Whether you’re a psychotherapist, an educator or a parent, sooner or later you will be involved in the facilitation of growth through learning. The bad news is that most of us were educated in the 20th century, when education was largely modeled on the 19th century. The view of literacy then was narrower, standardized and often monolithic. The good news is that technology today can help us invigorate learning as never before, often by using the mechanics or design of video games and social media.
Before we press on, it is time to choose your own adventure! I encourage you to ask yourself and answer this question: Is education inevitably like a daily spoonful of cod liver oil? That is, do I believe that it is something that is routine, unavoidably unpleasant the people need to just suck it up and deal with?
If you answered yes, click here to stop reading this post and go to Mordor, where you can play a free MUD with other denizens of gloom and doom.
If you answered no, read on to find some examples of how simple game mechanics can revolutionize a curriculum.
1. Game Patches
Game patches are supplementary, downloadable game content that patches into existing games to either fix bugs or introduce new content into existing games. One example was the famous Burning Crusade from World of Warcraft, which added another world of play, new races to create characters as, flying, and many new quests to challenge players. More recently, Minecraft added patches to include jungles (1.2,) fixed multiple crashes (1.2.4,) and made cats more impatient and eager to sit on things (1.2.5.) Much of the patch content comes from user experience comments, and players often know and eagerly await for patches for weeks in advance of their arrival.
Introducing content into classroom settings can benefit from this approach. First off, polling students during subject matter about what aspects of what they are learning would they like to know more about? What ways can learning or behavioral problems be debugged? For example, elementary school teachers can hype up the class before rolling out Grade 3.5, at the halfway mark of the year, and include in this patch a total restructure of seating plans, allowing new class configurations and addressing problems in a way that starts to be both expected and exciting.
In terms of curriculum, from kindergarten to college, most educators have some lesson plan, and previewing content of upcoming lessons can generate interest and engagement. This can range from creating a funny trailer on YouTube with teasers for the next lesson, to releasing hints about upcoming problems and subject matter. This can include contests to name upcoming characters, for example the characters involved in mathematical word problems, or residents of new areas about to be unlocked and explored in geography.
In school-based and outpatient therapy groups, where is often a psychoeducation component, group leaders can initiate a countdown before patching new content or welcoming new group members into the group. For process-oriented groups, members can be invited to debug and modify the design of the group to deal with challenges or conflicts in the group. I remember a really interesting version of this that a colleague of mine went through in her internship. We were at an outpatient mental health clinic, and although it was not languaged as a patch, her co-leader had her join the group for the first several weeks as a participant-observer. She attended the first 4 groups without speaking, and as week five approached there was much discussion and projection from other members about what she would say when she finally spoke. She was in essence the new content “patched” into the existing group, which introduced change, and new transference while maintaining some group stability and continuity.
2. Talent Trees
If we can just get beyond the tendency towards and linear thinking in curriculum, I am convinced that this intervention could be extremely effective. First, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the idea of a talent tree, here’s an example:
In many games, players have some choices about how to specialize in the area of talents. As they progress through levels, they acquire talent points to spend on unlocking different talents. So if an educator can be flexible in the order of learning certain topics, students can choose to specialize in learning something first or second. Let’s take Literature, would you like to be an Arcane Satirist, Epic Voyager, or specialize in Bloodmagic Murder. If you want to progress through the first talent tree, you will need to read and complete assignments involving Gulliver’s Travels, the second, The Odyssey, and the third MacBeth.
If you are doing psychotherapy we already have a version of this, it’s called DBT. In it people focus on unlocking talent points in the trees of mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation and distress tolerance. Which does the patient feel that they would benefit from working on first? Which do you recommend? For adolescents especially, this can make the difference between engaging in treatment and just another boring worksheet.
Other ways to use talent trees effectively can include: Helping gamer couples unlock skills to better communicate or improve their sex lives; helping parents focus on and prioritize specific behaviors to work on with their children; a template for an emergent adult’s first career search; and systematic desensitization of a phobia.
These are just two ways that we can use both the technology and concepts behind it effect change therapeutically and educationally. Can you think of others?