Happy Steve

Innovation and Learning

Start with clarity of intent.

Now build it out with an evocative vision. Improvise progress by tinkering: with lots of trial and lots of error. The not knowing is the best bit: the mysteries the surprises, and from time to time the windfalls! 

Hello there, I'm Steve Collis! 

Click on "contact", won't you, and wave right back at me?

Filtering by Tag: Gamification

Dear ClassDojo, it's Complicated


Just after posting this blog, I discovered Vivo Miles:

From the site "It’s the 21st century right? So, when you do something worthy of a reward at school, you want something a little more interesting than a sticker or a stamp in your planner from your teacher, yeah?"

That is OFFICIALLY more DEPRESSING than the "Day Made of Glass #2" video showing futuristic classrooms with ROWS OF DESKS FACING THE FRONT.

Anyway, on with this post:

My friend and colleague Cameron Paterson has blogged about ClassDojo and repeated the well known criticism that external rewards kill intrinsic motivation.

If you're not up to speed on ClassDojo, it sets up a very shiny list of students and allows you to award and subtract points, even via your mobile phone, with compelling sound effects. With the class list up on the big projector screen you've got a big bag of peanuts for your monkeys.

Which is, of course, Paterson's criticism. And yes he is dead right about the dynamic. It's not that it's new, either, schooling is mostly composed of similar systems that we may not notice simply because we notice new things more than the familiar.

The graphics and message of ClassDojo, at face value, has no trace of the irony I propose below, and at face value suggests a veritable caricature of behaviourism. 

Nevertheless I feel a strong urge to try to shift the discourse on ClassDojo, and more broadly on reward-mechanics to a different level. There is a distinction that screams relevance at me.

I commented on Cameron's post, and will reproduce the comment here below:

I certainly have a reaction against the smug teacher graphic on the classdojo site because it says to me “Look, I’m in control!”.

Yet I too have used it in my Yr 8 French class, mostly to see how the students relate to it, and different ways it can be framed. Gathering field data, I guess.

But the main thing I want to throw into the mix here, is that reality is more complex than “an extrinsic reward kills intrinsic motivation”.

There is indeed what we might call a ‘valley’ where, when you start offering an extrinsic reward, the intrinsic motivation drops. I don’t dispute this dynamic.

However there is a far side to that valley, and it occurs when the individual has a mental model that is able to contextualise the reward mechanism from a higher, savvy, perspective. When they can deconstruct it. I’m saying that there is a sort of literacy to it.

I’m particularly aware of this due to my extreme familiarity with computer games.

You reckon we play monopoly to earn fake cash and beat the other guy? We play monopoly to socialise. The game-dynamic of earning cash is contextualised within what is clearly a constructed, artificial system.

So, we sit above the system, not underneath it. The motivation backfire occurs when the individual has a perspective within the system, mistaking the system for reality. If they look on the system from above, from without, then they can engage with it for their own purposes. This is where the language of gaming is perfect for making sense of this dynamic.

In discussing a study where this effect was shown, Amabile and Hennessy conclude, “It would seem that as a result of their training, these children had learned to treat reward not as an element that detracts from intrinsic interest but as something that can add to overall motivation. They had learned to overcome the deleterious effects of reward – so much that their levels of intrinsic motivation (and therefore levels of creativity) seem to have increased.”

Now, would anyone dispute that our young people are going to be navigating (ARE ALREADY navigating) a world absolutely chock-block full of extrinsic reward systems designed to hack their brains, distort their authentic drives, and make them obey a third party agenda (from work to death for a company through to buy this brand of chocolate)?

The solution is NOT to ban such mechanisms in schools but to contextualise. We need a game-mechanics literacy. Students should be experiencing these systems and taught to deconstruct them, as a scaffolded experience to ‘wise them up’.

In other news, savvy computer gamer kids might be getting just this experience, yet another example of the computer game industry doing a better job of schooling our kids than school does.

But that’s a shame. Being purist about reward-mechanics does nothing to help students deconstruct a world full of them.

