A n00b guide to achievements in games

I’m a big believer in learning from history. Educational badging is derived from “achievements” in games, and so it seems useful to understand the historical use of achievements in games before thinking about badges in education. I say “historical” because achievements themselves aren’t really that old, commonly traced back to the 2005 Xbox live platform, but badges in education are even newer, first appearing around 2009 or so. What an age we live in, where eight years back can be considered outdated.

Anyway, this post is for you gamophobes out there, those of you that wouldn’t touch a game controller with a ten-foot-pole. I’ll assume you are unfamiliar with the achievement system in games but are really interested in using badges in education (but I think this can also be fun for you gaming oldtimers who will appreciate a playful look at achievements).

Ok, so I’m going to assume you gamophobes are total game n00bs (in fact I assume you are such a n00b that you don’t know what the term n00b means, so I’ll define it here as “a beginner”).
You probably won’t have played many digital games, and it’s hard to explain what an achievement is without understanding its context in an actual game.  So by way of analogy, I’m going to start with a game that everyone basically knows how to play: Monopoly. Even if you have never actually played Monopoly, I will assume that you are not a total n00b, and do know the general play of the game of Monopoly.

Now that we have a game, I can explain what an achievement is by adding an achievement system to the game of Monopoly.

First, we have to decide on our achievement criteria.  Let’s create an achievement that is landing on Free Parking 5 times in a single game.  Quite an accomplishment really, it’s a relatively rare event, but not so rare as to be impossible.

Next, to complement the achievement criteria, we need to add a tangible marking of the achievement.  This will take the form of an extra piece in the game, which is the “5x Free Parking” Achievement Chip.  It will be square in shape, have a picture of the free parking square, and have a “5x” written on it.  I show a prototype of this piece below. There will be several such pieces included in a Monopoly game.

So, now what?  Well, here’s how this basic achievement works.  When you play a game and land on Free Parking five times in that single game, you get the chip.  You get to put the chip near your real estate pile.  Everyone gets to see that you have it. It does absolutely nothing in the game itself, well, besides ever-so-slightly raising your cool factor.  If anyone else accomplishes the same feat, they take a “5X Free Parking” Achievement chip from the box and put it by their real estate pile.  Now you both have the 5x Free Parking Achievement chip: welcome to the club!

But you see, it doesn’t really stop there. In games, you have a profile, and achievements get linked to your profile.  What this means is that anytime you play Monopoly with anyone anywhere, you get to automatically put the 5x Free Parking Achievement chip with your stuff before the game even starts. In fact you can probably carry the chip around with you as much as you want.  Pin it to your jacket, show it off at parties, or take a picture of it for your business card. Most importantly, though, you bring it to every Monopoly game you play from that point forward. You thus let other players know that at some point in time, you had landed on Free Parking five times in a single game.  Yippee for you.

But there’s more. Achievements aren’t solitary travelers, they always come in groups.  Imagine we add somewhere between 20-50 achievements to the game of Monopoly, for all kinds of things: win a game without landing on Boardwalk, own all Utilities and Railroads by landing on them instead of trading, trade 10 properties in a single game, etc.  These all function the same way– when you complete the relevant task, you get a chip for that task which stays with you in all future games, but has absolutely no effect on the gameplay itself.

Now, you are probably wondering, why the hell does anyone want these chips?  These achievements themselves are absolutely valueless, both outside and inside the game.  Plus, no one seems all that impressed with them at all the parties you go to, despite your best attempts to show them off.  Why get these things?

Well, first answer is that you are hanging out at the wrong parties. But you’ve also reached the crux of the matter.  You see, no one picks out a game to play because they want to get all of the achievements in the game.  People pick out a game to play, because, well, the game is fun.  Meaning, it’s inherently, intrinsically engaging.  The purpose of achievements is to give someone a reason to keep playing a game, after they have beaten a game and might otherwise have nothing left to do.  Players typically don’t want to get achievements per se, but rather want a reason to keep playing a game they love even after they have exhausted the primary purpose of a game.  Achievements provide that reason.

There definitely is some social motivation too–people like showing off these achievements in their profile (meaning there is some truth to finding the right parties to go to). But you see, the only achievements worth showing off are the ones that are difficult to acquire, in games that you and a lot of other people find really fun and challenging.  In other words, even when achievements have social value, the value still arises from the game being a meaningful, challenging and engaging experience.  No one wants to show off skill in a game that no one plays or likes.

