Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Environmental Psychology, Gamification and the Quest for Eutopia

Transcipt of Video 1, Above: Syllabus Introduction

In this course we explore something historically novel: the blending and democratized application of environmental psychology, positive psychology, educational theory and computer gaming technology to the possibilities for meaningful community participation in sustainable development and to the making of new and better worlds both in fantasy and in reality. That is a fancy way of saying we will look at how new technologies and new knowledge of how human beings and societies relate to, function in and change their environments open up new possibilities for problem solving on both a personal level and on an epic scale.
In this course we explore how we can all contribute to the creation, realization and implementation of our own ideas of eutopia. And in this course you get a chance to share your vision of “the good place” (Greek: Eu = Good; Topia = Place) with your peers and instructors and, thanks to the advent of globalized internet based social media technologies, the entire world.

And that means that you have the possibility for having an impact and literally changing the world. For the better. Your way.


Since the beginning of recorded history human beings have looked at their environment as it is and then used their powers of imagination to conceive of alternatives that pleased them more. This ability to invent worlds that do not yet exist seems to be unique to humans among all of the earth's lifeforms and the capacity to act on those fantasies and actual create such worlds almost certainly distinguishes us from all the other species with which we share the planet.
The ancients fixed their fantasies in legends and myths, thinking out loud through poems and stories and songs, and then thinking out louder through the magic of the written word. Books such as Plato's Republic, for example, were able to broadcast and carry the thoughts and ideas of small groups and individuals all around the world, enabling new forms of civilization and its governance to be tried out thousands of miles from their point of origin. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods books like Thomas More's “Utopia”, Francis Bacon's “A New Atlantis” and Thomas Campanella's “City of the Sun” explicitly used the power of “story” to help people pre-visualize what a 'better' world might look and feel like.
Books were not the only ambassadors of alternative realities of course. Drawings and paintings, sculptures and models, theater plays, dance, opera and circuses, athletic games and board games, all of these media were put into service at one time or another to express visions and possibilities for creating different environments and different relationships between human beings and between humans and non-humans in those environments.
In the 20th century the harnessing of electromagnetic waves as carriers of such visions dramatically extended the reach and impact of human speculative fictions. Radio and films and television allowed people all over the planet to experience very realistic and dramatic ideas of possible worlds in a way that felt as emotionally impactful as dreams, giving everybody who listened or watched the conviction that they had the capacity to be epic dreamers, “seers with conviction” – visionaries. And as more and more people realized they could use these technologies to express their own ideas of what the world could be, the effect on our psychology has been profound – a democratization of oracular thinking...

Now, in the 21st century, technology has gone a step further, actuallya quantum leap further, with the introduction of immersive interactive 3D virtual worldsand the availability of powerful but inexpensive game engines that allow for accurate and realistic simulations of physical processes that were unavailable to any but the wealthiest and educationally privileged groups in advanced economies.

Following the work of Dr. Jane McGonigal we will explore the argument that gaming, with its deep application of the principles of positive psychology and environmental pscyhology to the construction of emotionally compelling fantasy worlds, is already changing the way we perceive and conceive of our possibilities and alternatives. And we will investigate how gamification – the application of these principles to real world outcomes in education, business and development – can empower each of us to not just think out loud but to “think out loudest”, giving us all a voice in the transformation of world so as to create a desirable future.

 Transcript of Video 2, Above: The Relational Summary and Dialectics

Greetings and welcome to our First Lecture in Environmental Psychology, Gamification  and the Quest for Eutopia .

As you may know, the principal assignment in this course, the way you get most of your credit, is through the creation of what we call our 'Relational Summaries'.

A relational summary differs from a normal summary in that what we are looking for is the relationship between the course material and your personal experience. In the relational summary we use what we are learning from our textbooks, journal articles and outside readings and relate the topics to our own lives.

We aren't much interested in a parroting of the authors whom you have read – we make the assumption that we all have the books and material available and that we can read it ourselves. The relational summary is not a substitute for the assigned reading – it isn't a short cut for others to pick up the gist of what we are studying, and it certainly is not merely a way of 'proving' that you have read the material.

The relational summary is a part of dialectical thinking and communication, which may be the most important skill you ever learn as a human being.

We see dialectical skills being important in the current presidential debates and we treasure in our democracy our ability to be able to participate in those debates, much as we see in town hall discussions of where we would like our future to go. This ability for citizens as well as the political elite to discuss and debate their future is a hallmark of American democracy and one that is very rare in other countries around the world. Without it we have dictatorship.

