incredible feats.  So while I don't dismiss the important work that gets a learner to the "lowest" level of GAMR, I am suggesting we don't stop there.

Whether intrigued by GAMR or by one of the positive attributes of a gamer's brain and mindset, I hope this entry inspires you to consider bringing games into your educational setting -- even in a small, first step way!

Resources mentioned in this blog entry, or suggestions for further reading: 
  • James Paul Gee is one of the earliest authors to discuss the positive attributes of video games.  A key book would likely be What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003).  The book tempers neurological studies with anecdotes of Gee's own journey from non-gamer to fan.
  • Jane McGonigal is a passionate proponent of how gaming not only improves education, but is essential for a meaningful life.  Watch her 2010 TED talk "Gaming can make a better world" (20:31), and read Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011).
  • Andrew Miller's Edutopia article "What's a Gamer Brain and How Can We Harness it in Class?" (2/7/17) offers some concise and pragmatic information.  This is where I first discovered the BrainHex survey mentioned above. 
  • If I had to recommend just one book, it would likely be Greg Toppo's The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter (2015).  If you need convincing on the benefits of gaming in education, Toppo's witty and readable style (along with anecdotes and research) should win you over.
  • Adam Powley frequently shares his excellent insights on how he uses game-based learning and gamification in his American History class.  His blog Classroom Powerups is definitely worth a subscription.

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