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.

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.

One of the most exciting things that the Open Government Initiative has brought to the federal government is a newfound appreciation for video games as a persuasive and educational medium. (No doubt in part because of Deputy CTO Beth Noveck’s background in games and virtual worlds). Earlier this month, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the Healthy Kids Game Challenge, and notice and comment on the design of the contest is now open on the Open Government blog here:

Innovations for Healthy Kids Game Challenge: Help Design for Success

Again, the USDA is seeking comments on the contest design itself. The post directs commentators to four main areas of focus:

  1. Target Audience
  2. Timeline
  3. Criteria for Success
  4. Outreach

I hope the Serious Games / Games for Health / Games for Change community will weigh in on these questions. I’ve posed my own response, which I’ll repost below:

2. Timeline: I encourage the USDA to consider dividing the Challenge into a two-stage funnel. The first stage would focus on game design, where the goal is to flush out as many good ideas as possible. The second stage would then focus on implementation, perhaps with the rules of the Challenge refined as a result of what is learned from the first phase.

This two-phase process recognizes that people with good game design or education concepts may not also have game development skills (nor would good game developers necessarily understand either nutrition or education). The community of game-developing educators, as Joey C. previously pointed out, is quite small. Insofar as this Challenge intends to generate innovative thinking, maximizing the number of participants by lowering the barriers to entry should be a top priority. The wide end of a two-stage funnel should be so large that even the schoolchildren who will one day play the game could themselves enter the Challenge.

In theory, online collaboration between educators and game developers would overcome the challenge of missing skills I have identified. In practice, however, collaboration of this nature is very difficult to foster online, especially in the context of a contest where trust is difficult to build. The transaction costs of teamwork on something as complex as game development are so high that even assembling a concept, never mind a working prototype, is prohibitive to most people working together. The USDA may wish to talk with the Knight Foundation’s efforts to build teams among competitors in that Foundation’s annual challenge if the idea of online collaboration remains appealing.

3. Criteria for Success: As my co-author and I discuss in our forthcoming book chapter, Video Games for Prosocial Learning (Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play), transference is a major obstacle in educational games, or any educational effort. Certainly two possible criteria of a successful game design could be cognitive learning or attitudinal change. However, demonstrating transference between that learning and actual behavioral change – the ultimate goal of the intended video game – is much more difficult to measure and achieve.

Therefore I encourage the USDA to also include direct behavioral shaping as a possible criterion of success in the Challenge. For example, Nintendo’s Wii Fit does not ask players to “learn” about flexibility, but rather engage in physical activity that will increase flexibility. Likewise, hybrid cars’ miles-per-gallon gauges shape drivers’ behavior through a game-like interface (the Honda Civic even shows a virtual forest growing as the driver’s MPG results improve).

A game that incorporates actual player behavior, rather than assuming transference between learning and behavior, is much more likely to succeed in its goals in a measurable way.

Weigh in with your own comments.

Games for Change Boston – workshop wrapup

Games for Change - BostonAt this year’s Independent Game Conference – East, the Boston chapter of Games for Change ran a prototyping workshop with some 30 conference participants. The goal: brainstorm game concepts addressing one of the three issues targeted by our three participating nonprofits: Teach for America, Mercy Corps, and the Boston Foundation‘s youth violence initiative. Participants generated a wide range of concepts ranging from learning puzzles to augmented reality and game design challenges. Just as interesting, goals ranged from educating players to fostering community to shaping real-world behaviors.

For our next act, Boston Games for Change will host a gamejam to move one or more of these basic concepts into a working prototype. In the meantime, we’ll be representing at the 6th Annual Games for Change Festival in New York, May 27-29. Register now!

The virtual and the real Washington, DC

Having so recently finished Fallout 3 (review coming soon!), I found myself contrasting images from today’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial with that same location in the virtual, post-apocalyptic Washington DC portrayed in Fallout. The game had generated some minor controversy when its marketers plastered the real Metro Center subway station with ads that included an image of a bombed-out Capitol Building. (Metro Center appears in the game as well).