So achievements do have meaning and value, but that meaning is intrinsically tied to the game.  If the game by itself isn’t fun to play, then no one will even try to get the achievements.

Before going further, I just want to make this point exceptionally clear to educators: no one plays a game/completes their homework to get an achievement/badge. Rather, they get the achievement/badge because the game/homework is inherently engaging, and they want to engage more. (Of course, this isn’t how homework really works, but this is how I argue it should work. Homework assignments should be so interesting that a badge isn’t needed to get kids to finish it.)

The value of a badge is always derived from the value of the activity being done to get the badge. There is no substitute for a well-designed activity, and a badge is not a way to get kids to do something that is inherently uninteresting. Badges aren’t about getting completion of an activity, they are about driving further engagement with an activity. If you want to hear me yammer about this in more detail, check out my last post on gamifying education and badges.

Hopefully by this point you have understood the basic structure of a classic achievement system, and its role in driving further engagement into an activity. For the sake of completeness, I’m going to go one step further and discuss several exceptions to the classic achievements system. Achievements have become so predominant in gaming culture that their use has spread beyond what I’ve described above, and it doesn’t feel right to stop writing here, though you are more than welcome to stop reading here if you’ve had enough.

Appendix of exceptions to the classic achievement system

Exception 1

Typically achievements have nothing to do with the game itself, but sometimes players get a “You won the game” achievement. This would be like getting a Monopoly chip that signifies that at some time in the past, you had in fact won a game of Monopoly against someone. Every time I’ve gotten this kind of achievement in a game, it’s always felt kind of silly to me. I’m always like, but wasn’t that the purpose of all this anyways? If I wasn’t already trying to do that, why am I here?  The only time it makes sense to me is when a game has multiple difficulty settings and a game gives an achievement for different difficulties, or when a game gives an achievement for winning a multiplayer game many times.  So, a “You won against a 5-year-old” achievement is very different from “You won against a Wall Street Stock Market baron,” or “You won 100 games of Monopoly.”

Exception 2

Sometimes achievements do have meaning in the game.  If the game has in-game currency, getting the achievement may give you some of that in-game currency.  In this case, getting the achievements (or what can be called “sidequests”) becomes a real component to the game.  For example, when you get the 5x Free Parking Achievement, you might also gain $100 Monopoly dollars. Some scrupulous game designers do not call these sorts of things “achievements” since they directly affect and relate to gameplay, even though they have the same criteria and token structure as achievements. To such game designers, achievements are only things which do not directly affect gameplay.  This is really just a terminology issue, and as an educator it is useful to note that the achievement structure doesn’t always have to be completely divorced from gameplay.

Exception 3

Several games have structures where the game is primarily about getting achievements, rather than defeating the game itself. Since achievements are typically suppose to be “metagame” structures, meaning things that lie outside the structure and goal of the game itself, these games tend to blur the line between what is and is not an achievement, and more generally what a game is suppose to be. This is especially evident in the classic flash game Achievement Unlocked, but is also the primary structure of the newly popular arcade-style iOS game Jetpack Joyride. Jetpack Joyride clearly has an arcade game structure in which the goal is to stay alive as long as possible. But the achievement structure in this game is so predominant that for practical purposes the game is about gaining achievements that are unrelated to going as far as you can.

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.

Ananya Sen Gupta: A Reflection on Mentorship

About the Author:

Ananya Sen Gupta MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, spent sometime in the software industry (Microsoft), and recently joined the faculty at University of Iowa, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her active research interests involve signal processing challenges commonly encountered in complex environments, with particular focus on fingerprinting and sparse optimization across a variety of applications. Ananya is a second year mentor for Technovation and shares some thoughts with her mentorship experience with us.

On Technovation Mentorship

I heard about Technovation through my husband from one of his contacts, and that got the ball rolling. When I signed up, I mostly wished to do something for outreach, to help young women reach their full potential in science and engineering. But honestly, I was not sure what role I would really play as a mentor and what it would mean for me. Two years later, after participating in two Technovation Challenges, I am not only deeply involved with the Technovation community, the mentoring experience has helped me to grow as a professional, deepened my commitment to science outreach, and challenged my assumptions on what kids today can achieve with their hard work and creativity.

