Tag Archives: games

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


Tagged , , , ,

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

Tagged , , , , ,

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

Tagged , , , , , ,

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

Tagged , , , , ,

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 joekwong@nuvana.org and I’ll post it here.  And let me know what game you’re playing when the shot was taken.

— JvK

Tagged ,

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

Tagged , , , , ,

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

Tagged , , ,

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

Tagged , , , , ,

Focus groups, polling and the “American Idol Delusion”

“I’m watching you!”

When we pre-tested our first game, “Flashback,” the high-schoolers we polled universally responded that they would NOT play an American history game.  It was the academic course many indicated they hated most, and that playing “a game” revolving around history sounded as attractive as drinking a brussel sprout milkshake.  Yet within days of launching Flashback, the site went wild and within 10 days had 200,000 page views.  In post-game interviews, 97% of the kids who said they would never play our game said they would definitely play it again.

What does this tell us?  About the same thing that election pollsters already know but rarely tell anyone otherwise they’d be out of a job:  polling is unreliable.  In a recent New York Magazine piece, Gavin Polone wrote about a similar mistrust he has of focus groups, the small test audiences (generally 48 men and women) that rate TV pilots.  Mr. Polone observes, “The idea that such a small sample can represent the whole market for a show does seem ridiculous and bound to deliver anomalous results.”  Some of those results are notorious.  Focus groups gave extremely low ratings to “Seinfeld” and “Friends.”

So what is wrong with polls and focus groups, and even more puzzling, why do we continue to use them?

Without doubt, where polling goes off the rails is that they rely on personal opinion — and opinion that is derived in a questionable context.  We call it, the American Idol Delusion.  You know what I’m talking about:  in the early episodes of any season of American Idol, a judge asks a contestant, “So do you think you’re the next American Idol?”  And the contestant brashly exclaims, “Absolutely, I’m a phenomenal singer.”  And then when that singer opens his or her mouth, the worst screeching and out-of-tune caterwauling gushes out.  Randy pales and moans, “No no no, dawg — that’s just horrible!  Can’t you hear yourself?!”

No, they can’t.  Hardly any of us can hear or see ourselves objectively — or anyone else, for that matter.  Prejudice and self-delusion color our opinions.  So why do we continue to use polls and focus groups?  Because they generate quantitative results.  “54% are fearful about the economy…  7% are undecided.”  It all sounds so scientific.  But what are they measuring?  Opinions.  Employing “tools” (i.e. polls and focus groups) that do no more than measure opinions in order to make decisions can result in epic disasters.  (48 men and women, somewhere, LOVED “Homeboys in Outer Space” — or don’t you remember that series?)

So what is worth measuring?  Actions.  Yup.  You know, those things that happen in the real world and speak louder than words.  You may think you’re the next Whitney Houston, but if when you open your mouth you are Roseanne Barr yowling the National Anthem — well, it really doesn’t matter what you think.

That’s why when we build games that also need to serve as assessment tools, we measure the data generated by actions.  Not opinions.

I also mentioned context as important to evaluating the action.  With the Nuvana platform, most of the actions generated by players happens in a social environment.  That is, you do something, and you publish it to the community.  Something very powerful and magical happens within that context:  authenticity.  People who fill out polling questionnaires in private have very different, and generally less honest answers, than when they answer in a community environment.  Let’s face it:  it’s much harder to b.s. peers in public.  Everyone is watching and listening.  If it’s a good community, they will call you out — but hopefully in a supportive way.  That’s what Nuvana strives for:  authentic actions and self-correction by the involvement of the community.

We see this happen all the time with Nuvana games.  The ethics of a social network based on authentic actions always trend toward the moral high ground.  It’s not totally surprising.  There was an interesting phenomenon discovered by Melissa Bateson, a behavioral biologist at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne who was in charge of her psych department’s coffee fund.  She found that by putting up a picture of a pair of eyes, donations to the coffee jar went up threefold.

Hmm.  Maybe we should change our name to NooVana.  With the double O’s in the shape of eyes.

Seriously, we have no interest in playing the role of Big Brother for the gamified universe — but we are seeking to drive authentic behaviors for ethical communities.  The actions that result can be transformed into verifiable data with which one can build trustworthy assessments.

What does that mean in real world terms?  Well, back to Mr. Polone who finishes his New York magazine piece by writing:  “Really, this [focus group] testing ritual seems pretty outdated in the Internet age. Why stick with such a small sample size when we have the technology to quickly get the opinions of a much bigger audience? A network could put all of its pilots up on its website and let the entire populace of interested viewers vote for their favorites and leave comments on how they would like to see the show improved before it went to series.”