Let's define dialectical thinking for a moment to make sure we are all on the same page:

dialectical thinking: Dialogical thinking (thinking within more than one perspective) conducted to test the strengths and weaknesses of opposing points of view. (Court trials and debates are, in a sense, dialectical.) When thinking dialectically, reasoners pit two or more opposing points of view in competition with each other, developing each by providing support, raising objections, countering those objections, raising further objections, and so on. Dialectical thinking or discussion can be conducted so as to "win" by defeating the positions one disagrees with — using critical insight to support one's own view and pointing out flaws in other views (associated with critical thinking in the restricted or weak sense), or fairmindedly, by conceding points that don't stand up to critique, trying to integrate or incorporate strong points found in other views, and using critical insight to develop a fuller and more accurate view (associated with critical thinking in the fuller or strong sense).

Since dialectical thinking is analogous to dialogical thinking, let's examine a definition of that term:

dialogical thinking: Thinking that involves a dialogue or extended exchange between different points of view or frames of reference. Students learn best in dialogical situations, in circumstances in which they continually express their views to others and try to fit other's views into their own.

Simple right? What we are really after is a dialog. And in the relational summary you write you are beginning a dialog between the authors you have read and yourself.

And by posting your relational summary you invite others – me, you fellow students, people outside the class if you like – to participate in that same dialog. You invite others to express their points of view and you try to see if you can fit the authors views and the views of your peers into you own.

That is the real function of all of our assignments.

John Taylor Gatto, whose book 'Weapons of Mass Instruction” we are reading this semester, also believes that dialectical thinking is one of the most important things we can learn or teach. He exhorts us to,

Teach children to think dialectically so they can challenge the hidden assumptions of the world about them, including school assumptions, so they can eventually generate much of their own personal curriculum and oversight.” (

Many of our problems in the world today come from most of us spending years in systems that not only didn't encourage dialectical thinking but punished it. So we don't often get sufficient practice these days in the ancient art of Socratic dialog.

Another of our readings this semester, Bernard Suits' “The Grasshopper” is written in the form of a Socratic Dialog and represents some dialectical thinking at its best. It gets even better when you engage with the book and bring the dialog about the game playing grasshopper and the hard working ants out into our own reality where it can be discussed with our peers.

I have a method for creating the right environment for dialogical argumentation that I use every year here at Mercy. I simplify things by asking you to do the following:

Each time you sit down to write your relational summary, take at least three quotes from the course assigned readings, making note for us of the pages you found them on, and take at least three quotes from outside readings that you discovered to be relevant to our topic, in other words books or readings you “assigned” to yourself, and make note for us of where you found those ideas so we can find them ourselves if we want to go deeper. Reproduce those quotes or ideas from us and then engage in a dialog with those six quotes – or more, more is always better – by relating them to your own life experience and opinions and observations.

The summary that you come up with as you try to relate your life and opinions to what you have been reading about from other's lives and opinions is what becomes then a “relational summary”. It makes the readings something YOU can relate to and in turn becomes something WE can relate to.

The second part of the method is for you to involve yourself in a dialog or discussion with your classmates about the relational summary they posted. Take on the challenge of engaging with what they have written. Question their assumptions, provide your own perspective. Argue your point of view. Throw some new quotes and evidence at them that either supports or refutes what they have to say.

Don't worry about being 'right' or 'wrong' in a judicial sense – you will win no points nor lose points for the opinions you espouse; what we are looking for is that you back up your arguments with a trail of evidence that we can all follow – we want to be able to ascertain what is your personal opinion and what came from others, and we want to be able to go back and look at the source of those from whom you drew quotes and ideas. Most of all, we want to see that you can work with the opinions and ideas of others, give appropriate credit when credit is due, and that you can make a case for your own ideas and opinions by backing them up with personal experience.

Since the relational summary is the dialectical foundation of this course, I would like to take this opportunity to model for you how it might be done in my lecture.

In fact, a lecture usually IS a kind of relational summary. The professor takes what he or she has read, pulls out relevant quotes and ideas and builds an argument by relating the literature to his or her own life experience as a practitioner in the field. So my lectures are similar to what I expect from you – they are relational summaries.

Normally, we start with a quote or observation from the literature.

So, for today's lecture, let's assume that Jane McGonigal is right and that reality is broken.

 Transcript of 15 min Video Lecture Part 1, Above:

Let's assume that Jane McGonigal is right and that reality is broken.

She compares the way we perform in our real lives and the way we act in games and says, on page 4,

“As we make these value judgments, hold moral debates over the addictive quality of games, and simultaneously rush to achieve massive industry expansion, a vital point is being missed. The fact that so many people of all ages, all over the world, are choosing to spend so much time in game worlds is a sign
of something important, a truth that we urgently need to recognize. The truth is this: in today's society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.”

“And unless something dramatic happens to reverse the resulting exodus, we're fast on our way to becoming a society in which a substantial portion of our population devotes its greatest efforts to playing games, creates its best memories in game environments, and experiences its biggest successes in game worlds.”

(Please note, as an aside, that this is the first of the six quotes I'm dialoging with in this relational summary, and that I've provided the reference; you can also find the argument at this website: (

One of McGonigal's big themes is the supposed tragedy of this “mass exodus” to virtual reality and how to counter it by improving real reality.

