Monthly Archives: June 2012

Your Game Face

My “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012” game face

Well, thank God for avatars.  This picture is me while playing “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2012”.  Definitely not Tigeresque.  But I guess we’re all in the same boat when torquing that controller.  I bet Tiger Woods doesn’t even look like Tiger Woods when he’s playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour.

He probably looks like this:

Anyway, check out Robbie Cooper’s photo essay of kids building and playing games in this Edweek article, “Making a Game Face.”

I’d love to see what your game face looks like.  Send your photo to me at and I’ll post it here.  And let me know what game you’re playing when the shot was taken.

— JvK

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Little & Free = Big & Priceless

© Little Free Library

Hats off to Todd Bol of Wisconsin who spawned the Little Free Library movement.  To honor his mother who was an avid reader and booklover, Todd built a miniature library the size of mailbox, filled it with books, mounted it in front of his home with a sign that read:  “Take a book — Leave a book.”

© Little Free Library

The idea has been spreading around the country and now Todd and Rick Brooks’ website provide plans, pictures of little libraries, and maps of where to find them.

photo of Hickory Village, TN, Little Library by Zan Broussard

They’re popping up all over the place, connecting neighbors, making new book-lovers, inspiring craftsmen.  And you have to love their mission:

“To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide.
To build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.
To build more than 2,510 libraries around the world–more than Andrew Carnegie!”

I noticed that there isn’t one in my town yet.  I’m getting to work right away!

— JvK

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Sowing the Learning Environment

In almost every game, just like a good story, there is a beginning, middle and an end.  We’ve talked before a bit about “win states” and “failure states” which are, of course, end game events.  Since Nuvana games revolve around mission-based activities, our opening gambit is almost always a call to action.  What we’ve noticed over the years, is that if the gaming environment is prepared in certain ways, the more successful the learning outcomes.  It really doesn’t matter if the environment is in a school, in a business, or an organization, there are certain qualities that create optimum pre-launch conditions.

First off, the environment has to be safe.  A good call to action challenges players to engage in actions that are often outside their comfort zone.  In fact, in our opinion, the definition of a good learning community — whether a school, a workplace, or an affinity group — is one in which the environment feels safe enough for the learners to accept even the most demanding challenges that will likely end in failure.  Furthermore, in a safe community, players feel comfortable about sharing everything from best practices to authentic feelings to constructive criticism.

That said, when we began creating Nuvana games, our team spent many hours debating on who should create these calls to action.  After all, generating calls to action is a tremendous responsibility and bestows upon the creator a considerable power.  You’re telling the community what to do.  You’re dictating their behavior.  Given that authority, one faction on our team felt that admin and experts should make up all the missions.  But another faction had a very different opinion.  They felt that the player community should also have that right to create missions.

If you’re familiar with any of our games, you know that it was the latter camp that won the day.  On every one of the games we’ve launched thus far, there is a subtle but radical feature common to them all:  there is a clickable button that reads:  “Suggest a mission.”

What we didn’t realize at the time we first embedded this button was how empowering this little button was to any playing community.  In most learning communities, it is a “Top Down” proposition.  The teacher or admin or the COO or the exec director or the expert tells the community, “This is what I need you to do to satisfy MY standards.  This is what I challenge you to do.”  But in one fell swoop, the Suggest-a-Mission button flipped everything by fostering a “Bottoms Up” environment.  The player pool is able to tell admin, “Why don’t we do this!  THIS is what I’m interested in — and so should you!”

Essentially, the community was empowered.

The level of engagement went through the roof, even in subject areas that normally have minimal interest.  Rarely do we see flame wars or spamming in our games.  Mutual respect is the order of the day.  Liking and moderation is a much more intrinsic behavior rather than a frivolous activity because it actually means something coming from an engaged and committed community.  Instead of slacking off, players tend to exceed expectations.  And all because the player-base is empowered.  They are, in essence, owner-operators of the game along with admin.  You don’t vandalize your own property, right?  So too with learning communities:  by empowering the learners, they become the mentor/guides with real investment in the outcomes as they build social capital in the activity.

