Net safety wisdom from digital game design

To motivate learning and behavior change, Net safety advocates can take some tips from game designers and scholars.

By Anne Collier

Internet-safety experts should talk with game designers. Last week was for me a three-day-long, powerful confirmation that we need to de-silo the public discussion about young people’s well-being online and offline. I attended the GLS (for Games+Learning+Society) conference at the University of Wisconsin and absorbed a lot of wisdom about learning in digital games and worlds.

One lesson I learned concerned the difference between “gamification” and “meaningful gamification.” Prof. Scott Nicholson from Syracuse University talked about how gamification is nothing new (remember Green Stamps, baby boomers?). It’s all about external rewards (badges, grades, points, stamps), incentivizing people into doing things – sometimes things not so good for them, most often things that are perfectly fine or at least harmless. Keynote speaker Sebastian Deterding, a researcher from the Netherlands, even referred to gamification as “an inadvertent con,” something that “tricks people into believing there’s an easy way” to attain a goal.

The difference between that and “meaningful” gamification or games – the kind that cause learning or change behavior – is key to teaching anything, I heard, including Internet safety, social literacy, and citizenship in a networked world. It’s the difference between external rewards (buy candy bars or cookies, make a contribution) and internal rewards. If you go the external-rewards route, you can never stop, Professor Nicholson said in a presentation – you create an expectation or an addiction and systems as well as participants that depend on them. Gamification puts whoever’s providing the reward into a position of power over the player, student, or participant, and – by definition – doesn’t inherently satisfy and decreases trust.

So what satisfies and increases trust and efficacy?

Nicholson offered three requirements for learning, positive growth, behavior change:

A sense of competence
Autonomy or agency
Relatedness or relevance

Apply those to Internet safety, where the primary message for too long has been that children are potential victims online. We need to help them see that, in social media, they’re stakeholders in their own and each other’s well-being and that skilled, literate use increases well-being. It’s a dilemma, certainly – we want to protect them – but the more we can show them our confidence in them, the more motivated they’ll be to take ownership of their safety in and with digital media.

As I listened to Nicholson, I thought about findings by the Harvard University School of Education about a lack of efficacy young people feel when they encounter negative content or behavior online (see this). The GoodPlay researchers also found that youth feel their online activities and interests are inconsequential (think of all the studies that treat their screen time as mere entertainment – e.g., this, at best a waste of time, at worst dangerous). Is that a helpful characterization to communicate to people one wants to work with, much less influence or inspire: that they’re potential victims with no ability to effect change and whose interests are a waste of time and efforts to improve are inconsequential?

Why is that messaging wrong? It’s…

* Inaccurate. Because media and devices aren’t static, finished “products” coming at users. Users are co-creators of their media, whether merely texting or producing videos. Young users have a great deal of influence, even control, over their media experiences. So they need to see that their use can be extremely consequential, that they can not only be effective but powerful in media.
* Irrelevant. Because the waste-of-time or exaggerated-risk messaging is irrelevant to them. Social media research has identified two key media approaches among youth – friendship-driven and interest-driven – and most young media users don’t find either friendship or their interests a waste of time. Most of them also know how to deal intelligently with the risks long and often cited by the Internet-safety field (one example here, another here).
* Depressing. Because victimization messaging shows no confidence in its so-called beneficiaries. Instead of keeping them out of media activities they and their friends enjoy, we should teach them the skills of constructive use which help them cement our trust in them (the opposite effect illustrated here).

What does work?

Here are a few meaty suggestions from the game designers and scholars I heard (think about these in the context of a household, a classroom, a digital learning space, and a kids’ video game or virtual world):

* Lighten up. Play and engage with our kids in social media. Have a little fun, let them play with being our tech support while we teach them life literacy in and out of media. Focus on the people involved in media experiences more than the media: Sebastian Deterding said in his keynote that “it’s the nature of a fun community to care more about the players than about the game. If we are having fun, we are caring.” A family or classroom can model the trust and safety that a caring community (like a family or class) naturally foster. Help our children feel that “I can trust in myself, and I can trust in others here.”
* Release control. That may sound strange to those who fear for their children. I understand. But “the more you increase control, the less you motivate,” Dr. Nicholson said after a year of studying motivation on sabbatical. Control is a function of external rewards (also fear and stress, which do not motivate). As parents, we usually use a range of external and internal rewards, but we know that the goal – as we work our kids out of the nest – is self-control and intrinsic rewards, such as the joy of learning for its own sake.
* Support autonomy. “We do that when we offer meaningful choice,” Deterding said. Speaking to game designers, but I think also to the parents in the room, he added that meaningful means “connected to people’s goals, values, and identity” – which is why it’s so important for us to understand what our kids like about the media they use and why, and to try to understand the context in which they’re playing and socializing.
* Create a safe space. Physical safety is a baseline need (game designers refer to Maslow’s hierarchy) but, because referring more to digital spaces, game scholars stress psychological safety – spaces where there’s mutual trust, freedom to be silly, embarrass oneself, experiment with new concepts, fail and try again, etc. – that kind of safety is paramount to all kinds of learning. It starts in families and expands into classrooms, digital games, after-school programs, sleepovers, Facebook, and every other kind of social space.
* Model what we want to see. Remember this was a game designer and scholar talking, but for how many eons have we heard this in child development circles? The modeling is done by the creators of a community – a home, a classroom, a virtual world or game, etc. But the people in charge get help; it’s echoed by the participants. This is why psychologists tell us that the will and participation of a whole school community is needed to defeat bullying and why risk prevention experts focus so much on bystanders. Everybody’s key to the climate and context of the community, from social games to families to schools.
* Shared values more than rules. Rules are ok, of course, but they work better when shared: “these are our family’s rules,” “our classroom values.” And rules are better when they’re for creativity rather than control, like the artistic constraints that give the very necessary kind of definition that fuels creative problem-solving (see this).

See what I mean? We need to get safety specialists (parents, advocates, educators, social workers, mental healthcare workers) talking with game designers. Not to “gamify” kids’ online experiences – not at all! – but to allow our kids’ online and offline experiences to be more and more like meaningful play and learning. [I was at the conference to speak on a panel with some amazing educators teaching safety, citizenship, media literacy and many other skills at the elementary and middle grade level (see this).]


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