But how do we begin to go about fixing it?

If you went to the doctor and complained, “doctor, I'm broken” the doctor, assuming she's any good, isn't simply going to tell you to take two aspirin and call her in the morning, she will try to determine where and how you are broken, and from that diagnosis seek the appropriate treatment.

And so it must be when treating the ills of reality.

First we have to decide what parts of reality seem to be 'broken' and define for ourselves whether we are talking about human society in general, which goes back tens of thousands of years, or the recent human social and technological experiment we call “civilization” which goes back to sometime between 5 and 8000 years ago?

Or was it our transition from a nomadic hunter gatherer lifestyle , going back millions of years, and shared with many other animals, to the sedentary agricultural lifestyle now unique to our species that created a feeling of being out of step with reality, reality being a nature to which we are longer well adapted, and that hence led to a feeling of broken-ness?

These hypotheses, which suggest a a mismatch between the type of creature the human animal evolved to be and the environment in which it now finds itself, is popular in popular literature that explores genetics, Biological athropology, Evolution and sociobiology.

We find good arguments for the idea of “man the maladapted animal” in the works of authors like Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz and Erich Fromm in the 1960s in books like “The Naked Ape” and “The Terretorial Imperative”, “On Aggression” and “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness” and recently in works by geneticist Spencer Wells and literary author Daniel Quinn in books like “Pandora's Seed: The Unforseen Cost of Civilization”, “Ishmael” and “Beyond Civilization”.

The basic argument about humans being out of step with nature is simplified by Quinn into the notion of the “leavers” and the “takers”.

Where we went wrong, Quinn says, is when we decided that we could decide who gets to live and die. He says on page 239,

"The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'"
"For three million years, man belonged to the world and because he belonged to the world, he grew and developed and became brighter and more dexterous until one day, he was so bright and so dexterous that we had to call him Homo sapiens sapiens-- which means he was us."
"The Leavers' story is 'the gods made man for the world, the same way they made salmon and sparrows for the world. This seems to have worked well so far so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods'."
Quinn uses a talking gorilla as the main character who tells humanity that the “taker” culture has used both religion and science to justify 'playing God' and to justify acting as if we can do whatever we want to our environments. He says,
"The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you're to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world - not because they're humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is more than one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet."

(Another aside: This is the second quote I'm using in this relational summary, this time from outside readings not assigned to the course. I'm relating the ideas from our course readings to ideas from material I have hunted and gathered myself; this is a key part of the relational summary, bringing in outside arguments. You can learn more about the ideas in Quinn's Ishmael from; In this way I'm leaving a paper trail of my sources).

Suggesting that human culture explains where we went wrong might not be the full answer though. Not many people in the world want to leave its running “to the gods”. People started acting as though the world belonged to them rather than the other way around because many did find life in 'harmony' with nature to be, as Hobbs famously pointed out in his Leviathan “nasty, brutish and short”.

So despite some evidence from certain tropical environments favoring the Rousseauian concept of the Noble Savage living a carefree life in balance with her surroundings, there is also evidence of great hardship for groups of people trying to live well while 'belonging to the world'.

So there is another perspective we might consider. And that is the idea that maybe Nature itself is “broken”. Maybe the very nature of Nature – the way the universe in general and the Earth in specific were created – inevitably leads any intelligent and feeling organism to feel dissatisfied. In that case reality isn't just broken, but perhaps was never such a great place to begin with.

Regardless of the level of reality in which you may find yourself unhappy, identifying the priority areas is still of the essence, and finding ways to improve the parts that trouble you most seems to be one of the major tasks we face in life.

Fortunately, Dr. McGonigal identifies several areas where she finds reality to be broken and gives several possible solutions.

In Part 2, “Reinventing Reality” she quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson saying “All life is an experiment, The more experiments we make, the better”. And the experiments she urges us to run, using games as the safest and most rewarding testing ground, are encapsulated in the following list, compiled from throughout the book on

  1. Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use.
  2. Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we’re good at and enjoy.
  3. Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work.
  4. Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances for success.
  5. Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks. The more time we spend interacting with our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as “pro-social emotions.”
  6. Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us part of something bigger and give epic meaning to our actions.
  7. Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing.
  8. Compared with games, reality is pointless and unrewarding. Games help is feel more rewarded for making our best effort.
  9. Compared with games, reality is lonely and isolating. Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch.
  10. Compared to games, reality is hard to swallow. Games make it easier to tame good advice and try out happier habits.
  11. Compared with games, reality is unsustainable. The gratification we get from playing games are an infinitely renewable resource.
  12. Compared with games, reality is unambitious. Games help us define awe-inspiring goals and tackle seemingly impossible social missions together.
  13. Compared with games, reality is disorganized and divided. Games help us make a more concerted effort – and over time, they give us collaborative superpowers.
  14. Reality is stuck in the present. Games help us imagine and invent the future together.
McGonigal concludes that “Maybe we should be treating our reality more like a game.”

