Tom Bennett

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All your homework are belong to us: Policing Cyberspace, and the week’s news in education

As I write, the Catholic Church is setting an extra space at the table for married priests; Zsa Zsa Gabor has had her leg amputated; the Periodic Table is being rewritten to allow for average nuclear weights; MySpace is being dressed for a coffin; somewhere in an endless, vast blackness, Voyager 1 is close to entering interstellar space; and in Italy, the Prime Minister has demonstrated that he could toe punt a cardinal into the Tiber and still get elected. We live in interesting times.

Here are some other interesting things in education this week:

1. Spoke to a brilliant school police officer, PC Anonymous, who told me about the virtual problem taking up a real-time chunk of his life: Cyberbullying. I’ve written about this here. This is now a huge problem, as the anonymity of the internet, and the dislocation of intent and harm caused by typing away on your lonesome, contributes to an explosion of children saying very nasty things indeed about their peers in a very public way. The odd thing here is that many of the comments made would never have seen the light of day had they not been facilitated by the secret, undercover world of the internet. In essence, Facebook and other platforms have made it easier for people to be bullied, victimised, subject to harassment and intimidation. And let’s face it, at least it sometimes takes balls to say those things in public; in your bedroom, hiding behind someone else’s name, it becomes as easy as logging on.

So how does he tackle it? Scotland Yard now has a dedicated unit for dealing with this problem, and all that a police officer has to do is to contact this unit, who in turn contact Facebook- if they see any posts that break their terms and conditions, they can perform the ultimate digital disinfection: deleting the account. The reason that this is important is that many teachers and SLT think that this is a complicated, technical process; it’s not. It’s as simple as reporting anything else. And believe me, it’s worth not ignoring this kind of bullying- to the victims, it’s as real, and perhaps often more personal, more private, than traditional bullying over pocket money, because it invades their bedrooms. Worse, it involves their on-line personae. We have a generation of children who increasingly identify their self-image with their on-line presence; their avatars, their usernames, the groups they join, the content they generate. For someone to have that element of their identity attacked is to feel a very peculiar and omnipresent form of being haunted. The on-line world has no physical form; it surrounds us conceptually. How do you run from that?

And it’s not just teenagers: in 2009, research by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teacher Support Network suggested 15% of teachers had experienced cyberbullying, often from parents. 

Equally, the sensation of having one’s account removed is, for some teenagers, akin to having an elbow removed (or a leg?). In some ways, it’s the perfect sanction; for some, devastating, yet involving no actual physical punishment, merely the to-be-expected outcome of breaking a contract, buried deep within the bits of Facebook nobody ever reads (usually right next to the bit about them owning everything you upload to Facebook, and your rights to privacy, which can be summarised in a haiku). You can tell that it’s traumatic, because there are Facebook groups already called things like ‘They deleeted mi payge for no reeson Facebuk ar crimnals,’ and other unlovely contortions of grammar and syntax. (Oddly  enough, although finding some of the settings information on Facebook is so complex that it appears to be an attempt to introduce gamification into the experience, the terms and conditions could be discovered by a dog with no nose.)

Here are some of the transgressions for which Facebook can delete your profile. Section 3 of their terms of use say:

  1. You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.
  2. You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.

Section 4:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not create more than one personal profile.

So if you have to deal with anything along these lines, don’t shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Well it’s the Internet, innit?’ Give your friendly copper a call, and watch some instant justice being meted out, Tron-style. I guarantee satisfaction.

2. I adored this story about Leonora Rustamova, a teacher who was sacked in 2009 for posting fiction on-line that featured staff at her school, as well as students, and included scenes of a…sexual nature, including the sexual fantasies of named pupils about…er, her. Far from thinking that perhaps, maybe, just this once, she might have stepped over the line a bit, she defended her actions as innovative and was designed to engage the boy pupils. I. Bet. It. Did.

