Games, Engagement and The Game Taint in Online Education

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

by Robert Bloomfield, Cornell University (Currently visiting at Columbia University)

I’ve been taking games seriously since I began studying experimental economics as a grad student.  For my dissertation, I examined disequilibrium behavior in a couple of “simple” economic games, which I programmed using networked computers running Hypercard(!).  I put simple in scare quotes, because while the rules of the games were trivial, strategic choices were hard enough that I predicted and found that players never settled into the equilibrium outcome, even though it was unique and therefore any traditionally-trained economist would expect it to describe behavior.

Since then, I’ve spent the last two and a half decades running economic games in my lab at Cornell’s Johnson School, studying the influence of strategic and behavioral factors in financial markets and related settings.  While game-based experimental methods aren’t common, one can certainly make a career of it.  (If you are interested, see my SSRN page.  I’m always looking for doctoral students to join me in Accounting, one of the great academic arbitrage opportunities available today for someone who would otherwise go into another field of quantitative social science.)

Now I’m turning my sights to online education.  Here are some videos from my eCornell course series, Managerial Reporting:  Systems and Strategies.   I’m generally pleased with the series, which benefitted tremendously from eCornell’s guidance, instructional design strategies and video post-production.  But as I consider the possibility of someday converting the course from a non-degree continuing education offering to a for-credit element of a degree program, I’m very sensitive to the usual criticisms of online ed. I worry most that students won’t engage with the materials, the instructor, or other students nearly as much as they would in face-to-face setting.  Learning and especially intellectual stimulation will surely suffer.

Can games provide an answer, at least in business and economics programs?  After all, microeconomists have modeled almost every financial interaction as games, from managerial decisions inside the firm to financial markets and macroeconomies.  So why not create an online program that combines the usual resources and assessments with exercises in which the students put their knowledge to work.  Depending on the topic, a student could manage inventory or production at a manufacturing plant; provide venture capital or loans to businesses run by other students; negotiate deals; even (for students in political science and government) oversee taxes and regulations.

Educational games have a long history (especially in economics), but they haven’t been widely adopted in degree programs.  One reason is that games are typically a real pain in the neck for the instructor.   It is far easier to lecture, discuss cases and assign more traditional essays and problem sets as homework.  But technology may be changing that.  We now have a host of extremely successful game platforms that could provide high-quality gaming experiences for students, while making life easy for instructors.  Games like World of WarCraft provide replicable exercises in a scalable way, serving millions of players.  And even though WoW and its brethren are designed for entertainment, we already know players learn a lot about economics, business, politics and leadership.  (See, for example, this IBM report (pdf), or Castronova’s book Synthetic Worlds.)   Imagine what could be done in a World of Bizcraft, designed with progressively challenging business-related quests, each tied to a course topic and integrated into readings, video lectures, post-play data analysis and essay or problem set assignments.

A World of Bizcraft approach obviously faces many technological and design hurdles.   But even if we can overcome them, we face a cultural hurdle.  I call it the game taint: because games are fun, they can’t be a credible part of a serious education.  Games are embarrassing, because they are by definition a waste of time, and inappropriate for educational and business settings. Simply using the word taints the speaker and the proposal, and invokes giggles and ridicule.  I might as well just say “penis”.  Gamers are embarrassed to admit that they head a guild of 40 people in a virtual world, even though that shows quite a bit of dedication and leadership.  When I talk with colleagues about my thoughts, I find I encounter far less resistance if I revert into obscurantist jargon:  they aren’t games, they are strategic interactive simulations.   That sounds much more serious!

The game taint problem is a specific instance of a more general fun taint.  I often try to spice up my classes by making them more fun.  My lecture slides are filled with pictures like these and videos from popular culture, each in service of some point regarding accounting, communication or intra-organizational conflict.  In my online course, I had fun with a very serious accounting problem by turning it into a children’s story, The Three Pigs Fall into the Death Spiral (the last video here, unless you are on an iPad, in which for some reason it is the first).  Research shows that these methods help students learn, by engaging them and making the key lessons more memorable.  But even when integrated carefully into lesson plans, such elements don’t seem serious, and I worry about how my faculty colleagues will react.  I am trying to change faculty culture in a small way by using these methods in my research presentations:

accounting for life 2012

Feedback is generally positive, and I keep getting invited to give talks, so I haven’t tainted my reputation too much…yet.  But I see enough raised eyebrows to suggest that, if you don’t have tenure, you might want to stick to bullet points.