Dan Pink talks about this in his TED talk about motivation.  His cites scientific research that shows incentives like rewards and bonuses often diminish performance results.  (Another reason why I’m on the fence when it comes to badges.)  When it comes to driving higher performance, Pink believes it’s a matter of three triggers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (especially if it’s higher purpose).  In results-only work environments (R.O.W.E.), employees who are given autonomy over their hours and the direction of their efforts, their productivity and work quality goes way up.  In other words, empowerment.  ROWE companies like Google and Pixar certainly prove out the strategy.

So back to what makes a good learning community:  it’s safe.  And it’s empowered.

What else?

Well, according to renowned high school, math teacher, Sam Calavitta, an effort-centric environment is key:  “Contrary to popular belief, brilliance is not a prerequisite for learning math. Rather, perseverance and diligence over time can certainly equalize — and even surpass innate ability,” said Calavitta, who has taught everything from remedial math to advanced calculus. “I teach my students to never, never, never give up!”  In the jargon of psychologist Carol Dweck, this philosophy is the essence of “growth mindset” — where recognition of effort leads to authentic learning and mastery.

And lastly (at least for now), let’s not forget fun.  When the learning environment is fun, the play leads to innovation and inspiration.  We see this in the workplace, like Pixar and Ideo.  We see it in schools, like MIT’s Media Lab and Carnegie Mellon.  More on this in a subsequent post.

For now, before launching any kind of digital media learning project, think about prepping the space first.  Make it:





As we all know:  we reap what we sow.  Let us know what blossoms from your efforts and if you have any suggestions for “pre-launch conditions.”

— JvK

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Kill the Ump!

Nothing makes me more crazy than to watch a perfectly good baseball game ruined by a bad umpire. When the rules of a game can’t be judged fairly, it tarnishes the integrity of the game.  You wouldn’t play cards with a stacked deck, or dice with loaded cubes.  Sometimes the infractions on a Major League baseball diamond are egregious.  Likes the horrendous call at first base that ruined Armando Gallaraga’s perfect game in 2010.  And recently, a no-hitter for Johan Santana was preserved when a fair ball hit by Carlos Beltran was called foul.  Within seconds, everyone watching the game on TV saw the umps got it wrong in both cases — but on the field, the men in blue steadfastly refused to consult the digital tools that would allow them to correct their mis-judgement.

Jim Joyce, the umpire that blew the call that ruined Carlos Galarraga’s perfect game

These are just two of the more high profile instances, but any fan of baseball sees this kind of thing happen every day.  Bad umpiring is compromising the game.  And a game is only as good as its referees.  A poorly judged game ruins the sport for all the participants because it results in tainted outcomes.   Things get even more dicey when it comes to calling balls and strikes.  The variation of the Strike Zone varies widely from  ump to ump.  This guy likes low strikes.  This one favors high ones.  This fellow calls anything that hits the catcher between the knees a strike, even if it’s off the plate.  This guy’s strike zone gets tighter in later innings.  Hunh? Those that defend these inconsistencies cite the charm of the “human element.”  That this is a tradition of the game of baseball.  Are they kidding me!  Lame judgement is a cherished tradition?!

One of the oldest games known to man is the simple foot race.  The Greeks, in the first Olympics, used no more than their eyeballs to determine who crossed the finish line first.  It’s all they had.  But are you telling me that we should follow this quaint method to determine the winner at the 2012 London Olympics because this charming tradition pays homage to the human element passed down through the centuries?  Heck, no!  In the name of all that’s fair, the Olympic Committee will get out the digital clocks and break down the times to the nearest 1/100th of a second.

And don’t tell me that instant replay would slow down the game.

If Wimbledon can use lasers to determine whether a tennis ball is “in” or “out,” we can use the same technology to alert us to balls and strikes.  Believe me, if that technology had been around during John McEnroe’s era, it would have nipped his line call tantrums right in the bud.

John McEnroe informing the linesmen: “You guys are the absolute pits of the world!”