The biggest takeaway for me as a mentor from Technovation was how vastly creative and driven underrepresented young talents can be when presented with the right opportunity and encouragement. As a mentor, my philosophy is to give guardrails and be a cheerleader, rather than roll out instructions. Therefore, as a Technovation mentor, my goal has always been to lead the team towards a shared vision for the app they wish to build, and enable them with technical guidance and encouragement as appropriate to help them realize their full potential. Both years, the team I worked with went above and beyond my expectations and pursued bold ideas that made me proud.

My first year was a humbling experience when I realized the girls (from a local high school) I was mentoring knew far more about current mobile apps than me. The hard part was to keep their efforts and talent streamlined towards a successful project than let them run wild like kids in a candy shop. I mostly achieved that by letting them splash around the first couple of weeks, and then set deadlines, goals, and individual responsibilities, from technical to project management. It worked. The team, diverse in their abilities and personalities, took on parts of the project and worked together towards a shared vision. They finished third among the ten competing teams, and were delighted that their ideas and hard work had paid off when their app presentation was greeted with ethusiasm.

This year, I was a virtual mentor to a team of four young women at a high school in Brooklyn, NY, all of whom came from different minority backgrounds. I also had a dilemma: I was supposed to mentor this team over Skype while taking care of my infant daughter. So, in absence of precedents, I just decided to skype in with Harriet on our first meeting, and told the girls that I will need to multi-task. They were not only supportive, but enthusiastic to see that it is possible to have a kid and pursue science at the same time. Harriet (my daughter) loved our skype meetings, chirping away at the team during our weekly Google hangout and getting cooed back when the techtalk confounded her. This gave me the courage to start having with-baby meetings with research colleagues in my own professional life, and Harriet is now, quite the Skype-savvy baby. I am currently away at a conference and just got off Skype with her and her daddy, and she really enjoyed babbling to me 🙂

But on a more serious note, what impressed me was the ideas that this team of young women came up with as an app to help their community. They were all from bilingual minority (mostly immigrant) families, and felt that there is a gap in the American public school system to properly educate bilingual minority students. Accordingly, they deisgned a home tutoring app that enables a parent to teach their child science and math bilingually, as well as to supplement their education in other topics such as history, with appropriate wikilinks from their home culture. For example, a lesson on American civil rights history can be supplemented with Wikipedia links to civil disobedience in other parts of the world.

I was moved and amazed. These kids express an issue I had not thought of before, despite being in the education profession and a bilingual minority myself, because I received schooling in India, where I was the majority. They keenly understood how the hurdle is higher for kids who grow up with another language at home to learn math and science in English-only classes. They identified that the root problem might not be talent in science but a language barrier. They also identified that there is a need to bridge the root culture of their immigrant parents to American history and culture they learn in school and live in real life as American kids. I thought the idea of supplementing everyday school education with parent-driven introduction to culturally diverse information from free web-based resources such as Wikipedia was phenomenal. I watched them drive the idea from design to implementation with enthusiasm, and fervently hope they go ahead and try to develop this app for real, as it can truly bridge the education gap for minority immigrant students who attend public schools.

Finally, a personal thought. When I joined Technovation two years ago, I was newly pregnant. I was a little awkward at first of how to sit through mentoring sessions while battling morning sickness, looking tired all the time before energetic teens, etc. But in reality, it was the best prenatal therapy I could receive for free! Everyone was sympathetic, and supportive; I received valuable advice from other mothers, the girls were excited to see that babies and career do not necessarily have to conflict, and finally, I really felt I was making the world a more gender-equal place for my unborn daughter (now 10.5 months) by enabling younger women to pursue science and engineering and lead the technology of tomorrow.

Mentor Spotlight: Ozge Yeloglu

We sat down with amazing mentor Ozge Yeloglu of Halifax, Canada to hear about her mentorship story with her team The APPstronauts. Check out her story here:

Tell us about Girls Tech League in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. How did you become involved in Girls Tech and who do you serve?

Girls Tech League has started in Halifax as a program under CompCamp. I’ve known Rose Behar, co-founder of CompCamp, from the “Women in Technology” events and discussions. I always believed that we have to introduce girls to technology at an early age, before they decide that technology is not for them. So, the Girls Tech League idea was a perfect one for me to support.

Tell us more about you. What does your daily work life look like and why do you volunteer for programs such as Girls Tech League and Technovation?