Insanely unguarded woman; it’s the lunacy of the ‘I was just trying to get them on side’, and her defiant refusal to see that this might be so far off the spectrum of acceptable practise for a children’s guardian, that makes her exactly the sort of person the CRB is designed to snag. The reason why I love this story, apart from its sheer mentalness- and after all, nobody really got hurt as a consequence- is that it acts a perfect baseline for any teacher wringing his or her hands and wondering if they should allow students to, for example, email homework to them or something. ‘Oh well,’ they can now say, ‘At least I’m not Leonora Rustamova.’

3. Also from the BBC, a report from a ‘leading digital education charity, the E-Learning Foundation’ suggests that deprivation in the UK now has a new face, and a brand new benchmark to which it can refer: a million children in the UK lack access to the internet at home. You heard me. A million. The report suggests, in the most serious tones, that many of these children risk being severely educationally disadvantaged by this lack of access. You can almost hear the knuckles being cracked as hands are wrung. Is that a Mission Bell I can hear?

I imagine that starving Kenyan children are extremely concerned about the rising levels of deprivation experienced by their British counter parts. Perhaps we should start a campaign in Haiti, asking them to contribute any Palm Pilots and iPads they may have spare. ‘Please. Just one Wii console is enough to keep a whole gang of teenagers in Bradford  above the digital poverty line for a month. You can make a difference.’

World poverty. Perhaps they’ve heard about it? There may be an Oxfam in your high street they can pop into and pick up some notes.

4. And, of course, a mention has to go to the English Baccalaureate, which is presently enjoying the attention of more suitors than a female toad trapped in a pond with a dozen Romeos. This is because the Humanities segment has been specified, by Gove personally it seems, to mean History and Geography. Cue: campaigns by RS teachers everywhere, paralysed with apoplexy at the thought that schools will sling all their Bibles and Prayer Mats in the room marked ‘Citizenship’, next to the desks with inkwells and the SLTs’ testicles. But of course, it’s always enjoyed a peculiar, special status on the curriculum- a compulsory, yet non-national curriculum subject with legally defined entitlements (although many schools ignore them, and OfSTED seem to have ADHD about it when they pop into schools). I suspect that RS will endure this regime, as it has for so long. Like the Vatican, it measures time, not in heart beats, but in centuries.

The Catholic Church has created a branch of itself to accommodate the Anglican converts who have flown from the Church of England into the Highest of the High denominations: it’s called the Ordinariate, in a thrilling choice of nomenclature that could have emerged from a Phillip Pullman novel, with its suggestions of hidden societies and secret orders. These new priests will operate, not in an diocese, but in a notional space, rather than a geographical one, and be headed by an Ordinary, which as a title, is not devoutly to be wished, perhaps. Or maybe it’s a bit like Surgeons being called Mister– they’re too cool to be called Doctor.So in an way, they’re a bit like the members of a Facebook group, linked by conceptual association and abstract affiliation. I wonder where their server is?

Probably not Myspace.

Life not imitating art # 332: You know The Shawshank Redemption, the film that’s on everyone’s top ten lists even though it’s good rather than great, and if I’m honest,  a bit hackneyed and predictable? There was a charming scene where hero con Andy Dufresne locks himself in the Warden’s room and plays The Marriage of Figaro over the tannoy to a transfixed, transported prison population. Well the same thing happened in a school near me this week. Only the hero of this story thought that, with his thirty seconds of precious privacy, he would treat everyone to heavy breathing instead of opera. Get busy livin’, people.

Game Over: the perils of Gamifying the classroom.

No you’re not. You’re called Dave.

