LakeHub Game Design Workshop

Ligretto is a fast-paced game of breaking glass.  (That one in the upper-left corder exploded about ten seconds after this picture was taken.)
Ligretto is an awesome fast-paced game of breaking glass. (That one in the upper-left corder exploded about ten seconds after this picture was taken.)

LakeHub has been churning steadily along; we had our third event on Saturday, and it was quite successful according to me and everyone else I’ve talked to.  We’ve settled on a basic format for the time being, with an event happening every Saturday from 1-5pm.  Half of the time these are big group-oriented events with demos and big inclusive activities, and the other half of the time they’re ‘hang-outs’ where people get together to work with other tech-oriented people nearby, and to check in with ongoing study groups.

There are three study groups started already: one on microcontroller programming, hosted by Peter Mbari of Access Energy, one on javascript and web development hosted by Simeon Obwogo from IPA and James Odede of the Maseno ICT Guild, and finally a group doing game design, run by yours truly.  We wanted a less-technical group to complement the other two programming-heavy study groups; luckily I know some things about games, and game design is actually really useful in thinking about business and web technologies.  Especially with ‘gamification’ as a big buzz word.  So this week I’ll talk a bit about games, to get my mind going on the subject!

Gamification, of course, is the action that results from the following line of reasoning:

  1. People like games, which are sometimes fun and provide a sense of accomplishment.
  2. I want people to like $myThing more.
  3. Thus, I should turn $myThing into a game, or at least incorporate game-like bits into it.

On paper, it’s a good idea.  Games can be really, really engaging, are almost always very interactive.  (Exceptions exist!)

For Math

My $myThing is teaching math.  In Kenya, one of our big issues is changing people’s perceptions of mathematics, and it turns out that incorporating games is a fantastic way to do that for a variety of reasons.  In particular, the way we engage with games goes kind of like this:

  1. Learn the rules and experiment until we kinda get it.
  2. Play a bunch.
  3. Get competitive, and figure out strategies to crush your opponents.
  4. Repeat 3 until we’ve effectively ‘solved’ the game or just gotten bored.

On the other hand, a really good way to do mathematics goes like this:

  1. Learn some axioms or definitions, and experiment with them until we kinda get used to it.
  2. Experiment a lot more.
  3. Notice patterns and try to prove theorems.
  4. Repeat 3 until we’ve exhausted all of the interesting questions or just gotten bored.

See the similarities?  By getting people to engage with games from a strategic viewpoint, we actually trick them into thinking in a mathematical way.  To round things out in the teaching situation, we can ‘push’ this strategic thinking further than people might go on their own, and build more mathematical ideas into the games that we build.

For Education

Another area I’m inteersted in thinking about is educational structures.  That whole edifice of grades, exams, homework, quizzes, deadlines, and exit certificates is a game-like structure laid over the actual process of learning.  The certificate serves a dual purpose: to provide evidence that you actually learned something, and also to provide a tangible goal during all of those late-night study sessions.

The institutional education game is a tried-and-true method of getting people to learn things, and goes back quite a long ways: grading seems to show up in 1792.  What kind of other game-like elements could be used to induce people to learn?

A favorite of mine is the Code Academy.  They aren’t really bothered with evaluation, and focus just on helping people learn to program.  There are three really obvious game elements in the site.  You get ‘points’ for each exercise you complete, which encourages you to do as many as you can.  The ‘streak’ indicates the maximum days in a row you’ve completed at least one exercise, which encourages you to work on programming every day (even if just a little bit).  And finally, a system of ‘badges’ helps to mark major events and help the student judge their progress (100 exercises completed!  You’ve finished the Ruby track!).  It’s a really effective system; I find the ‘streaks’ in particular to be ingenious.   One of the big problems in traditional education settings is cramming for quizzes and exams instead of portioning out work on a regular basis.  Having a game element to encourage regular work (which helps concepts penetrate closer to the brain stem) is a fantastic idea.  Could we do something similar in a traditional classroom, or create a homework system that emphasizes everyday practice?

For Business

So that’s my thing.  Gamification tends to get mentioned in business quite a bit, and runs into some serious problems there.

  • Generally you have a big, wide market to engage with, so the rules of the game need to be simple and familiar, so that people engage freely.
  • If the game is for an on-going business strategy, as opposed to a one-off campaign, the game needs to have a decent amount of replay value, so as to avoid becoming boring, intrusive, or annoying.

The need to engage with the wide market tends to encourage games that are really, really boring.  Like ‘buy lots of stuff and eventually we’ll give you perks and/or more stuff.’  (This game is called ‘Frequent Flier Miles,’ and has been adapted to many, many contexts.)  Another popular game is ‘buy this bottle of sugar and we’ll give you more sugar or different stuff with small probability.’  (This is the classic soda advertising campaign, adapted from a game called ‘the Lottery.’)

But there exist good examples of games in businesses, too.  One of my favorites was a game in Toronto last year where you pay X dollars for a ‘coffee passport’ which gets you one ‘free’ coffee at each of N independent coffee shops.  This was a joint advertising thing, so the overall cost X was actually rather less than you would normally pay for N coffees.  It got at my combined love of coffee and interesting places, and gave me a really good excuse to break habit from time to time and try out a new place.

So what makes good games?  How can we work new and innovative games into the things we’re trying to build?  Over the next month, we’ll be working through the first few chapters of “Challenges for Game Designers,” an excellent book that introduces concepts and then gives challenges to design games incorporating those concepts.  So in addition to reading things, we’ll build things and play-test a lot of on-the-fly creations.  It should be really fun!

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