Badges?! We Don’t Need Your Stinking Badges!

goldstar1I may be in a distinct minority amongst gamification practitioners, but I generally dislike the way badges are used in most participatory, serious game contexts.  They are awarded as an indicator of past effort.  That is, a player has completed a specific task or set of missions, or maybe they have proved they have a certain skill — and so they are awarded a badge.  “Here you go —  gold star!”

Game designers use this as a motivator to get the player to perform more actions.  The danger in this strategy is that it attracts a certain kind of player.  Since badges of this kind only have meaning for the community of players, these sorts of badges are attractive to status seekers.  After all, a gold star for 5-year old Mary means nothing to the average person — but to “Mary’s Kindergarten class” — that gold star is a big deal.  So in games that use past effort indicator badges, oftentimes the most eager badge holders are essentially status-seekers.

Shirley Temple at age 6 in 1935 (photo by Marty Nederhandler)

Shirley Temple at age 6 in 1935 (photo by Marty Nederhandler)

I recently read a book about gamification where the author actually described this kind of badge as an “intrinsic motivator.”  I’d have to disagree.  A badge of this kind is actually an extrinsic motivator.  The badge and its meaning is coming from outside the behavior of the player.  It comes from the approval of others.  Someone who is truly intrinsically motivated doesn’t need a badge to show off or prove their skill.

The best games are those where the motivations to play are intrinsic.  The player feels fun or fulfillment or is totally engaged without the layering on of points, badges and levels.  When players are intrinsically motivated, they have tapped into and are being tapped for an immersive, involving experience.  The game completes them and they complete the game.

Girls playing double dutch. Playground. East Harlem. New York. 1998. © Bruce Davidson

Girls playing double dutch. Playground. East Harlem. New York. 1998. © Bruce Davidson

When that game is in the area of education or health or positive behavioral change, the symbiosis between player and game activity — whether or not points or badges have been awarded — is a beautiful thing to behold.  The play itself is the fulfillment.  There are no losers.

So back to the kind of badges that reflect status or completion of task.  (I’ve heard these called “Mastery” badges.)  One phenomenon Nuvana often sees is that players who are not motivated by these kinds of status displays, and those who actually abhor such ostentation, quickly disengage.  Low self-esteem learners shy away from contexts that openly rank them or differentiate them from “The Masters.”  Understandably so.  Without intending to, badges can identify and stigmatize outsiders.  By default, if there are Masters, then there are Losers.

If using these kinds of badges, be sure to know the community, what will motivate them, and most importantly, what will “de-motivate” them.  And then consider how to achieve churn (i.e. get engagement out of the bottom quartile).


This is not to say we disapprove of badges.  On the contrary, we firmly believe that badges have their place.  We take our inspiration from badges of the Old West.  Think about it.  A Sheriff in the 1800s displayed a tin star on his vest NOT to indicate what he had done previously.  His star gave him unique authority and rights:  he could wear a gun in public, shoot a cattle rustler on sight, deputize a citizen to defend the OK Corral, keep the peace.  A badge in that era meant privilege.

With Nuvana games, we prefer badges give the bearer rights, privilege and authority — to DO.  In other words, award a badge not necessarily for what a user has done;  instead, reward the player with a badge that incites them to generate more positive actions.  The authority to peer moderate, the right to create missions, the privilege of collaboration, rights of certain access especially at brick-and-mortar venues, connections to power ups, authority to unleash abilities.  Those are the badges that generate future actions and prevent players from resting on laurels.

Those are the badges that everyone wants — not just to flaunt — but to wield.  Those are the badges that don’t stink!

 — JvK


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How to Unlearn Racism


Imagine a cereal commercial that goes something like this:  a cute, brown-skinned girl asks her Caucasian mother about the health benefits of Cheerios.  Mom confirms it’s good for people’s hearts.  Cut to the child’s African-American father waking up from a nap on the couch with a pile of Cheerios covering his heart.

Sweet, yes?

Actually, not in 2013, and not on the Internet.  The spot was posted on youtube, got tons of hits — but drew a rash of nasty, racist comments.   There were so many vitriolic posts (some advocating racial genocide) that Cheerios disabled the comment section.  To their credit, Cheerios did not remove the ad — and it now has over 4 million views.

It’s ironic that the commercial ends with the word “Love.”  Mildred Loving, a black woman, and her husband, Richard, a white man, were sentenced to prison for violating Virginia law with their mixed marriage, but the Supreme Court invalidated the law in 1967 with the landmark Loving v. Virginia ruling.