However, given limited time and resources we still need to find a starting point, we need to pinpoint at least one major area where our daily reality makes us suffer, and it is important that we identify an area that we have at least some control over, and apply our fixes there first.

John Taylor Gatto clearly identifies an area that he believes is central to the problem and vital to the fix, and that is something that is very close to all of us, and to a certain extent within our control:


The idea that school itself could be our chief problem may strike some of you as odd. Schools are supposed to be something we need more of, not less of, right? Schools are supposed to be our most important solution to our problems, right? When we talk about “helping” third world countries, we talk about building more schools. When we talk about the path to success we talk about the need for more schooling.

But according to John Taylor Gatto in “Weapons of Mass Instruction”, schools themselves may be the very things that are most broken in our reality, and Jane McGonigal is inclined to agree. And it isn't just a matter of differentiating between so-called “good schools” and so-called 'bad schools”. According to Gatto it is the very nature of the institution that makes it rank as the greatest of our problems.

So here is the second of the three quotes from our assigned readings I want to call attention to:

Our “American” schools (both public and private) are fashioned after the Prussian system of education. The Prussians were well-known for their regimented society and their efficient military. “Divide children by subject, by age-grading, by constant rankings on tests, and by many other more subtle means, and it was unlikely that the ignorant mass of mankind, separated in childhood, would ever re-integrate into a dangerous whole.” A society divided is a society which cannot find its way. So it was there in Prussia and still is here in America that we have a society of people able and willing to take orders.
Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants.” A society of servants requires a class of leaders.

One in every five American jobs is some form of oversight over the behavior of others.”

These quotes come from page xviii of the “Prolouge: Against School”. More can be found at

The Gatto perspective, which we should all think through with an open mind, is that our schools aren't failing. Not by a long shot. The problem is that they are succeeding too well. How can that be?

Gatto contends that our schools are succeeding in doing what they were really set up to do, which is to keep people from being independent creative thinkers and from being able to compete in the marketplace. In other words, schools were set up not to help you get a good education, but to put barriers in the way of you getting a good education.

He gives plenty of good evidence for the idea that the dysfunction of schools is deliberate, but even if it weren't, a strong case could be made that the reality of schools is still broken in the sense that the way schools operate goes against millions of years of co-evolution between human minds and the environments we evolved in. The argument that people are maladapted to the institutional school environment is made most strongly by J. Gary Bernhard in “Primates in the Classroom: An Evolutionary Perspective on Children's Education” .

I use Bernhard as the second of my quotes from unassigned readings that I think are relevant to the dialectic we are engaging in.

On page 75 Bernhard reminds us that,

“An interesting aspect of the context of closeness and cooperation in nomadic foraging societies is conversation. People seek one another out, keep up on all the latest news, talk before , during and after the hunt, tell jokes and tease one another...”

He quotes from the Anthropologist Tonkinson (1978, 127) who lived among the !Kung bushpeople of Botswana, saying, “Also characteristic are a gregariousness, a love of animated discussion and repartee, and a keen interest in what transpires in all dimensions... [conversation] keeps up good, open communication among the members of the band; through its constantly flowing expression it is a salutary outlet for emotions, and it serves as the principal sanction in social discipline...”

 Transcript of 15 min Video Lecture 1, part 2, Above:

Now contrast that with the way we treat conversation in schools. We forbid students to talk 'out of turn', forbid them to talk before, during and after the hunt for knowledge, forbid teasing, animated discussion and repartee, and we wonder why discipline is always falling apart in such an environment.

We ignore tens of thousands of years of the desire to be in a conversation being the prime attractor for maintaining social decorum and participating in the social contract observing the golden rule.

The threat in traditional societies was that if you misbehaved you would be cut out of the great conversations that humans alone possess the brains to have. You would be silenced or ostracized. But in school environments everybody feels punished the minute they walk into the classroom because they are not allowed to talk freely. For generations this was the most powerful social sanction you could impose on a person: deny them the right to free speech.

In fact the American utopian experiment and our cherished 1st amendment to our constitution is precisely about guaranteeing this most important right. Tyranny occurs when the right to speak freely is removed. Yet ironically in our schools we encourage tyranny on the part of the teacher and we try to put down the natural rebellion students engage in to recover their stolen rights. A so called lack of discipline is usually associated with students trying to be part of any real conversation, voicing your own views particularly when expressing unpopular opinions. Good discipline, good school behavior is assumed to occur when students merely parrot back what the teacher has permitted you to say and when you follow their prescribed script.

We should also observe that in a hunter gatherer society the natural environment has not been dumbed down by reducing the landscape to just a handful of plants and animals. The natural environment is a place where people have not been “dummified” by repetitive monocrop agriculture or factory work (as James Scott from Yale University describes it in “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed) ; the environment is so rich that there is plenty to talk about that immediately creates a so called “teachable moment”.