I’ve written at length about these issues over at my happysteve blog.

I am not, for one moment, suggesting that teachers are using Classdojo in the way I am describing – simply that the discourse around it could move to a far more constructive space if it transcended its current terms of reference. 

The reference for the study I referred to is:
Amabile, T. M., Hennessey, B.A., & Grossman, B.S. (1986) Social influences on creativity: The effects of contracted-for reward.
in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 14-23.


GAT Course - Will it Scale?

My colleague Talar Khatchoyan returns with a second guest post on the 'GAT Course', which is our experiment at 'soft-coding' a year 9/10 (stage 5) course. Last year we piloted it, this year we're beginning to scale it up. 15 students have selected 'GAT' instead of a 'Board Endorsed' course like Music or Commerce.

Talar has managed to put together a soft-coded syllabus, outcomes and assessment schedule, as well as an induction program lasting 4 weeks. The students define and implement their own projects. See these posts for the story so far, dating right back to our original thinking.

Below, Talar recounts how term 1 is unfolding:


What’s been happening in GAT lately? Pretty exciting stuff!

1. One of our students finally settled on a GAT project and he is happy about it! It took about 5 lessons of talking, planning, brainstorming and everything else and he has now settled on creating a documentary series on life in Manly focusing on different aspects of Manly like: Surfing, tourism, homelessness, busking, etc. This was a pretty huge victory for him!

2. The students are talking a lot more (they were really quiet at the start). So, they are really starting to own the course! They are asking for KRUMS (our gamified point system) and the best part is that they are helping each other!

3. A student came to class with what looked like a pencil case but when you flipped it, there were speakers on the other side. He said he was feeling bored and wanted to be creative and so made this pencil case that doubles as a speaker system! I couldn't believe it! And it worked! This got me excited for two reasons. a. It was pretty cool and just shows me how incredible he is…always thinks out of the box. b. I was excited because he wanted to showcase his work. It just shows he understands the concept of GAT, he's sharing and creating and innovating! And I’m sure it was really inspirational for his peers. 

4. Students are sharing their skills with one another! They are showcasing work, sharing ideas, giving feedback and information. They are realising their skills and strengths as well as the areas they need help with and are working together to find balance.

5. Students handed in their first assessment task which was a plan & rationale for their project. I haven’t had a chance to really start marking them, but when I do, I’ll blog again! 

Anyway, I just wanted to share, and catch you up on all the awesome aspects of GAT! 

Sorry for the overuse of exclamation marks – I guess they are expressing my great enthusiasm for these students and what they are achieving. 

Talar Khatchoyan

Games, play, purity, idealism, and the messiness of life.

I wish to respond to three blog posts that have been playing in my mind for a week or two:

Adrian Camm – whose post concludes with a thoughtful open question ‘What am I missing’ [about why he's uneasy mashing gamng with schooling]

Dean Groom – bouncing of all his posts, really

Darcy Moore – asks  “If the education system was destroyed last night?

If you read all three you’ll see I’m responding to multiple common threads, and not least the idealist/utopic impulse which we all share. 

This post is one of those manifesto posts: a formulation of some tentative thoughts that have crossed a threshold of confidence for me. I wish I knew what they add up to, but I don't.

So here is where I’ve landed for now:


#1 Play is not play. Games are not games.

For the life of me, I can’t see any clear distinction between play/gaming and real life, except in matters of degree.

Play/gaming tends to be low-stakes. ‘Real life’, in contrast, is real because it is has high stakes. So we think of simulation of an environment versus the environment itself.

But for the life of me, where’s the faultline between the two? We say life is a game. “Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life” is the subtitle of a book.

In ‘game’-shows like ‘Deal or No Deal’ the participant has very real amounts of money on the table. Decisions in the moment have big real life consequences – regularly they lose $30,000, or gain it, in a heartbeat. Why is this a ‘game’ show? Why, then, simulation, and not ‘the real thing’? Obviously, it’s because they came with nothing to lose, with zero investment. It’s a fine line.

