Sunday, March 22, 2020

A Gamified Game Conversation [TE 818 Cycle 3]

Glib: Welcome back to another episode of Are You a Well Adjusted Educator? I’m your host, Glib Gabber and today I have Nate Langel on the show with me- Nate thanks for joining us.

Nate: Glad to be here, thank you for the invite.

Glib: Always welcome. We love the opportunity to provoke inner turmoil, professional dissonance, and second guessing in those we’ve entrusted with the education of America’s youth. So to start things off, tell us how you and your family are getting along with the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Nate: What? That’s really your lead question?

Glib: Sure is.

Nate: Alright… Well obviously a lot has changed in the past week. Parent-teacher conferences were cancelled and that caught me off guard. The next day they called off school till after spring break and that was a massive surprise. We decided to use the unexpected time off to go on a road trip home to the great state of Iowa and visit our families. At first the joke was we were “fleeing to the countryside.” Now there are rumors of martial law and closing state borders and it looks like the joke might be on us. I’ve kind of given up making predictions and plans at this point and we are just rolling with it. Time with grandparents has been spectacular and the kids love being able to run around on the farm.

Glib: Well that’s just great but I have to ask, do you have a decent back stock of toilet paper?

Nate: Uh… yeah. We’re doing fine.

Glib: Wonderful! And I am sure with all your extra time this week you didn’t wait until the night before to start writing your blog post for TE 818 Cycle Three , am I right?

Nate: Prefer not to answer.

Glib: Sure...Let’s jump right into it then and tackle today’s topics of educational technology and gamification. I’m excited to pick your brain here a bit especially since I hear you’ve done some user experience coursework within the Serious Games and Meaningful Play program at MSU as well as teaching an educational technology class at the undergraduate level for a number of years. You basically have all the answers in regards to the hot tech topics of education today.

Nate: Well, Glib I-

Glib: Excellent! Start us off by telling us your gamertag and background as a gamer.

Nate: Gamertag? Uh, sometimes “natgel” I guess. My first memory of video games goes back to MS DOS with my sister. We played a Tom Sawyer chase game and I think Tetris. This is going way, way, back, and the memories are pretty fuzzy (or pixelated…). There was some Oregon Trail for sure around second grade and then a fair amount of playing time on Treasure Mountain and Treasure Cove learning games. Next would be Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? (greetings Gumshoe!), Roller Coaster Tycoon, and Madden 98. Can I take a minute and watch these YouTube clips again? My brain feels weird.

Glib: Of course.

Nate: …

Glib: How ya feeling?

Nate: Gee, Glib. It’s strange. I haven’t gone through these memories in a long time. I remember we had an early version of the Sims for a while too. One night my siblings and I were fighting over who got to play next. After some amount of warning (I assume at least), Dad walked over, ejected the disc, and snapped in in half. Our jaws dropped to the floor. “*Expletive* game,” he said.

That one is pretty seared in my mind. Not with a grudge- a feeling of thankfulness is attached actually. Look, I played through the campaign of Halo 1 on the computer in high school. I dabbled with some other console games with friends but never owned one myself. And while some of these experiences in childhood and youth are laced with happiness, the recollections also have lingering tinges of…

Glib: ...Of what?

Nate: I’m struggling to describe it, Glib. That feeling after playing a video game. For an hour. More than an hour. The residue feeling. Emptiness, maybe? Lostness? Ecclessiastes chapter one?

I haven’t done any proper gaming recently, so I am kind of shooting from the hip. But that emotion after a video game session… It's like after scrolling COVID 19 news for the fifth time in two days. Did I really find what I was looking for? No. Am I satisfied? No. Do I feel better now that I can pretend to be an informed and autonomous, self sufficient decision maker?

Maybe I’ll hash out why the post-video game feeling isn’t for me. It’s not like the end of a long bike ride. It’s not like chopping wood, lighting the stove, and drinking a dark beer in front of the fire with the snow falling outside. It’s not like coming home after a family stroll around the neighborhood. It’s not like Ecclesiastes 12.

Glib: Ah, so you’re a Luddite. Of the “holier than thou” variety at that.

Nate: Hey, man, I don’t think that’s helpful, but maybe you are right... All I am saying is that the haunting flavors of vanity of my own gaming experience combined with the apparent apathy and disconnect from reality that I see in my most gaming-centric students makes me warily question the “games are the answer!” reflex in education.

Glib: Well now that’s not a fair characterization either. For one thing, schools like Quest to Learn in New York, or “games are the answer” places as you say, don't hold gamification as a silver bullet. Students are apathetic and disconnected in the first place because school sucks. It’s boring.

Nate: True. True. And I get the vibe that those folks are kindred spirit to us at the Museum School. They talk about design thinking, engagement, and creating meaningful products- that’s our wheelhouse too. I’m not anti-games or anti-tech, alright? I made a sweet board game by independently learning how to operate a CNC machine in high school. My colleague just did a combined science/math project creating probability games with genetics. I’ve worked with students to make states of matter simulation games with Scratch and designed a whole Ecology unit around the idea of ecosystems and survival being modeled like a game. And for Pete’s sake I’m not about to put any stock in whether “skillful game play translates into better test scores” or not. The real question is whether gaming, technology, or any combination of the two make us better human beings at the end of the day.

It freaks me out, Glib. I got students who almost start shaking when we ask them to close Chromebooks. Some scarcely consider the possibilities within a real life project opportunity before defaulting back to the instant gratification and comfort of a video game. Likewise with social media and whatever this new TicToc thing is. Go ahead and spin this as an archetypal “teacher versus distraction” situation if you want, but I think it’s more than that.

Glib: But surely you have equitable concerns, expectations, supports, and approaches for distracted students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds?