I’m a PhD student in Computer Science and a first-time entrepreneur. I’ve been working on a start-up, TopLog, for the last 8 months. So, you can find me writing research papers, working on a pitch deck, emailing and meeting with advisors and investors and coding for our product in the same 24 hours.

I’ve been working with Dalhousie University’s Women in Technology Society (WiTS) for around 6 years now and have been volunteering in Halifax at many events/organizations, i.e. Girls Talk Tech, Techsploration, Ladies Learning Code, Girls Get WISE. Females are definitely in the minority in Computer Science and even a girl with a strong personality can feel lonely, unaccomplished and insecure in an environment like this. My biggest aim is to show girls (either elementary or university or business level) that they are not alone and they can do it when they believe in what they do.

How did you find out about Technovation and why did you decide to take on the Challenge?

I honestly did not know about Technovation until Rose told me about it. She wanted our teams to attend and I thought that was an amazing idea. You cannot believe how excited my team was when they heard that they could be competing with international teams.

We are so proud of your team for being one of the first middle school AND international teams in Technovation. Can you tell me more about the girls on your team APPstronauts? How did you get together to form the team?
We are very proud as well! It was an amazing experience. Rose sent out announcements to a few schools and the girls who were interested signed up. Karen Smyth (other mentor of our team) and I randomly selected one of the schools. Our team had six girls who are very energetic, fun and claiming that they are terrible at Math so Computer Science is possibly not a good choice for them. They were, however, into video games and design so that’s why they were very excited about this challenge.

How did you come up with the idea for your app and get it all done in 12 weeks?

Our team initially had two app ideas: a quiz app and a babysitter app. Basically their own pain points. We all know the best companies are generated while they are actually solving their own pain points. So, this was just an amazing start. The majority decided on the quiz app and then they started building it. They were super fast to grab the concepts of coding with MIT AppInventor. The biggest discussions were more about designing the interface, i.e. where to put which buttons, colour scheme and so on 🙂

Then, the next step was working on the business plan. We didn’t split our team into two, programming and business but they kept switching between programming and business so everybody could get a feeling of what they like more. I was honestly worried whether they could understand the concepts of a business plan and entrepreneurship, but they were definitely fast with that as well. Working on our pitch slides was probably the most fun and exciting part of that 12 weeks because now they were able to see how much they had accomplished in only 12 sessions.

You won a regional competition in Halifax for your app. Could you tell us more about what it felt like to be recognized for all your hard work?

First of all, it was amazing to see them standing in front of judges, presenting very professionally and answering all the questions perfectly. And during the announcement of the winner, I’ll admit I got watery eyes 🙂 They were super happy but more importantly shocked that they could win this competition. I know that was a huge self-confidence pump up for them, showing their parents, teachers, friends and more importantly to themselves that they can do technology if they want to. It just means a lot to me if we could change the futures of six bright girls for better.

Why would you recommend this program to other mentors and girls?

Well, why recommend this program to girls? I think it’s very obvious: I know any girl getting into this program will come out a more secure and confident individual who knows that she can do whatever she wants to do. They might not all turn into Computer Scientists but I’m confident they will definitely consider the option. They can at least tell the boys in their classes that they built an app, a business plan and a pitch when they are told that girls don’t understand computers/technology.

Why recommend this program to mentors?

We all know that we have been through a lot (even though we don’t usually say it out loud) just because we are females in technology. This is one way of changing the future so these girls can stand up to things we have never done because they will be more confident than we were. Because we are telling them they can be the best coder, video game developer, designer or start up their own technology companies and solve the problems they would like to solve. We might not be able to change our current environment easily but we can work on our future.

Anything else you would like to share?

We were told that we needed to create a video talking about our product. We didn’t know it was supposed to be our pitch video so the girls decided to make a cheesy commercial for that. They were all actors in that video (which was a very hard thing to do for some at the first couple of tries) but that was probably the most fun we had in half an hour.

Thank you, Ozge.

Check out the APPstronauts’ pitch here!

