Is the Ice Bucket Challenge a game?

Is the Icebucket Challenge an example of “gamification”?

Philanthropy experts have had a field day pontificating on the Ice Bucket Challenge, but one term that recently entered the discussion is “gamification.” For example:

“Americans are probably not unique in the world in treating philanthropy as a sort of game, with the goal of making it go down painlessly.” – Michael Hiltzik, LA Times (8/18/14)

“[G]amified philanthropy may cause problems for charities.” – Anna North, NY Times (9/5/14)

“Leveraging the power of smartphones, video, social media and gamification, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a virtual chain letter that is easy, fun, media-friendly and psychologically shrewd.” – J.J. Rosen, The Tennessean (9/7/14)

… and so on. Many of these pieces toss the word “gamify” into the title but never really describe how, exactly, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a “game.” At the risk of slipping into pedantry, I think it’s worth considering whether the Ice Bucket Challenge really is a game, and also whether it matters.

I usually rely on Salen and Zimmerman‘s working definition of a game: “a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome.” Strictly speaking, I suppose the Ice Bucket Challenge is a game: (1) the conflict is the same as truth-or-dare –your willingness to accept the dare and/or make the donation; (2) the rules are to donate or dump water on yourself, though the game actually works when you “break” the rules and do both; and (3) the outcome is the video, which is also the means of the game reproducing itself.

But all of this is just pedantry. When analysts use the term “gamification” to refer to the Challenge, what they’re actually saying is that the Challenge is “fun” (which is how we used to think about Walk-a-thons, remember?). But making something fun, while helpful, isn’t the unique feature of games for change and “serious games.” Rather, to riff off Raph Koster’s analysis of “fun,” it’s in providing a meaningful system that can be learned and mastered. And in that sense the Ice Bucket Challenge is no more a game than is a chain letter.

If someone could just please coin the term “funification,” we would no longer need “gamification” to carry that water.

MARKETING TIP 1: Winning distribution partnerships for your game

Build it so they will comeTakeaway: One of the fastest and cheapest ways to win a big audience for your new game is through a well-connected partner. It’s a lot easier to win partners when your product fits their interests and business model – and that needs to be built into your plans from the outset.

A lot of startups and smaller organizations assume that they have to build their own audience organically. This leaves a lot of great games (and other products) out of the market, unused and un-useful. Getting other organizations to push your games through their existing networks is the fastest way to pull in a sizeable audience for your product – even if you already have a respectable audience of your own.

Enduring distribution partnerships can happen by happy accident, but it’s possible to plan ahead – as early as your product strategy and design phase – to make them more likely. After all, it’s one thing to convince someone to Tweet about your awesome new game – it’s another for them to invest their own resources into a meaningful distribution effort. You can design your product to make it easier to secure these partnerships:

What’s in it for them?

Giving your partner tangible incentives for spreading the word is the best way to win real and enduring help:

  • Profit. Can your partners resell your product and make profits? This is the clearest way to incentivize a distribution partnership, but it’s not always easy to achieve – read my story below for some caveats.
    The various app stores, from iTunes to Edmodo to Steam, all offer access in exchange for profit-sharing – but don’t expect them to elevate your product above the clutter unless you have something extraordinary to offer. You’ll still need to push meaningful sales through sharp marketing, including more substantive partnerships.
  • Enhancement. Does your product meaningfully complement and enhance your partners’ products, e.g. fill a critical gap or provide a competitive edge? This can ultimately translate into higher profit for your partner, but you may have a harder time claiming a share if you can’t demonstrate direct causation.
  • PR. Can your product generate a meaningful boost in awareness, e.g. help win news stories in relevant publications? Note that this is the weakest and most ephemeral of incentives; after the initial flush of excitement, there’s little further incentive to continue promotion.

Does your product match your partners’ business model?

A few years ago I helped an indie game developer market its game for change. Among the most promising assets it had was a revenue-sharing deal with a major international nonprofit. That organization would help promote the game in exchange for a cut of the profits – a win-win for both parties.