I know I’m in a small minority, especially when it comes to removing the home plate umpire to call balls and strikes.   I’m just looking at baseball from a game designer’s point of view:  a good game must also be a fair game.  Whether you agree or not, there’s no doubt in my mind that instant replay is inevitably coming to baseball — to settle disputes over foul balls, questionable home runs, close tag outs and controversial calls.  It came to tennis.  It came to football.  It came to basketball.  The modern era is going to come to baseball.  Unless Commissioneer Selig keeps the game officially in the Stone Age.

Bobby Cox, thrown out more times than any manager in history

When it DOES come, there is one thing I’ll miss:  managers getting tossed for arguing a call.  Guys like Lou Pinella, Tommy Lasorda, and the immortal Bobby Cox.  Their ejections were better entertainment than most games.  But since all three are retired, maybe it’s time to retire the men in blue too.

— JvK

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Redefining Failure

I wrote a post a couple weeks back about “The Win State,” which in the world of game design is what makes a game, a game.  But that naturally mandates there’s such a thing as a “Failure State.”  We all know what that is.  Brutal when you’re in the thick of an awesome, invincible, controller twitch — and up comes that terrible prompt:  You lose.  Your character has died.  Game OVER!

Nothing to do but hit “Start over” and begin again.  That’s the beauty of a game.  You can always begin again.  And we do.  Because in the world of entertainment games, there really is no consequence for failure.

In the all-too-serious worlds of education, business, philanthropy, and sometimes, life in general…if you fail, in many instances — you’re done.  We see this in high schools throughout California where if you’re not white or well-to-do, the dropout rate is staggering (in 2009, the dropout rate was 37% if you were black, 27% if you were Hispanic, 25% if you were low-income).  Unlike Angry Birds, you can’t just hit the re-start button and jump back in for a do-over.

The reliance on standardized testing in American public education has fostered a learning structure that relies on right and wrong answers.  After all, in multiple choice tests, for any given question, there are not multiple correct answers.  There is only one.  Unfortunately, that wrong answer does not set off a subsequent line of inquiry on those STAR tests — and therefore, failure is a dead end.

But in the current circumstances of our ever-beleaguered real world, terminating effort due to defeat  is a frightening notion in that it can only lead to overall system failure.  If we give up, we’re goners.  But try solving the following problems with your first draft solutions:  over population, food and water shortages, environmental crises, economic schisms, wars fought with IED’s built from junk parts on the one hand and high tech drones on the other, global pandemics — not to mention, obsolete educational methodologies.

There are no single right answers to any one of these problems.  A myriad of strategies, quickly but thoughtfully deployed by nimble thinkers — and even more nimble AND effective doers — who must have no fear of failure is the only salvation in the current age.  It’s the only path to effective innovation.

The brilliant inventor and engineer, Charles Kettering had this to say about failure:  “Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

To redefine failure, a wrong answer has to clearly be a temporary state on a longer path to re-invention, wisdom and eventual success.  That is why Nuvana has for the time being, shied away from virtual world games.  In our former lives in entertainment media, we definitely built them.  Besides being expensive and time consuming (and do we really need costly, long-term building efforts in the face of educational budget cuts?), building a virtual world with CG or Flash or any kind of animation for that matter pre-supposes that it is a closed system with borders.  Players get frustrated and bored once they sense the boundaries of a virtual world.  The builder has to constantly expand the world (i.e. more cost and more time).  And intrinsic in this environment, there is a “right” and a “wrong.”  A win and a fail.  Somewhere, the world or the program or the AI reaches its limit.

In a Nuvana game, the effort is to empower the players, show them they have no limit other than their own persistence, and to support while learning along with them, in order for them to find other pathways and solutions that might exist.

As Bruce Lee put it:  “What is defeat?  Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better.”

By redefining failure, what we are really doing is reforming the learning process in any context to create innovative, creative, indefatigable thinkers and doers.  Done right, education can be transformed into an inclusive, equitable, behavioral change process that will make dropouts obsolete and create standards based on quality rather than quantity.

— JvK

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