Friday, February 18, 2011

"Gamification" And What It Means For Intelligence (

"Gamification" is a neologism that highlights the increasing tendency to add game-like qualities to serious or mundane tasks in order increase participation or, in the context of education, learning. 

A recent issue of The New Scientist, one of my favorite science magazines, contained a feature article on the trend and produced the nifty video below to explain the phenomena:

I accept the premise that gamification is a hot trend everywhere but recent reporting and my own research suggest that game-based learning has an important role in educating the next generation of intelligence professionals.

In the first place -- if we are honest with ourselves -- gamification of serious or mundane tasks has been around for quite some time now. I have been able to reliably trace the general trend back to at least 1964 (see the first ten seconds of this video) and it probably goes back much further.

This is true in intelligence as well.  Some of the classic cliches of intelligence, such as "connect the dots" and "put the pieces of the puzzle together" are game references.  Furthermore, to the extent that Kriegspiel has an intel component to it, you can push the date back to at least 1812.

Second, and despite the recent press coverage, I don't want to sound all pollyanna-ish about game-based learning. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that this pedagogical approach has its own challenges.

Many educators think like I thought at this time last year:  Games = attention and attention = learning. While capturing the attention of students remains one of the most important yet increasingly difficult elements of teaching, the idea that games = attention deserves some "tweaking".

To begin with, a game is not really a game unless the players enter into it voluntarily. Jane McGonigal in her new book, Reality Is Broken, talks about games as "voluntary attempts to overcome unnecessary obstacles."

In my mind, "voluntary" is the operative word here and voluntarism comes in degrees.  At one end of the spectrum, you have the passionate volunteer.  For this person, playing a game as a way of learning is a real pleasure.   In fact, if this passionate volunteer has played the game many times, they may have already sucked all of the learning out of it but not be aware of that fact because most of the lessons have been taught implicitly.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the person who hates a particular game or type of game.  Getting these aggressively indifferent players ("apathetes"?) to volunteer to play a game, no matter how tangible the benefits, is going to be difficult.  I often use the example of trying to get a 6th grade boy to play a Barbie-themed math game.  It might work, but I wouldn't count on it...

As a professor, I can adjust the level of voluntarism to some degree ("Would you rather hear me lecture or play a game?") but unless I am linking this new sense of voluntarism to an intrinsic motivation on the part of the student, I don't think I am necessarily increasing the learning. 

The focus, then, for game based learning initiatives (both inside and outside the intel community) needs to be as much on the motivations for playing a game as it is on the game itself.  As IARPA kicks off its SIRIUS program next week (with the goal of creating "Serious Games to train participants and measure their proficiency in recognizing and mitigating the cognitive biases that commonly affect all types of intelligence analysis") this is going to be at the top of my mind.

Previous Posts on this Topic:  Teaching Strategic Intelligence Through Games