The baby in playpen, preschool children in a sandpit, a game of soccer, monopoly, exploring and building in Minecraft, questing in WoW, these are games, these are play.

Or are they? The baby is facing very real challenges caught up with fundamental capabilities of movement, agency, voice and the ability to be heard. Social strategies for how to get dad or mum’s attention launch a life of strategy and tactics, from tantrums (adult tantrums!) to persuasion, deliberate controversy to joining trends, to find a secure place in one’s social network.

A game, play, can be low-stakes, but it’s just a matter of degree. I can’t see a meaningful difference between a student creating a work of art in our Minecraft virtual world and a student fashioning a ‘real’ work in ‘real life’. Both took time, though, creative spirit, meaningful collaboration.

A teenager playing World of Warcraft is play? It’s a simulation? For so many reasons it’s more complicated than that. A stark aspect: gold mining is still a real industry. Poorer people from poorer nations work long hours earning virtual gold in games such as World of Warcraft, to sell the virtual currency to play-ers for ‘real’ money. http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/technology-blog/chinese-prisoners-forced-play-world-warcraft-money-guards-202425282.html

Play versus real life is a spectrum; a series of shades of grey, and I can’t see a point where any part of life is one but not the other.


#2 Real life is not real life.

 I am not a nihilist, relativist, a deconstructionist, but for the life of me, I can find precious few aspects of ‘reality’ that are hard-coded. Almost everything becomes soft-coded if I’m willing to face up to it.

Social lenses, cultural lenses, pet theories, moods, narratives; I find myself at the nexus of overlapping, sometimes competing, interpretive communities and social networks. Who am I? I have multiple frames for understanding this - all derived from social experience and soft-coded context.

Take any one of them. Let’s say: my school. Or your workplace. Or my family. Or your Twitter identity. Or my philosophy. Or your evaluation of your life’s worth, success or failure thus far and aspirations for coming years. 

All these are curated landscapes. They are technologies. They did not have to be so. They could have been otherwise. They could become otherwise.

They play by particular rules, are powered by particular interacting dynamics, have particular key agents/players, goal posts, pitfalls, sometimes taking the form of what I call ‘AWFULS’, that is to say THOU SHALT NOTs, the very definition of failure or antithesis of the happily ever after. Each curated space has its own HAPPILY EVER AFTER too, although the narrative evaporates the moment you reach THAT page, and quickly fades into the past as a new story begins.

The rules of the game: how to succeed, what to avoid, how to earn ‘gold’ (metaphor for a zillion currencies we pursue), moments of leveling up, and so on.

In our inner worlds and outer worlds, we move from curated space to curated space. These are mash ups of others’ frames and our own frames, and our own interpretations of others’ frames, influenced of course by others’ frames.

Where I end and you begin, the quantum leap between individual and collective, is impossible to tell. Am I a neuron in a social brain? A node in a network? A distributed processor? No, I scream, I am me!

Authentic me! The words ‘authentic’ and ‘me’ are of course English words. This happens to be the language of the society I was born into. I inherited these thinking blocks.

My notions of authenticity developed over the years through interactions, media, Home and Away, Chinese fortune crackers, preaching, and my first girlfriend, some potent advertising campaigns for deodorants and something to do with potty training…?

THE SYSTEM. The machine. Always run by faceless men or evil masterminds in our narratives. Logan’s Run, The Matrix, The Game, and countless texts in a genre that draws attention to reality-as-curated-system; the protagonists seeking to break out into 'reality'.

Curated: artificial, designed, man-made.

Freedom from, freedom to. Western, Eastern. Whatever your flavour: we created it ourselves. We are the curators. We made our own bed. Collectively.

School is a curated space. It plays by some pretty specific rules. Oh, sure, it gets mighty complicated, especially in High School. Different teachers, different expectations. Tests, surrogate skill-trees (sport/geek/rebel? Tank/mage/rogue?), blah blah.