Iridescent at Emoti-Con! NYC 2013

This Saturday, June 1st, Explainers and Technovation Challenge were two Iridescent programs among the presenters at the Emoti-Con! NYC Youth Digital Media & Technology Challenge 2013. Over 150 New York City-area youth gathered at the Bartos Forum at the Fifth Avenue Library for the event. Youth participants from MOUSE, Global Kids, the New York Public Library, Parsons Pre-College Programs, Cooper-Hewitt, and other organizations shared their work. The event featured inspiring keynote speeches by Teresa Lynn Rivera, social activist and actor in “The We and the I”, Chloe Varelidi, game designer at Mozilla, and Limor “Ladyada” Fried creator of Adafruit. Team Arrive, the Technovation World Pitch 2013 winners, presented their app, and won the Best Pitch award. Explainers presented their prototype for a solar-powered ice cream truck.

We had a wonderful time at Emoti-Con! and are excited to participate again next year.

Technovation and Explainers work together to create a game as part of activities at Emoti-Con!. Photo: Alicia Damley

Krystal and Graciela explain their app to Juan from Global Kids.

Explainers chat with other youth about their solar-powered ice cream truck.

Paige (Engineers as Teachers – EasT), Bobby (Explainers), and Angélica (Technovation Challenge) have a rare moment in which they pose for the camera.

Team Arrive from Technovation Challenge showing off their Best Pitch medals. Photo: Alicia Damley

Alumni Spotlight: Jasmine Gao

We sat down with Technovation 2011 Alumni, Jasmine Gao to catch up and see what she has been up since her with us as a Technovation Droidette. Jasmine is an entrepreneur at heart, a gamer, and a tech-driven insomniac. She is currently a Data Strategist at bitly and an Enstitute fellow.

You were once a Technovation student. Can you tell us what stands out to you most about your experience participating in Technovation?

When I was participating in the 2011 Technovation Challenge, what stood out to me was how much access we were given to accomplished women entrepreneurs and technologists. I noticed right away that not only were our team’s mentors two incredibly intelligent Google engineers, but they were also super supportive of our efforts in the program — I remember multiple times when my mentor, Mary Wong took out time outside of Technovation to help us out with last-minute changes to our prototype. Looking back, I realize I met two key people in my career path on the same night during the NY Regional pitch contest: Deborah Jackson, my past employer at JumpThru, and Hilary Mason, my present employer at bitly. If that doesn’t speak to how powerful the connections one makes through Technovation are, I don’t know what does.

When you were a going through the program as a student, what app did your team create? What was your team name?

My team, The Droidettes, created a prototype for an app called Trending, which was a mobile aggregator that would collect, organize, and categorize trending fashion items. The idea for Trending came out of a problem I had with my email being regularly cluttered with newsletters from various online retailers and fashion outlets that I had purchased from in the past. There was simply no website, mobile app, or convenient medium that allowed avid online shoppers and fashion enthusiasts to digest trend information, find out what the hottest products were as recommended by industry experts, and make purchases all in one place — that’s where Trending came in.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in Technology?

I’ve been playing video games all of my life and, growing up, my computer was like a third parent to me in that I had learned so much just from a simple dial-up connection. However, up until a few years ago, I had always been a passionate consumer of technology but never thought I could be a passionate producer of technology as well. I also had a long standing interest in entrepreneurship at the time but didn’t know what industry to go into. What changed all of this was my discovery of the NY startup scene while working for Deborah, who was one of the judges on Pitch Night. So in that way Technovation was a catalyst for my career in technology.

What is it like to work at bitly? What was the process like getting a position there?

I got my current position at bitly through my fellowship at Enstitute, which is a two-year apprenticeship program for 18-24 year olds based on the philosophy of learning by doing. The current and first class of fellows consists of 11 pre, mid, and post-college students who have been selected out of roughly 500 applicants to spend two years in NYC working under successful entrepreneurs and executives in technology, media, non-profit, etc. We all live together and many of us, including myself, have actually dropped out of college to do this with the belief that we will get more out of two years working than we could ever going to school. Through a series of interviews with Enstitute, I managed to be paired with Hilary Mason, my first choice, who serves as Chief Scientist at bitly and as a result I work on the science team with her.

Since Hilary has the unique leadership role at bitly of making both technical and strategic business decision for the company, my apprenticeship under her has given me access to the same diversity of projects. In any given week, I could be improving my Python skills on a coding project, leading business development calls with potential clients, phone screening job applicants, playing ping pong, or meeting astronauts. And as Hilary’s apprentice, my work outside of bitly includes anything from joining her at speaking engagements and conferences such as TechCrunch Disrupt, sitting in on government meetings with Todd Park, the CTO of the United States, building communities around data science such as DataGotham, reviewing business plans and proposals sent to her, and picking up insomnia cookies for an event.

