If a game is assigned as homework, is it still a game?

Ok, it’s two days after the event and I’m coming off the high that was the 10th Games for Change festival.  Admidst a storm of great panels and discussions, the Wednesday morning panel featuring James Gee, Katie Salen, and Justin Leites was really my favorite event of the conference.

There was one really interesting question that was brought up, but insufficiently addressed in this session. The question actually resurfaced in the following panel, and drew a mix of strong head nods and head shakes, splitting the panel in half on the issue.  Here was the question: “If you give a game as a classroom assignment, is it still a game?  Or has the fact that it is assigned and required mean that there is something fundamentally lost from the experience of playing the game?”

Justin Leites from Amplify Learning basically asserted that “No, it was no longer a game.”  A game satisfies Homo ludens, or our sense of “Humans at play.” You can’t be forced to play, play is something you have to voluntarily engage in.  Formalizing the act of play destroys its essence in some sense. Since games are a form of play, assigning games makes them involuntary and destroys their essence.

Now although I’m about to disagree with Justin Leites, I do really like an analogy he gave to drive his point home.  The playground is a great place to voluntarily explore and play.  But if we see the value of playgrounds and try to formalize it, we end up with gym class, in which “play” is preselected and required. Even if you are playing the same game, like football, in the playground and gym class, there is something lost in the transition from one to the other.

Amplify Learning provides a portfolio of learning experience to sell as a replacement for textbooks to school districts. Interestingly, Amplify does include games in its portfolio, but it does not call for those games to be used in the classroom as “assignments.” Rather the games come preloaded on your personal tablet, to be explored voluntarily in your free time and experienced as ludens-rich play.

As I am currently designing an educational game for Iridescent meant to be used in a classroom, this issue hit me hard.  Should games be something that is assigned in class?  After a few days of reflection, my answer can only be “yes, if the game and assignment are designed right.”

Putting my James Gee thinking cap on, I realized agency was the real issue at stake here.  Agency is one of the 16 features of good games defined by Gee. When a game enables agency, it becomes both a better game, and a better learning tool.  The problem noted by Justin Leites was that games became involuntary when assigned, which basically caused agency to be lost.

Now although it is true that agency is lost when something is assigned, agency is first of all not the only feature defining a good game.  So even if agency is utterly lost, if you get Gee’s other 15 principles right you can still have a good gameful learning experience. A game does not need each and every feature to be a game.  Thus an “assigned” game can still be a game even if agency is lost.

But I’m going to go a step further and say that I’m not convinced that assigning a game sends agency completely down the gutter.  I don’t see agency as a binary feature, I think activities can have agency to greater or lesser degrees.  This means that although assigning something does cause some loss of agency, it doesn’t necessarily cause a complete loss of agency.

I mean, stepping away from games for a second, there are many types of assignments a teacher can give.  For example, you can give the assignment “Write an essay on a topic of your choice.”  Now this assignment contains plenty of agency- you can choose your topic, the length of your paper, when to turn it in, how to format it, etc.  Compare this to “Write a 5 page essay due next Friday on the sequence of King Henry VIII’s numerous wives.”

Clearly one assignment has more agency than the other.  Even if the end result was the same, meaning someone in the first assignment actually chose to write about Henry VIII’s wives, the learning experience in both cases would be very different. So it is wrong to say that an assignment always reduces agency- there are many ways to preserve agency in an assignment.

Of course, we can make a very structured “beat this game” assignment. And, we can use a very linear structured game in parrallel with this assignment. In this case (we could call it the “drill and kill” method) agency is completely destroyed. But not all games are like this, and not all assignments need be this restrictive.

The games we are developing at Iridescent are open ended sandboxes, without a clear final win condition.  Yes, you need to complete goals to unlock later content in the game, but you do not need to complete every goal to proceed forward.  In fact, someone can “beat” the game by only accomplishing half of the goals in the game (it’s structured similar to Mario 64 in this way).  You choose which goals to acquire in which levels, and more generally how many total goals you want to get over your entire gameplay experience.  We recommend teachers give an assignment like “get 2/3 of the goals in the game” specifically so that student agency is preserved.

Additionally the game includes a level editor, allowing for extreme customization of the gameplay.  The assignment “Create your own level that contains at least 3 goals,” is extremely open-ended and has a multitude of solutions, greatly allowing for student agency.  This is another assignment we recommend to teachers for that reason.

In other words, the type of game used and the type of assignment given can greatly affect the amount of agency present in the classroom gaming experience.  I think it’s a little simple-minded to try to claim that assignments always pervert gameplay and remove agency. It’s true that many traditional classroom assignments restrict agency. But, I think the appropriate viewpoint is to ask how we might change standard classroom practices to allow for more agency, than to assume such practices must stay as they have always been and to remove games to a protected, assignment-free ludens space.

So what’s my proposed solution here? Make games into assignments, get games dirty in the classroom, and most importantly, question and disrupt standard classroom practices.

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