So, here are my questions for the LooG community:

  • Will games be effective in addressing the engagement problems in online education?
  • What do you think about the role of games in online education?  Would this model work in business and economics, where it seems most natural to me?  What other fields would be amenable to this approach?

Do you see the game taint (or the more general fun taint) as a problem, or am I concerned about nothing?

Please do be so kind as to share this post.

31 thoughts on “Games, Engagement and The Game Taint in Online Education

  1. This post has given me a lot to think about. I’ve seen the magic that games can do on K-5, which actually probably doesn’t help your case from an optics POV. I honestly think that the best thing that what you’re talking about have to offer is in bolstering online education. One of the pitfalls of online education is that it’s going to include a lot of the more marginal students and they’re going to have to be more self-directed than a lot of them are. But if you can make things that are interactive that makes people want to do it, that could help a lot. And from there, I could see the more traditional universities having to let go of some of their biases.


  2. The phenomenon that I see popping up is getting more gamification out there for such things as menial tasks. Blue dots, green dots, and gold stars on a task board, “fun” buttons on Technical Orders for you to press when you’ve finished each step, so on and so forth. Little tiny intangible rewards for little tiny easily half-assed tasks.


    • Yes, “gamification” is getting some traction in business now. It works in the classroom too, even for execs (@ Will above–are grownups all that different from K-5 students?). I was surprised at some student reactions when I put my problem sets online: tiny, bite-sized questions that provide immediate feedback and points toward the final grade. I had more than one student say that they were “addictive” or have some other game-like reaction. As there were no bells and whistles, I’m guessing it’s for the reasons Jim notes below.


  3. I’m very much in agreement with Prof Bloomfield. I use online interactive budgeting and gerrymandering simulations, and my students get a lot out of them–far more than me lecturing them on those issues. I wish there were a lot more such carefully structured political science simulations.

    And I use popular videos, too. You want to drive home the incentive structure of the prisoner’s dilemma? Watch this. You want to teach your strategic behavior class about credible commitment? Show them the scene from The Usual Suspects where Keyser Soze blows away his own family. Or you want to make the problem of response sets in survey research intuitively clear for methods students, show them this hilarious clip from “Yes, Minister.”


  4. I think “gaming taint” is a real concern. Learning shouldn’t be fun, afterall. :)

    This stuff excites me. I saw a Sal Khan interviewed recently and thought his ideas about online education were outstanding and promising. The part that sold me about is earnestness was his accurate (to my mind) critique of current educational practices based on a 130 year old model. That he correctly (again, in my mind) diagnosed so many of the problems with the current educational meant that he was paying attention to the right things.

    I think there’s tremendous potential for the use of online media to educate folks. In particular, I think games strategic interactive simulations can instill real learning (teh knowledge!) in ways that are comfortable and accessible, enjoyable for the student, and provide boatloads more practical experience than memorizing formulas and logical entailments.

    As evidence, I cite Ender Wiggin. He wasn’t just playing a game there.


  5. The benefit of games is not the play. It is…

    *Easily-quantised rewards
    *Easily-identifiable goals
    *Short timescale.

    It’s easy, in a properly-designed game, to understand what the units of reward are, and how those units translate to a winning condition. Almost invariably it is some variant of “get the most points within a time limit”.

    And it is easy to understand how to get those points. Sometimes there are elaborate non-obvious optimal strategies for getting those points, but the basic mechanic of “do thing, get point” is clear.

    And a game is also short. Some are only short compared to the span of human existence, but it’s easier to play ten or a dozen games than it is to live a hundred lifetimes.


