Spring is in swing in the afterschool setting (and now well into the downswing). Time to share some updates of the projects we have going on at UnboxEd.
We were excited to unveil Feed the Kraken, published by Funtails. The game is an excellent tool for teaching children critical thinking, deduction, and, fingers-crossed, teamwork. The production quality was outstanding.
Players must cautiously negotiate to gather information, deduce one another's allegiances, and guide the ship to one of three destinations, each one a victory condition for one of three factions. The gameplay encouraged communication and collaboration among players, and proved a fantastic way to teach children the concept of deduction.
Furthermore, players had to plan ahead, and balance strategy and tactics to adapt to the ever-changing board state. Throw in a little game theory and a perfect theme and production quality, and we had a rare outcome: full engagement from start to finish.
Modified somewhat for accessibility for our age groups, the iconography on all of the components was a simple tool to keep the game flowing and remind everyone of the rules.
Even the adults couldn't help but play with the navigation wheel while it was in their hands. The ship and kraken sculpts were a big hit, and the quality of the chips were almost too good (the kids couldn't help but want to show off their secret factions).
Though the hidden information didn't stay hidden for long, the Cult Leader actually fooled the entire table to (presumably) win the game, which was later corrected to a Pirate Victory. #ArrVAR
We'll definitely be bringing this one back to the table throughout the rest of the semester.
Also happening this semester was our Entrepre-Newbies classes. As fans of the recent Netflix hit Wednesday, our first group went a bit dark with their business idea: a store that takes your deceased grandparent and reincarnates them as a customizable pet through some patent-pending technology involving, "ashes, fur, and a sort of cotton candy machine."
Allow me to introduce Grandpawz and our first AI-generated print ad.
This was a fun contrast with our all-boys group, who went far more practical, deciding instead to create a car company. Details to follow, as they are just starting to build out their assembly lines and design (with clay models and real circuit boards) the distinguishing features and look of their brand.
How would you rate your curiosity? How often do you daydream? Is Googling an answer the same thing as satisfying a curiosity? Is curiosity innate in children or a skill that has to be taught and exercised?
What is curiosity?
We don’t have an answer from an evolutionary standpoint, except that it’s likely a side-effect of our pattern-seeking brains. You can probably imagine plenty of anecdotes where an unresolved piece of information leaves you frustrated or pensive: missing the end of an engaging movie, a text that starts with, “I need to talk to you” followed by radio silence, or an all-but-completed puzzle with one piece missing.
Human brains are designed to identify and solve patterns, even inventing them where they don’t exist. Curiosity may be the haranguing inside our minds when we encounter a gap in an informational puzzle. Especially when we know that an answer does exist. When we are unsure that an answer exists, the puzzle becomes a mystery, and engages our imagination. Imagination is possibly the tinkering with that puzzle using the information we do have. Or like dreams are the organization of our recent thoughts in an aesthetic manner, curiosity and imagination could be the aesthetic loading screen of our brains transferring information from short-term to long-term memory.
So where does curiosity come from?
As with all education, curiosity develops best once the undergirding emotional needs are met. Curiosity competes for bandwidth in our brain against fear and anxiety, especially a fear of failure, which we have written about exhaustively in regards to school culture.
A healthy environment for curiosity also requires a wide base of knowledge, which we use to make inter-connections, identify and ask questions about where the gaps in our information exist. But curiosity also requires a bit of modesty – knowing enough to know what we don’t know, but not too much that we feel certain about the information we do have. Skepticism is a friendly pairing to curiosity, and vice versa.
Research has noted that households that ask questions beget curious children. It’s not simply in the act of helping with homework, reading to kids, or answering their myriad of questions, but the process of picking their young brains as well, testing the limits of their knowledge and asking them to begin considering the approach between puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles have a solution; the pleasure is the path. Mysteries may never be solved; the pleasure is in the exploration. Either way, cultivating an excitement for what you want to know first requires cultivating an appreciation for what you don’t know.
Curiosity also comes from an appreciation for effort. Research shows that completing harder tasks is correlated with more engagement in that topic. This is also explained in our article about flow state and the difference between challenge and difficulty.
Is curiosity under threat?
Let’s look at a 3rd grade student in a low-income setting. Last fall was their first time in a classroom since kindergarten. They had limited access to materials in order to keep pace with their virtual learning. Parents were far more likely to be working multiple jobs and/or frontline workers who were unable to work from home. There are fewer books in the home. Even a sixth grader in our class this past semester couldn’t remember a single book he’d read in the past two years. That’s not yet counting the literacy and numeracy skills they missed in the past two years.
At the same time, digital consumption continues to grow. Children average ten hours of screen time per day, with low-income households averaging 1.5 hours higher per day, and growing. Thus, their interactivity with what they are consuming is becoming a one-way highway. There is little downtime or unstructured thinking time necessary to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory. At a time when information is immediately available, least reliable, and as a culture we are at the height of being uncomfortable with most forms of uncertainty. Curiosity and truth are at odds with instant gratification and superficial answers.
But again, as we propose in our article about self-efficacy and game addiction, how you interact with those digital components does matter. Researcher Ian Leslie states, “The internet is making smart people smarter and dumb people dumber.”
Googling is a useful tool, but it’s also problematically pragmatic. You don’t have to digest the question to answer it, nor do you have to digest the answer before moving onto another search query or stimulus. You don’t have to make predictions or create mind maps or engage your knowledge base of related information to make connections and deductions. For knowledge to be shifted from our short-term memory banks to long-term, we need that process to digest, settle, and organize information to grow our database and make those important links between neurons, where new bits are stored that eventually overflow and lead to breakthroughs in understanding.
What are the consequences of an incurious culture?
