Tag Archives: education

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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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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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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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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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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