Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Finland’s greatest export isn’t education; it’s Angry Birds!

Lots of talk about serious games and games in learning. Some simply add ‘scores’ or ‘lives’ to their e-learning and call it gamification. But much of it is from people with limited knowledge of the games industry producing educational apps by the dozen, most of which are never used. This is a look at one of the world’s most successful games to see what magic dust we can glean from games in learning. My choice for a game that teaches us real lessons in learning is Angry Birds, and although I’m critical of putting Finland on a pedestal ineducation, this is arguably Finland’s greatest ever export.
So what exactly made it more popular than Mickey Mouse?
1. Flying start
You can learn to pay the game in seconds. All you need is your finger to operate the catapult – it’s that easy. That’s something most teachers and educators can learn from; no long sign-in process, none of those boring learning objectivesat the start or long dull introductions on the history of the subject. Jump right in, grab them by the throat and get the party started.
2. Play is easy
Then playing is easy. As games designers and players often say – it’s all in the ‘gameplay’. It’s addictive, has dozens and dozens of levels, is unbelievably simple to use yet has complexity under the hood that makes it different as you progress. This ‘ease of use’ did not come easily. It took a team of highly specialized experts, lots of user feedback and rigour in design. One of the problems with learning content is that the teams are weak, user feedback rarely sought and the user interface woefully inadequate.
3. Long or short bursts
Learning is too often delivered in overlong, sometimes marathon sessions – lectures, hours of e-learning, semester long MOOCs. Angry Birds can be played for less than a a minute, a few minutes, ten minutes, an hour or longer. It’s up to you. In learning we need to take advantage of those breaks and irregular slots for learning – on the train, on the plane, in the car, waiting, when we’re bored. Learning needs to be both short and long-form.
4. Constructive failure
By far the most interesting feature of games, in terms of learning (something that is often absent or shunned in learning practice) is ‘failure’. Most games have catastrophic failure (you die) but this is the precisely the key driver. You respawn or start again on that same level. You’re not allowed to move on too quickly, which is all too common in learning and leads to permanent and catastrophic failure in learners, especially in subjects like maths, where knowing one thing is a necessary condition for knowing another. Constructive, not destructive, recoverable failure should be built into all learning experiences
5. Repeats within levels
Games designers have been applying the Zone of Proximal Development with more rigour and regularity than most learning professionals for decades, and they’ve never heard of Vygotsky. They know that levels have to both ‘be’ and ‘feel’ achievable. As soon as game players feel that they are being ‘punished’, the game is up. They must know that failure can be overcome. You must ‘want’ to try again. A mark is never final, only a temporary marker on the way to further success. That’s the difference between marking and game scores. . Marking is such a destructive force in learning – it acts as an end-point, even for those that succeed – smart people stop at 80%, those who score badly get demoralized, fail and stop completely. This is the opposite of what happens in games.
6. User feedback
Rovio had tons of user feedback taken from behind glass screens, where users voiced what they liked, didn’t like, found difficult, found easy, excited them, bored them. How often does teaching. lectures or e-learning get trialed with a clear process for harvesting the results of that trial through market research? Rarely. I used to run an e-learning test lab ‘Epicentre’ that tested usability. It is something that needs budget, a rigorous process that needs real expertise.
7. Smarts under the hood
All the work is done by the engine, which is largely invisible to the user. There’s a physics module, that isn’t quite real physics but does all of the ballistic movements and collision software. Everything is finely calibrated and finessed to produce a seamless gameplay, largely through smart software. This is the way online learning is going as AI and adaptive learning come into play.
8. Experienced team
Rovio had completed 50 odd games before Angry Birds. This wasn’t some creative epiphany. It was an experienced company with loads of design, technical and games design expertise. Sure there was the inspirational act of first designing the characters (they’re irresistibly cute) but it was mostly the sweat, blood and tears of incrementally producing a game that led to success. There were no short-cuts. People often forget that good learning content also requires a team of people – project manager, designer, writer, graphic designer, audio engineer, developer, tester.
9. Business experience
These guys didn’t pop up from nowhere. They were in the ‘business’ of games design and had solid experience in the marketing and selling of those games. They had put in the time. Far too many apps are being created by far too many ‘get rich quick’ types or ‘grant chasers’. What you need is experience, a good team and relentless focus, sensitive to users needs.
10. Brands matter
These guys were calculating with their brand. It wasn’t called ‘Catapult’ but took the intriguing title ‘Angry Birds” and a ton of marketing expertise went into their strategy for selling. They hired a professional marketing company, in the UK, and now don’t see themselves as a games company, preferring the term media or brand builders. So many courses and learning experiences are poorly branded, if branded at all.
We have a lot to learn from the games world in learning but it is often not what we think. Games aren’t always wise in learning as they can be a distraction from the actual learning, create nothing more than extra cognitive effort, put people off, be costly or simply end up being a poor game, poor learning or both. On the other hand, learning needs to embrace quick starts, ease of use, short/longer use, constructive failure and competence levels. Learning designers, especially in online learning, have to work with smarter software, leverage experience, see this as a business and think also in terms of marketing and brands. That’s what gamification brings to the screen.

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