Critics argue that we don’t need long-term memory anymore because any needed information is accessible at our fingertips. That would be fine if everything we do from now on is algorithmic, but that ignores the richer, wider world of narrative thinking, of creative expression, of insight, of novel problem solving, and of emotional interactions where there are no immediate precedents or literature.
It also precludes the ability to discern puzzles from mysteries, which engage our imagination, to distill what we want to know from what we don’t know, to cultivate skepticism, and to have the foundation to question those answers we so readily rely on.
Go back to the third grader who can barely read and has barely read any books. We think imagination is a natural talent in children, but where would it come from? From the practice of visualizing things in their brain that aren’t really there. Where do they get that from? Books, probably. From time to sit and daydream or social pretend with other children in high-input environments with toys, games and outdoor play.
If kids grow up with a greatly reduced ability to conceive of things that aren’t there, where could that lead?
Besides the obvious lack of cultural, political and technological innovation, fewer works of art, fewer events of creative destruction, less insistence on replacing deprecated institutions with more modern institutions.
What about a revolutionary spirit? The willingness not to accept the status quo, to imagine a different fate or future.
Skepticism, critical thought. Reverse engineering what is factual and what is theoretical. Deconstructing the possibility that something that appears true, may not be. Holding in our mind both a conviction and the space for new information. Strong opinions, lightly held. Combatting our own biases; awareness of our lacking.
Empathy, imagining human experiences vastly different than your own, disparate cultures, ideas, attitudes, upbringings, values, backgrounds that you’ve never thought of before.
Mental health. Imagination as the ability to see a way out of depression, heartbreak, low self-esteem; to imagine what healing feels like, imagining a light at the end of the tunnel, conceiving of a different version of yourself, dreaming of who you want to be and the steps it takes to become it. Visualizing different choices than you’ve ever made before.
Optimism. Having no other reason to maintain hope other than you can imagine a happy ending.
So how do we get it back?
One thing to pay attention to, especially in education, is how we reward and punish learning. Rewards can be just as tricky as punishments. Schools in New York and Chicago found no change in test scores when they literally offered to pay students hundreds of dollars if they got A’s on their standardized tests; yet the schools in Dallas that instead paid students for attendance and turning in homework saw marked improvements in test scores; however, Washington schools saw no change in test scores when introducing the same incentives. But did this instill any intrinsic interest in learning versus a view that learning should be compensated?
A study in India found that introducing rewards too high produced lower performance. When assigning a difficult task, offering 5 months salary for completion resulted in worse performance than two weeks salary. The stakes were too high. This is why legendary athletes are scarce: they can consistently cope with those immense pressures.
Punishments can also be tricky as you switch between the realms of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. A daycare in Israel grew tired of parents picking up their children late, and instituted a fine for all late-comers. This new system actually saw the number of late parents increase, theoretically because the school had then re-defined the transgression from an intrinsic moral punishment to an extrinsic economic punishment, which more people were willing to accept.
The battle of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards and punishments needs a lot more research. Too much extrinsic reward undermines intrinsic motivation and dampens curiosity. Not enough can neglect a need for feedback, validation and incentives for students without a developed internal drive.
Exploration and self-directed learning could go a long way. Goal-driven versus experience-driven tasks often find that students perform better over the short-term when given a defined objective, but perform better over a longer-period of time and show a greater personal interest in the subject when they are allowed to explore it without objectives attached.
Meta Practice is also a new theory in neuropsychology that can be applicable. It is the idea of practicing how we practice. When it comes to developing a skill or habit, our brains have a gatekeeper that at times blocks messages being sent from our brain if it relates to an activity we associate with unpleasant feelings. This can relate to dieting, exercise, or learning a difficult subject. It also explains why reducing sugar or fatty intake and breaking addictions can be so hard: for as long we perceive the act itself, and not the aftermath, as pleasurable, our brain will regard it with positive momentum, no matter how regrettable or ill we feel after the act.
Meta Practice is the idea of being more present with how we train that skill or habit that we are trying to develop or break. In the case of learning, creating a warm-up routine, a thorough but casual debriefing, and mixing in movement or mindfulness breaks can punctuate feelings of pleasure into the learning process. Autonomy and self-exploration also have higher rates of pleasure associated with them. As does carving out time for daydreaming, unstructured thought, letting ourselves dwell in the discomfort of admitting, “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that,” and resisting the instinct to convince ourselves of an answer because it's easier than starting down a mystery.
I recently asked a friend of mine, during a career transition, what his dream job was. He considered it for a long time, as if he had never thought about it before. Almost as if he was trying to imagine a different version of himself who had the freedom to pursue a career based on his passions. He ended up answering with something practical, profitable, and not far off of his current career path.
I reframed the question to ask, “If you went back in time to re-do college, what would you study?” It’s a question I enjoy daydreaming about and asking new acquaintances. Personally, I imagine studying architecture or food science. Every time I see chocolate being made I feel an artisanal pang to do it, as does the prospect of being a flavor meister at Jelly Belly.
This month I wanted to ditch the royal "we," data and supplemental media (mostly) and write something personal, about passion. After taking a break from social media and blog articles in August, due to a lot of activity with contracts and curriculum for the new semester, vendor fairs and expos, and our first round of hiring instructors, I came to the point of having to accept how many hats I can sustainably wear.
In the past month, the topic of passion has resurfaced over and over again. As someone who just started designing their dream job in middle-age, I wanted to share aspects of my own journey with passion, the founding of a nonprofit, and the educational community.
To my comfort, I learned that middle-age is the best time to become an entrepreneur. Media and the celebrity of college-dropouts-come-tech-titans have given us this impression that entrepreneurship is a young person’s game. But consider it. I spend a lot of time around youth, and one thing that stands out right away is that they’re pretty bad at most stuff. Contrast that to someone with 20 years of experience in an industry, who knows its needs and gaps, has their ducks in a row, and has experienced enough failure to know that failure is a part of the process. For this reason, the vast majority of successful entrepreneurs happen to be middle-aged.
