4th Graders, Plywood & Gamification


There’s a growing trend known as gamification , perhaps you’ve heard of it. Perhaps not.

Gamification is the concept of applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging.
Gamification Wiki

We see many, many different examples of it in our daily lives, though we may not really notice them or how they interact with us and us, them. Some may be simply “game’ type interface many new devices tend to have; others are more complex. It’s being talked about at conferences put on by groups like Games for Change. People, such as Jane McGonigal, are looking for ways to take the 3,000,000,000+ hours every week the human race invests in playing online video games and turn it into finding ways to improve the human condition.

Instead of providing gamers with better and more immersive alternatives to reality, I want all of us to become responsible for providing the world with a better and more immersive reality.
Jane McGonigal

Other projects take a quite different approach: let’s make good behavior fun, and then more people will engage in that good behavior. One such project here is Volkswagen‘s The Fun Theory initiative. Some of their supported projects have:

Improved Health:

Encouraged Recycling:

Discourage Littering:

Reduced Car Speed:

Somehow, we as humans appear to be wired to play games. In fact, it seems game play increases learning and fluid intelligence (problem-solving) as we:

  • Seek Novelty
  • Challenge Ourselves
  • Think Creatively
  • Do Things the Hard Way
  • Network

This was discussed by Gabe Zichermann in a 2011 TEDxKids@Brussels talk entitled “How games make kids smarter“.

But, this interest in how games are changing society and the way we interact with each other and the world around us is not limited to just video games and ingenious social-engineering experiments. What if Jane McGonigal is right and game play can actually be used to solve real-world problems.

John Hunter thinks it can.

He’s a public school teacher in one of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. He teaches through the World Peace Game, a nearly 30-year-old political science simulation dealing with inter-country political, social, military, economical and environmental relationships. It’s a game for 4th graders. Shown in the 2010 documentary, World Peace and Other 4th Grade Achievements, the children are put in control of five very different countries and are then given different challenges (political, social, economical, environmental and so on). While the game happens on a multi-tier board based on a 4’x5’ piece of plywood, the real game happens as the children interact, deciding the fates of the countries, military, citizens and the world at large. Their decisions matter.

Relationships are important in eduction. That really may even be the key to teaching well is the relationship you have with the student. If you are able to touch the mind, fine, but if you can touch their heart then the mind contact lasts longer and goes deeper, I think.
John Hunter

So, inside of their own little world, built on governments led by the students, these 4th graders are confronted with things such as:

  • War
  • Ethnic & minority tensions
  • Chemical, oil & nuclear spills
  • Nuclear proliferation
  • Water rights disputes
  • Famines
  • Break-away republics
  • Environmental disasters
  • Global warming (which they solved in a week)

They study Sun Tzu‘s The Art of War to learn how to not follow the path to power and destruction. They learn to think long-term and to see how their decisions leading their countries will affect the entire game. Again, they are 4th graders. Again, their decisions matter.

It’s not just the students that learn, though. Really, it’s the adults, especially John, who has learned much from watching the children play. For him, as he explained in his 2011 TED Talk, if only they can pick up the critical thinking skills, maybe they can rescue us from the real-world problems faced in the game. Listen to his stories of what he has learned from playing a game.

I really believe that fun can change human behavior for the better.
Kevin Richardson