Nate: [Hits head on keyboard].

Glib: And certainly you aren’t considering escaping your own little learning challenge at the moment here and now, are you? Escape this complex blog post topic for a while, scroll the YouTubes, read up on COVID-19 alerts, wouldn’t that be nice, hmm?


Glib: Nate? Nate? Where’d he go?

[35 minutes later]

Glib: Welcome back! Tell us Nate, any changes in the Marble Olympics running? That purposeful, productive, and profitable competition- dare I say, real life, meaningful-

Nate: No comment.

Glib: Fair enough. How about some final thoughts on gamification in education as “embodied empathy for complex situations”?

Nate: Loads of final thoughts.

First, back to Quest to Learn. They talk about school being “one giant design experience” and help students find a state of “flow” in their work. I’m right there with them. Gaming and user experience mindset helps me as an educator create better human centered experiences, technology interfaces, and tasks for my students by design towards engagement, belonging, and “win states”. I think the “performance before competence” (Gee, 203) in video games aligns with my apprenticeship framework and parallels “action before content.” Same thing with shared goal setting (205). That stuff is helpful.

Glib: Go on. I expect some kind of disclaimer is coming next.

Nate: You know me too well. Humor me with some nuance here, ok?

I am quite nervous to compare our minds to simulation video games (Gee, 200-201). It was interesting to note the author’s historical progression of mental metaphors going from a blank slate, to calculating software, to an adaptive network- and I might insert the metaphor of file cabinet system schema into second in that list. All these mental models played off the technology of the time, why not think of our minds as robust simulators? It makes sense- we play out possibilities in our brain and then act upon them in real time and space.

What I am not convinced of (yet) is that the finely crafted challenges, incentives, and hooks of video games ultimately help us navigate life as it truly is: extraordinarily messy, consequential, and beautiful.

Likewise I am skeptical of the ability of video games to make us better producers (not just a facade of productivity. Gee, 206) and not simply passive consumers.

If all of life is simply a grand supercomputer simulation anyway, then fine- get lost in a simulated world of video games and social media. With abandon. As for me, I think I’ll choose the red pill instead.

I fear we might gain the whole digital world, but lose our souls.

Glib: So what you’re saying is, “video games are bad and probably cause violent tendencies in today’s youth.”

Nate: Sigh.

Glib: Well that’s all we have time for today! Thanks for joining us on another episode of Are You A Well Adjusted Educator we always arrive at satisfyingly simple answers to education's most pressing questions. I’m your host, Glib Gabber- we’ll see you next time. Take care everyone.

Show Notes
Vsauce: Your Brain on Tech. An example of brain research with video games and neuroprocesses.

Veritasium: This Will Revolutionize Education. A skeptical take on whether or not any technology innovation can truly revolutionize education.

Course Readings
Sara Corbett. (2010, September 15). Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom. The New York Times. Available at:,

Elena Malykhina. (2014, September 12). Fact or Fiction?: Video Games Are the Future of Education. Scientific American. Available at:

Ken Robinson. (2010, October). Changing Educational Paradigms. RSA Animate. Available at:

Salman Khan. (2011, March). Let's Use Video to Reinvent Education. TED 2011. Available at:

James Paul Gee. (2008). Learning Theory, Video Games, and Popular Culture. In Kirsten Drotner & Sonia Livingston (Eds.), The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture (pp. 196-212). Los Angeles: Sage. Available at:,%20Games,%20and%20Popular%20Culture.pdf.

Jean Anyon. (1980). Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work. Journal of Education 162(1), 67-92. Available at:


  1. Hi Nate,

    Thanks for your post here. It's super impressive. If you truly just wrote it the day before it was due--while hanging on your folks' farm(s) in Iowa with kids all around--this is darn impressive! It's probably my favorite piece of yours so far--and one of the best pieces of writing I've seen in my graduate courses for a while. Well done. Seriously!

    There's lots I could praise you for. Let me do that so I can adhere to my avowed philosophy of warm-cool-warm feedback. The genre is brilliant and fully realized. Your concerns about whether this can get us where we want to go are clearly expressed and fully justified. Your use of hyperlinks and humor is quite well done. And your ability to naturally integrate course readings--not too shabby!

    Ok, I'm a lot like you. I think we will have to get that beer together while staring at the fire and watching the snow fall. I dig the Biblical references and I wouldn't mind if you through in a few more that brought in Zen or the Dao.

    But here's where I'm at. There are a few folks like us who desperately want education to be about wisdom. About the cultivation of the right sort of desire. Who see education as the way we realize our heavenly aspirations, both in our present living and in our journey towards whatever is next.

    But our desire for that sort of education--an education that is truly transcendent--is not widely shared. Most folks want an education that is relevant and motivating--but that stops well short of the "kingdom of God." I'm having a hard time holding out against the Sal Khans and Q2L-ers of the world. Their vision of an educational system that is immersive, problem-based, and full of feedback certainly holds enough in common with what I want, and it is certainly something that I can embrace.

    As I homeschool my kids through the public health emergency, I rely heavily on gamification schemes and Khan videos to build basic knowledge of the world. But I also know that this is only a part. And I know that that "extra" is something that only I can provide. That sense of a life's purpose. That sense of hard work, freely given, in pursuit of the beloved community. That sense of finding and realizing one's own unique gifts.

    I've long hoped that the public schools might provide that. I've long hoped that churches might provide that. I'm mostly disappointed in the efforts of both schools and churches. It's not bad, but not quite what I think is possible.

    So what say you? Let's embrace the "good enough" in our public lives and leave the vision of the perfect for our own families and friends?

    Truly curious about your thoughts!

    Take good care and enjoy the lovely Iowa countryside,


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