I am an avid gamer. For some time, I have been thinking about how engaging games are and whether this quality can be leveraged for other purposes; like instruction. Put more simply … What is it about games that makes them so engaging? Is there something about this that we can use as educators? Granted, these are not new questions.
Dr. Meghan Naxer recently posted a primer on Self-Determination Theory (SDT), Self-Determination Theory and Online Education: A Primer. I believe SDT does an excellent job describing much of what makes games so motivating and engaging. Indeed, games provide an excellent model of SDT and can inform us on how the three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness) might be met in learning environments. I hope to build on some of the concepts introduced in Meghan’s post.
This is the first in a series of posts on games as a model for SDT. In part 1, I look at the convergence of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness in gaming and online learning in relation to building community and intrinsic motivation.
Autonomy: Open Worlds
Games are becoming increasingly complex, particularly in the arena of Open World games where players are allowed to choose their own paths (autonomy). Entire worlds, even universes, exist for you to immerse yourself in, each with their own history and internal logic. You are often thrown into a new world with few instructions.
For example, in the Open World game No Man’s Sky, millions of stars and planets are procedurally generated just for you, unique to your specific game. When this game begins, you appear on an alien planet next to a broken space ship. Your space suit is running out of oxygen. No instructions, just urgent messages from your onboard computer on toxicity and your decreasing oxygen levels.
The complexity of modern open world games is more than can be reasonably covered in a tutorial. Besides, a significant part of what makes the game engaging is the autonomous exploration and discovery. You decide how you will play the game, in what order you will do things and at what pace. Being told how to play the game is far less interesting.
Here is the internal logic of No Man’s Sky:
- You’re in an alien environment.
- It seems like you are alone.
- There are problems to solve.
- There is no instruction manual.
- You must explore to solve these problems.
Think about that in comparison to your online students when they first enter your course. Online students do have instructions to help them get started. However, at first glance, it can seem like they are thrown in the deep end to figure things out for themselves. In a situation where intrinsic motivation is less clear, this can lead to frustration. That does not have to be the case. For gamers, there is one more bullet-point.
- When you get stuck, you can turn to an online community.
If you were to talk to a gamer and describe your experience about how many times you ‘died’ trying to figure a game out, a common reaction would be something like, “Why would you do that? You know there’s a wiki, right?” Playing an online game today is not a solo venture, even if it is a solo game.
Relatedness: Gaming Communities
Online communities spring up around successful games to support players. A majority of large games have an accompanying Wiki, many of which are curated and updated by players. Various online communities exist to discuss specific games in forums and social media. Players discuss technical issues, the internal logic of a game, the lore and history of the game’s world, where to focus their efforts when starting, or the best order to do certain tasks for best success.
The point here is that given the resources, an intrinsically motivated group of people will figure out ways to help each other succeed. This speaks to Relatedness. In an environment where players are given maximum autonomy, they turn toward their community to support that autonomy and gain competence in that environment. Further, when given an opportunity to contribute to supportive communities, to share their competence, players feel valued as members of that community. So, can we create something like this environment in an online course?
Intrinsic Motivation: Sharing Competence
The challenge in my above summary is intrinsic motivation. There is something of an inherent motivation to play a game and get better at it. Though it can be less clear, online students also have intrinsic motivation beyond just ‘passing the course’. Community building can be a way to help students to discover and support these motivations.
Following the gaming example from above,
“Players discuss technical issues … where to focus their efforts when starting, or the best order to do certain tasks for best success.”
This is a good place to start building community. Simply encourage your students to share their success strategies in your course.
Formalize this by setting up a forum-style environment where students share their experiences, the process they used to solve a problem, the biggest stumbling block this week, or simply to ask each other for help. Much of this could also be accomplished through existing discussions or peer reviews by simply adjusting or adding language for students to draw from their own success strategies, “What did you discover this week that would benefit another student?”
Group work is another tool that can be used for helping students discover intrinsic motivation and build community. Challenge students to work together to apply this week’s content to something in their own lives, a subject of their choice. Trust them to find the problem that needs solving. This is similar to participation in a gaming community – sharing and building competence. But in this case, you are allowing students to build the narrative.
By giving students some autonomy in deciding the end product of their work, you are creating an opportunity for them to discover what drives them.
With all of these examples, it is perfectly reasonable to set the ‘internal logic’ of the environment; subject matter to be discussed, the completion goals, length of the project, rubrics for assessment purposes. The idea is to allow students more autonomy in determining how to get to these goals. All that you are really changing, compared to a typical assignment, is control of the narrative.
And that is a nice segue to the topic of my upcoming post, Part 2, Games as a Model for Motivation and Engagement – Narrative and World-Building