Sounds like the perfect premise for a Nuvana game, doesn’t it?

— JvK

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Win State

If you ask a game designer, “What makes a game, a game?” — many will answer with some version of the following:  “If there’s a win state, it’s a game.”  And then you look at those activities that have a traditional win states and your list quickly bulges with the usual:  chess, WoW, baseball, tic-tac-toe, Angry Birds — the list of games is endless.

But then it’s easy to expand the list to other less traditional game activities that still possess a win state:  political elections, educational grading systems (“I’m in the top quintile!”), eBay bidding, war, dangerous medical procedures “Patient X beat the odds!,” foundation granting processes (“We won the grant!”), the human race (well there are always winners and losers in a race), and even love (“I am going to win her heart!”).

For better or worse, that parsing process has helped to fuel the proliferation of gamification.  Is it that I reside in West Coast Technoville or because we’re in this “space” — but it seems every day we hear the rallying cry of Gamification from some of the most unexpected quarters.  (I’d list some here, but even the most preposterous in conjunction with our tool makes some darn good sense).  Alongside this rush to gaming are the accessories and features that come with it, these new, shiny tokens of achievement:  badges.  New badging systems are cropping up like wildfire.  Some from traditional sources, like the scouting community which has always proudly worn their embroidered emblems on their ubiquitous sashes.  Other badges are attached to new systems and games in the digital media learning arena with a whole new set of graphics, titles and certifications — but all meant to be “worn” on virtual sashes over swelling digital chests.

With the Nuvana MVP, our users can import whatever badging system they prefer — or create their own, or use our default badge set.  That’s what certain communities need and demand.

But at Nuvana, we think it’s important to remember that there is a significant population of “active engagers” (our sometimes-used, less trivializing term for “gamers”) that actually hate badges and scores.  And that’s putting it mildly.  The ostentatious display of achievement only serves a certain kind of player.  The quest for badges and subsequent community admiration is in many cases, a turnoff to innovators, artists, out-of-box thinkers, and geniuses.  It’s also a turnoff to kids with already-low self-esteem who are one gold star-less day of becoming dropouts.  Do we really think that trading a letter grade for a badge or a snazzy score because a school is suddenly “gamified” is going to make a difference to that disengaged teen sitting in the back of the class with the hood over his head?

Marlon Brando and Woody Allen’s refusal to attend the Academy Awards to receive Oscars is legendary.  The greatest golfer of all time, Bobby Jones, the only man to win the Grand Slam, retired at 28, thoroughly uninspired by tournament play and the thought of winning more trophies.  Jean-Paul Sartre not only declined a membership to the Legion of Honor, he also refused the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964 citing it went against his philosophy of how a true writer would behave.

What we strive for at Nuvana is to create games and tools that fit the unique ideals, principles and sensibilities of the organization that adopts it — and even more important, for the community it wants to engage.  You want a competitive game with high scores and badges?  Great, the Nuvana MVP can serve you.  And you over there — you want a tool that provides a thoughtful, collaborative journey without scores or medals?  Well, the Nuvana MVP works just as well for you too.

A deeper question might be, what does your community think a win looks like?

What we’ve realized over the years is that there is no one “win state.”  Belief in the One Win State creates too many losers.  The best definition of win state is derived through personal and/or institutional actions and behavior, and that individual’s or culture’s sense of achievement and quality.

I had the good fortune to go to an amazing high school that both my children were able to attend as well which embraced a controversial “no grade” policy.  Really.  You wrote papers, took tests — but there was never a letter or number stamped on the result.  Instead, assessment was a rich and involved process of self-evaluation mixed with detailed teacher commenting connected to an ever-present rubric.  The result?  There were no A-students.  There weren’t even D-students.  At least, they weren’t easily identified.  Still, every student knew where they stood — and the path they needed to follow.  This unique school fostered a culture of life-long learners who did not look to others for judgement and glorification, who were driven by a passion for inquiry.  A momentary failure was only an experience that deepened wisdom.  A so-called “success” was only a step on a path with many forks.

Rudyard Kipling’s words over the door to center court to Wimbledon are well known:  “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same…”  Understanding those two lines will lead to a higher understanding of Win State, without doubt.  But do you know how Mr. Kipling’s poem ends?

“…If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!”

Totally committed action and relentless passionate engagement is the ultimate win state.  That’s why we at Nuvana believe…the New Win = greater good in the real world.

Any way we can get to that state, whether through a game or a collective journey where everyone is a winner — well, that’s our goal.

—  JvK

Tagged , , , , , , ,