In a sufficiently complex natural environment, merely commenting on what you are seeing – talking about the weather and commenting on the sounds and sights and smells your senses are taking in -- becomes a valuable education in itself. By comparison most classrooms are entirely too dull, and it is no wonder that whatever students freely talk about is going to seem off topic. Students in particular and human beings in general prefer to talk about things relevant to their concerns and survival, not the sterile and meaningless environment the school system has provided.

Of course this is hotly debated with one camp believing that classrooms should be sterile so that students are not distracted from the message the teacher is dictating.

For my third quote from our assigned readings I choose Bell et al.'s Environmental Pscyhology textbook, page 450 in the section on “learning environments” . They say,

“Some researchers believe that classrooms should tend more toward the complex rather than the simple. Having more stimuli and opportunities for environmental exploration provides an enriched environment that facilitates learning. Others disagree, arguing that complex learning environments are distracting and make it difficult for the student to concentrate on school work... Of course, classrooms serve more purposes than just learning content relevant to a specific topic. They also involve learning how to learn, learning social responsibility and acquisition of cultural values. Different classroom environments may facilitate one of these purposes but not the others. Working for the right fit between pupil and learning environment is probably the most desirable approach (e.g. Ahrentzen et al., 1982), a view consistent with adaptation level theory as presented in chapter 4. Because things change with time, it is important to evaluate classroom design modifications continually.”

The pointer back to Chapter 4, “Theories of Environment-Behavior Relationships” and Adaptation Level Theory on page 110 is a good one because it honors the fact that for every individual learning is different and for each there may be “an optimal level of stimulation”. The problem is that there is no “one size fits all” prescription for schooling and the danger of schools is that they teach to either the lowest common denominator, or they teach to the mean, the so called 'average' student, or they break people apart into designated groups – from so called special education to the suppposedly 'highly gifted', all of which stigmatize us and injure young people's ability to integrate their unique skills into society in a way that gives us all the chance for a happy self actualized life.

McGonigal might argue that virtual reality now gives us the ability to customize classrooms for each individual student so that nobody has to suffer through a learning environment they don't feel comfortable in. We can customize the manufacture of minds the same way we now customize consumer products, and nobody has to feel stigmatized.

But if we are still going to create brick and mortar classrooms, if we are going to inevitably err in our design of a learning environment by trying to accommodate a roomful of different people without trying to homogenize them, then the proper error, some would argue, would be too look at the types of environments in which the human mind evolved and create circumstances that at least in some respects are analogous to those that shaped us.

Bernhard in Primates in the Classroom analyses the school environment from the perspective of a nervous system that was honed over millions of years on a planet where people did talk all the time (talking was the one thing our species did that set us apart from all the other animals) and in which the act of sitting still and listening to others talk uninterrupted occurred mostly at night in dark environments around the warm glow of a campfire. This was the time of storytelling when the elders and the wise and most accomplished told their tales to pass on wisdom to the tribe. The bright light of day saw us on our feet hunting and gathering in unimaginably complex environments, searching for materials to build tools and shelters and running from predators and constantly chattering to one another.

No wonder students find it hard to sit still and sit quietly in a classroom in the middle of the day. So long as the sun was up we were mostly up on our feet and if we were sitting doing productive work, like basket weaving or clothesmaking or sorting and chipping stones, we were constantly moving our hands and, more importantly, constantly talking with one another.

Parents instinctively know this – we read stories to our children at bedtime just before lights out, not in the middle of the day, and we discuss our discoveries and activities around the dinner table.

But school asks us to go against our entire history of adapting brain and body to the circadian rhythms that govern our attention structures in complex and highly stimulating environments. We demand normal night-time behavior, conditioned over millenia when darkness simplified our surroundings, during the hours we are most interested in active motion and exploration and communication.

Is it no wonder, then, that children find it so hard to cooperate with the artificial mandate we impose on them to suspend all motion and spontaneous talking and listen to the shaman like teacher tell stories?

I did an experiment in my own classroom in the early 1990s with a group of so called “troublemaker” students. I simply drew the shades, turned out the overhead lights, put an orange-red light bulb in one corner of the room, looking like a campfire, and whispered greetings as the students filed into the classroom. They immediately adopted a hushed tone and whispered back, “what's going on?” I whispered, “sit down around me in a circle, I want to tell you a story.” And they played the game with me. They were quiet yet alert, excited but calm. I told them about the need to “hunt and gather” for information that could save our “tribe” from disaster and told them that when the sun came up we would have to get up and explore the room for clues to solve a problem I had written on the board. I said in my whisper “and remember, to solve the problem you HAVE TO talk to one another, because the clues are scattered throughout the room and nobody can solve it on their own.”

Then I turned on the lights and opened the shades and said in a loud voice, “right, let's get to work!!”

