Why not a gazillion ‘likes’?: Getting wise to gamification in social media (& life)

Likes in Facebook and Instagram, +1’s in Google+, (potentially) “HISCORE(s)” in Snapchat are fun to get (though there isn’t much evidence having a HISCORE is a big deal for Snapchat users yet). They’re a great example of gamification, a word that’s increasingly heard in pop culture as much as education. There’s nothing wrong with liking likes and other gamification forms (more on this in minute). What isn’t great is when they become an obsession or a much bigger reason for “playing” in a social app or social site than your friends. Why? Well, in effect, you’re letting the app or whatever play you.

Sameer Hinduja

A Sameer “selfie” in Instagram (reminds me–I need to follow him!)

This is just one way parents can help kids make sure they’re in control of their technology use and not the other way around. “I know you want to gain more and more followers … but amassing more and more followers is a never-ending pursuit,” blogs my friend Sameer Hinduja, professor, researcher and co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center, who blogs about a lot of things besides cyberbullying (this post isn’t about that). “First you were so happy when you got a few likes to a picture you uploaded. Then you weren’t happy until you got double-digit likes. Now you want triple-digit likes. And multiple comments. And it kind of bums you out when it doesn’t happen. This is madness, and there is no end to this. It’s never going to be enough, and you are going to waste so much of your life this way.”

Good likes, superficial likes, creepy likes

Why is it such a waste? For one thing, Sameer adds, “people just quickly scroll through hundreds of pictures when they check their phone in moments of boredom (because they are, like you, often following hundreds of people), and just touch each one to like them. Liking a photo on Instagram is a quick, relatively thoughtless piece of interaction that often doesn’t mean much at all.” Of course it also depends on who does the liking, but usually it only marginally suggests actual interest in the photos and – if a young person’s putting a lot of “selfies” (self-portraits) on display – it could lead to the wrong kind of interest, at least as far as parents are concerned. But does the kid himself or herself really want to attract creepy interest? That might be something to stop and think out loud about together. Everybody likes a little attention sometimes, but not the kind that focuses purely on appearance, right? If the answer is yes, there are other things to talk about – see this. If the answer is, “that photo (or comment) isn’t about that, Dad/Mom,” then ask for the context, find out more, because there usually is context people outside the peer group don’t understand. [This kind of reflective communication about an activity is called experiential learning and practices the mindfulness that is protective in social settings online and offline.]

“Please do not get caught up in [leveling up with likes]. It seriously makes me sad when I see so many teens who do,” Sameer writes. “Your identity cannot be wrapped up in the number of times you are noticed, liked or validated in Instagram” or any social media service.

Gamification vs. what’s really rewarding

Ok, so here’s where “gamification” comes in (going a little deeper if parents and educators are interested): What Sameer is saying, basically, is that likes can’t ultimately satisfy us because they create the desire for MORE. They’re about addiction not satisfaction, being controlled not in control (as in games controlling players, not the other way around). This gets to the question people have about whether we or our technologies are in the driver’s seat. Likes, scores, +1’s, badges, etc. are external rewards. Syracuse University media professor Scott Nicholson, who’s been studying motivation and media, makes an important distinction between external (the academic term is “extrinsic”) rewards, the rewards of gamification, and the internal or intrinsic rewards of what he calls “meaningful gamification.” Meaningful is what ultimately satisfies and motivates (meaningful engagement is also a safety factor, as are agency and community – see the last bullet in Related links). Young people, parents, educators, and media companies need to be talking and thinking together more about intrinsic rewards – what constitutes meaningful participation.

Meaningful gamification, Nicholson says, is about agency or autonomy, mastery, and purpose (the words Daniel Pink uses too, in his best-selling book Drive; other words people use are “choice,” “relevance” and “meaningfulness”*). Parents can ask their kids (and themselves): Isn’t THAT what we really want – e.g., meaningful connections, real friendship more than likes, to be appreciated for who we are at least as much as what we look like? An intrinsic reward is very individual, but Pink describes it generally as something that delivers on “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

We see kids working toward that kind of reward all the time – working for causes they care about deeply. They seek it out in games too, sometimes because it’s easier to find “epic meaning,” as game designer Jane McGonigal, PhD, puts it, in game worlds than in classrooms and everyday life. What if it were easier to seek and pursue epic meaning in everyday life? How can parents, educators and media companies help with that? [I think social media, with its allowance of progressive engagement – hanging out, messing around, and geeking out – are making it possible for young people to explore for greater meaning in their lives (see the book of that title from MIT Press).]

Make way for agency, mastery, purpose

Certainly meaning doesn’t always have to be epic. There’s meaningfulness and learning in play, and playfulness is vital too, especially in digital media, which we learn as we go, by messing around with it. It’s just important not to be played – by people, media, or technology – regardless of our age, and for adults not to view youth merely as people who can be played, as potential victims or “game addicts.” Parents, kids, schools, social media companies can think together about how to focus at least as much on what supports autonomy or agency in youth (what empowers them as much as protects them) in programs that are relevant and meaningful to them – rather than just gamifying their lives, education, and digital media use. There’s something inherently disrespectful and unmotivating about believing or sending the message that the only way they’ll engage is if we gamify the experience. If we want kids to have control over their tech and media, we have to start giving them that control – treat them as active agents for their own good and that of their friends, families, communities (online and offline), talk with them about how that happens in their lives, and give them opportunities to define and pursue what’s meaningful to them.

Related links

  • *A word about 21st-century learning (and preparing our kids for life): Daniel Pink says that, “for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.” I say that’s the main upgrade education needs too – not gamification per se, or flipped classrooms, or any other single “solution,” but agency, competence and meaning/relevance/purpose for students. THIS is what prepares them for learning and working creatively in a rapidly changing environment. This is 21st-century learning.
  • About ed tech: Of course none of the above is to say there shouldn’t be digital games or even extrinsic rewards in school! (Heck, grades are basically extrinsic rewards, though they’ve come to have a lot of meaning for some people.) It’s not either/or. It’s possible there’s an extrinsic-to-intrinsic spectrum, and what’s meaningful for some isn’t for others. And having digital games and environments in school can greatly increase student engagement and learning – we just all need to think about where digital learning tools and games like these fall in the intrinsic-to-extrinsic spectrum (in each context: in your classroom, our family, our school, at this point in time). Meaningful is individual, situational, and contextual.
  • On obsessing about likes, some more perspective
  • Nicholson in long form: The link I gave you above to a video by Prof. Scott Nicholson at Syracuse University is a little 9-min. introduction to the ideas. Here‘s a longer-form version (90 min.)
  • “Challenging the idea that games can’t be fun AND meaningful”
  • Example of meaningful gaming in school (to the students, their teacher, their parents and the school): “Mining Minecraft”: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, guest posts from teacher Marianne Malmstrom in New Jersey
  • On Meaningful gamification and Internet safety

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