As it happens, I have a half-dozen middle-aged friends starting various business as well. I’ve started a resource group to support each other, which we call Dreamers & Schemers. We talk frequently about feeling overwhelmed at times, and doubtful. But those have both been the exception to the experience of waking up most mornings with enthusiasm and heartfire. As another symptom of middle age, I have a good handle on my discipline and boundaries. I work an 8 – 5 exclusively. That includes gym and errands. Occasionally work creeps up to 5:30, but only because I’m in a flow state and enjoying what I’m working on. I find it easy to follow my interests and instinct, and draw a line between work and life. And I have a wonderful wife and friends who provide enormous support.
August also marked our anniversary as a company. In that year I’ve transitioned from dreading and doubting my decision to form UnboxEd as a nonprofit to now defending and counseling people who are nervous about embarking on the nonprofit route. The simplest thing I can say is that the first year has been way simpler than I anticipated. That may not be true for the coming years, but I feel more than prepared for what they bring on the nonprofit front. And I’m happy to share resources and guidance separately.
Chasing one’s passion not only seems scarce in the professional setting, but it’s needed now more than ever. Despite the uptick in business creation during the pandemic, small business starts have been declining for decades. This has a huge impact on worker satisfaction, wage gaps, pricing power of companies, and more importantly to me, community cohesion and reinvestment. One thing I admire about Austin is its culture on sustaining and valuing local businesses.
I firmly believe that practical jobs are going to disappear to automation and AI faster than we realize. Which makes me think that most people will have less and less to lose through chasing a passion, and starting early, often and less unequipped than they’d like; all the while society will need more and more passionate people doing creative things that automation cannot replace and that invite people into a human, purposeful community. Unemployment is correlated with a lack of attendance at religious and social events. People tend to withdraw when they don’t feel as if they are contributing to society. I believe that is a problem we will need to address relatively soon, on a surprising scale.
The People I Mostly Admire is a valuable podcast for hearing from successful people who have chased their passion and where it led them. Andrew Yang’s interview talks specifically about the dire need for passionate creators.
I mentioned failure earlier, as a distinction between youth and maturity. It’s maybe more of a double-edge sword than I considered. One on hand, as we go through life, failure becomes more practiced, as does wisdom in response to it. Yet there is one looming fear that entrepreneurs take on, I think, which is the danger of identifying with failure. “If this thing fails, if I give it my best and it isn’t good enough, there will be no one else to blame, no other excuse except my inadequacy. What does that say about me? Am I good enough? What next? I won’t even have a dream job to fantasize about.”
Yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t conquered that fear yet. It still grips me from time to time. Especially, ironically, when things are going well. When there’s so much on my plate and it all falls to me. Some days I think, “I could quit now, call it a moderate success, keep it in my pocket and go back to something more streamlined, anonymous and flexible.” Maybe that fear will always be there. Beats me. If you find any good advice for this one, let me know.
But small victories, and gratitude. Those are instrumental. I bought a new printer and office chair this week while I waited on a vital contract that was 15 days-and-counting delayed. I am very excited about those additions to our team. The next time I need a boost, I’m going to let myself daydream about buying a sweet paper cutter, too.
The last article we published, focusing on Literacy, dealt with a lot of these themes: identifying one’s heartfire, visualizing that it is achievable for this version of you in this reality, what it takes to chase it, and how to develop each of those tools. It’s lofty and ambitious, but that is truly our mission. When I think of students, I do not think of college and jobs and global problems. Community and citizenry and creativity is inseparable to me from their and our future. Leaving room for what we haven’t the context to envision.
But that’s our journey. That’s where we’re at, where I’m at.
As ever, and also part of our mission, what doesn’t sound better as a story? To speak about life’s cycles and kismet and validation and gratitude, let me introduce you to Felix. Felix was one of our first hires that we made this semester. He’ll be joining me in our Social-Emotional Storytelling class.
I happened to meet Felix when he was 9 or 10. He’s 20-something now. He was a student in my first-ever afterschool D&D club, over a decade ago. A few months ago he found me on LinkedIn via an article I wrote about D&D in the classroom. He reached out, informed me that he and 4 or 5 other former students still played D&D weekly, and invited me to join a game.
I jumped at the chance, enjoyed an at-times awkward but mostly amazing reunion with my old students, and proceeded to mercilessly derail Felix’s 5-hour campaign as the sort of payback that all teachers dream of.
Yet, the initiative, the experience, the passion, left such an impression on me that the following week, when I needed to hire two new instructors for the program, he was the first person I called.
Welcome to UnboxEd, Felix. Here is a short interview to introduce you to his own journey:
Felix, Professional Game Master/Instructor
Stefan: Describe your dream job.
Felix: For the longest time I believed my creative dreams, whether it be doctor or astronaut or inventor, were unobtainable. In other words, I viewed them as things that only happened to people in movies.
Today, I'm asked a question I used to find terribly difficult to answer, and I face it with confidence.
I WANT TO BE A WRITER. (The capital letters indicate that I’m shouting it from the rooftops.)
Regularly, I would have just said author, but I feel like I want my creative agency to span into multiple categories. Whether it be Dungeons & Dragons, or screenplays or novels. I believe that it is my goal to create a story that will make whomever interacts with it feel every emotion, and I believe that I have the skills to do it.
Stefan: Lame. (Just kidding.) Speaking of D&D, what benefits from D&D and RPGs in general have you seen in your life?
Felix: Lots of English teachers over the years would tell me how wildly creative I was; I had a significant amount of family members that wrote professionally, and much more. But the one memory I tie closest to when my brain switched and told me that every job (specifically creative jobs) were obtainable to me, was when my elementary Dungeons & Dragons teacher allowed me to run a campaign.