Immediately the classroom turned into a magical environment for treasure hunting. After about a half an hour of frantic conversation, working with microscopes and dissection scopes and books and probes, milling about with high energy, I drew the shades again, turned out the lights and went and sat by the “fire”. Almost immediately my students calmed down, ceased what they were doing and gathered around me, quieting into a hush. I asked softly, “welcome back to the cave. It's been a long day hunting and gathering. Let's talk about what you discovered and see what you brought back to camp...”

This simple but effective experiment, repeated many times with different groups, confirmed to me the notion that environment not only powerfully affects psychology, but that the school environment is unusually antagonistic to normal human behavior and is thus responsible for most of the problems that teachers and parents and students all complain about. Yet almost nobody seems to do much about it.

Over the years I went further with these experiments in applied environmental psychology – I started having the students select movie soundtracks to play during certain lessons, enhancing the teachable moments by treating the classroom as if it were a landscape in a Hollywood movie and allowing the students to feel like characters in various adventure and science fiction stories.

By using music and visual aids and, with the student's help, an understanding of what environments their young minds and bodies wanted to be immersed in in order to learn most effectively, we turned our classroom from a place of boredom, hostility or goofiness into a place of mystery, adventure and productive experience. We turned classrooms into spaceships, jungles, and even a utopian biosphere called Marsville. When we couldn't make the classroom simulate the environment we wanted we put students in front of a blue screen and let them see themselves on a television monitor with whatever fantasy landscape they wanted behind them.

With a little bit of Hollywood magic we were able to deal with the broken nature of reality and use a bit of fantasy imagineering to fix it, at least as far as how we saw it in our minds eyes.

The year that the movies 'Deep Impact” and “Armeggedon” came out we researched the threat of the earth being hit by a meteor, watched scenes from Hollywood blockbusters and scientific documentaries and set about learning “survival science”, discussing how we might survive in shelters, grow food, recycle water, and provide electricity. To learn to “shoot down” prospective meteors we used a computer game called 'green globs' that taught the use of quadratic equations to destroy green spheres in a cartesian coordinate system which we said represented the meteors. In this way students became enthusiastic about learning math because it was suddenly relevant to stopping a real threat – it wasn't algebra, it was 'ballistics'.

Let me go into a little greater detail about the Green Globs Program.

I used green globs in my classroom at Hollywood High School's At-Risk Youth Career Academy in the mid 1990s as a way of teaching math and ballistics to students.  But please note that I was never a math teacher. I was working with retired Air Force personnel as part of a government sponsored project to improve math and science to help our armed forces.  I found Green Globs to be the best way to motivate my students and really give them understanding of applied math but the mission of our students was not to learn equations that, as they said so often “we'll never use when we graduate”, the objective was to work in teams to solve a problem of possible meteors and possible missiles from space threatening their country. These threats were represented by the green globs on their “radar screen” - a cartesian coordinate system that finally had meaning.

We had a big screen with a projector in the front of the class representing mission control and a row of computers in the back where team members sat in groups of two or three trying out quadratic equations from various text books to see what effect they would have.  When they thought they had a good equation that would knock out the maximum number of globs with a single shot in their back room simulations, potentially  saving resources and time and ammunition, they would send a hero up to the front to take the shot against the "real" menace.   Each team had a certain "budget" of shots.

The program was wildly successful -- students taught themselves math to cooperate and compete to counter the "threat from space".  They memorized trigonometric functions and equations for circles and ellipses and point-slope formulas merely because they wanted to be better heros against the imaginary threat. We did no teaching of math concepts and no drilling. They simply played the game in this context and the learning and memorization came naturally.

By contextualizing the learning in terms of meaningful fantasy landscapes that had some connection with reality but was safer than reality, we made serious learning fun. By making the goal mastery of skills in a non-threatening environment where failure is not punished or ridiculed but is a sign that you are pushing your limits, we took all of the anxiety out of science and math.

As an aside, for the purposes of our Relational Summaries, note what I've just done here: I used my discussion of our readings to launch into a very personal explanation of MY particular experiences as a teacher trying out some ideas I got from the literature and some that I came up with myself. In this way my summary of the literature becomes relational to my life and ideas and opinions, and that is what I want to get from you too. We aren't interested in hearing once again what we already read, we want you to take us on a journey into your past, your present, your experiences, your observations, your experiments, your trials and errors. We want to learn from YOU! So please do relate what you are reading to your life.

 Transcript of 15 Minute Video Lecture Part 3, Above:

In my life experience, going back to my early experiences as an inner city teacher deeply troubled by the chaos in the classroom, what we did back in the late 80's and 90's when I was working with so-called 'at risk students' in South Los Angeles, was “gamify” the classroom. Back then we didn't have that word for it. But now “Gamification” is seen by more and more people, from corporate leaders to educational leaders, as one of the best ways to make work and learning relevant, effective and fun.

Even the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania teaches a course on “gamification” that explores how game elements can be used to improve the way we do things.