Mildred & Richard Loving

Mildred & Richard Loving

Yes,  nearly 50 years have passed, but “love” between different races is not without stigma, no matter how legal the courts deem it.   I don’t think any intelligent American is shocked by this sad lack of emotional evolution.  But what did startle me and really set me thinking was a video made by Benny & Rafi Fine (aka the Fine Brothers).  They’re known for making shorts featuring children or seniors reacting to media and pop culture.  This time, they made a video of children reacting to the Cheerios spot.

It’s a riveting video — earning even more hits than the original commercial.  What is fascinating is the confusion, shock, and then, anger — when the children are told that the ad triggered racist comments.  “Why?” they ask.  “What–???”  “That’s just mean!”  One can’t help but feel hopeful after listening to their sincere, heartfelt reactions.  After all, it appears that prejudice — at least in this video — is a behavior that has to be learned.  The sense that comes across from the video is that children are born naturally colorblind to race.

But somehow, racism, hate and prejudice continues to flourish in the most unexpected places, surfacing at the most surprising times.  (Correction: not always unexpected or surprising.)  Somewhere along the way, a child is taught this behavior.  How is it done?  Who does the teaching?

Of course, it’s the usual suspects:  parents, family, friends — those in the community of a young child.  A Harvard psychologist named Mahzarin Banaji revealed some shocking research showing that “children exposed to racism tend to accept and embrace it as young as age 3, and in just a matter of days.”

But there’s some good news.  Banaji also found that as a child ages, he or she can shed  prejudice “if he finds himself in a diverse enough place and consistently observes in-group and out-group people interacting positively and as equals.’’

I like it:  diverse environment and ethical people to provide examples of behavior worth modeling.  Diversity and mentors.  Always a powerful combination in education.  And clearly, no different when trying to unlearn something as all-consuming as racism.

So everybody — mix it up and provide some good mentoring.  As the comment sections on most public walls reveal:  a lot of “unlearning” needs to go on out there.

— JvK

Do Different


We’re all witnessing it.  The Flip in education.  Back in 2007, I had the good fortune to sit in on a presentation by Clayton Christensen predicting how U.S. education was ripe for it.  What has caused the widespread disruption of education in this country is of course, the massive failure of the system on so many fronts:  dropout rate,  escalating costs, teacher burnout, diminishing student performance, deteriorating bricks & mortar facilities, confusing standards debate, bullying — it’s a mess.

Into the breach has leapt a number of new educational technologies, Nuvana included, that seem like better solutions, not because they necessarily are — but frankly, because by comparison, you’d have to come up with something pretty bad to fail in a head-to-head test.   At least when the criteria is focused on engagement.  Come on:  what’s going to be more effective at engaging a modern American student already armed with their own smartphone, a game console at home, and will be watching “Fast & Furious 6” this weekend:  a printed worksheet from a textbook or an edtech game where the student’s avatar roams a virtual world?


Because Jane or Jimmy remains glued to the screen for hours playing this new edtech game which covers the same material in the book they abandoned long ago, teachers, administrators and students laud the intervention.  You’ve heard all the testimonials:  “It’s so much better than doing homework!”  “The kids were really into the game!”  “It made learning fun!”

Nice.  Can’t argue with that.  Even Nuvana testimonials have that familiar ring.  But let’s back up and ask ourselves:  what is education really for?  At best, isn’t it to enlighten individuals and give them the skills to solve problems in the real world and make it a better place?  (I know some would argue that it’s to give someone the kind of career that results in a comfortable lifestyle.  Uh-huh.  That’s old think, and what got us to this untenable place.  “Me” think instead of “we” think.  An individual’s “comfortable lifestyle” is quickly superseded when widespread famine, environmental disaster, global health crisis or war suddenly intervenes — all of which are distinct possibilities in the lives of this generation of American children.)

The gargantuan problems that face America and the global community today — in health, the economy, the crumbling infrastructure, violence, environmental degradation, food and water security — and the seeming lack of sensible solutions has prompted society to throw education under the bus.  After all, our educational system is supposed to train and deliver to us the new problem solvers who will successfully tackle these issues.

Or at least show us who can perform well on multiple choice tests.  😉


illustration by Dave Crosland @

So engagement isn’t enough to make the Flip meaningful.  The Flip has got to be about moving from “me” think (i.e. comfortable individual lifestyle) to “we” think (solving global problems collaboratively).  The Flip has got to be less about virtual eye-candy, and more about learning to grapple with reality.