An excellent article in this week’s New Scientist called Power Up, by MacGregor Campbell, about an increasingly ubiquitious phenomena in teaching and even the real world : Gamification, which is exactly what it sounds like, i.e. the process of introducing game play elements into real life interactions. Turning life into a game might sound implausible, but as a social phenomena it’s well documented, especially as wireless technology becomes so miniaturised and pervasive as to allow our real life functions to be tracked and evaluated in game-like ways

How is this achieved? By imagining that your life is an enormous arcade game; only, instead of achieving new levels by demolishing pixelated obstacles, eating power pills or shooting invader sprites, you do so by performing more mundane, every day actions like brushing your teeth, doing the ironing, or similar. A sensor such as your mobile phone, or even just your own input could collect the data you need, and provide the interface between the real and the virtual world. As Campbell points out, such activities aren’t restricted to the realm of the high-tech: ever since coupons were given out with purchases, encouraging consumers to redeem them for prizes. And these days it’s a common experience for people to collect vouchers, or passwords from the backs of soft drink cans, and use them on the internet as currency to download songs, etc. In other words, virtual commodities have started to achieve actual value.

The scope for technology to increase the pervasiveness of this act is staggering: location tracking software on your phone can be wirelessly linked to central databases that then allocate you points for, for example, visiting a pub so that you build up loyalty points redeemable against further purchases. Your jog to the park can be monitored by your pedometer and turned into a number, encouraging you to beat your high score. And Wii fitness games most obviously blur the boundaries between the game and the activity until, presumably, you’re power-golfing yourself into a size 8 dress, or something (I don’t know golf very well. Is it high impact?).

How does this relate to the classroom? Because it intersects neatly with another phenomena that is increasingly popular: virtual rewards. Perhaps you’ve used them yourself? Superficially they’re simply a more sophisticated way of recording a Gold Star, or a Tick: instead of giving the rewardee either, you instead give them a sticker with a code printed on it. The children then take these codes, log on to an appropriate website with a personal user name, enter the reward code, and then get the ability to, for example, customise an avatar or play on online game. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. I mean, I was surprised to find that people can actually pay to buy power-ups on most online games, and even my beloved Angry Birds app for the iPhone has a cheeky ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ option for a bargain 59p. Er, which is cheating, isn’t it?

But I digress. The link between fiscal and virtual currency has been achivieved; which is cute, because at its heart, money, of course, doesn’t exist- or rather value is a concept rather than an object. So I suppose it’s appropriate that if we can trade speculatively in a futures market, we can buy and sell electronic assets. Don’t you pine for the days people took pigs to markets and swapped them for bales of hay? Now it’s all Magic Beans.

Do they work in the classroom? Speaking from experience they certainly can do: the younger children are big fans, and actively seek to be rewarded, often loudly indicating that they’re performing the desired behaviour in order to get their Mario Gold. The older ones mostly eschew it, realising with age that the opportunity to clad their tiny online avatar with a pirate’s scarf isn’t exactly the white-knuckle thrill ride it used to be, especially if it involves any actual effort. But that’s the same effect you find with actual gold stars and the like, so no great problem there.

Never do this.

No, the problem lies in something far more basic: namely the problem of motivating children using external rewards itself. When we are very young, and socially acceptable value systems are unknowns to us, just as most empirical knowledge is absent from the Blank Slates of our mind, we need to be taught right and wrong (or, if you’re a moral non-realist, accepted from non-accepted values). This process is considerably accelerated by the use of incentives: positive ones (like carrots, if you’re a donkey) or negative ones (the goad, the reprimand, the sanction). Children come to associate discouraged behaviour with punitive experiences, and more agreeable behaviour with comfort and acceptance. It’s not exactly nuclear physics; every animal with a decent cognitive ability can master it.

The problem lies in that we use these reward systems as a means to an end: that the child should become habituated into seeing certain courses of actions as desirable, and others undesirable. The purpose of the activity is not to emphasise the desirability of the reward, but the desirability of the behaviour associated with the reward. In other words, if I give a kid a Smartie for tidying his room, I’m hoping that he’ll eventually learn to do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because he’s a Smartie addict. In other words, the reward for the action itself, which initially is extrinsic to the action, becomes intrinsic. And this, according to the Categorical Imperative, is what we might call duty.