Unfortunately, when the time came to promote, this relationship didn’t generate meaningful sales. Why not?

  • Audience alignment. While the game was compelling, it was also “hardcore” (e.g. not Candy Crush) and available only on PC. There just weren’t that many hardcore gamers among the nonprofit’s membership.
  • Channel mismatch. The nonprofit mostly promoted the game through Twitter. It’s pretty tough generating sales of a PC game through Twitter (a mobile game, maybe). The nonprofit refused to promote through its email list, where there’d be a somewhat higher chance of success. And this was because of:
  • Limited incentive. Sure, a cut of the profits is some incentive – but how does that stack against the organization’s other income sources? We’re not talking about GTA5 here; even in the best-case sales scenario, the game would only have generated vanishingly small revenues.

This same analysis applies to educational games and major publishers. Even if your game were a perfect match for a publisher’s content, does it match their marketing and sales strategy? Would the publisher be able to charge more for their existing products if they bundled yours in? Does it merely provide another “talking point” for a sales rep, or can it justify a meaningfully higher sales price? And remember the moral of this story: if the revenue is minimal, a sales team will have little incentive to push a new product.

Does 1 + 1 = 3?

Does your product have qualities that make it synergistic for potential partners?

  • Does it transform the partner’s product? For example, does it add new capabilities, especially those with high revenue potential such as assessment, or allow it to sell into a new market segment?
  • Is it broad as well as deep? A one-day intervention, no matter how profound, just doesn’t add the same value as something that enhances an entire semester. And make sure it feels coherent: one publisher I recently spoke with scorned mixing-and-matching games from different developers because it would result in a patchwork user experience.
  • Is it easy to integrate? For educational games, do your game’s data outputs match existing standards? Are all your games in Flash when your partner has standardized around HTML5?

Don’t just plan. Ask.

Despite everything I’ve written above, the surest way to build meaningful partnerships is to build real relationships with the intended partner. The best way to build a product that your partners will promote is to ask them directly what they’d like to see.

Ed Tech as the Also-And

This week’s New York Times Magazine cover piece on the launch of the Amplify tablet continues to flog false choices, including the classic “invest in people not technology” and “face time not screen time.” Here’s a sample:

Still, if everyone agrees that good teachers make all the difference, wouldn’t it make more sense to devote our resources to strengthening the teaching profession with better recruitment, training, support and pay? It seems misguided to try to improve the process of learning by putting an expensive tool in the hands of teachers we otherwise treat like the poor relations of the high-tech whiz kids who design the tool.

It’s certainly true that teachers deserve more training, more prestige, and yes, more salary. But why pose technology as a trade-off, rather than a support, for this goal? I’ve seen too many nonprofit work environments that scrimp so excessively on IT that human resources go wasted — as when email goes down for hours or even days. A low-tech work environment that relies 99% on sweat does not help a profession become prestigious and will, with a new tech-dependent generation entering the labor market, likely get in the way of attracting talent.

More irksome is the author’s self-professed “kneejerk repudiation” of educational technology, particularly in setting up the debate as one over “screen time” (with support of the usual suspects like Sherry Turkle). There’s a strange disconnect with reality whenever this issue arises. The reality is that the modern workplace for which schools are preparing students is all about screentime. What’s more, children already spend huge hours on-screen outside school — what’s wrong with recapturing some of those hours for, gosh forbid, learning? Finally, and most importantly, broadside critiques of “screen time” ignores content. It makes a big difference if students are reading a digital textbook, playing a simulation game, or — as I’d like to see more of — scaffolding more effective face-to-face time.

To summarize: we need to stop debating “screen time” in the abstract and start looking at what’s on the screen. The “dashboard” metaphor for technology is a good basis for responding to undifferentiated criticism like this. A well-designed car dashboard provides critical information like whether your engine is overheating or if you’re speeding without distracting the driver. It’s time to move on from whether cars should or shouldn’t have dashboards and get into the details of which gauges are helpful and which ones get in the way.