Recently, I happened to watch “One Last Thing,” the PBS documentary about Steve Jobs.  It was first broadcast in 2011, but it begins with an amazing interview he gave back in 1994.  Now, no matter how you feel about Apple or Steve Jobs, one has to appreciate his understanding of learning and the real world:

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

— Steve Jobs, PBS “One Last Thing” documentary 1994


Jobs & Woz “poking life” in their garage circa 1975

So back to the Flip.  If we can make it more about the end of training youth to just comfortably live in this life, and more about how to change the lives we live in order to make the world a better place — than this disruption WILL be truly innovative.  Somehow, I don’t think that happens inside brightly colored games, no matter how engaging they may be.  It happens when the switch that controls the Flip is put into new hands.  Namely, students who should be encouraged to “poke life” and therefore “change it and mold it.”

That’s empowerment.

The edtech that empowers and incites learners to poke around the real world — that’s where the Flip will come from.  And none of us, and certainly not this world, will ever be the same again.  Thank goodness.

                                                                                                 —  JvK

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MORKs and Mindys: how to stem the MOOC dropout rate


Nearly every article written about educational technology these days is about the proliferation of MOOCs — massive open online courses.  With the skyrocketing costs of formal higher education and the dwindling bank accounts of anyone south of the upper class, it is no wonder that MOOCs have taken off.

Hand-in-hand with MOOC adoption is the alarming MOOC dropout rate.  We’ve all heard it:  the 85 to 95% dropout rates of some of these online courses.   As fast as those startling numbers appear, the bloggers spinning reasons and rationales for these metrics come howling out of the woodwork.  After all, in this age of the “Internet solves all,” and with considerable investment poured into some of these MOOC sites, the phenomenon is likely here to stay.

What gets lost in the shuffle is the simple fact that MOOCs have been with us for a long long time.  Well, they weren’t known as MOOCs in the good old days.  Some called them MORKs:  Massive Open Real-World Knowledge-base — otherwise known as LIBRARIES — something that’s been around since 2600 BC in Sumer.  Because essentially, MOOCs and MORK/Libraries are knowledge bases available to all.

Mesopotamian clay tablet with pictographs (replica)

Sumer cuneiform tablet from the Smithsonian

Then why, you ask, throughout history, has there not been widespread wisdom and enlightenment up and down the population.  Total literacy, in other words.  Well, the Sumerian libraries, among other issues, had the same phenomenon as we do now with Internet MOOCs — a hefty dropout rate.

Ask any educated, enlightened individual about what flipped the switch “on” for them, and more often than not, it was a mentor.  It could have been a teacher, an expert, a caring guide in the form of a relative or friend, who mentored and inspired that individual to make it through the “knowledge base” and build the necessary skills that led to enlightenment or mastery.

In short, you can’t have an effective MORK or even a MOOC without a Mindy.


Remember that TV sitcom from the late 1970s, Mork & Mindy?  The show charted the adventures of an alien named Mork played by Robin Williams, who crash-landed on Earth with zero understanding of human culture, therefore requiring the mentorship of the ever-patient earthling, Mindy.  Without Mindy, Mork would never have survived life on Earth.  Without mentors like Mindy, MORKs and MOOCs will fail more often than not.

Let’s face it:  Knowledge-base does not guarantee knowledge.

It’s no wonder that brilliant teachers often are leery of MOOCs.  A good mentor has a secret sauce that is layered over the knowledge base they’re delivering — making their course exciting, engaging and long-lasting.  Unfortunately, that secret sauce is hard to bottle, and does not translate well to video.  A lot of it has to do with true and authentic connection between the mentor and learner — not between the learner and a technology.

This is why Nuvana recognizes the importance of teachers and mentors in the learning process.  We do everything we can to make their lives easier, and their efforts more effective.  We do our best to connect the mentor to learner in authentic, personalized ways.

We also recognize the importance of MOOCs — and much of our work these days involves attaching to existing MOOCs and making them more effective and engaging — thereby elevating their completion rate.  Essentially, teachers and peers use the Nuvana platform to stay connected and guide themselves through the MOOC journey, otherwise called learning, thereby resulting in greater engagement and fewer dropouts.

Without doubt, we at Nuvana are less concerned with high tech than we are with high touch.

In the meantime, if you really want to know what a MOOC is — well, one of the greatest storytellers of all time was using the term long before anyone in edtech was — and to much greater effect (WARNING: expletive uttered — but remember, this is from the great Martin Scorcese!):

So be careful who or what you call a MOOC.  More importantly, remember to connect with the right “Mindy” to get you through it.


