Sustainment

Games require non games to capture their full value.

I enjoyed writing my compact Evidence for humaginarium.com. So much has been published about the utility and efficacy of games for learning, games for impact, games for change, games for health. Some of it substantiated and reliable, and some merely personal opinions. I tried sticking to facts.

What could I state about the value propositions of Humaginarium that is evidence-based and beyond reasonable doubt? How could I say it for an audience that doesn’t read scholarly papers, doesn’t care about video games or health education, and maintains a laser focus on controlling financial risk? I’m referring to investors and sponsors seeking assurance that Humaginarium will produce meaningful outcomes if it works as planned.

After posting Evidence I shared it with a few of the subject-matter experts whose research it epitomizes. I asked for feedback, in particular about whether it includes things that are false or misleading or leaves out things that are important.

I received several thoughtful responses including a vital observation by a co-editor of Computer Games and Instruction. It has a kind of sum-up-to quality so I quoted him at the new end of the deck. Here’s what he wrote:

“The big thing that Sig and I noted was that learning is substantially enhanced by helping learners reflect on underlying concepts of game actions, not leaving that to the learners to discover by themselves.” John Dexter Fletcher, email on April 4, 2019

I think the crucial point here is that games require non games to capture their full value. Without the addition of non game experience that dovetails with play, the cognitive and behavioral gains of play may not be realized or sustained. That’s consistent with findings I didn’t originally include in Evidence, demonstrating that games are not self-teaching. As another scholar put it: Instructor guidance must be applied during crucial states in game play to ensure that learning closure occurs. Players must be guided, prompted, motivated and sometimes forced to learn from their experience.

That’s going a bit far, in my opinion, but my opinion isn’t the organizing principle of Evidence. I accept empirical research as factual. Yet it’s also problematic here because entertainment and education don’t always coexist peacefully. One may try to destroy the other as they compete for dominance. Is there a way to forge a peace that allows us to reap the benefits of both at the same time?

I think Humaginarium has found that way. We have integrated extremely important non game experience into our model unit before and after game play.

Non game experience first occurs in a virtual arcade that helps consumers form a robust mental model of biological homeostasis: in other words, the healthy human body. With that model in mind, they enter a fantasy world of video games that are sheer and shameless entertainment. I don’t condone serious games that “force” folks to learn from their experience. Consumers must always have – and feel they have – the unfettered choice to learn and also to play without learning.

After a game is played, consumers can choose to start a diagnostic activity that helps them understand structural differences between the healthy human body they want and unhealthy body they actually have; the body that they are beginning to understand and engage for the first time thanks to playing the game. The diagnostic activity is where “instructor guidance” takes place in Humaginarium: not in game, where it may interfere with flow and fun, but right after the game when consumers have decided that they’re ready to reflect on their experience and make resolutions to take better care of themselves.

Can we be sure we won’t lose them in the interstices between game and non game experience? I think so. We use tech known as stealth assessment. Game mechanics trigger behaviors in players that make palpable their conditions, and symptoms, and beliefs, and worries, and longings. Stealth assessment is seamlessly woven directly into the fabric of game play. It’s quiet yet powerful technology by which consumer performance data are continuously gathered during the course of playing and learning, with inferences made about the level of legacy and emerging competencies.

Stealth assessment design has to include a competency model (what knowledge and skills should be assessed), an evidence model (what behaviors or performance should reveal those competencies), and a task model (what tasks will elicit behaviors that comprise evidence). The data generated by such tasks in game, and captured by stealth assessment, build bridges from the homeostatic paradigm to the fantasy of play to the urgent reality of illness and wellness.

Evidence

Consider a review of research on the utility of video games for education.

I’ve just finished a moiling task of compression. Mostly finished actually. I still have to incorporate feedback, but the basic job is complete. If you’re curious you can view the upshot on the Humaginarium website, in the Evidence option of the Resources menu.

Readers of this blog know that brevity is not my forte. Getting straight to the point is difficult. Why do you suppose one of my favorite novels is Tristram Shandy? The other day I dreaded hearing a venture capitalist say he won’t consider pitches that take more than a few seconds to read on his phone. Sadly, it seems easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a prolix startup to enter the kingdom of unicorns.

Where was I? Ah, compression! My task involved reading 500 pages of scholarship in a book named Computer Games and Instruction, edited by Sig Tobias and Dex Fletcher (2011). This brick-like tome reviews research on the hypothetical utility of video games for learning. More than 30 experts contributed chapters on various types of educational games, for example Jan Cannon-Bowers on games for health.

(By the way the book lacks a chapter about games for industry and commerce. Ian Bogost punted an invitation to write it, perhaps after thinking it over for a while. He asked the editors to invite me, which they did on fairly short notice. I’m not as clever as Ian so I accepted without thinking and tried – but failed – to write a brilliant chapter on video games for business. I knew there were many, believed in their utility, and had myself designed some, but I didn’t find much research to review. Neither could Sig and Dex. I eventually inferred that some companies invest ambitiously in games and gamification but the return on these investments is still uncertain. This despite the Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation.)

I digress. Though my chapter is not in Computer Games and Instruction, I admire the other contributors and consider the book a touchstone. It answers a question I’ve been asked many times, which goes something like this: “I don’t get it. Why video games?” It would be ideal if I could simply hand the book to skeptics. However VCs are not alone in their aversion to plodding. I may be the only general reader the book ever had because it’s a slog to read cover-to-cover, with numbness encroaching the cerebral cortex.

Having studied it though, my next step was to compress the scholarly evidence that is relevant to Humaginarium. I needed to set aside the academic rhetoric, the footnotes, the caveats, the attributions, the anecdotes and examples, in order to succinctly and confidently state that well-designed video games do – in fact and beyond reasonable doubt – promote learning.

I filtered the 500 pages for the gold dust: a couple dozen solid claims. I then asked several scholarly and industry experts to vet the claims, in order to root out confirmation bias and add things I may have overlooked. Each claim occupies one slide: clean black text centered on plain white background. My months of labor takes about five minutes to read and think about, but I didn’t actually create it for reading. It’s for talking.

My pitch for Humaginarium is actually not about the efficacy of video games for education. I doubt investors care about that. Instead it’s about the promise of Humaginarium to return multiples on their investment in a reasonably short period of time. I have only a few minutes to make that case in the language of numbers.

That said, a minority of investors intrigued by the numbers may want to know why Humaginarium promises to improve health literacy and empower self-care with, of all things, exciting video games. That’s when I’ll bring forth the evidence. We’ll talk about it while not looking at our phones.