It was horrible, absolutely awful. Some of the worst written stuff I've ever seen. I'm pretty sure it was based off of a video game, and it didn't make any sense. But I loved every second of it. I cherish that memory despite wanting to permanently erase it from my mind due to how embarrassing it was.
Something about that moment of having agency over a creative project really took over in my mind. I would scribble short stories in my notebook every day. Once that moment had happened, I started caring so much more about the games we played. I started to realize that even when I was a player I was still creating and telling my own story.
I feel like D&D is the biggest reason I got back into writing books. I had given up for so long because I felt once again that it was too far of a dream to achieve, but running a roleplaying game gave me the halfway point between playing games and writing a novel. I realized it didn't feel difficult to write and I started writing again in both mediums.
Stefan: Everyone’s going to think I coached you to say that. So now you’re back, on the other side of the table. Why? What do you hope to accomplish as an instructor?
Felix: To ensure that everyone is having fun, and that at the end of the campaign, there are memorable story moments that every player will remember. You have to recognize that the story is not entirely focused on you alone, and that if you make it that way, the people around you won't have fun. It is also your job to make sure that your fellow players are feeling comfortable. If they feel like they can't speak up, or feel outcast, it's your duty to bring them in.
If everyone around me is happy, I typically feel happy and fulfilled. So when I come into the world of education, I want to start off simple. Making sure the kids I work with are enjoying themselves. If every player is happy, the lessons will come naturally. If they are happy together, I believe that teamwork will naturally form.
Stefan: You’ve worked in social work/healthcare, but you're somewhat of an outsider to the educational side of our mission. What has made an impression on you thus far? What unique vision do you hope to bring to game-based learning?
Felix: I think that I am unique in my experience being on the other side of the program. My whole future became filled with more options because it opened up the possibility of having a different future than the one I thought I was unwillingly destined to follow. I want the kids I work with to realize that the things they experience in the game can be applied to real life. They can be so much more than the path they are expected to follow. If they enjoy helping people in the game I want to be able to turn that around and have them realize that they can have a job in the future where they help people.
Stefan: Wow, you have no idea how suspiciously that ties into the theme of the article I’m writing. Thank you, Felix.
Most people probably think about literacy as the competency to read and write. For many educators, their first thought probably drums up SpEd interventions, breakthroughs, small group learning, particular students who have struggled or succeeded in their care: they see the trenches of the literacy battlefield. They know that illiteracy reduces the world to a fraction of its richness; they see the opportunities and light that open up for a child once they access a new form of communication. Literacy is possibly the humanization of a student.
We want to speak about literacy in this larger context. We’ll start broad, as always, and shamelessly theoretical, and work our way down to what all of this has to do with games. (Spoiler: it mostly doesn’t.) All with the caveat -- and disclaimer -- that this one might get more spiritual than usual. One of the reasons UnboxEd chooses to operate in magical worlds, is the attempt to reflect the magic in our own. Is there a difference between magic actually existing, and living your life as if it does?
Through this lens, we see literacy as synonymous with imagination, the measure of a student’s universe, the quality of opportunities and functioning within their community, and exploration of new cognitive and ideological pathways.
Three examples come to mind when we broaden literacy. One from a RadioLab podcast on the Power of Words. The first time a new language emerged in recorded history happened in Guatemala in the late 70s. Children at the country’s first deaf school invented their own sign language. As generations of students passed through, expanding the language’s vocabulary over time, lingual studies found that 1) the current students, with access to a greater volume of words, had a far more developed cognitive, creative and emotional capacity than former students; and 2) as the younger generations socialized with former students at deaf recreation centers and taught them new words, the former students’ neural networks grew to match the younger generations. Greater access to words can literally open up new connections, ideas, and emotional understanding. Literacy expands your mind.
Secondly, we recently learned that many scientific discoveries, especially in the realm of neuroscience and micro and cellular biology, were catalyzed simply by the means of a clearer picture. The advent of microscopes ushered in a flurry of scientific discoveries, as did the increased accuracy of medical illustrations. It seems almost silly, but the act of seeing things more clearly, in new dimensions, and with greater fidelity, sparked inspiration and more imaginative theories as to how those building blocks interacted beyond the page. Literacy is clarity.
To bring it back to games, it lastly calls to mind an experiment that the goddess of game-based learning, Jane McGonigal, conducted over ten years ago and describes in her book, Imaginable. She created a simulation of a pandemic and for months participants played out choices within that crisis. The fruit of that study didn’t ripen until a decade later, when she found that the participants of that experience had suffered far less anxiety, stress and depression than the average citizen during this current pandemic. Literacy is schema.
In the book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (which we otherwise don’t recommend), Jerome Bruner describes how learning culture is created through the power of language. He studied the modals (bundles of words or phrases) that teachers used, and found that they correlated to a student’s perception of learning. Modals indicating a lack of confidence, or uncertainty, or disinterest, “might, could, maybe, sort of” transferred those same attitudes into students. While modals of passion, excitement and conviction created those same sensations in students. Here, the power of literacy wasn’t in transferring a concept as effectively as possible, but in inviting the student to step into the pleasure of passion, and extend their world of wonder and possibility. He labels this bridge created by language a “loan of consciousness,” (aligning and building on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development), and describes his own obsessed, inspiring chemistry teacher not as a transmission device, but as a human event.
Where all of this collided for us was the results of an innocuous warm-up we posed in our Entrepre-newbies class. One day we asked, “What is your dream job?”
We assumed answers would come back reminiscent of our own childhood: doctor, teacher, artist, whatever amoebic business-thing our dads did. Instead, over 50% of the answers cited a job in the fast food industry. Another quarter referenced social media fame. One girl wrote “lawyer,” and added, “I wrote what I thought you wanted me to write.”