Especially if s/he uses Nuvana to connect with you on your learning journey.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                 — JvK

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Games are Bad at…


About a year ago, I had the pleasure of attending a presentation given by game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor, Jesse Schell.  As both an innovative thinker and practitioner in the gaming space, this former Disney Imagineer responsible for the seminal, 3D massively multiplayer for kids, ToonTown Online, is nothing short of brilliant.  His presentation was titled, “What Games Are Good At.”

Without going into too much detail, here’s what Professor Schell outlined…

Games are good at:
1) Giving the brain what it wants
2) Illustrating complex systems
3) Keeping you in the flow
4) Showing new POV
5) Being authentic
6) Raising new questions
7) Creating shared experiences
8) Allowing independent exploration
9) Practice for dangerous situations
10) Creation of teachable moments
11) Giving students ownership

All excellent points and nothing there any would quibble with.  I especially love that games are good at 7, 8 and 11.  And having been a Mihaly Csikczentmihalyi “Flow“-natic since the 1990s, I especially like #3.

illustration by Eva-Lotta Lamm

illustration by Eva-Lotta Lamm

But what really perked my eyes and ears in the midst of Schell’s presentation was a slide titled:  “What games are bad at…”  And “bad” was written in red.  Nice.

Gotta know your medium’s limits.  The boundaries.  In fact, they’re a good thing, as we all know, for creatives.

Any good designer when confined by limits — whether externally imposed (e.g. budget, time frame, space), or an unyielding condition embedded in the medium (e.g. stunted state of the art, unavailable features in the technology), or internally constrained (e.g. limited maker ability, knowledge and/or skills) — can still generate transcendent work by understanding and working within those limitations.  Take the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild.  I doubt it could have been improved measurably by more budget, more shoot days, or if it was shot in 3-D I-Max, or by an experienced director.  Benh Zeitlin made a terrific movie despite Beasts being his first feature.


Understanding limitations and working knowledgeably within, around and despite them is truly important in educational game design and creation lest one embark upon an expensive fool’s journey that ends in failure or walk away at the outset because of the constraints.  In the edtech space, we see both happen all the time.

So I was particularly excited by this slide, and here’s what it said:

Games are bad at:
1) Being cheap
2) Tricking students into learning
3) Limitless exploration
4) Adhering to time limits
5) Understanding mistakes
6) Long shelf-lives
7) Staying interesting forever

That was eye-opening.  Especially number 1.  If educational games aren’t good at being cheap, there is no way the average American public school district can afford it.  Gamified edtech is a dead industry if it’s a luxury item.  And so I went back to the Nuvana team with this list of seven deadly sins and we went to work — working within and around those limitations.

from Darla Bunting's blog

from Darla Bunting’s blog

It was daunting, intense work to revamp our platform — but if I might boast — this Nuvana team of ours is awesome.  I think we’ve got most of these 7 items licked.

1.  The Nuvana MVP is cheap.  And with every deployment, we’re very effective.  With cheap came an ability to deploy quickly and with customization.  Yes, cheaper and better.

2. So if games are bad at tricking students, why bother to try the old bait and switch?  Why not just be honest?  The game just better be engaging while being clearly educational.  So in every deployment, we are straight up with the player community, whether they are students, workers, execs, adults or children.  This is a serious game.  A participation game.  A learning game.  And we’re also up front that, if played the right way, it’s fun.  No tricks.

3.  The limit to exploration is not a function of the Nuvana platform.  It’s up to the folks who administrate the game.  (Cars are not limited in their ability to explore.  The environment and drivers are the limiters.  Oh, and gas.)  Nuvana is just a learning vehicle.  There are enough features within the MVP that empower the community to explore limitlessly.  They choose what they want to do.  They like what they wish.  They suggest their own missions.  Where boundaries to that exploration occur is when administration sets them.  The best Nuvana games we’ve seen are when admin mentors have the courage to let the players drive the learning journey.  When that happens, the game is beyond success.  It’s magic.

4.  Not sure I understand what Mr. Schell means about a game’s inability to adhere to time limits.  In Nuvana, there are strict beginnings and ends.  What I do find interesting about Schell’s 7 items is that 4 of them are temporally oriented.  All I can say is, when you have a great game, and a player reaches “flow state” — time doesn’t mean much.

5.  These days, a lot of effort on the part of the Nuvana tech team is devoted to understanding and utilizing the data that is mined inherently by our platform.  The way we try to understand mistakes is driven by a confluence of “auto-magic” technical data analysis, human mentorship, and gearing the game platform to favor connection to desired successful outcomes (e.g. Common Core State Standards, a company’s targets and projections, a doctor’s health parameters) over failure.  Our collaboration right now with Stanford School of Design and Michigan State University’s Literacy Achievement Research Center is driving our build strategy to address these issues in exciting ways.  (More on these collaborations in this blog soon).