What do you like best about your job?

Definitely the breadth of exposure when it comes to my work, which can range from programming to market research to product to sales. The projects I get to work on are varied enough where I don’t get bored from doing the same thing for too long. I think I have the best of both worlds as a Data Strategist since it allows me to apply business strategy to our technical products, APIs, and data.

Who are your mentors? How do they help you?

People I consider my mentors are really just past employers, colleagues, and friends from whom I have grown a lot, personally and professionally, under their guidance. One “mentor’”of mine is a woman named Stephanie Louie who is a VP of Operational Risk at Goldman Sachs. Stephanie is an alumna of the same high school I went to, Brooklyn Tech, and we met at a Career Fair I had organized there. She has been giving me advice on everything from business to dating since I was 15, and our mentor-mentee relationship has evolved into a close friendship. When Hurricane Sandy displaced me from the Enstitute HQ, where all the fellows live, Stephanie happily opened up her home for me to crash at.

Another person I consider my mentor is of course Hilary since I look up to her as the business-savvy technologist I hope to be someday. Hilary has not only helped me figure out my strengths and position at bitly but she has also given me access to an incredible network both people-wise and internet-wise (when I was sick at home without access to wifi, she didn’t hesitate at all to give me her mobile wireless hotspot for a week).

What advice do you have for Technovation girls who are considering careers in tech?

Become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Whenever you are learning something new (programming, for example) or entering into a field in which you’ve had little to no experience (technology, as another example), you’re likely to feel nervous, lost, and frustrated, but that is normal so don’t let those natural feelings stop you. I talk more about this in a Women2.0 article you can read here.

As a Technovation participant, you have access to great resources and I encourage you to take advantage of everything that is offered. Most importantly, seek opportunities outside of what is directly made available to you. When my team lost the 2011 NY Regional competition, I made an effort to get each one of the judge’s business cards and emailed them afterwards, which ultimately resulted in the internship with Deborah Jackson that led to my application to Enstitute. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for something. You’d be surprised how open people within the technology community are to helping.

Jasmine was recently featured in the NYT: Check out the article here.

Droidettes NYC, 2011

Badge based gamification: is this just the thing that education needs?

Before these trends get too overblown, I’d like to dissect and compare two terms that are on their way to becoming the next big thing in education: gamification and badges.

Gamification is a very broad term, that basically involves applying components of games to things that are not games, to make more addictive, enjoyable, and/or game-like experiences.  A very broad term, as there are many types of games with many times of components, that can be applied many other contexts in many different ways.

Badges are really an equally open-ended idea as I described previously. The term badges can mean anything from a boy-scouts style skill badge, to a leveling or ranking system, to simply adding points to an activity. I think there is value in separating out these different types of badges, but for the purposes here I will group them all together into any kind of tangible or intangible item received as recognition for proceeding through an activity.

How are badges and gamification related?

This answer basically varies from person to person, depending on their point of view, and how they view these two terms.  Unfortunately, I think too many people view these two terms as basically synonymous: gamifying education means adding all kinds of badges all over the place.  To others, badges are one way to achieve gamification, but there are other ways to gamify.  Finally, a third group sees gamification as one potential use of badges (another use being a certification system, as one use of Mozilla’s open badge initiative).

I’d like to offer a slightly different taxonomy of these two terms.  To me gamification is a series of principles, and badges are one tool that can be used to implement those principles.

Here’s the problem, though. Are badges the only tool than can implement gamification principles? No. Do all badges effectively incorporate gamification principles? No.

It’s these two “no’s” that make this situation really complicated.  Badges are neither necessary nor sufficient for gamification to take place.  They are just one tool that, when used the right way, can enable gamification.

This problem get even more complex when we look at typical grading structures in school.  These grading structures often de-emphasize several of the gamification principles offered by Gee.

But here’s the tricky part: Can you design a grading system that implements gamification principles?  Yes.  Reduce the stakes of grades to promote risk-taking. Use the grade as a feedback mechanism rather than a judge of performance, have kids build up to a good grade through well-ordered problem solving and iterative submission of their activity. So grades are not necessarily anti-gamification, it’s just the implementation of grades in 99% of today’s classrooms that is anti-gamification.