That was eye-opening: our students’ vocabulary of opportunities consisted of either the world that immediately surrounded them, the world they escaped to, or the world they felt they looked in on from the outside. Not a world they freely imagined.
When people think a goal is unobtainable, they are less motivated to work toward that goal. That’s not just common sense, it’s economical. It’s why a privileged childhood is full of platitudes of “putting your mind to something” and “dreaming big” and “shooting for the moon.” It becomes self-fulfilling. The important part is not the goal itself, but the language of achievement and possibility. Put more eloquently, Lisa Bu's rather boring TED talk ends with one of the most inspirational and rational messages we’ve ever heard: “Coming true is not only the purpose of a dream. It's most important purpose is to get us in touch with where dreams come from… even a shattered dream can do that for you.”
Many people don’t have to practice dreaming. It’s similar to success, genius, or happiness in that way. Once we begin to “other” it, instead of seeing the hard work, struggle and cultivation behind it, we shelf it away as inaccessible. For some demographics, dreaming of something bigger is a literacy problem.
We started Entrepre-newbies because we saw that, like struggling readers, many of our students, as well as their parents (and even our own colleagues), faced a similar effacement of ownership. They claimed economics was too complicated or might as well have been a foreign language. How many times have we all heard that about math? About logic and scientific principles? About therapy, analyzing literature, or social-emotional wellness? (Specific to SEL, we invite you to check out our appearance at the International Literacy Association’s panel on D&D for Social-Emotional Literacy.) Also, as for calling them “soft skills,” that’s dumb; let’s quit. Communication and interpersonal competence take hard work and practice. They are the concrete foundation on which learning, creativity and wellness are built. Empathy is literacy.
Someone walking out of a car dealership or buying a home with a predatory loan is a literacy problem. Not understanding debt, credit cards, depreciation, loan interest, or the power of investing and compound interest, is a literacy problem.
Beyond dreaming, beyond practical, beyond economical, literacy is the language of both negotiation and education. A literate mind can engage in fruitful debate; it can hold both a mind open to new information as well as a conviction. It can recognize and address dissonance, or discover the tool that can. When we think of education as a cultural, community and civil institution, we think of it as a forum: a stance open to counter-stance. (See also: Democratization of the Classroom.) The ability to inform one’s self begets a desire to be better informed.
For those to whom literacy came easily, they don’t often think about the struggle it takes for others to arrive; and more likely, they also forget that there was no external force or system telling them that it didn’t belong to them.
We had a student in our Entrepre-newbies class who had a learning disability. He barely graduated 5th grade. Within our group, he volunteered for a surprising responsibility, when the expansion of our fantasy business required one player to study chemical and electrical engineering at a university, in order to invent a magical battery. For two months, he stayed after school twice a week to attend college in a game world. He solved all the challenges we threw at him, graduated and invented a battery that opened up a hundred new possibilities for the business. The pride was beaming, but the cheers were cut short, because we had so many new ideas to pursue.
We talked to the student after group that day, to congratulate him and ask if engineering was an actual interest of his; if he might study engineering in real life, given how proud it made him feel.
“No,” he said, conclusively. “I’m not one of the smart kids.”
So what’s the point? Why did us game folks spend a whole article talking about language? Did it do anything for that student above?
Honestly, we don’t know. Game-based learning is not a silver bullet. SEL especially takes time. We can only hope he keeps absorbing wondrous language, and finding the right human events.
Literacy has less to do with games as much as it has to do with our mission.
There are two ways to think about the brain, its Pragmatic Mode and its Narrative Mode. Pragmatic mode is computational, functional, rational. It solves problems accurately and efficiently. It gets you an answer, but it will never operate in a way that makes 1+1 equal more than 2.
Narrative mode is meandering, chaotic, not necessarily practical. But it can create meaning. It can create answers that equal more than their sum. It can imagine. It can dream. Essentially, it can lie to us. It can tell us awful stories that strip us of our agency; and it can tell us improbable stories that hold epiphanies we’ve never considered before, build fantasy worlds that create real heroes, expose fallacies that reveal hard truths, and dream of possibilities greater than our circumstances.
Now that summer has officially arrived, we are proud to announce a new milestone for UnboxEd: due to demand, we are launching our first official fundraiser to meet all of our fall, spring and summer goals. The fundraiser is running June 22nd through July 20th and can be found here:
Our GiveButter donation page!
We invite you to visit our donation page, hear more of our story, see what we’ve built during the last year and where we hope to go, and consider supporting us by donating or sharing the message with others.
All proceeds from the drive will be used toward:
We've included the flyer for the donation drive to share on social media, or with anyone you feel may see the value of UnboxEd, as well as any local business that might be interested in sponsorship.
Thank you for all of your support and faith thus far. It has been a banner year and we're excited to start dreaming even bigger.
In education, one constant is the amount of assumptions that run up against a brick wall. Steven Levitt and Sendhil Mullainathan cover this topic in this podcast, distinguishing (though not defending) academics and researchers from the bulk of society who try everything they can to avoid admitting, “I don’t know.”
Our most recent assumption that went up in flames was a foundational one: all kids love games. We’ve come to realize how complex of a statement this really is, and have since dived into a myriad of literature concerning Player Types (PT) and player motivations.
Turns out, there are many overlaps with the previously-discussed Self-Determination Theory (SDT) framework, personality types, neuropsychology, and our beloved Agency. There a lot of different reasons why someone might enjoy playing a game, including in some cases the pleasure of ruining the game for others. This framework is useful for aligning an instructor’s approach to feedback, flexibility and engagement.
We will be drawing largely on Marczewski’s Typology that studied gamification specifically, which drew on foundational research done by Bartle to produce the original Player Typology. We’ll describe what drives each PT, how they may fall to the dark side, and how one can redirect errant behaviors by understanding the underlying goals they are each seeking through their behavior.