Funding: Small Business Innovation Research Grants

GoCivics Concept Art

Concept Art for Filament Games’ and iCivics’ GoCivics project

While at iCivics, I contributed to three winning proposals (and one declined proposal) to the U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research Program – two phase I proofs-of-concept and one Phase II buildout:

Dan White, then-CEO of grant recipient and iCivics partner Filament Games, has written up 11 tips on winning SBIR funding. Here’s the lede:

Compared to VC money, SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) funding comes with relatively few strings attached. Most importantly: you don’t have to give up any equity. So what’s the catch? I’m glad you asked! One, the funding rate is low (typically ~15%), and two, the application process will make you cry and beg for mercy. Before applying for an SBIR, steel yourself to write dozens of pages of argumentative text in answer to an extensive list of intimidating questions, buried within a dense application that’s riddled with esoteric rules.

SBIR Funding: Dreadfully Wonderful (Gamasutra)

With memories of this process still somewhat fresh (I recall our team staying up to 3am to “finish” the Phase I proposals, then barely making the deadline due to a Presidential motorcade between us and the office), I can certainly underline the following points by Dan:

  1. Get to know the program officers. They want to see good projects succeed and will help you navigate the grant’s quirks.
  2. Line up your partners early, and make sure to get their letters of support as far in advance as possible! Nothing is more frustrating — for you or your partners — then to get a letter after the proposal deadline.
  3. Every line of revenue is an investment. If you’re already familiar with government funding, the SBIR process will be old hat (and you’ll already be aware that each grant program has its own quirks). If not, consider whether you can sustain another type of funding, which includes not only applying for but also following through and reporting on your results.

Despite all these caveats, the federal government’s SBIR programs can be a great funding source if your project fits their profile. As you can see from the evolving names of our successful projects, they get that innovation requires iteration.

By the way, here’s the video supporting one of the Phase II proposals. If you follow Dan’s advice and develop a Minimum Viable Product, be sure to provide something — like a video — explaining it to the reviewers: Filament Games GoCivics.

TIP: Educational games must meet curriculum standards

Takeaway: When developing an educational game for the K12 market, start by matching what you want to teach with what educators need to cover. State and local standards provide a handy shortcut, though nothing beats actual research (talking to real teachers).

Peter Stidwell, an Executive Producer at the Learning Games Network, has written up an excellent guide to developing games that can succeed in the K12 market. One of the most important points isn’t about marketing but rather ensuring the game itself fits the needs of American teachers:

Tie your game to standards. Stateside, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is the equivalent of the National Curriculum. Sort of. CCSS only covers some subjects, it’s very new, and not all States have signed-up to it. There are also individual state standards in various subjects.

How to market your game to US schools (Edugameshub)

Common Core, gamed?

Ensuring that people actually want the product always precedes marketing — in fact, it precedes development. Too often I’ve seen organizations create materials that push an internal agenda, then scratch their heads about how to get teachers to use them. “Vanity projects” have little chance of gaining significant usage because they aren’t meeting an urgent need.

Educational games are no different than any other product: they must meet customer needs. Designing your game to explicitly meet Common Core or state standards is a pretty good bet – though your best option is to first conduct user research, to make sure. How you interpret the standards may not be how schools or teachers do it — or maybe teachers are only spending 20 minutes on what you think is a one-week topic.

Example: Key to iCivics’ widespread adoption was to develop our games and other materials to meet specific middle school civics / social studies standards. We started with in-house standards alignment and eventually outsourced it to Academic Benchmarks both because of the time involved (there’s no Common Core for civics, so we had to match to 50+ states — including DC, military, and territories — different standards) and the credibility of third-party certification. Check out iCivics’ standards-matching.

