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TPC 156: Professor White’s Reality is Broken Part 1

September 4th, 2011 · David · 1 Comment

Podgecast McGonigal Stuff Outline

Overview

  1. Discussing using games, and specifically software-assisted games, as a core framework for doing work.
  2. Discussion using what serious researchers have learned about games at work to understand how to make and keep our game time fun.

The McGonigal Thesis We Will Discuss (Tim’s Paraphrase)

Massively Multiplayer Online Computer games have refined an extremely successful set of tools and techniques for making people enjoy doing work.  Thus, it should be possible to use not only those same tools and techniques in the office, but to directly leverage the skills and expectations people have learned during thousands of hours of online gameplay.

An endemic MMO-like computer system that facilitates generating tasks, enabling teamwork, tracking results and allocating rewards on a task-by-task basis is the “magic bullet” to making this possible.

There is burgeoning belief that this should work for education as well (Khan Academy).

Pre-Discussion Questions (limited discussion, just quick starting thoughts from each panelist)
  1. Do you believe the thesis above? If not, what parts don’t you agree with?
  2. What about computer games do you think has convinced people that this might be true?
  3. How would you feel if your workplace ran on a MMO-type platform for assigning tasks and rewarding them?
  4. How would you feel if your education had consisted of watching short lecture/explanatory videos at home as homework (assuming tech existed to do so), with time in class focused on actually doing the work with the teacher there to help?

Tim’s Sub-Thesis

There is a crackling nexus between the MMO stuff, the business/sports disciplines of performance management, psychological theories of operant conditioning, and long-understood principles around how motivation is the most important, and hardest thing for businesses and schools to sustain in their employees and students.

What’s new here is the continuous, regular application of long-understood (but hard to apply) positive reinforcement, made possible by computer-managed tasks and rewards, and a massive, instantaneous reporting and feedback infrastructure to continuously adjust those tasks and rewards.

And all of this applies to the game table and game design as much as it does to the workplace.

Getting the Concept of Operant Conditioning

  • See the work of BF Skinner for extreme detail. This is an armchair discussion of the topic, I’m sure our listeners with Psychology undergrad degrees could explain it better.
  • Positive Reinforcement (PR, or R+)
    • Clicker training for dogs.  You watch for/encourage a behavior, when you see it you click, and then reinforce that behavior with a treat & praise.  You also attach an antecedent to it (like a command word). Repeat a lot. Reinforce very consistently when training new behavior, and as consistently as you can thereafter.
      • Only the highest-level trained dogs (police, military, search & rescue) can go for long periods without reinforcement, because they are very slowly trained to handle more intermittent reinforcement.
      • The point of the click is to make the timing of the behavior that warranted positive reinforcement extremely clear.  You are reinforcing sitting when I say sit, not reinforcing licking my hand when I come to give you a treat.
        • This precision of communication will become very important later when we talk about games.
    • Tabletop RPGs – they are full of them – defeating monsters, getting treasure, gaining levels, gaining powers, getting status, getting a reputation, etc.
    • Computer RPGs – JAM PACKED WITH PR
      • Gold, guild status, badges, achievements, people interaction at any time of day or night, houses, equipment, pets/mounts/dress-up clothes, special quests
    • Things that are less full of PR:
      • Education – getting good grades, teacher attaboys, parent pride
      • Workplace – raises, promotions, awards
  • Negative Reinforcement (NR or R-) – something bad is happening, the avoidance of that is what gets reinforced
    • Encouraging behavior you want by encouraging avoiding negative situations.
      • Classic example is rat is dropped in a slightly electrified floor…pressing lever stops the shock for 10 seconds.  Rat will be pressing lever all the time very quickly.
    • For games – this happens quickly, too. People get trained to ‘act out’ when an unpleasant situation arises, to try and avoid it.  For some people, this may be when a combat starts, or when certain people get the spotlight, or when a certain aspect of the rules (say “Fight”) come up.
    • For education – students quickly learn to avoid classes with group projects. – The suckiness of group projects trains students to look for classes without them.
      • Contrast to games, where people actively seek to be in groups, and the game is a lot more fun when you have a group
        • Ponder fun of tabletop groups vs. online game groups
          • Continuous, instantaneous reward and entry/exit of groups online
      • Notoriously Picky Teachers negatively reinforce cheating in order to avoid capricious GPA hits
    • For work – if you finishing your work early means you get to ‘help’ your coworkers finish their work, you will be reinforcing not finishing early.
    • This concept is hard to understand…but it’s often undesirable anyway, compared to PR.
  • Lots more concepts like Punishments & Penalties to learn, but we can cover those as we go. Basically, while Reinforcements strengthen a behavior, Punishments & Penalties weaken a behavior.