It’s important to remember, everyone is a mix of Player Types, with one type likely dominant. If you want to determine your own Player Type, you can take a quiz here.
Socializers are motivated by Relatedness, one of the tenets of SDT. Simply, they want to create social connections. They gravitate toward systems and mechanics that promote interaction, like NPCs, voting, coopetition, negotiating, and bluffing. Socializers are also perhaps the most nuanced PT, with new research citing that there are multiple subtypes that need more investigation. They are also the only type whose motivations and behaviors lie equally outside of the magic circle, interacting with and benefitting from the facilitation and organization of the real-world social setting.
There can be a fine line between Socializers and Philanthropists, who are motivated by Purpose. Philanthropists want to feel as if they are part of something bigger, so will seek out interactive systems to achieve this, as their altruism desires to benefit other players with no expectation of personal gain. (We can recollect our moms falling into this category). Gifting, knowledge sharing, trading, community-building and sacrifice are mechanics that excite Philanthropists. This is also the type who takes the time to provide the bulk of answers on public forums, in order to help his or her gaming community.
Free Spirits are motivated by autonomy (also part of SDT) and self-expression. They have at least two subtypes, Explorers and Creators. Explorers want as few restrictions to the width of the game as possible, and are the most likely to bump up against edge cases, find fiddly rules too restricting, propose a litany of house rules, and discover gaps in an imbalanced system. Creators want to build new things, draw and decorate their avatars, add personal content and design the world as often as possible.
New research suggests a further subtyping, separating Free Spirits into those who seek Catharsis in games, or a means to escape from reality into tidier systems where they feel more freedom and efficacy; and Stimulation, or seeking excitement from the act of testing hypotheses, deduction, and assuming identities they otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to explore.
Along with Philanthropists, Achievers are the easiest type to identify. They are motivated by mastery (or competency, as defined in SDT). They want to learn, improve, collect and seek out challenges. However, this may vary between an intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, so they may or may not brag about their accomplishments, but are likely to be hyper-competitive with themselves and possibly others in an effort to master the game. They are excited by systems that add to a game’s depth: skills, upgrades, status, and engine-building, or that add trophies and progressive feedback.
Taking a look at how Player Types intersect when it comes to performance during a game, we can see that, not surprisingly, Achievers dominate when it comes to no assigned goals (a feeling of competency is their main motivator) and assigned goals (winning to them is a signifier of mastery), though Achievers dip behind Free Spirits when it comes to self-assigned goals, as this is a Free Spirit’s bread and butter, and Achievers tended to choose the most difficult tasks of any type.
Free Spirits performed well in each category, without specializing into mastery, and outperformed even Achievers when it came to setting their own goals, likely in the realm of creation and exploration. Since autonomy is at their core, monolithic goals like winning may actually de-incentivize them.
Socializers and Philanthropists performed the most consistently, while lagging the other types in goal achievement, likely because 1) most games don’t offer purely social or philanthropic mechanics, thus limiting their ability to access their favored win conditions and 2) accomplishments and endgame status are not a primary motivator.
Another interpretation is that some Socializers and Philanthropists may be naturally less competitive, or resort to social connection as a way to defer from effort, a fear of losing, or insecurity about their competency. It seems that in games, nice guys do finish last, unless they decide that success means being a nice guy.
Jekyll and Hyde
As mentioned previously, there are dark sides to each of the types. Some are blunt, like Griefers and Destroyers. Others, like Improvers and Influencers, can ride the line of bane or virtue.
Influencers will try to change the way a system works by exerting influence over other users. In cooperative games they are known as Quarterbacks. This is not inherently negative. If they feel the system is broken and you allow them a voice to discuss changes, they can become allies and advocates. Make use of them or lose them – worse still, they could end up switching to a Griefer.
Griefers (this is the Killer in Bartle’s taxonomy) are direct disruptors, in and out of the game. They want to negatively affect other users, just because they can. It may be to prove a point about the fact that they don’t like the game, don’t want to be in the learning setting, are having a bad day, or feel insecure about their competency within the game systems; or it may be that they have learned to accept negative attention as favorable to no attention.
Destroyers want to break systems within the game. This may be by hacking or finding loopholes in the rules that allow them to ruin the experience for others. Their reasons again may be because they dislike the game or it may be a deviant form of exploration or mastery, hacking things or besting opponents by any means. Adding constructive feedback and scaffolding can hopefully guide them toward being an Improver.
Improvers will interact with systems with the best intentions in mind. They may find loopholes or make up rules that make more sense to them, but their aim is to change the system for the better. They are similar to the Free Spirit type, in that they want the autonomy to explore the system, identify problems and fix them. With care, they can be great leaders; ignored or mistreated, and they could retreat toward a Destroyer.
The trick for every PT is to identify their internal motivators and gradually convert them from being impulsively reward-seeking into setting personal goals that are harmonious with the objectives of the learning setting, if not the game.
Charting a Path Toward Intrinsic Motivation
We’ve spoken at length about the complexities of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, and how games are superb at reinforcing self-efficacy. But as an instructor, part of the job is to make students aware of their own motivators and give them the tools to create their own sense of engagement.
One simple source is empowerment. People tend not to enjoy things they’re bad at. Playing to a student’s strengths can make the difference between their light and dark sides, even if it means skewing systems to benefit the way in which a struggling student wants to play the game. Asymmetrical games or contrived asymmetry (tacitly giving one student improved abilities or equipment) can make players feel special, empowered, or give them the proper scaffolding to compete with more advanced players.