6.  Shelf life in game is driven by the community’s passion for the activities.  In conventional edtech games, the loop is closed.  The branching story ends up at fixed spots.  The virtual world has boundaries.  There are right and wrong answers.  Multiple choice is actually limited choice.  Nuvana circumvents this by avoiding single answer propositions, constantly generating new missions, and allowing players to suggest and iterate.  And by avoiding animated environments (despite our expertise in that genre.  Just check out the work of Nuvana principles, Jeff Fino Wild Brain and Drew Takahashi Colossal Pictures) — the boundaries are only limited by the learning community’s collective mind.  That’s why we see no end in sight for some of our games.  In education, students move through the learning portal like a never-ending stream.  What is exciting is when learners can see past work of those that went before them and either model on best practices or expand and extend upon the work.


7.  So will Nuvana games stay interesting forever?  Who knows.  What we can say is. because we rely heavily on the Nuvana learning experience taking place in the real world — we have an advantage.  Reality is unpredictable, full of unsolved problems, and therefore infinitely interesting.  We’ll let you know when boredom sets in.  But so far — so good.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               — JvK

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First, you gotta believe

snake1Gung hay fat choy!  Welcome to the Year of the Serpent, a.k.a. the Snake, a.k.a. the “little dragon.”  If you didn’t know, it’s quite an auspicious year in the Chinese lunar calendar, and for Nuvana, it’s been especially busy.  Which is my sly way of apologizing for not keeping up with the Nuvana blog posts.  [note:  I first wrote this back in February, but have been too swamped with Nuvana builds to edit and post.  Apologies!]  We’ve just been so busy with a number of projects, builds, launches and exciting new products.  But never fear.  We’ve been keeping lots of notes of our experiences and you’ll start to see them splattered across these virtual pages in the weeks and months to come.

With the beginning of any new year — whether you celebrate this as Gregorian year 2013 or lunar year 4711 — there’s always unbounded optimism that colors the festivities.  That goes for new relationships, certainly with business partners.  Sooner or later, we hear a reasonable question:  So why does the Nuvana platform work?

Without doubt, the confluence of our technology, customized features, elegant design, seamless user experience — all these aspects contained in Nuvana products results in success.  But to be honest, like any man-made structure, somewhere along the line — and perhaps in many places — there are linkages that can only be closed by the A.F.L.: the Almighty Flying Leap.

flying leap 3

In other words, you gotta believe!

In the spaces that Nuvana operates in (education, health, communities of practice, private sector performance), there are so many other factors at work:  teacher performance, student readiness, community ethic, administration commitment, device capability, internet connection, a solid curriculum, time of year, executive buy-in.  A full battery.  And on and on.  You have to believe these elements, many beyond one’s control, will work to your favor.

But even when they don’t, and believe me, we have had those unavoidable instances where servers shut down or batteries go dead or connections freeze.  After all, blind faith in man-made objects, even ours, is bound to let one down.  Nevertheless, in the face of these setbacks, we almost always achieve success — and it’s made me and my colleagues realize that putting faith in the community, especially if it’s given power and agency to drive toward a truly positive outcome, constitutes a strategy that is rarely a losing proposition.

Yes.  People are inherently good.  People inherently want to do good.

And I hope I’m never wrong about that.  Otherwise, why be in this crazy space?

Lily Kwong & the Fierce Sistah Society

Lily Kwong & the Fierce Sistah Society

It’s the efforts of good people that makes our platform sing.  Out of this foundation of faith in people, a whole set of other beliefs begin to unfold.  That people want to learn.  That there are mentors and teachers, execs and managers, who will work hard to make learning happen.  That learners will mentor others given the chance.  That an empowered social network naturally flows toward Good.  That a community of practice learns best from one another and even better if that learning takes place in the real world.

The beliefs don’t stop there, but I won’t bore you with a laundry list.  You no doubt harbor most of these beliefs yourself otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this.  But if you need a lovely little reminder of the innate goodness in your fellow wo/man then take a couple minutes to watch this mini-doc by Casey Neistat.

In the meantime, all the best to all of you in the Year of the Serpent.  Here’s to you putting your faith in the right people (not things) so you’ll land safely in capable hands, no matter how big of a flying leap you take.   Truly, I believe wholeheartedly, it’s going to be a wonderful year!

Take the flying leap in the Year of the Serpent!

Take the flying leap in the Year of the Serpent!