Learning Games, Teaching Games, and Educational Games

(Draft 2; revised 2013/06/26)

@poetichentai : EdSurge’s @tonywan and iCivics’ @genekoo on stage at #G4C13’s Plenary Response. Big ups to Asians in edtech! Last week I was asked to join the Games for Change panel, “Games 2020”, and share some thoughts on the what the next few years might offer learning games from my perspective as Executive Director of iCivics. It’s a good time for reflection — we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Games for Change Festival and Jim Gee’s seminal What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, and the ninth of Games+Learning+Society. iCivics has been along for half the ride, building what is arguably now the largest game-based curriculum in the country (18 games, 33K+ registered teachers).

From our experience so far, there appear to be two major paths forward: games for learning and games for teaching. The two categories overlap but are not the same. They imagine different audiences, different deployment environments, and different imperatives:

Learning games target the consumer directly. They’re played “at home” (nowadays, that means anywhere). To players they provide entertainment or escapism, satisfy curiosity, and/or offer some sense of agency.

Teaching games target the consumer indirectly, through an intermediary educator who’s also the primary customer. Like other teaching resources, they must demonstrate effectiveness (in developing knowledge, skills, or dispositions), meet standards and requirements, and be usable by teachers either standalone or with available training and support.

Of course, the best teaching games are also learning games. I’ll call this sweet Venn spot “educational games.” It’s nice to imagine that it’s a big target, but unfortunately experience suggests that it’s not.

Do I Have a Right? concept art

Concept art for “Do I Have a Right?”

Here’s a concrete example of how these two categories diverge. Do I Have a Right? is iCivics’ most popular game, with over 2 million game plays over four years. Part of the reason for its success is that we optimized it for classroom use: it’s browser-based and needs only Flash installed, students can complete it in under 30 minutes, and they can play 1:1 or share computers. (Many of our teachers project the game via Smartboard to the whole class at once). Despite the hoopla over iPads in schools, it seems most of the users of our iOS version of the game, Pocket Law Firm, play for entertainment or edutainment. The feedback we’ve gotten reflects that audience’s interests: When are you adding more levels? Can we get more in-game loot? Why does the game peter out at 40 minutes?

Simcity Edu
On the flip side you have SimCity, the AAA entertainment title from EA/Maxis. Alongside Oregon Trail, SimCity is probably one of the most-cited examples of a learning game, especially because it’s a sandbox featuring complex, interacting systems. As a major commercial title, the latest version was built with consumers in mind (complaints notwithstanding). The potential to teach gamers key concepts in economics, urban design, public policy, and environmental science is tremendous. But the same features that make it a AAA title also make it unusable in the vast majority of schools: it requires software installation, because it requires serious graphical horsepower, and because it must always stay online (with considerable bandwidth requirements). GlassLab, an Institute of Play project, has invested heavily in adapting the game for classroom use by developing scaffolded scenarios for STEM topics. I hope these investments will not only make SimCity a better learning game, but also more accessible to schools.

So learning games aren’t necessarily teaching games. However, the very best teaching games should also be at least good learning games — that is, satisfy the needs of both students and teachers. Note that I write “student,” not “consumers” or “youth.” It is, I admit, a much easier user to satisfy. The competition is not “Call of Duty” or “Walking Dead.” It’s textbooks.

Educational games find a balance between teacher needs and interests, and student needs and interests. They also find a balance between supporting and challenging schools as we find them. Challenge schools too much with technical requirements or massive reworking of pedagogy, and scaling will be a tough road to walk. Accommodate the school environment too much, and you’re back at the maligned edutainment / disguised-multiple-choice-quiz that pervaded the previous generation of educational games.

If great educational games are to thrive, we need new investments in the coming years:

1. We need better information and research about games that succeed for student learning. We’re already seeing major efforts here with Common Sense Media’s ratings for parents and the forthcoming Games and Learning directory from the Games and Learning Publishing Council.