Another source of engagement is meaning. We mentioned asymmetry, but another facet of balance is that players need to feel that their choices have influence over their outcome in the game. This is called self-efficacy or meaning-making. It’s what connects players to the magic circle, their avatar, the narrative arc and the social dynamics of a group. If it’s not apparent, accessible and rewarding within the game, Griefers and Destroyers can often spot an easy path to self-efficacy by ruining the game for others.
Some methods to improve meaning don’t even have to be inside the game. Assigning one player as a Captain or Leader, a Rule’s Sherriff, a Treasurer, a Cartographer, etc. can give them a sense of purpose and value, as well as incentivize them to become a role model or abide by the game’s rules to maintain their status. Jobs can apply in the game as well, using roles that would apply to a mission, phase or achievement in the game.
Counter-intuitively, cooperative games aren’t always the best choice for game-based learning (until you know your players well and have established mutual trust). This is because Griefers and Destroyers can wreak havoc on a cooperative game. In competitive games, at least the game’s systems can fulfill some of their negative intentions. But if everyone’s fun is hinged on them agreeing to play cooperatively, they may see this as an easy opportunity to wield their displeasure over the rest of the group.
Splitting the players into competing teams may give disruptors a sense of allegiance and relatedness, as well as lowering the stakes so that they don’t feel as if they are solely responsible for their failure. It’s also a good idea to start off gaming sessions by reminding students that there is no penalty for losing or making bad decisions. Everyone is going to make mistakes; the point of games is iteration.
School has given most students a phobia of failure. Try to undo that a bit at a time by lowering the consequences of experimentation – who says you even need to keep track of score accurately? Or consider supplementing scoring with individual inspiration points, meta currency or rewards toward a mega game.
Physical rewards work wonders. Kids love nothing more than possessing something. Creating real-world trinkets, drawings, maps, figurines, cards, treasures and souvenirs that bring the game to life spark so much joy, and give them a tangible and emotional connection to positive outcomes. This is a perfect example showing that the best form of teaching is creating experiences. Combined with upgrades, skills, unlocks, discoveries, etc. these all provide demonstrable evidence of progress. Progress = competency = empowerment = engagement = curiosity = discovery = repeat.
One thing to keep in mind: rewards, empowerment, and meaning should all be focused around the core loop of the system you are trying to teach. The act of a student demonstrating comprehension of a core learning objective should ALWAYS result in a pleasurable experience. That’s what games are most beautiful at: attaching intense, memorable, visceral feelings to great choices.
For specific Player Types, let’s take a look at additive vs. subtractive motivators, and left brain (logic and analyzation) vs. right brain (creativity and socialization) motivators.
For Free Spirits, Socializers, Improvers and Influencers, try to offer them less regulation and let them discover their own paths and rules. They thrive on anticipation, not results. Feed them unpredictable game states, randomness, social influence, an amplified voice, and opportunities for teamwork or treachery.
With Achievers, Griefers, and Destroyers, make them feel special. Scarcity, tasks, and personalization can be one way to help them appreciate a personal goal or reward. Invent trophies, rare items they can possess, and special missions. Just as in real-world economics, something is far more valuable when it is one-of-a-kind.
As a post-mortem of this article, a colleague asked if this analysis applied to non-gamified learning, as well as adult learners. We can assume that most elements can be applied to any interactive learning setting, and any stage of development. Though separate research tells us that older learners gain more from repetition, whereas younger learners gain more from social proximity and the quality of direct and immediate feedback. Anecdotally, many of us can probably safely classify our moms as Philanthropists during childhood games.
As for how well this typology extends to other realms of learning, we say: be the experiment you want to see in the world.
In the gaming industry, there is no shortage of definitions for “game” or “play.” This article isn’t overly concerned with the what, as much as asking why we play, and the various ways in which we’ve studied how we play.
There is also no shortage of the studies of play. The American Psychological Association found that children who engaged in active play for 1 hour per day were better able to think creatively and multitask. Gamers also exhibited more emotional resilience during conflicts. Columbia University showed that physical play in 7- to 9-year-olds enhanced attentional inhibition (patience, focus and organization) and cognitive flexibility (the ability to grasp concepts more quickly as well as make connections and switch between concepts).
As for why we play: essentially, play is practice. Given that play can be as abstracted, imaginative and social as we desire, play can better prepare us for nearly every realm of life. What gives play that power is the intention of meaningful discovery in a safe environment through the process of trial and error. The greatest benefit to play might be its attitude toward failure.
So if play is inseparable from failure, and education is inseparable from play, shouldn’t failure be inseparable from education? Our experience tells us that students are far more likely to view failure as inseparable from finality.
The field of play is a field of discovery, and also catharsis. Rough, sporting, and competitive play enables people to safely explore multiple boundaries within the parameters of a game. Consequences are temporary. There is research linking the cessation of sporting activities during the pandemic with a rise in violence.
Healthy conflict fosters communication, negotiation, fairness, and emotional regulation. It also stokes a curiosity for risk-taking (one of our Guiding Principles) while developing empathy as young minds learn the dual nature of harm.
Another benefit it that play supports mental visualization. Make-believe. Through a series of experiments, researchers showed that students in small groups who explored a new concept before a lecture measured stronger comprehension than those who experienced the lecture before self-exploration. This has been reproduced in pre-schoolers better enumerating uses for an object pre vs. post instruction.
Because they encountered more Productive Failure, thus iteration, students who began their learning without direct intervention developed more semantic knowledge and transference. Learning through play establishes personal connections of how and when to apply new concepts.
Conversely, guided play, also called scaffolding, has supporting research as well. A famous researcher in the education world, Vygotsky, theorized that the most efficient learning occurs when a teacher is present to scaffold content in a way that resonates with and builds on top of a student’s prior experiences.
Cambridge University used this concept in game-based learning to find that centering play around a defined goal, while allowing children to try various paths toward reaching that goal, did benefit their comprehension better than either self-exploration or direct instruction.