                                                                                                                                                                                                             — JvK

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Goals of An “Online” Education

Jeannette Wei, great mom and teacher extroardinaire

I had lunch with my mother today.  She’s 82-years old, but Jeannette Wei still teaches every day at an elementary school in Palo Alto, CA, then commutes into San Francisco to tutor Chinese immigrant children (she’s an immigrant herself) three times a week.  Yes, she’s a saint.

She’s also an amazing teacher (recognized as a California Distinguished Teacher with a Master Teacher accreditation) at a very innovative public school.  Much of her teaching philosophy has influenced our educational values at Nuvana — most of it based on listening to children, respecting them and empowering them.

Today, she handed Jeff and me a yellow postcard which, at first glance, I thought said:  “Goals of an Online Education.”  Here it is:

Ohlone Elementary School’s education goals

It took me a while before I realized it didn’t say “Online.”  It said “Ohlone” — the name of the elementary school she teaches at and it’s a very special place.  You can tell by reading their educational goals:

Self-Awareness—Our children will have positive self-images and know their strengths and challenges.

Independent Thinking—Our children will have a growth mindset, think for themselves, act responsibly and be resilient.

Time Management—Our students will manage their time wisely, focus on quality work and take responsibility for their own learning.

Democratic Values—Our children will realize the meaning of democratic values and give voice to their principles through their words and actions.

Tolerance and Compassion—Our children will show compassion for others and value different perspectives.

Citizenship and Community—Our children will understand their places in the global community and care about the environment.

Lifelong Learning—Our children will view learning as a lifelong process that will enrich their lives.

“Physical Awareness—Our children will be aware of, and comfortable with, their own bodies.

Risk Taking/Creativity—Our children will be comfortable taking risks to express their creative selves.”

A pretty impressive set of goals.  And certainly works for ‘Online” education too, don’t you think?

Okay, mom — we’ll do our best to embed those goals into our online educational tools.

And I promise to also read more carefully!

— JvK

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A Tool for Communities of Practice

I have to say, building tools is a total blast.  It’s so fun problem-solving the facilitation of a process — because the tool builder is never exactly sure what the process will exactly look like.  You’re just making the wand to facilitate the magic.  At any rate, there seems to be two primary design paths to the perfect tool.

Path #1:  Build the tool to suit the needs of the user.  The user usually wants more efficiency, to maintain or raise quality, a faster rate of production, and all at a cheaper cost.

Path #2:  Build a tool that you hope is extremely utilitarian and flexible — and then let users tell you what it’s good for.  And then, perhaps iterate from there.

I think of the bright, up-and-coming Neanderthal that first invented a thingamajig to dig holes.  His buddy, only slightly impressed, got him to make a much smaller version and it became a whosamagatz which was the perfect tool to eat soup and gruel with.  And then her buddy (yes, let’s not get all male-oriented here) suggested she cut some slits into that whatsamabob and that thing became a fork.  Best of all, the part they cut out for the slits made the perfect toothpick.  (I’m pretty sure toothpicks were always called toothpicks.  I’m just guessing though.)

The Nuvana Whatchamahoogie aka the MVP aka the Mega Versatile Platform never ceases to amaze us when folks tell us what it’s REALLY good for.

One of the partners we were planning to build for defines their institution as a community of practice and asked us to customize around that sensibility.  After carefully looking at the Nuvana MVP, their remark was, “Never mind, your platform already does that.”  To be safe, we decided to delve a little deeper nonetheless and came across this interesting article:  “Cultivating Communities of Practice” by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott, and William M. Snyder.

Here are some design tenets that Wenger et al suggest a good community of practice adhere to.

  1. Design for evolution.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
  3. Invite different levels of participation.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces.
  5. Focus on value.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community.

So how does the Nuvana platform specifically adhere to these principles?

1.  Design for evolution:  “The key to designing for evolution is to combine design elements in a way that catalyzes community development.” — Our platform uses missions aka “calls to action” derived from expert opinion as well as community suggestions and moderation that result in dynamic but authentic outcomes.  Most of our competitor platforms are closed systems.  The outcomes are pre-defined.  The Nuvana system self-iterates (evolves) — leading to unforeseen positive results.

2.  Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives:  “Good community design brings information from outside the community into the dialogue about what the community could achieve.” — The Nuvana platform, depending on how admin sets it, allows in “guest experts” to moderate.  Also, if the “game” is set to “Open/Viral” those outside perspectives are invited in.  The calls to action also encourage the community to seek outside experience and expertise.