Teacher: ‘Is that my head?’

Duty is considered by deontologists to be the only perfectly moral motive. Why? Because it is the only motive that excludes self interest and consequential gain. If I teach a child that every time he hands in his homework he’ll get a lollipop, the question I must ask myself is, is he doing it because he’s conscientious and dedicated, or because lollipops float his boat? The only way to find out is to take the lollipops away and find out. You might not like the answer.

Self interest has always been one of the the world’s most ancient and powerful motivators: Adam Smith took it as one of his central assumptions in the Wealth of Nations: that competition was the engine of human psychology. Darwin too took it to be a foundational truth: when resources are scarce we compete. Shaw called it the Life Force, and Kant claimed that we all instinctively had the love of our own lives uppermost in our basic desires. What’s in it for me? is such a universally acknowledged motivator that it scarcely needs to be expressed in the creation of any contract, tacit or formal. But the answer we should be seeking, if we are to consider ourselves in any way enlightened beings, is sometimes ‘Nothing: there’s nothing in it for me.’

If you help an old lady across the road for a fiver, you might be doing a good thing for a bad reason: because it suggests you wouldn’t do it without the reward. If however you do it because you believe it’s the right thing to do, regardless of your benefit, then you’ll be reliably inspired to do so in the absence of reward. Altruism, while not the exclusive litmus of goodness, is probably more reliable an barometer than naked self interest. Egoism, even of the enlightened variety, will only support moral conduct as long as the participants visibly, perceptibly benefit. Which means the system collapses when our interests are perceived to be at risk. Even societies based entirely on this structure (the ‘social contact’ beloved of Hobbes, Locke,and other legislative forefathers) contain this weakness: that morality can never be based entirely on self-interest, no matter how cleverly constructed it is to be mutual. In other words, kindness can never be conceived as entirely a rational enterprise, because it’s a value, and not reducible to articles of fact or quantity. It can only be conveyed, by parenting and education.

‘I’m worried my life lacks meaning.’

And because moral action is a value rather than a fact, we have to be careful how we reward students. If we make the link between good conduct and palpable benefits too direct, we risk encouraging good conduct only when rewards are available. The reverse of this is a frightening acceptance of bad conduct in the absence of reward. So any system of treats, stars, codes or gamified assets has to be treated carefully, otherwise we might just find that we’re teaching our students laziness, selfishness and egocentricity.

If you’re a good teacher, you don’t bust your backside trying to help your students because there’s a bonus, or a power-up; you do it because it’s the right thing to do. Any benefit to you should be incidental- although recognition and a warm rosy glow are nice of course. Alasdair MacIntyre would draw a distinction between external and internal goods: in his book Beyond Virtue, he discussed how the value of an activity should reside in the activity itself; Aristotle thought that the Good Life was, amongst other things, people pursuing actions that were ends in themselves rather than means to an end.

I agree. Rewards, if overdone, lead to vice, not virtue; when they are achieved, they should be for actions that merit them, not actions that are merely expected, not at the post adolescent stage. To do otherwise is to devalue the currency of reward, and to imply that all normal conduct should be accompanied by reward. Well, life isn’t like that. I don’t want to teach children to be complacent; I want them to appreciate self-sacrifice and restraint as well as hedonism: the former are vital to understanding the latter, and no reward system should teach children that life is an enormous chocolate box of increasing levels of diversity and sensuality, without also informing them that somewhere inside every box, there, too, lurks the horrors of the ginger, or the macaroon.

Your new line manager.

Jesse Schell, a video game designer, uses the term ‘Gamespocalypse’ to describe the way the world might be if gamification is used to exploit and corrupt people, perhaps in an effort to make them more obedient consumers, or by attaching exploitative values coded into the reward algorithms of the gaming process. We can see this effect on a much more subtle level in the way we reward our pupils.

Less is more. There are no Level Bosses to bash in life. I suspect it’s a good deal more complex than that.

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