      • Those are elements of gamification, not of games. Really good games go far beyond them. For example, none of those elements really applies to the endgame in World of Warcraft, which may be why it’s become one of the most popular games of all time.


        • Hmmm…not sure I’d agree with that. It’s true that Will’s triumvirate leaves out narrative and many of the other elements of gamification that Reeves and Read describe in their book Total Engagement (worth a look if you haven’t seen it).

          But WoW provides all three of Will’s elements in heavy doses over the course of minutes and hours. Maybe its success is mostly driven by the long-arc narrative, but I’m not so sure. Without the short-term grinds and dungeon tasks, would the game be as addictive?


        • I would disagree with that, actually. Maybe not high-level raiding, but the more quotidian day-to-day stuff that you absolutely need to do to participate in high-level raiding, eg grinding for valor points or farming gold/mats/rep, shares all of these characteristics.


  6. Anytime you have more interaction or engagement in anything it shows that people are using their minds. That’s why I agree with Will Truman, more marginal students will mean more engagment between professor/counselor and student.

    Online Education does have the game side of it, very few schools use games. It’s easy to do your homework when it’s a game, and very easy to retain.


  7. Firstly, I think “game taint” is a real problem in the sense that people really do worry about things being too enjoyable for whatever reasons. I actually worry more about “fun taint,” because I feel like it results in taking the most successful parts of games OUT of gamification (as IMO, Jim H.’s approach above does). Really, the thing I worry most about is “reward taint” – that the whole educational system is already fatally extrinsically motivated (cf. grades), and it’s poisoning people’s love of learning, a la Alfie Kohl.

    Have you seen Scott Nicholson’s work in this field? I took a class from him last year (he was one of those I Must Take A Class From This Person profs for me) – and I pretty much don’t have a lot of ideas on the subject he didn’t have first :). (laidback layperson/undergrad-friendly 20 minute video here; academic papers etc here – I particularly like the one on museums from last October ; his background is in education and datamining and libraries – and games)

    One of those ideas I can’t really lay my own claim to is that I’m a lot more interested in whether or not it could work for (at least some) people to *build* games, to design their own game elements, or even just adapt them, as part of the learning process – it seems like an approach that has a megaton of potential across many different fields; and from preK to post-doc.


      • Yes! Highly recommend that video to anyone else reading this post. Actually, watching it when it came out was a key reason why I wanted to take a class on the topic in the first place… it stirred up some dormant interests :).


    • The thing I worry most about is “reward taint” – that the whole educational system is already fatally extrinsically motivated

      That was one of the two posts I was considering writing.


      • I’d love to see that post! I’ve struggled a lot with extrinsic incentives in education. On the one hand, we know that extrinsic incentives can crowd out intrinsic motivation. (I’ve always loved Alfie Kohn’s response to the program that rewarded kids with pizza for reading books over the summer: that’s a recipe for creating a generation of fat kids who hate to read.) On the other hand, extrinsic incentives can get people over the hump as they try to learn new skills. A summer of reading can make reading so much easier that kids start finding it enjoyable.

        Also, I wonder if extrinsic incentives are so inherent in education that we aren’t losing much by using them in the day-to-day experience. Unless you think we are somehow going to get rid of the extrinsic value of grades, skills and credentials.


  8. Nolan Bushnell (Atari’s founder) ended up in the same field from the opposite direction.

    Here’s a fascinating interview with him on Brainrush via Youtube where he talks about founding Atari, hiring Steve Jobs, but most of all about using computer games in education.


  9. As a recent college graduate with a ton of experience taking courses online, I consistently wish there was a way to increase the level of engagement. Using games sounds like a fantastic way to do this. Since it was clear that students weren’t the only people who needed an engagement boost, from my experience, I think it would be an exciting challenge for instructors to allow themselves to interact with their students differently.


  10. Is there a way to subscribe to comments without leaving a comment? Because sometimes I want to follow comments, even if I do not have anything to add at the time.


  11. Great post. I absolutely think everything is a lot easier to learn when it is a game. That is why they have so many educational games for kids these days. I wish they used games in the classroom when I was a kid. I think games keep every ones interest longer.


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