So what’s the point here? I dislike most gradings systems, and I like most badging systems.  But grades are not inherently flawed, and badges are not inherently good, both are just tools that can be used well or poorly.  The point is not what tool you are using, but how the tool is being used. Instead of picking a fight over grades versus badges, we need to ask the hard question: Is the tool (whether grades or badges) being used in a way that reflects gamification principles?

So, what makes a badge “good?”

Badges, as typically used in games, are one tool that can enable several of the gamification principles I described previously.  Badges are extremely task- and goal-oriented. There’s a competency that you need to demonstrate to get a badge; badges creates a clear goal.  Badges are also very safe environments for failure. It doesn’t matter how many times you fail; as long as you succeed eventually you get the badge. This also goes hand in hand with performance before competence. Typical school grades have an implicit “you need to know this at this time in this way,” whereas typical game badges have a “this is one of many things you can know eventually in some way.” I also think badges are more suited towards open-ended challenges that can accommodate one of many possible pieces of evidence. Of course you can grade an open-ended response, but grades work better with closed responses. And badges of course provide a structure to create identity through gaining a tangible recognition for the skills you have gained.

The fact of the matter is that structure behind your badge system is much more important than the simple fact that you use badges in your activities.

In fact, I’d argue that it’s the activity itself that really makes or breaks a learning experience, the badge is just the icing on the cake. Thinking of the activity as the cake and the icing as the badge is a really useful metaphor. If you messed up the batter, the icing can never compensate for a bad-tasting cake. But it’s also really hard to make an absolutely awesome cake without adding some kind of icing (but not impossible, flourless chocolate cakes, anyone?)

This silly analogy actually makes a really good point. A badge is to me just an amplification tool. It highlights and accentuates the good parts of a learning experience, increasing their power and effect. Badges can never make a bad activity good, they can only make a great activity awesome.


Hopefully I’ve made the point that badges are no silver bullet answer to education.  There’s no getting around using good activities, or for that matter paying a lot of attention to the structure behind your badge. We like to focus on tangible answers to problems, but there is no tangible answer that can, by itself and without careful use, improve education.  Badges are a tool, and like any other tool they require a lot of thought and hard work to be used effectively.

The costs to gamify education

In a previous post, I laid out what it means to gamify education (short answer is: incorporate best teaching practices).  If you read that post, it should be pretty clear that those ideas are quite far from our current educational system.  Gamifying education means doing so much more than giving kids badges or points when they turn in homework. It requires a massive overhaul of the structure, values, and philosophy of our school system.

That may sound drastic, and I don’t at all mean to solve the education problem in a two-page blog post.  But I did want to highlight some common classroom practices as a case study, just to emphasize the many ways that they violate gamification principles, and what gamification-friendly solutions might look like.  I’m going to continue using the same delineation from my first post between the Rules (the formal structure of a lesson plan) and Play (the experience created by the implementation of a lesson).

Problem 1: Rules (i.e. restructure your lesson plan)

Cookie Cutter Labs

You know, the ones with a list of instructions that you follow step by step, until you get the answer which is either right or wrong.  The worst ones even have blank spaces for you to write in your data. This is mostly a “rules” problem, but many of these labs are so constrained in their rules that they limit the potential for a good experience. The problems:

  • Little learning by doing– reading and following instructions is a passive activity
  • Zero agency
  • Not open-ended
  • Not goal-oriented, except in the sense that the goal is to get through the instructions.
  • You are always worried about messing up a step and failing, so they are risk-averse
  • Competence before performance (understand the instructions, THEN do …)

A potential solution:

Imagine the exact same lab, but instead of saying “measure the gravitational constant by doing A, then B, then C…” it says “Figure out how to measure the gravitational constant, and justify why your measurement is accurate.”

Problem 2: Play (i.e. restructure your classroom practices)

Pop Quizzes

Surprise!  Quiz today. Yuck, right? Let’s not even focus on the Rules, or content of the quiz. Let’s just focus on Play, or the experience of a pop, get-ready-at-any-moment, quiz.

  • It still destroys agency: “Stop what you were planning to do, and take this test.
  • These are really risk averse activities.  You are essentially telling your students that they should be ready to know something at any possible moment, i.e. they should be prepared at all times to demonstrate they are not a failure. The environment should encourage risk taking, rather than stigmatize failure with items like pop quizzes.
  • It’s hard to see a way in which the artificial setting of a pop-quiz really situates meaning.
  • The quizzes can interrupt the build-up of performance by requiring these random displays of competence at any given time.
  • This is also a terrible form of feedback. Feedback should be accompanied readily and consistently as kids are doing an activity. A pop-quiz creates an artificial setting to test knowledge, usually separate from the act of doing, and delays feedback until the teacher can grade and return the quizzes.