2. We need developers to pay more attention to the needs of teachers and not just students, and for founders/investors to underwrite these additional requirements. Let’s be clear here: it’s probably more expensive to develop games that are good for both students and teachers. Though, in iCivics’ experience, not necessarily that much more.

3. We need marketplaces that support these products so we can run sustainable businesses that can continue to support, evolve, and innovate these products.

What if we try all of this and find that the best learning requires sophisticated games that can’t be utilized in today’s schools? I suppose you do as Katie Salen did and open new ones, or as Jim Gee does and advocate for better school systems (and a fairer society). But let’s not go straight to the near-impossible task of remaking the system as our first impulse. Let’s see if we can hack them first with educational games that push towards better teaching and learning.

Sustaining R&D in learning games

What business models support great learning games? Not just any edutainment video game, but the kinds of immersive, fully-realized experiences coming out of places like the ASU Center for Games and Impact or MIT’s Learning Games Network. These aren’t shovelware with shoehorned content. They are games in which the fun is the learning. It’s an art as much as a science, and that means they require significant investment – more than seems sustainable from where many of us stand.

This question about business models arises whenever game-based learning organizations talk, and it surfaced again at a recent gathering of the Gates Foundation’s Games for Learning and Assessment portfolio. A seminal study we drew from is the Games and Learning Publishing Council‘s (also Gates-funded) deep market analysis of the learning games space, with particular focus on barriers to marketing and selling games into the K12 space. This analysis of the market prospects for learning games also touched on barriers to investments in this space, particularly the reluctance of venture capital to enter.

In a breakout group focused on the topic of sustainability, we honed in on a subset of the overall issue: how to fund new product lines. This isn’t the same question as how to create sustainable businesses, but R&D operations are key to our business models. And typically, this is what the existing process looks like:

Big Investment ... Release Product ... Now what?

How learning games are funded today

At the “Now What?” phase, we usually see a few options:

  1. The product is incomplete, and we scramble for more funding to finish or fix it. During this time, the product isn’t evolving.
  2. The product is great, but the revenues it generates is inadequate to underwrite marketing, sales, support, patches, upgrades, data analysis, etc. Even if it’s educationally successful, it’s a commercial failure, at least not without further investment.
  3. The product is great, and it’s commercially viable.

Anyone who’s familiar with the Lean Startup model would recognize the above model as broken. Too much is risked on that first investment, and not enough is there to support iteration, nevermind total pivots. Worst of all, while user testing may be happening, market testing is not.

So what’s the alternative? This is what we sketched:

MVP ... ASAP release ... Iterate iterate iterate

How learning games might be funded to support longer-term sustainability

In this model, we put out a smaller product faster and, importantly, begin commercialization efforts sooner. In the perfect case, we find commercial partners early to invest in the product. The benefits: we fail faster, and commercial viability is a factor in that earlier success/failure evaluation.

The upshot would be many more pilots, many more failures, and a bit fewer fully-developed games – but those that do survive are already tested for market viability.

Now the reality for a lot of nonprofits is that we’re rarely in a situation where our investors (typically, philanthropic grantmakers) are in a position to support a pure form of this model. Often, grants have rigid requirements and timelines, and the high cost of securing and reporting on grants incentivizes grabbing the biggest grant possible as quickly as possible.
After this gathering, I realized that a few changes would make the MVP model a lot more viable for many of us:

  1. Grantmakers could deliberately underwrite MVPs, ideally with a commitment to support winners. This is exactly what the Gates Foundation did with its recent literacy courseware challenge. More of this kind of investing needs to happen.
  2. Large grants could have longer execution periods to allow us to structure product development in stages and go through multiple iterations.
  3. Both grantmakers and grantseekers should realistically budget for market testing and iteration.
  4. Commercialization should begin sooner in a product’s lifecycle.

Of course, suggestion 4 begs an overarching question. We could individually or as a consortium retain more business development talent and create more commercial alliances. But as we continue to forge ahead on the supply side of the learning games market, the question that remains is whether the demand is there to sustain us.