Can this be played in school? Please?

Of online game designer/researcher Jane McGonigal’s dream: using games to solve real-world problems (and, I’d add, to teach citizenship and social activism and to reverse the disconnect between learning and school

By Anne Collier

I’m asking you, educators. EVOKE sounded amazing, when I heard it described by game designer Jane McGonigal on NPR’s Science Friday the other day. The goal of this free social game is to “help empower people all over the world to develop creative solutions to urgent social problems” – beyond “mere” civic engagement to social problem-solving. Of course EVOKE isn’t the only social-media teaching tool I’d love to see in school. It illustrates the kind of authentic, digitally-enabled learning that would help reverse what well-known educator Will Richardson calls the “decoupling of education and school.” What Dr. McGonigal has in mind, as she said in her TEDtalk a year ago, is channeling the intense interest in saving the world found in online games like World of Warcraft into solving real-world problems. That’s what EVOKE, developed by the World Bank Institute and McGonigal, is about. It’s aimed at her goal of making it “as easy to save the world in real life as it is in online games.”

Why is it easy in games? In her talk, she explains that when you show up in games like World of Warcraft, “there are lots and lots of characters willing to trust you with a world-saving mission, a mission perfectly matched to your current level in the game, though challenging you on the edge of your capability. You have hundreds of thousands of potential collaborators at your fingertips and an inspiring epic story urging you on, with constant feedback and support from peers. You are on the verge of an epic win all the time.” She explains that, “in game worlds, we become the best version of ourselves,” whereas in the real world, “we face obstacles, we feel anxious, overwhelmed, frustrated, cynical. Those feelings don’t exist in games.” No wonder World of Warcraft can be addictive.

“The average young person today in a country with a strong gamer culture will have spent 10,000 hours playing games by age 21,” McGonigal says, citing research from Carnegie Mellon. If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you’ve read about cognitive research’s theory that 10,000 hours of practice add up to mastery. So “we are looking at a generation of young people who are virtuoso gamers,” she says.

How to channel that virtuosity into real-world problem solving is the question. This is getting urgent if we want to keep kids in school, much less fix world problems. Here, McGonigal figured out in her research, is what real-world problem solving needs to do (what online games like WoW do and what she tries to build into her real world problem-solving games): make it so players develop…

1. “urgent optimism” (the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle believing we have a reasonable hope of success
2. “a tight social fabric” (online games build bonds, trust, cooperation, stronger social relations and community [think about online safety in this context ])
3. “blissful productivity” (“the average WoW gamer plays 22 hours/week; we are optimized as human beings when doing hard, meaningful work)
4. “epic meaning” (gamers love to be attached to awe-inspiring missions and planetary-scale stories.

These, McGonigle says, are “the four superpowers that add up to super-empowered, hopeful individuals who see themselves as capable of changing the world.” Besides EVOKE, another game she designed for world-changing purposes was SuperStruct, in which the planet had only 23 years left of life, and players were members of a “dream team” whose job it was to invent the future of energy, food, health, security and the social safety net. Eight thousand people played for eight weeks and came up with 500 insanely creative solutions,” McGonigal said. Can we get games like that at school? Please?

Related links

* 97% of US 12-to-17-year-olds computer, online, handheld, or console games; 80% play five or more different types of games, and 40% play eight or more types; girls play an average of 6 different game types, boys an average of 8 types – and this was back in 2008, from Pew/Internet’s “Teens, Video Games and Civics.”
* A thoughtful review of McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World in The Independent
* Don’t miss this fantastic New York Times Magazine piece of last September which I should’ve pointed out to you then: “Learning by Playing: Videogames in the Classroom,” about a school in Manhattan whose curriculum is taught in the context of videogaming (designed for education). Here’s the companion video – worth watching if you don’t have time for the article. [I first blogged about Quest to Learn in September 2009.]
* “Get creative in school with digital media” in The Guardian
*Why Low Performing Schools Need Digital Media,” by Prof. Craig Watkins in the Huffington Post
* “The learning power of a virtual world”
* “WoW: The guild effect for teachers”
* “How the Net industry can help us all get to Online Safety 3.0”
* “The power of play: Cyberbullying solution?” * “World of Warcraft … in school”
* “Homeschooling with World of Warcraft” * “Videogames: Hotbeds of scientific thinking for kids”

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