Privileged kids have almost always been given the chance to gamify their learning experiences, have almost always been permitted and encouraged to tailor their educations to their own particular learning styles, to bring their passions and excitements into the learning environment. If ways of capturing intrinsic motivations for learning a subject were not provided in school they were inevitably provided by family, friends or community. The question as far as school in general goes is, “can we really make learning environments that make learning meaningful and fun for everyone? Or is this impossible to do within the standardizing school environment?”

Jane McGonigal, author of Reality of Broken, takes things further than gamification. She doubts the efficacy of trying to take our school curriculum and merely create “educational games” and new point systems and rewards and incentives from the outside in. She suggests that merely gamifying the workplace or the school environment fails to capture the essence of what we need to do to fix things in our world.

There are many other critics of gamification who argue persuasively that we are going about it in the wrong way.

In an blog post by Kristen Bourgault called Gamification in Education: Epic Win, or Epic Fail? At, she talks about “THE CHEAPENING OF GAMIFICATION”, saying (and here I use my third quote from an unassigned source):
Is gamification really the magical process that so many believe it to be? Many critics would argue against it, saying this process merely cheapens and distracts from the learner’s experience.
Look around you – elements of video games are creeping into many of your daily activities. Have you booked a flight recently on Trip Advisor? Commented on a Huffington Post article? New ways of “earning badges” and “unlocking achievements” are cropping up every day. But does the ability to earn a badge automatically increase our engagement in an activity?
Game designer and consultant Margaret Robertson doesn’t think so. In a recent blog post speaking out against the term ‘gamification’, Robertson wrote, “What we’re currently terming gamification is in fact the process of taking that thing that is least essential to games and representing it as the core of the experience. Points and badges have no closer a relationship to games than they do to websites and fitness apps and loyalty cards. They’re great tools for communicating progress and acknowledging effort, but neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game.”
Gamification is the wrong word for the right idea. The word for what’s happening at the moment is pointsification. There are things that should be pointsified. There are things that should be gamified. There are things that should be both. There are many, many things that should be neither.” Margaret Robertson
You may be tempted to jump on board and trade your grades in for badges and call it a game. But this simple act doesn’t dramatically change the learner’s experience. Take some time to really understand what makes a good game great. Create a compelling narrative to pull your students through the course. Set up mentoring and collaboration opportunities such as those you encounter in games to enable learners to share what they know. And frequently chime in with feedback. Use those badges to chart progress, but meaningful instructor feedback is what will truly propel the learner forward.
Gamification, by contrast, doesn’t rely on internal motivation. Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn’t especially motivated – at least at the beginning – and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.” Elizabeth Corcoran

This is something that true game designers would never do because the essence of a good game, as pointed out by Bernard Suits in his analysis of what makes a good game in 'The Grasshopper”, and echoed throughout “Reality is Broken”, is that good games are AUTOTELIC ACTIVITIES (see pages 45 and 46 for a good definition of that term) that tap into our INTRINSIC reward system. Gamers don't play games to earn points, or money, or fame, or to get candy bars, though all those things may occur. They play games because it is fun, because it feels good, because they want to, and often they will continue even when they are threatened or punished for playing. By contrast schools, no matter how many extrinsic rewards are offered from the outside, are usually places of compulsory attendance. The high truancy rates attest to the deep structural flaws in their design.

So gamifying school environments with more extrinsic rewards can not really tap into the intrinsic motivations that make all mammals naturally want to play and play and play, all the while preparing themselves through play for the serious business of survival. A dog will chase a ball or a stick whether you give him a treat or not because it is wired to find it fun. Eventually the dog will use that skill to catch a rabbit, but as a puppy it plays merely because it is fun. So in this sense pure games, properly designed may be a better way to prepare humans for gaining real survival educations than some school curriculum beefed up with flashy point systems and 3D characters.

The subtitle of McGonigal's book is “Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World” and the essence of her argument is that games themselves have the power to transform reality for the better. In many cases games today “previsualize” what an alternative reality might look like. The detailed fantasy landscapes are immersive and interactive and whether they depict a utopian or a dystopian past or future, a version of the world as it was, or is, or could be, they give players a certain “agency”, and ability to interact with and make changes to the reality around them. This is itself is more empowering than the normal artforms and media that people used to depict different versions of the world.

Also, when playing MMORPGs or “massively multiplayer online role playing games”, gamers are learning organically how to cooperate with strangers to 'level up'. McGonigal argues that far from being mere 'shoot 'em up' competition, a wide variety of games today reveal to the players the real-life advantages of working together and solving common problems.

McGonigal argues that we could and should design more games that overtly concern making a better world, such as her “urgent evoke” and “world without oil” games, but she also argues that the rewards systems and meaning systems of games, and their ability to keep people focused on difficult challenges without punishing 'failure' stands in complete contradistinction from the way schools and work environments are run. In the latter there is constantly anxiety to succeed and one false step can have terrible consequences. In the former, in the game environment, we follow Thomas Edison's advice, “if you aren't making at least 10 mistakes a day you aren't learning fast enough” and honor Albert Einstein's comment “I failed my way to success”. Game design inherently makes challenges fun and encourages investment in that which is difficult. School and jobs seem too often to do the opposite.