3.  Invite different levels of participation: “The key to good community participation and a healthy degree of movement between levels is to design community activities that allow participants at all levels to feel like full members. Rather than force participation, successful communities “build benches” for those on the side lines.” — The Nuvana platform allows admin to set levels for broadstroke grouping, and emphasizes mentor/moderator participation to give individual attention.  The result: top to bottom inclusivity and personalized learning.  The leveling and badging system makes for dynamic flow within the community, transforming the social network into collaborative space.

4.  Develop both public and private community spaces:  “The key to designing community spaces is to orchestrate activities in both public and private spaces that use the strength of individual relationships to enrich events and use events to strengthen individual relationships.” — The Nuvana MVP has public walls, private messaging, private forums for the moderators, and circles of privacy setting to determine who can look at what user-generated media.  The activities can be virtual, but we encourage real world activity, and embed a voucher system to connect behaviors to bricks & mortar venues.  The profile formula we’re working on synthesizes all activities from liking to scoring to badging — into an overall reputation quotient that helps individuals seek the right mentors and understand the utility of comments they’re getting.

5.  Focus on value:  “Communities thrive because they deliver value to the organization, to the teams on which community members serve, and to the community members themselves.” — One of our partners, a foundation, uses the Nuvana platform with the adult grantees of their organization.  It allows the grantees to share best practices in a healthy competitive environment (while keeping certain issues secure), provides value to the constituents of the grantees, and gives the foundation usable media to market and proclaim the value it provides overall.  By allowing users to act as individual “players’ or collaboratively in Teams, a host of different interactions are available to the community.

6.  Combine familiarity and excitement:  “Lively communities combine both familiar and exciting events so community members can develop the relationships they need to be well connected as well as generate the excitement they need to be fully engaged. Routine activities provide the stability for relationship-building connections; exciting events provide a sense of common adventure.” — Since the Nuvana MVP allows for 24/7 presence, like any social network, our games become a familiar part of a community’s daily life.  Then with special Missions of the Day or Week that have deadlines or clear incentives — there are surges of excitement — not to mention the frenzy that occurs at the beginning or end of game cycles emblazoned on our countdowns.

7.  Create a rhythm for the community:  “Vibrant communities of practice…have a rhythm. At the heart of a community is a web of enduring relationships among members, but the tempo of their interactions is greatly influenced by the rhythm of community events.” — With the Nuvana MVP, our newsfeed pages allow admin to create rhythms of activity for the community involving research, collaboration, activity and celebration.  The timing is up to you.

Well, that’s how one group is using the Nuvana MVP.  We’re waiting for the right partner to show us how our tool works as a toothpick.

—  JvK

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Sustaining Transformation

When trying to create positive behaviors, ecstatic positive transformation is usually not that hard of an event to create.  It can happen in an instant at a religious ceremony, a self-help workshop, a music festival, a New Year’s party (“This year, I’m definitely going to quit smoking!”), a university classroom…even at a gym workout session.

These moments are powerful, visceral and life-changing.

The question is, how can we sustain those transformations?  And even more important, how can we share and inspire others to undergo the same transformation?

Because we all know what happens after corporate retreats, or self-help workshops, or New Year’s resolution declarations…

They go kaput.

According to corporate consultant Tom Connellan, 25% of New Year’s resolutions are forgotten in the first week, and by the end of the year — a whopping 88% are abandoned!

Again, transformation is not the problem.

Sustaining it IS!

In recent weeks, as we’ve been demo-ing the new Nuvana MVP, many have been telling us that the ability to sustain behavioral transformation is a particular strength of our platform.  That by socially-networking a transformation community in a gamified context, the MVP sustains new positive behaviors, even when the behavior is difficult, or on it’s own, not particularly pleasurable (i.e. quitting smoking, breaking obesity habits, going to school, working harder, overcoming fear).  The context of the game PLUS actions witnessed by the social network of the transformation community results in an overall pleasurable experience that drives the player to repeat the effort.

What is a transformation community?  Well, the more we talk to folk, the more it seems just about any community of positive practice is aiming itself at transformation.  Learning communities (i.e. schools, universities, research orgs), for-profit and non-profit businesses looking to improve their methods and attract more customers, health organizations trying to re-vamp behaviors, event organizers looking to grow and impact — they are ALL in the business of transformation, either of their cohorts or constituents.

One organizer we’ve been talking to is well-known for the collective intellectual epiphanies they generate at their exclusive workshop event that borders on the ecstatic.  Attendees return to their workplace full of energy, ideas and inspiration, but are unable to share what they’ve learned with co-workers who did not attend.  With the Nuvana MVP, not only can these “evangelists” share their experience, even while they’re attending the event, but they can also collaborate with other attendees who they normally would lose contact with, long after the event is over, no matter what the physical distance — resulting in deeper investigation of issues, the sharing of best practices, seeding real world impacts, drawing in like-minded supporters, all while creating compelling testimonial content for the original organizer.