How is this different to a game? And how does it matter, except by degrees? How is it different to the workplace, or family dynamics/politics, or the great game of public transport?

And don’t the kids know it? Don’t they adapt? Don’t they play it well? Me, the class clown, getting laughter-currency, attention-currency, with a specific strategy that earned me gold. The rebel, opting for the skill-tree that favours a particular social brand among peers over a particular social brand among adults. He hasn’t lost the game, he’s just chosen a class. His bitterness at being slammed by the hierarchy feeds into his pride and uniqueness of his own brand. Can't have everything. Choose a strategy and get good at it. 

I see this all the time: teenagers defining themselves by kicking out.


#3 The Real Difference Between Games and Reality

I can see two key element that do differentiate games from real life:

our own awareness of the artificiality of the curated system/environment.

our own sense of agency in re-writing the rules, re-designing the game. 

In other words, it’s all constructed, but we only call it a game when we recognise it as such and sense we have control over it. It’s the artifice, and deliberate purpose it implies, that makes it a game.

Is that why idealists like myself are so drawn to gaming, and so keen to apply the language of gaming to real life experiences?

I wonder if it relates to the disappointment I sense in Dean Groom’s writing at the grubbiness of non-gaming spaces, such as Twitter. He disdains the stage and self-promotion. This is a game none of us curated but are forced to reckon with. It appalls me that there is an art to being listened to. Yet there is an art to being listened to.  

Not playing is not a neutral choice… nor is playing without acknowledging playing. There is no strategy or mindset I can apply to real life that gives me an out-clause or a clean definition. Taking my bat and ball and living on a farm in peace for the rest of my days is no escape. Maybe that equates to depriving humanity of my needed services. 

Yet it’s not social currency that feels grubby. The recent Kony mob-outbreak aspires to purity but there is grubbiness in the crowd, and the movement is far from pure. The purity is bloody dangerous.

Life is far from pure.

The quest for purity is a basic human drive. We can’t escape it, but we emphasise it at our peril. It makes us judgmental, idealistic to a fault (such that we filter out what doesn’t fit, which is oppressive, suppresive, hostile to other-ness and blind to inherent contradictions).

It’s the impulse to utopia that drives idealists to games. The desire to start again, do better. To have agency in the game-design. To begin afresh with a new narrative, yes and new identities to boot.

Darcy Moore asks what would happen if the education system (read ‘game’ or constructed space) were to die.

Real life systems do indeed die, all the time. Call it a paradigm shift, or turning point, or revolution. From the French revolution to the demise of Borders and Kodak, the new system that arises in its place is never designed from scratch like a game. In real life, it is market systems, the collective we cannot help but be in, that topples powers and raises new ones. 

How I wish I could redesign the school-game!

It would be a second Eden. There’d be a skill path for everyone. No one would win at another’s expensive. All would have a space, a home, and chance to contribute and receive in good measure. Utopia, heaven, purity at last.

And that’s what grabs us in gaming. It’s a glimpse of agency to recreate the system. I saw it in our school Second Life island, ‘Booralie Island’, and again in our Minecraft space. Even movements like Woodstock, #occupywhatever, and even #teachmeet have the smack of ‘god-at-last’ to them.

These are magnets to edu-idealists. And no wonder we rankle at ‘gamification’, where the toy gets broken apart, the motor ripped out, then plugged into the Frankenstein to create a monster that makes us the monster. It makes fools of us all. 

Fool I would gladly be, hoping to co-curate a better game. Yet I am wary of idealism invoking the appetite for purity to a fault. I have to also navigate the intricate knot of the tangled games of real life over which I have little control. I've forced myself to run gamification workshops to confront these issues, stare them in the eye.

What is the difference between a power-up and a report-card? A degree of purity? The ability to unplug the computer and turn the game off? Meta-agency? Curation of one's own challenges? Oh that the universe were a Minecraft server running on my own PC. I want to confront this. I want the worlds to collide. I want to take teachers to the faultline with me. We can have a cup of tea together and embrace the awful disjunct with a sigh and a sip. I don't know what to do after that. 