We can try to “gamify” real schools and jobs with different incentive structures, but there may be something deeper about these environments that prevents any amount of reform from having real impact, and this is a point that Gatto tries to hammer home.

Gatto, after 30 years of teaching in some of the toughest schools in the nation, concludes that schools were not created to help people succeed, they were created to maintain the illusion of a democracy and meritocracy while enslaving minds to a sinister Pavlovian conditioning of bells and schedules that rewards only those who are obedient and confine their thinking within narrow parameters proscribed by the elites in charge of maintaining a hierarchical order. In Gatto's experience, any school that really starts producing a majority of critical people who can truly think for themselves and realize that they can learn far more on their own than they could in an institution seals its own doom.

And if this is so, then trying to fix a school with gamification would be like changing the hubcaps and tires on a car and giving it a new paint job without replacing the faulty engine.

If Reality is indeed broken, meaning that there are structural problems with our society, with our environments and even with our own human nature that make life more difficult and unfair than we would like it to be, then mere gamification might be likened to cosmetic changes when the only way to solve these problems for sure would be to create new structures and test them out. But because of the inherent risks in replacing one reality with another, the tests, or experiments, can't easily be done in the real world.

They need to and can be done in games.

But if we can try out alternate realities in games, with low risk, low transaction costs, no threats of social disruption or harm to the player, the community or society, and if these alternative realities turn out to be superior to what we see in reality, then the argument would be “why do we need the practices and institutions in reality to stay the way they are?”

Why couldn't games replace school? Why couldn't games replace work?

If we can show that through gaming people can learn better and faster, if we can show for example that playing Green Globs with your friends can give you a better understanding of quadratic equations and cartesian coordinate space and graphs, why would you go back to using a textbook? Why would you get up early and go through the sleet and snow on a cold winters day to catch a bus to arrive in a room before a bell rings risking getting “in trouble”, just to have a person stand in front of you with an ancient technology like chalk and a chalkboard, writing incomprehensible symbols on the board, where you may feel embarrassed to ask a question lest you lose face or social rank, when you could sit home in a warm bed with a cup of tea and your laptop playing green globs, or when you could go to the community center or public library and join a gaming group cooperating to save the world from space aliens using mathematical formulas?

If we can show that through gaming you can do your job better and more efficiently, if we can show, for example, that playing SimCity Societies you can balance a budget better and improve roads and transportation while keeping your citizens happy, or that by participating in the game “Fold-It” you can help solve protein configuration problems that have been stumping biochemists for centuries and with friends from around the world “design new protein shapes and actively help cure diseases”, why would you be content going to a job where part of your energy and time and much of your salary was wasted in the commute, another large portion wasted in on-job politics and conformance to dress codes and other social norms, and even more wasted through the inefficiencies created by fiefdom obsession over secrecy and proprietary information? Why wouldn't you develop and sell your skills to cutting edge firms who see the win-win value of crowd sourcing and collective intelligence in a new global on-line marketplace that uses virtual reality as an integral part of its work skill portfolio?

The fact is that the military and the scientific and engineering communities, as well as economists, have been using computer simulations and various game theories and approaches to do serious work for decades. Real soldiers use combat simulations – games – to learn serious techniques and strategies at almost no cost and without the risk of injury or death, pilots of course use flight simulators to learn how to fly real aircraft, Astronauts train in simulators before going into space, and even doctors today train in virtual reality before refining their skills on real patients.

And while simulations get ever more faithful to reality as we model the physical, chemical, biological and social interactions with greater accuracy, we also learn from games and our ability to distort physics and defy the laws of the real universe how we might change things to make the outside world a little more to our liking.

Games like Spore enable the public to participate in nurturing the evolution of imaginary life forms (and in the process learn quite a bit about natural selection, artificial selection and evolutionary processes) but genetic engineers are also using simulations to see if they can improve upon the designs found in nature without threatening our natural systems while the kinks are being worked out.

And that is the greatest advantage of games – in them failure has few costs and has overwhelming advantages, so gamers are encouraged to fail. This acceleration this provides for learning and improving can not be overemphasized.

For if there is one thing that is truly broken about reality, about our schools, our jobs, our social life, our policies and planning and our international relations – if there is one thing that is truly broken about nature itself on this planet or any other in our universe, it is that failure creates fear. And when we fear to fail, we cannot truly learn. Trial without error leads nowhere.

So the simplest fix for all of reality and its woes is to create environments where we can control the consequences of failure, and make it safe for each individual to learn by making their own mistakes and level up at their own pace.

We now have designs and technologies that enable us to do that, and that is much of what this course is about.

(The full lecture with graphics, 45 minutes long, for review, is below)