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The night before I was headed to ISTE13 I enjoyed the movie Trouble With The Curve starring Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake. While this is not a movie review, I thought the movie was good, enjoyed the story and appreciated the messages delivered. One of these messages is one I believe in strongly and was reinforced the next day at the ISTE opening Keynote given by Jane McGonigal, Learning is an Epic Win, which was focused on gamification in education.

Towards the end of the movie, Johnny (timberlake), a scout for the Boston Red Sox is talking about his short lived career as a baseball player and says, “as you know, to hit the magical 300, you fail seven out of ten times.” In fact, the highest career batting average of all time is only .366 by Ty Cobb and the second best average (.358) was by hall of famer Roger Hornsby who was quoted saying, “I don’t like to sound egotistical, but every time I stepped up to the plate with a bat in my hands, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the pitcher.” That is pretty cocky for someone who misses nearly 65% of the time. Although, I doubt anyone would call Cobb or Hornsby a loser by any means.

Jane McGonigal echoed a similar statistic where gamers, during game play, typically fail 80% of the time, yet continue to play until they achieve their goals. With over 1 billion hours of gameplay accounted for daily, according to McGonical, what is it about games that keep us coming back even in the face of that high fail rate?

Gaming is all about solving puzzles, reaching goals, staying alive and above all learning from mistakes to become better at the game. Each time a gamer jumps into a world they explore and work at achieving whatever goals are set forth by the game. At first the game environment is new and the mechanics might be unfamiliar. Yet, there is only one way to go from noob to prestige and that is to press start and figure it out along the way. Everytime you fall off a cliff, get shot, explode, freeze, crash, come in last or just plain die you start over and try again, often doing better than the time before. Most gamers do not give up when they do not score or receive a score that is less than brag worthy. They fail time and time again so that they can come back into the game better for it and continue to level up. In education, we simply do not afford enough opportunities for our students to level up and I wonder what impact that has on our student’s motivation to learn.

As a proud lifelong gamer myself, I enjoy the challenge of the various games I play and the learning that occurs. As a young child, my grandparents bought me an Atari 3000 when I was home sick with pneumonia and having a miserable time with it. Frogger and Pitfall certainly made the medicine go down and I was hooked. I graduated over the years to Nintendo’s NES, a short stint with the TurboGrafx16, the first playstation as well as the second, a handful of handheld devices and eventually grew into the devoted XBOX fan that I am today. Besides the acceptance of and learning value I find in failing time and time again in games, I also find many other aspects of gaming that are important to education.

As a gamer, you have choice over a huge library of games that you purchase based on your interests. During gameplay you are given constant feedback (points, badges, items, etc.) on how you are doing and that feedback helps you improve. Another wonderful factor of more recent games is multiplayer modes where you play with others and can collaborate to achieve success. Often the challenges in games also require high levels of critical thinking, problem solving and creative solutions to unusual problems. Finally, failure is an option. In fact, it is a necessity. I am not aware of any gamer, although I am sure there are a few, that have finished a game completely the first time without losing once. Yet, we still play even though we know it is impossible not to fail at least a few times and in most cases hundreds of times. However, the score is not a sign of failure, but real-time evidence of how you are doing and, generally, how you are improving.

In gaming your score is something you are always motivated to increase and with the many points, badges, unlocks and levels there are many real-time methods of assessment that it inspires instead of frightens. As educators, there is something to learn from gaming in regard to how we assess, what we assess, why we assess and how often we assess. One of the reasons I am excited about aspects of blended learning is the real-time data it collects which can be used to assist educators in making data-driven decisions  more often than are traditionally made.

I have always hated the games where the save points were very far from each other. You wind up spending what feels like an eternity trying to reach a goal only to start over again even if you lose right before the save point. Yes, it is a great sense of accomplishment and relief when you finally do reach that goal, but if the goal is so far from attainable with little support and reinforcement along the way you no longer care about the goal. The great games save often, have a wide array of challenges, have many opportunities for scoring and never start from zero when you have no more health or lives. The score is something that you are always building upon no matter how much or how little you achieve during that gaming session. However, in school, the save points are often too far apart and the score you get is not used as a building block, but rather a final score that you have little or no opportunity to change.

In her interview on the wonderful colbert report, Jane McGonigal states, “when we are playing games we are tapping into our best qualities; our ability to be motivated, to be optimistic, to collaborate with others, to be resilient in the face of failure.” Wouldn’t that sound wonderful if she was also talking about our schools? I am not suggesting that gaming frameworks and mechanics are the only answer to stale and unsuccessful teaching and learning. There are many strategies and models of 21st century learning that are critical to successful education. However, I am suggesting that we take a closer look at why gaming is nearly a 70 billion dollar industry despite an 80% failure rate and what aspects of it might be useful in our 21st century educational tool box.

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