|Net safety wisdom from digital game design|
|June 18, 2012|
To motivate learning and behavior change, Net safety advocates can take some tips from game designers and scholars.
By Anne Collier
Internet-safety experts should talk with game designers. Last week was for me a three-day-long, powerful confirmation that we need to de-silo the public discussion about young people's well-being online and offline. I attended the GLS (for Games+Learning+Society) conference at the University of Wisconsin and absorbed a lot of wisdom about learning in digital games and worlds.
One lesson I learned concerned the difference between "gamification" and "meaningful gamification." Prof. Scott Nicholson from Syracuse University talked about how gamification is nothing new (remember Green Stamps, baby boomers?). It's all about external rewards (badges, grades, points, stamps), incentivizing people into doing things – sometimes things not so good for them, most often things that are perfectly fine or at least harmless. Keynote speaker Sebastian Deterding, a researcher from the Netherlands, even referred to gamification as "an inadvertent con," something that "tricks people into believing there's an easy way" to attain a goal.
The difference between that and "meaningful" gamification or games – the kind that cause learning or change behavior – is key to teaching anything, I heard, including Internet safety, social literacy, and citizenship in a networked world. It's the difference between external rewards (buy candy bars or cookies, make a contribution) and internal rewards. If you go the external-rewards route, you can never stop, Professor Nicholson said in a presentation – you create an expectation or an addiction and systems as well as participants that depend on them. Gamification puts whoever's providing the reward into a position of power over the player, student, or participant, and – by definition – doesn't inherently satisfy and decreases trust.
So what satisfies and increases trust and efficacy?
Nicholson offered three requirements for learning, positive growth, behavior change:
A sense of competence
Apply those to Internet safety, where the primary message for too long has been that children are potential victims online. We need to help them see that, in social media, they're stakeholders in their own and each other's well-being and that skilled, literate use increases well-being. It's a dilemma, certainly – we want to protect them – but the more we can show them our confidence in them, the more motivated they'll be to take ownership of their safety in and with digital media.
As I listened to Nicholson, I thought about findings by the Harvard University School of Education about a lack of efficacy young people feel when they encounter negative content or behavior online (see this). The GoodPlay researchers also found that youth feel their online activities and interests are inconsequential (think of all the studies that treat their screen time as mere entertainment – e.g., this, at best a waste of time, at worst dangerous). Is that a helpful characterization to communicate to people one wants to work with, much less influence or inspire: that they're potential victims with no ability to effect change and whose interests are a waste of time and efforts to improve are inconsequential?
Why is that messaging wrong? It's…
* Inaccurate. Because media and devices aren't static, finished "products" coming at users. Users are co-creators of their media, whether merely texting or producing videos. Young users have a great deal of influence, even control, over their media experiences. So they need to see that their use can be extremely consequential, that they can not only be effective but powerful in media.
What does work?
Here are a few meaty suggestions from the game designers and scholars I heard (think about these in the context of a household, a classroom, a digital learning space, and a kids' video game or virtual world):
* Lighten up. Play and engage with our kids in social media. Have a little fun, let them play with being our tech support while we teach them life literacy in and out of media. Focus on the people involved in media experiences more than the media: Sebastian Deterding said in his keynote that "it's the nature of a fun community to care more about the players than about the game. If we are having fun, we are caring." A family or classroom can model the trust and safety that a caring community (like a family or class) naturally foster. Help our children feel that "I can trust in myself, and I can trust in others here."
See what I mean? We need to get safety specialists (parents, advocates, educators, social workers, mental healthcare workers) talking with game designers. Not to "gamify" kids' online experiences – not at all! – but to allow our kids' online and offline experiences to be more and more like meaningful play and learning. [I was at the conference to speak on a panel with some amazing educators teaching safety, citizenship, media literacy and many other skills at the elementary and middle grade level (see this).]