We’ll be gathering data on the effectiveness of our tool in different contexts, but initial indicators are very positive.  Stay tuned for case studies.

—  JvK

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Measuring the Immeasurable

Those of us who create behavioral change tools where the holy grail is adoption by academic institutions, non-profits, corporations, health and military organizations, the quest for legitimacy is a relentless task.  Fellow colleagues back in the 90s were simply called gamers.  Then came the millenium and we all got a nice promotion to “game designers.” But that was nothing when we somehow achieved a title bump to “serious game producers,” and then just recently, I heard an ARG serious game designer described as a “transformational game practitioner who impacts the digital media learning space.”  Now we’re hearing about “interactive architects building game-infused learning trajectories for core curriculum.”

Okaaay.  That just won’t fit on my business card.

All of this long-winded jargon provides gravitas to what was once considered a trivial pursuit.  A game.  No school superintendant or CEO or exec director in their right mind some years ago would have allowed a game in their institution.  A “game-infused learning trajectory” — yes.  But not a game.

What differentiates the two interventions?  Verifiable data.  Games merely entertain.  But a serious game lifts the learning environment.  And this lift must be quantifiable.

Lord Kelvin on an early “tablet computer”

In these contexts, you will often hear a well-worn saw generally attributed to the great 19th-Century physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, most frequently referred to as Lord Kelvin:  “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve.”  And thus, on the backside of most good learning games (and certainly, this is true of Nuvana games), you will see reams and reams of data generated by the activities of the players, and sometimes, the mentors.  Our new digital platforms themselves can’t help but generate the data given their mathematically encoded make-up.  It’s why researchers, academics and evaluators love the medium.  Every good digital serious game generates an endless outpouring of whos and whens and wheres and hows that are easily sliced and diced by age group, sex, demographics, racial profiles, economic class, geographic pinpoints, times of day, device used, and of course, type of gum chewed.

Where is this leading?  The holier than holy grail:  assessment.

If admin can tell by a player’s score, or level, or game outcome HOW they are doing relative to their grade, their work force, their disease cohort, their political grouping, their target market peer group — then the presence of that game within an institution is not only legitimate — it’s necessary.

Or is it?

If there’s anything that’s truly measurable in the last three decades of American academics and the U.S. workforce, is that we have an alarming dropout rate and an even more disturbing unemployment rate.  The years of No Child Left Behind and rigorous standardized testing which gave us a certain kind of thinker — for better or worse — has helped to generate these stunning results.

To cloak an SAT score, a STAR test, an employee assessment (can you say “urine test”) — in the sheep’s clothing of a “transformational game” — transforms nothing.  Most users see through that kind of inauthentic camouflaging.  Interestingly, the games that give one the most “reliable” data are actually “closed loop” games.  That is, there are right and wrong answers, and thus, results are verifiable.  But those make for very dull games when everyone is aimed toward the same outcome.

The most interesting transformational games, like life, are where there are many correct answers.

In fact, if you really think about it, it is those things that we CAN’T measure that improve us, by and large.  Spiritual fulfillment, fun, love, creativity, inspiration, friendship, familial bliss, meditation, relaxation, focus.  Enthusiasm for problem solving (and that is not measurable by getting the “right solution”).  These are all things that are hard to measure.  (Yes, we can measure activity that generates and surrounds some of those qualities — but, for example, is there a reliable creativity quotient?)  And yet, there is no doubt that when we immerse ourselves in these kinds of activities — we do feel vastly improved.

So at Nuvana, we’re of two minds.  Yes, we love data and we provide it.  But we also know that at times, it can be misleading.  That the games we want to make should also put the player on a path to improvement that has impact on what is generally immeasurable.  Immeasurable impact.  When that unquantifiable area is attended to, the “player” feels a wholeness that is generally missing in many of the institutions where they normally inhabit:  school, work, government, etc.  If the “player” feels improvement in that area, they engage and apply themselves more effectively at those quantifiable activities.

Improving the measurable is what all transformational games aim to accomplish.

Improving the immeasurable is the Nuvana secret sauce.

And by the way, about that Lord Kelvin guy.  A brilliant man.  But before you put too much faith in his little aphorism about measuring and improvement, just remember, he’s the scientist who wrote to the Niagara Falls Power Company: “Trust you will avoid the gigantic mistake of alternating current.”  And also predicted: “Radio has no future.”

— JvK

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