The Power of Saving the World

It seems like no matter where you turn these days, stakeholders are throwing out hyperbole surrounding the affordances of games. One doesn’t have to look beyond Jane McGonigal’s supporters and detractors to see the range in which things can be vastly overstated for whatever their purpose might be. I wanted to take a little bit of time today to hone in on the one statement: games have the power to save the world.


At the risk of putting words into McGonigal’s mouth, I’m not sure that even she believes that a group of gamers, controllers in hand, are going to be directly responsible for the cure for AIDS or cancer, solve the global energy crises, prevent world hunger, or even discover alien life. Distributive computing, even if it is gamified, isn’t the same thing as “gaming” and it just isn’t productive to give “gamers” as a subgroup (which almost has no meaning in this day and age given the percentage of people who play games) that kind of credit.


We’re clicking the wrong cow.


The power of games, especially in education, isn’t that games directly allow us to save the world. Even if you agree with Roger Travis that saving civilization is what education is all about, then the sum total of students’ entire experience equips them with what they need to better the human race, not just the components taken from their game-based learning courses. So what really makes games such key pieces of that educational puzzle? That’s an answer I didn’t start to formulate until I was asked a specific question by Nathan Maton in preparation for his Mindshift article.


“What is the most compelling part of the narrative for your students?”


It was only at that moment that I had the sudden realization that it’s not entirely the narrative that keeps the students engaged in the course. Certainly it plays a large role — the stories and the characters are engineered to allow students to care about the ancient world which we’ve constructed. This care and compassion for the fictional people in the fictional world unlocks the greatest power that games have (especially in the formative years of high school and into higher ed): the idea that you can be a part of saving the (virtual) world.


In a system where so much is dictated by summative measurements such as standardized test-scores and grades, there is seldom opportunity to learn how to be a part of something much larger than yourself. Game narratives — whether they involve finding an ancient stone with an inscription possessing the power to save the world in a practomimetic course or taking command of the Normandy to save the universe from the Reaper invasion in the Mass Effect trilogy — allow all of us to experience that feeling of saving the world in an immersive and instructive way much in the same way the Odyssey shows us how to be someone greater when our destinies required us to rise above our previous limits. Games allow for us to work through complicated frustration points, both individually and as a part of a collaborative unit, in a way that traditional curricula don’t, in their failure to allocate the time necessary to the scaffold the task of finding solutions to those problems.


In other words, the most compelling part for my students (and the greatest power of games in general) is the feeling that at the end of the course (or the game) they have played a part in saving their fictional world through tackling the complex problems they solved collaboratively — a feeling that they’ll take with them through the rest of their lives, and that they may never have experienced before. I hope that feeling will act as a foundation for their drive someday actually to save our world.


  1. Great post! Was fun to read and glad that we’re honing in on some deeper questions. If saving the world is the “game mechanic” that makes these meaningful experiences for your students, how do you measure if you’ve triggered that mental state?

  2. @NathanMaton:

    One of the things we’ve attempted to do in developing Operation LAPIS and other practomimetic courses is focus on the role of situated cognition in learning. By acknowledging that knowledge development happens as a result of our interactions with the environment (especially in social communities like the group-controlled Recentii characters in LAPIS), we’ve turned away from summative assessments like high stakes tests and the assignment of letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) in lieu of something that more resembles an RSS feed of student thinking. Unlike a traditional class, we don’t usually ‘grade’ a group’s end product under the assumption that it shows overall proficiency; we instead look at each student’s contributions to the end-product and use those contributions as a means of engaging the kids in a dialogue about their learning, thereby allowing us to get a much better picture of problem-solving, critical thinking, social collaboration, and other 21st century skills.

    Over time, we accumulate a huge amount of data with respect to a student’s learning, and because we’ve crafted the practomimes’ rule sets to mirror the thinking/acting done in the real-world contexts they represent (i.e., communicating the same way and for the same purpose as a Roman citizen, or communicating and problem-solving the same way or for the same purpose as a scientist), we get a broad perspective on the magnitude to which a student has become proficient and/or mastered a skill (which comes hand in hand with the knowledge/understanding typically assessed by high stakes tests).

    If we haven’t triggered that mental state, it becomes obvious very quickly in the way the student is interacting with his or her group. Because of the way the system is organized, the teacher can intervene at the point of misunderstanding to correct deficiencies in learning as they occur. All in all, we end up with a more well-rounded view of what learning has occurred than we ever could by giving a test at the end of every unit like you’d see in most K-12 classrooms.

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