For many of us, a “serve-and-return” form of play does begin from birth and follows us through much of our adolescence. Consider how much nonverbal communication and interaction transpires before a child learns to speak. Smiling, laughing, cooing, fear, discomfort and doubt can all lead to a reciprocal dance between child and parent.
Social and Role Play
Sociodramatic play is when children act out the roles of adulthood from having observed the behavior of adults. Studies suggest that this function of play is to build a prosocial brain that mimics effective peer interactions.
Rats that were deprived of play as pups not only were less competent at navigating mazes later on, but their medial pre-frontal cortex was significantly less mature, suggesting that play deprivation actually stunts physical brain development. Rats with reduced access to play acted less socially and communally when they encountered other rats later in life.
The concept of development and maturity is especially important, as some of the health effects of social play can’t be seen in the immediate or even medium term. A Berkeley study found that third-grade prosocial interaction correlated with those students’ eighth-grade reading and math outcomes better than with their third-grade reading and math outcomes.
Fun: It Keeps You From Being a Grumpy Jerk
Play and stress are also closely linked. Higher amounts of play are associated with lower levels of cortisol (stress chemicals). Play also activates norepinephrine, which facilitates synaptic connections and improves brain plasticity. The maturing of the pre-frontal cortex, as shown previously in lab rats, moderates the impulsiveness, emotionality, and aggression of the amygdala.
Let’s translate all that. Taken place in a safe environment, play lowers stress, stimulates chemicals that help the brain learn, and during times of conflict and adversity provides a template for resilience, judgment and maturity against our primal impulses.
Theoretically, play may be an effective therapy to an overactive amygdala, aggression, and uncontrolled emotions that result from childhood adversity, stress and trauma. This is likely why role play can be such a useful tool for developing empathy.
To Screen or Not to Screen?
Now that we’ve established so much goodness around play, a secondary topic emerges: video games versus in-person games. The bulk of studies in the gaming world center around video games, due to the fact that video game companies can and do pour a lot of money into research to defend and extol the benefits of gaming.
Many reliable studies have found that video game players do show higher intellectual functioning, higher academic achievement, better peer relationships, and fewer mental health difficulties than non-gamers – though at this point, upwards of 75% of the population may fall into the casual gaming category.
Parsing out the difference in quality between types of gaming is harder. One Berkeley study did compare traditional and digital toys, and found that traditional toys were associated with an increased quality and quantity of language development compared with electronic toys, particularly against solo electronic toys.
In social pretend play, without the aid of a digital setting, children must collaborate on an environment and assign roles, which improves their ability to reason about hypothetical events.
Digital media, if supported by scaffolding or co-play with peers, may have similar benefits, though the thinnest barrier between human-to-human interaction likely remains the best environment for learning. As humans are naturally communal, combinatorial innovation is far more likely to occur and spread through physical proximity.
Good Failing and Bad Failing
We spoke previously about the idea of Productive Failure and how it stoked creativity, problem solving and comprehension. The caveat to those findings is crucial: the consequences of failure cannot be perceived as too great, i.e. how most every student in the public education system perceives failing.
Instead of creating an atmosphere where failure means trial and error, iteration, semantic connections and growth, failure has become a looming threat. This leads to performance avoidance, where instead of pursuing knowledge for its applications, interests or value, students perform only as well as sees them avoid punishment. They may never achieve a path to intrinsic motivation or independent learning, and may always rely on external incentives.
In the world of game design, the only time a designer implements a system that subtracts is to introduce tension to the player experience. A timer counting down, running out of ammo, or losing all your money. This is the experience students encounter at school five days a week.
The value of grades and test scores holds their agency (another Guiding Principle) hostage. Supposedly, Google allows engineers to spend 20% of their office time on any project they desire, whether or not it’s related to work (though undoubtedly Google has a right to anything that is produced). As a result, productivity and retention are high, while upwards of 50% of their commercial projects come from employees pursuing an outside interest.
Some schools have adopted this system by letting students study interests and hobbies unrelated to curriculum. Turning education back into play. They have shown reduced drop-out rates, improved behavior, boosted grades, and increased motivation.
We are very interested in asking those students the original question, “How important is failure?”
Well done, adventurer. You've arrived at the unenviable task of wrangling together a group of tiny, fickle humans who have all agreed to try D&D for the first time.
Uh oh. Now you and four tiny, codependent humans are sitting in a room staring at each other wondering why you have all agreed to sit in a room using your imaginations together.
After many instances of this exact situation, we have compiled a reference for how to approach your first game of D&D with newbies. (Plus, check out our article about all of the benefits of playing D&D. Or, for those worried about the amount of violence in games like D&D, check out our article discussing violence in games.)
Granted, this primer was developed for tiny, mildly-engaged humans, but has proven more than adequate to field all the questions you will get from a group of large, imagination-less humans as well, such as:
"So, like, what do we do?"
"So, like, how do we do that?"
This is why student Agency and Democratization of Rulesets are part of our founding principles at UnboxEd. Students are empowered when they are able to discover, discuss and align a personal reward to their effort. Rewards don’t mean bribery. Intrinsic motivation is measurably more powerful than extrinsic. For that, students require confidence in themselves and in a system that is fair and responsive to their choices.
Some games do contain social comparison scoring, winners and losers, but they always see that score building, and they give each player independent paths to success: unique challenges to solve, unique characters to evolve, unique skills to master, and unique strengths by which to be identified. Games ask what you want to go after and how you want to achieve it. Then pile on rewards along the way.
Games offer additive scoring, player-driven narratives, constant and tailored feedback, introspection and empathy, and an abstracted world of make-believe where mistakes and failure are de-stigmatized as a natural step of experimentation, problem-solving, and identity formation.
So is gaming an escape, or is it a cry for self-efficacy?
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