Is this what Peter Garrett considered in leaving the purity of Midnight Oil for politics. He lost social currency for the move. And I am guessing, clarity.

I wish for myself brutal honesty in accepting unpleasant truths and inner contradictions. I can’t accept others more than I accept myself, and inner purity could only come at the expensive of editing you out, which I don’t want to do. . 

Dean’s most recent post went deeper and is a recurring theme for him: below all the layers, what do you stand for? Your personal values. Under all the games in my head I seek for them.

Not a second Eden. Not an escape. I wish to sail my ship forward through the mess with a rudder of ‘love’. That’s about as much clarity as I’ve got. 

Into the mystic river, then, tweeps?

Post Script:

Not my most articulate, I'm afraid, in this post. I can still see the problem, but don't know if others will get it or see it has any relevance at all. 

/GAT Project/ Steve's Philosophy on Bureaucracy & Gamification

This is blog post #2 on the /GAT Project/ series. (In short, I'm working with a colleague to create a course for Year 9 and 10 that is radically student-directed, and easily scalable.)

Before the course starts, I want to proclaim my distrust of bureaucratic systems as a 'means of control' or 'means of measurement'.


- a prospective employee has a great CV, and is ok in interview, but turns out to be a poor performer. The CV was a poor measurement (and so was the bureaucratic and artificial interview process).

- a teacher has fantastic program documents but is a poor practitioner and the students are uninspired.

- another teacher has poor paperwork but students testify their lives have been changed forever.

- a student gets top marks in an exam but goes on to flunk university.

- another student performs poorly at school but goes on to become Prime Minister, or found the Virgin empire.

- there is an official school policy that no one follows.

- a student has messy 'bookwork', and is censured for it, but is highly gifted in many areas. 

Paperwork and bureaucracy are not functioning well in these scenarios. They certainly do not merit the investment and confidence often put in them. 

So, you can imagine my cynicism when my school is 'inspected' and the inspectors, just doing their jobs, spend three days in a room ploughing through paperwork.

Frankly, I've achieved much of whatever I've achieved so far in my career by tactically ignoring or 'fobbing off' bureaucratic systems in order to invest time and energy in initiatives I deem far more worthy. 

I see bureaucracy and paperwork as existing in a kind of parallel universe to 'the real world'.

In the worst case scenario, 'the system' is mistaken for the real world

I have two observations for how 'the system' might mesh nicely and serve us rather than distorting us.


Observation 1. Culture When paperwork does match reality, it does so because of the pre-existing culture that leads to the paperwork in the first place.

There is a kind of mass-complicity that occurs, and this complicity allows the bureaucracy to function. For example, tax returns. The tax system works well in Australia because there is a sufficiently honest, complicit culture of wanting to contribute fairly. In Greece, it appears there is less complicity in the tax system, and to that extent the system is less successful. Money, and democracy are two other examples that come to mind. My point is, it's the culture that matters, not the bureaucratic system around it.

This is why it is so very difficult to impose a democratic bureaucracy on a country that does not have a democratic culture. The democratic systems only work if there is an underlying complicity.

A school that, culturally, understands bullying and does not tolerate it, will obviously have an established and published procedure on the issue. Another school might have a published procedure, but it's irrelevant because it is ignored, or followed in a lip-service fashion.

So, don't talk to me about paperwork, talk to me about culture and complicity. 

For the /GAT Course/, I'll be looking for culture and complicity, not bureaucracy and paperwork.


Observation 2. Concretisation Everyone likes a tick in a box! We can generate extrinsic/concrete systems in local ways as a deliberate 'life-hack' fuel for our current ambitions.

When someone awards me a certificate, or gives me an 'A', or writes me a letter, or pays me money, or when I dress in a suit, or write a 'to do' list, or graph my car's tripometer, or get retweeted, or when I get a high score on Angry Birds, or when I successfully avoid walking on any lines on a concrete path... in all these diverse situations there is a process I'm going to call concretisation or externalisation.