A potential solution:

Create a list of questions to be answered as students proceed through their learning.  Let them answer the questions in any order, in their own time. Grade the answers as often as possible– don’t wait for students to answer all the questions to grade a few of them. Let them fail as much as they like, as long as they produce a right answer eventually. In fact, let them test out answers that they know are wrong to get feedback from you. From your end, students are done with the activity when they demonstrate understanding of every question. If they are done, let them keep exploring.

Problem 3: The meta-structure of school (i.e. removing standards)


That’s right, all of them.  I don’t mean Common Core, or Next Generation Science Standard, or any standard in particular.  I mean the idea that there should be a nationwide standard for learning is by itself anti-gamified education.

Standards basically say “You need to know this knowledge at this point in time in this way.” Gamified learning environments say “You can learn one of these many things eventually, in some way.” This is not a feel-goodery type of “do whatever you want”- it simply encases learning in a format that respects our innate desire to learn. The standards-driven philosophy fails to do so in several ways:

  • No agency, in a completely linear learning path
  • It’s risk-averse: don’t try new things out, just learn what you have to, and do it on time!
  • It’s often not open-ended. I know the current iterations have included less definable skill sets that are meant to be open-ended.  But the vicissitudes of standardized assessments will corrupt these noble intentions and evaluate these open-ended standards in a way that doesn’t truly allow for open-ended solutions. “Do whatever you want, but if you don’t produce an answer that follows this formula you fail” is not the same as “Do whatever you want to get at a solution.”
  • It can be goal- and task-oriented, though it is often implemented in a “do this assignment, then do that assignment” kind of way, rather than a “complete all these tasks.”
  • The true feedback is often offered at the end of the year after you are “done” learning, in a big test, for which your results are delayed due to the logistics of a nationwide testing.  It’s funny, because multiple choice tests can give someone instantaneous feedback.  But the purpose of a standard is not to give students feedback, it’s to test and rank them. Any high-stakes testing will sacrifice student feedback for assessing purposes. How terrible that in this high-stakes environment, where the point of learning is quite literally to pass the test, that students are given almost no feedback on that objective until it’s long past and useless for improving learning.
  • Kids are tested individually: forget distributing knowledge and fostering collaboration.
  • Situated meaning– when everyone is learning the same thing, it’s hard to situate the meaning in locally or individually relevant contexts.

A potential solution:

Give students challenges, more challenges than they could ever possibly accomplish in one year (like twice as many). Require a certain number of challenges to be accomplished over the year, but let them choose which challenges they want to specialize in. If you really want, you can have a “core competencies” section of the challenge that all students must do (call it a “main storyline”), but make that no more than 25% of all required challenges.  Let students resubmit the answer to challenges as often as they like, until they achieve a success state.  In fact, don’t “grade” the answers at all, just give a “complete” or “needs more work.” If you want to give kids a standard, make it that they have to show proficiency in a certain number of these challenges each year to their teacher (not to a nationwide agency).

And for god’s sake, don’t evaluate the teachers on how well their students do– that sort of system always discourages risk-taking and timely feedback to students.  No one can give more timely and informative feedback to a student than their teacher. Empower teachers to do so, rather than judging them for not having kids memorize enough items.  Teaching is a creative art that can only be effectively evaluated subjectively, by a principal or other teachers.  Any attempt to objectively evaluate teachers not only is ineffective, but also destroys so many gamification features of a classroom experience for the students. The type of assessment used effect the experience of the learning environment, for both students and teachers. Choose a poor assessment technique, and you de-gamify learning.


By offering these three case studies, I was hoping to have a more grounded, concrete example of gamified education, to couple with the more abstract analysis from my earlier posts.  To end on a caveat, although I am convinced that the current classroom practices I mentioned are poor teaching techniques, I’m not convinced that the alternatives I offered are necessarily the best, nor the only, way to gamify or improve the classroom.  I mean them more as a starting point for discussion, rather than a final answer.  I would love to hear from others on your example of good and bad gamified classroom practices.  How would you like to see classroom practices change, and do those changes align with gamification principles?