· Essays

Education Gamified

The global games industry reached $60B in 2011 revenues according to game industry analysts (1) passing movies in both revenues and consumer time-spend and predicting continued 10% annual growth throughout recession — an expected $112B by 2015. Games play an increasing role in of our everyday interactions with people close to home (console games, social-casual web games) and at the world at large (multi-player and massively multi-player games). While social media has become an arguably accepted part of everyday life in the web-connected parts of the world, it has lost its novelty while growth and innovation in the sector continue. What has remained a largely undiscussed part of our lives is gamificaton, the adoption of game elements in all facets of communication, and the reason why we’re addicted to social media.

U.S. President Obama made serious games a mainstream issue the U.S. by announcing the National Stem Video Game challenge to create better education games as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign (Eisen, 2010) and Jane McGonigal – the game designer who has become the face of serious gaming in game conferences around the world and whom MIT put on the TR35 list of 35 world-changing innovators under 35 – called games the “most important medium of the 21st century” (2011). Her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, outlines a thesis how games can be a force for good in education and social change.

The rise of video games was not something foreseen by the analytical imaginations of McLuhan and Postman. It was the science fiction writer Clarke who painted the most immersive technological picture of the future, foreseeing games as part of learning. Nonetheless, the game medium may well best considered within the framework of medium theory associated with the McLuhan and Postman tradition and posited by Meyrowitz (1986). McLuhan argued that the effect of a medium is much greater than the effect of any particular message transmitted through the medium (2000) and allows in his discourse for any new medium that might arise to be seen as an extension of man and thus makes games fit into his framework. McLuhan thought of games (although not video games) as extensions of our social selves and highlighted games as a social activity that created meaning in our lives. Meaning always necessitated the presence of an audience, defining games as “situations contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern of their own corporate lives” (McLuhan, 2000). Postman worked on new ways of education that included a narrative (also important to games) to engage students, however his educational work predated computer technologies and did not make use of video games. He did predict the disappearance of teachers nonetheless (1990), as did Clarke, predicting their replacement with computers (1992).

The following will highlight 2 markets important to society that have a potential to be changed by games – news and education.


Newsgames is a format that communicates a news story in an engaging way. One famous example is the terrorism game September 12. This is a game where the player can shoot terrorists but with each terrorist shot, a woman starts crying (Bogost, 2010). For each woman crying, two new terrorists spawn up to fight in retaliation of their mother’s grievance – until the whole village is filled with terrorists. Games are about creating emotion and memorable moments and this is an ingenious way to communicate the effects of grief. The game frames the terrorism story in terms of revenge to an audience that in anger may miss the underlying meaning in a written news story. It highlights an issue for a contemporary audience with attention deficit. Where viewers who wouldn’t necessarily engage in reading about a terrorist or watch a video are drawn into the story and engaged as participants.

Asi Burak, the founder of the serious games movement Games for Change believes that with the streamlining of game engines, a newsgame such as September 12 can be released within 24 hours of a major news incident (2010). With a short enough timeframe for release, the game can fit into the global news cycle to engage people to participate in the story and encourage them to take action. The CNN has experimented with immersive experiences for the web. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake CNN used a 360-degree camera powered by a small startup company Immersive Media that let each visitor look around in the catastrophe-torn Haiti themselves, without the camera-man choosing the angle (although still chossing the route taken) and get a real sense of the devastation (CNN, 2010). The makers of these games hope that by going through an immersive experience that feels more real and having clear ways to help, people will engage in the story and act towards ending a particular situation. In a conflict such as Israel and Palestine, participating in a serious game may build empathy between the two sides of the conflict and help in the process of peace-building.

For a 2012 project, Burak is bringing together Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn to make use of their celebrity and write a transmedia project, where players can build their own village on Facebook and populate it with people in Somalia. The purchased virtual goods used in the game to build the village generate revenue that instead of going towards the game producer’s profits, work as donations to an NGO that empowers Somali women through on-the-ground education projects. This is an example of a serious game used for philanthropic fundraising for real-world projects.


Games have a potential to change education. Education is communication, a transfer of knowledge. An increasing number of startups are using game mechanics to engage students in educational content(Quora). Games increase our motivation to study through feedback and reward systems as demonstrated by the websites Khan Academy (focused on physics and math skills) and Code Academy (focused on programming skills). Both are difficult to learn areas of subjects, which makes these startups a prime example of how complexity can be taught by lowering friction through usability by breaking down the subject into small, modular pieces that can be learned in a succession and tested and increasing motivation through gamification.

Computers are ubiquitous and where education technology is not so much new tools but software. By making each task small and achievable monitoring the responses of the learner, and educational game can understand where the player is making mistakes and suggest guidance. The game is computer-assisted learning, where the computer has become advanced enough to replace a human tutor in a particular exercises. Higher engagement in education, making education as engaging as the media that tells us to buy products. What is curious is that all these things still work even if we know they are there because we’re hard-wired on a neurological level to respond in such a way. “we’re moving from data classification to pattern recognition” McLuhan. Games may give us the emotional incentives to do the right thin, adopt the right ideas, and stop doing the wrong things.

By understanding what motivates a human, we can design a workplace that makes mundane work fun. In Total Engagement x and y argue how using games a business can change the way people work, bringing on the comparison of a an anonymous call-center, where the workers feel like a cog in a system versus a Farmville-esque web-game, where call are attended in-game in a colorful virtual world where each call attended gives points and one can earn badges, raise to the next level, and compete with other works – the kind of activity hundreds of millions of Internet users do for free or even pay for to get access to rare badges, levels, and virtual goods.

Games are taking over the web not only in the literal sense, but also by becoming part of the social tools we use every day. Primerexamples of gamified environments are Facebook and Twitter that make use of an understanding of the human psyche to drive engagement. Games give a work activity rules and challenges. Twitter sets a 140 character limit that restricts one to saying only what’s important. Twitter has become a hub where people who are incredibly busy and unable to respond to other ways of communication can still be reached.

Education is not only for children and teenagers. The business website VentureHacks guides entrepreneurs through the process of raising money for a startup business. By understanding game mechanics and human psychology, the founders (and investors themselves) Naval Ravikant and Babak Nivi help aspiring business owners design their communication in a way that maximizes usability (by saying only what is needed) and engages (gamifies) the investor (by increasing motivation). VentureHacks helps to solve a communication problem and has become one of the hubs of Silicon Valley and helped many entrepreneurs understand how to get their startup business funded. “People spend a surprising amount of time on things that will contribute little or no value to getting them to a seed round” (Chen). Ravikant lists 5 qualities that matter: traction (number of viewers / users / players), team, the product itself, social proof (what people the investor trusts say), and finally the presentation.


“(M)edia work as environments” (McLuhan, 2000). A game environment can empowers people to change society in 5 ways. One, to raise money for a goal, as demonstrated in the Somali newsgame. Two, to form a community that acts towards a common goal, and three, to organize that community through efficient communication so it achieves it maximum effect with maximum efficiency, as shown in the Total Immersion game-world workplace. Four, to increase an investor’s motivation to act towards a goal by using game mechanics, as shown in VentureHacks. And five, to retain engagement with the project for a prolonged period of time, by using game mechanics, as shown in Quora.

Gamification of the media is not about adding a reward system with points to everything. Rather, gamification is about understanding what is meaningful for humans and taking advantage of this knowledge to design small psychological nudges into communication that increase motivation and create new meaning in mundane activities. Points only work if the person is doing something meaningful and feels like they have achieved an important goal.

(1) Gartner, 2011; Nielsen, 2011; PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2011

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