Translating MMO Rewards

So with the ideas of positive and negative reinforcement in mind, what do MMOs do to reinforce “good” behavior that we could learn from for tabletop games, or the workplace?

  • Positively Reinforcing Individual Tasks and Behaviors, as opposed to long-term reviews
    • Lots of GMs do the post-game analysis, BW makes it part of the game, explicitly after, but implicitly all the way along (beliefs & instincts)
    • Characters being awesome is rewarding, but if characters never get a chance to be awesome, that reward goes away
    • What about non-character reinforcements?
      • Robin Laws player types – make sure you know what a PR is for your players
      • General social reinforcement of good behavior
    • D&D does this intrinsically with combat, but relies on the players to reward it outside of combat (this is a more concrete definition of the “doesn’t stop you, doesn’t help you either)
  • Continuous Feedback & Tuning
    • Need to quickly understand when something isn’t working, and tune it
      • Hard to do with adventures that aren’t played 100k times a day
        • Look for *types* of activities to tune
          • This is where the real skill lies…seems like a ripe area for exploration, in games and out

The Big Gap

Task generation and reward valuation.  How do you continuously generate new tasks and reward them appropriately when there are so many variables outside of the “game’s” control?
I believe that this is especially hard in R&D and creative professions/activities.

The Downside

Reading the “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy”, and “Why I’ll Never Pursue Cheating Again” articles makes it clear that kids raised with and endless stream of PR get withdrawal from it quickly, and that withdrawal leads to “Extinction Bursts” where they try to get it any way they can.

Since many companies are run by people from earlier generations who may or may not have kids, they don’t understand the need for consistent PR.

And the drive for perfection unquestionably pushes people into ethically grey territory.

So much like the top-end search & rescue/police dogs…one way or another we need to teach people to handle inconsistent, intermittent reinforcement…which may best be done by the very games we are talking about.

Post-Discussion Questions (limited discussion, just quick starting thoughts from each panelist)
  1. Do you believe the thesis above? If not, what parts don’t you agree with?
  2. What about computer games do you think has convinced people that this might be true?
  3. How would you feel if your workplace ran on a MMO-type platform for assigning tasks and rewarding them?
  4. How would you feel if your education had consisted of watching short lecture/explanatory videos at home as homework (assuming tech existed to do so), with time in class focused on actually doing the work with the teacher there to help?

Bibliography

McGonigal, Jane (2011): Reality is Broken. Penguin.

Reeves, Byron (2009): Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete. Harvard Business School Press.

Daniels, Aubrey & Daniels, James (2004): Performance Management: Changing Behavior that Drives Organizational Effectiveness. Performance Management Publications.

Wired Magazine: How Khan Academy is Changing the Rules of Education: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_khan/all/1

Imperiotis, Panos: Why I Will Never Pursue Cheating Again: http://behind-the-enemy-lines.blogspot.com/2011/07/why-i-will-never-pursue-cheating-again.html

Sutton, Robert I (2007): The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Business Plus.

Gottlieb, Lori: How to Land Your Kids in Therapy:  http://m.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/

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