How Games Can Shape Education and Local Behavior

Jesse Schnell’s presentation on games at DICE got me thinking about how games have been shaping our behavior for years.  Weight Watcher points, frequent flier miles, stamps for free smoothies, Xbox achievements:  all of these are gaming devices that shape our behavior.  Game designer Jane McGonigal’s site discusses games  she  has created that have changed people’s behavior.

I’ve recently been noticing how gaming has changed my behavior as well.  With my iPhone, I have several location-based games like Gowalla, Foursquare, MyTown, Traveler’s Quest, and Waze that I use on a daily basis.  When I excitedly show them to people, I usually get the standard response, “What’s the point?”  When I explain the rewards like virtual items, badges, and leaderboard rankings, most people just shake their heads and smile.  But with Jesse and Jane’s work, I’m beginning to see beyond the game mechanism and how these applications are changing my life in a profound way.  I’m also beginning to see how I can apply these applications to my career as a teacher.  Below are some ideas I have.

Education
I am a roving teacher, servicing my students in several different classrooms during the day.  I take my iPhone with me and let my students use some of the education apps I’ve downloaded.  One thing I have noticed is the students take to the finger-gestures of an iPhone faster than a computer mouse and keyboard.  But there was one item in Schnell’s presentation that struck me:  he mentioned a college professor revamping his grading scale into an game-like version with points and levels.  I began to think of all the student who have an Xbox and how they are so used to unlocking achievements in their games and completing and gaining levels.  Could we implement some of that in schools?  Each student has their own gamer card with all of the unlocked achievements they have accomplished with the skills and levels they have reached for the year.

Local Behavior
“Checking in” with apps like Foursquare and Gowalla is  getting a lot of attention, but in watching an interview with Gowalla’s Josh Williams, he called checking in a “gateway” behavior for location-based games.  A gateway to what?  I believe it’s a deeper connection to others who use the application.  The tips and to-do’s features in Foursquare are a far stronger draw than simply unlocking badges and earning points.  These features build community among users so when someone visits a location and looks at the tips from other, it may change what they do there.  Foursquare needs to flesh these features out more since other applications like Loopt and Yelp have done this for years and have a larger user base.  Waze and Traveler’s Quest have a more direct impact on local behavior.  They encourage you to drive to local places to find items or icons for bonus points.  Further, Waze allows you to report accidents, traffic jams, and even update your local map on their web site.  Finally, Gowalla lets users create their own trips and reward friends with pins if they check in at each spot.  In my town, I’m working toward the 7 Bridges of Jacksonville trip and I’ve already created my Mark’s Favorite 20 Restaurants trip.  My next goal is to create a trip for all 9 state parks in the area.

While these games are clearly in their infancy, we can clearly see how they can be used for something more worthwhile than spamming your Facebook friends’ news feed with endless trips to the grocery store.  If used properly, they can effect social change that benefits everyone.  It will be exciting to watch.

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