What I mean is making sense of life, the universe, and everything by creating externalised measurement scaffolding.

Because life is insanely subjective. It's pure subjectivity. How, for instance, am I going to answer the question "How am I going here? Am I doing well?" For me it's an unanswerable question. For, in my internal reality, philosophically, there are no landmarks on my journey. I'm like a passenger on a train travelling through a countryside with no features - I have no way to guage speed or progress. Someone else with the same opportunities as myself might have achieved a lot more than I have by now. For this same reason I find the question unanswerable for others, too. I have no apparatus for measuring other people. I can only assume they're doing the best they know how, like I am. 

We all intuit this, don't we? Ask someone who has been deemed by popular opinion to have 'made it' whether they feel like they've really 'made it'. The answer will be 'no'. There is always another challenge, another goal, another ambition.

Yet there are others, and I aspire to be one of them, who have not by popular measurements 'made it', but reek of peace, centredness, and serene authenticity. 

So, personally, I give up on any abstract philosophical sense of 'progress'. I want to exult in the joy of life, connect with other people as if the moment stretched to eternity, you know, all that funky stuff!?!?

And another thing I love is a tick in a box, or to cross off an item on a 'to do' list, or to receive a certificate, or get retweeted. I love the view I get from the top of a look-out, especially after I've cycled up there. I also love levelling up in the 'Dark Age of Camelot' game. Beautiful music plays, lights come down from heaven and saturate me, and my avatar gets more power to kill more badies!

I have a project list which defines what I am trying to achieve in life at work and at home. I use this externalised system to track progress in each area, and I celebrate my progress at arbitrary but predefined check points.

We all love a tick in a box. We don't have to take it too seriously. It's not measuring absolute or philosophical progress, but that doesn't mean it's not a useful tool to move in meaningful directions.

I can use reward systems, intrinsic or extrinsic, as a kind of 'life-hack' to fuel my motivation and sense of momentum in directions I want to embrace, and I can train students to do the same. I can use the infrastructure even while I subvert it. It's cheeky. It's transcendant. 

This is where a bureaucracy can be used purposefully, as a means to an end. The levelling system in 'Dark Age of Camelot' is no less bureaucratic than my tax return or end of year examinations. Surprise, surprise, it depends entirely on how the process is framed, not on the process itself. When we discuss 'gamification' (a term so recent it doesn't even feature on Google ngrams), we must acknowledge that school is already a game, and that every human reward system gamefies life to some degree. 

In applying this to the /GAT Course/ I'll be looking to teach the students to understand how the joy of learning can dovetail seamlessly with the life-hack of concretisation. They can make road-maps, celebrate milestones, win badges, and leave their own badges behind for other students to win too. It will be just like scouts! Students and staff can define, and redefine, and deconstruct, and reconstruct the game in a local, improvised, and collaborative fashion.

I wonder if I've lost you on this second observation. Does it sound like post-modern fluff for Generation Entertain-Me-Now? 

Have a look at Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development.

In the modern era we were infatuated with A System. A criticism of the modern era is that we mistook The System we discovered as final, objective, universal reality. 

To flourish in the aftermath of the modern era we can do better than a bureaucracy. We can work locally, meaningfully, with our eyes on invisible things, and clothing and reclothing ourselves in visible systems only to serve what we stand for. 

Why can't we help every student to reach stage 6 or 7 in Kohlberg's model? Why not aim that high?

Yet, how often does the school system operate at stage 4, and encourage the students to do the same?

We can do better.


This is the second in a series of blog posts entitled /GAT Project/ They will appear regularly at this website, categorised under 'GAT Project'. If you'd like to receive future posts, you can:

- click here to subscribe to Steve's blog in general by email, or here in a reader.

- click here http://www.happysteve.com/contact/ and indicate 'GAT Posts Only' in the message body - I'll email you when I update the GAT Project just for the duration of the series.

- or regularly check this link for new posts: http://www.happysteve.com/blog/tag/gat-project