Update: Here are contrasting images related to yesterday’s Inauguration:
The Mall in Fallout and in real life

The Fallout series satirizes the Cold War and in particular the aesthetics and politics of the 1950s, as seen through the lens of the Regan era (it was inspired by the 1988 title, Wasteland). And it’s cynical in a late Cold War, 99 Luftbalons kind of way, depicting both government and society as dysfunctional, greedy, and selfishly tribal. This was politics à la mode, but the hundreds of thousands gathered today around the Reflecting Pool attest to a new zeitgeist, one that makes the old cynicism seem out of place.

Games: The “Vast Wasteland”?

As I’m hacking out the outlines of a forthcoming chapter on games and morality, I’m looking at the full context of Newt Minow’s infamous “vast wasteland” speech about television. Given in 1961 while Minow was chairman of the FCC, the speech is, in fact, fairly optimistic about television’s potential as a medium. In it, Minow quotes Gov. LeRoy Collins, newly president of the National Association of Broadcasters:

Broadcasting to serve the public interest, must have a soul and a conscience, a burning desire to excel, as well as to sell; the urge to build the character, citizenship, and intellectual stature of people, as well as to expand the gross national product. …By no means do I imply that broadcasters disregard the public interest. …But a much better job can be done, and should be done.

It’s a remarkable speech in that its overall thesis — and even specific ideas — can largely be lifted out of television and into the world of video games:

You must provide a wider range of choices, more diversity, more alternatives. It is not enough to cater to the nation’s whims; you must also serve the nation’s needs. And I would add this: that if some of you persist in a relentless search for the highest rating and the lowest common denominator, you may very well lose your audience. Because, to paraphrase a great American who was recently my law partner, the people are wise, wiser than some of the broadcasters — and politicians — think.

another Parents’ Guide to Video Games

Related to our recent discussion on positive game ratings and the need for better game reviews, here’s a new effort to publish a parents’ guide to video games: GameProFamily (reposted at Wired). The reviews spotlight the experience over content, and you’ll see in this overview of the Mario empire there’s some attempt to emphasize the “benefits” of games, e.g. dexterity (that old work horse) and learning to care for “fragile cargo.”

– Gene Koo

What might a pro-social rating system look like?

This was the mostly-serious question I put to our games group last night at our monthly meeting. The question emerged from previous discussions we’d had about how the meta-game-industry – critics, player feedback – influences game development. While the ESRB ratings are about as fuzzy as MPAA film ratings – and equally subject to manipulation – there’s no doubt that they influence actual design decisions. One former developer talked about how his team worked to keep a shooter at a “Teen” rating, which meant, for example, that players should not be able to manipulate dead bodies. (Shooting them while alive, of course, is perfectly fine!).
Cheat Code Central
We struck on a range of possibilities: an ESRB-like rating system, better search categories in game databases, better game criticism, and of course self-critical game design. Although it opens the door to even more subjectivity, we were all interested in shifting the focus from a checklist of features (blood? gore? bad language?) to an evaluation of the gameplay experience. Whether the graphics feature blood or not, does the game encourage cooperation and mutual sacrifice?
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Persepolis for Xbox 360? (cross-post from GAMBIT blog)

…In light of something as moving and personal as Persepolis, the idea of playing a game that dealt with repression and revolution like Just Cause did made me recoil. My initial revulsion at the game’s shallowness came surging back even more intense than before. Disgusted, I asked myself why it seemed impossible to make a game that dealt with social upheaval the way Persepolis did…

Read more on the GAMBIT blog

— Matthew Weise

Violence and Games (cross-post from GAMBIT blog)

But one of the stinging rules of rhetorical debate is that “silence is consent”. DesIn short, the gaming community conceded the argument that violent video games have been proven harmful to minors…

But there was a second loss in our silence. We accepted the framing that there is something dangerous here, and the only debate to be had is whether the industry is doing enough or if the government should do more. There was no discussion of social, cultural , or educational concerns with limiting access to games. By conceding that that studies have spoken, we ignored a discussion about why the results of all these conflicting studies might be more complicated than either side makes them out to be, and what role education, cultural and family discussion and media literacy play in how children participate in the world around them.

Read more on the GAMBIT blog

– Josh Diaz