Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rewards Structures in The Ward Game: An interview with Paul Darvasi

As the second interview in this series, I am excited to interview Paul Darvasi, who is a high school English and Media Studies teacher who teaches at Royal St. George’s College, in Toronto, Canada. Paul is also a doctoral candidate at York University, and a founding member of the Play Lab at the University of Toronto. He researches, writes, and speaks at the intersections of games, culture, society, education, and learning. He also designs pervasive or alternate reality games which he has implemented in instructional settings, and one of those games will be the focus of today's interview.

KM: So I’m excited to talk about the very first time I heard you talk about your classroom. It was at the Games for Education conference in Troy, and you talked about what you did with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Could you provide a brief description of that game here?

PD: Essentially, I used the narrative, setting, theme, and characters from Ken Kesey’s novel to create a 30-day game where my students are immersed in the world of the asylum. I was struck that so many of Kesey’s critiques about Nurse Ratched’s ward, such as the use of authority, coercion, and clockwork organization coincided with some of the worst aspects of schooling.
This critique was enacted by turning my all-boys school into the all male world of the asylum, where I used game mechanics such as missions (“prescriptions”), surveillance, play-acting, propaganda production, and group challenges, as well as mini-games to bring the novel’s narrative to life.

KM: I want to hear a little more about the mission system you devised. What were missions? How did students request missions, and what rewards did they receive as a result?

PD: The mission, or prescription system, evolved over time. In the first year, I would send emails to students from The Big Nurse’s account offering them tasks for rewards which they could accept or reject. As the game evolved in subsequent years, students could request a prescription at any time from a specific category (art, medicine, creative writing, journalism, music, engineering, etc.) They would be sent a task with a catalog of rewards for completing said task (points, in game money called “c-sticks”, or mystery envelopes that gave them bonuses or valuable information). Again, they had the option to accept or reject anything that was sent to them, and they could request another prescription in the same or another category.

KM: Can you also describe the system you had for students to turn each other in, or the rules about not talking about the game outside of class?

PD: When the game started, players were asked to sign a “waiver/user agreement/contract that, among other things, warned that they could not talk about the game outside their Wards (classes) unless authorized by TBN. This was verbally reinforced by Dr. Spivey. This was a take on an aspect of the narrative where patients are rewarded by Ratchet for “ratting” each other about, particularly about deeply personal issues that they have not shared in group therapy session. Ratched would reward informants with sleep-ins and other benefits. Informants disclosed their findings by writing them into the Nurse’s logbook at her station. In the game, players could record any unauthorized discussions (audio, video, screenshots of text messages or social media posts, etc.) These would be sent to an email address called “The Logbook”. If accepted as legitimate and viable, they would be rewarded with points and the offending party would be penalized points. Great pains were taken to protect the identity of the informant. To discourage bad feelings, anybody who was caught partaking in an unauthorized conversation received a warning first, and points were only docked for second offenders, who were super rare. In the end, it worked in that a genuine low level paranoia and lack of trust pervaded the game, which was the atmosphere of the ward in the novel. I pasted a copy of the user agreement at the bottom of the document.

KM: What were the C-sticks used for in the game?

PD: Mostly in the Day Room, which was the game auction house. Most transactions were for cards, but sometimes The Big Nurse would be requested to transfer funds from one account to the other for “services rendered.” One resourceful kid received the rare “password hack card” and there was a lot of buzz about a password protected PDF that would prove useful to many of them (can’t remember what it was right not), so he posted a message on the Day Room that said that he would release the said password at a set time to any other players who paid him 10 C sticks. He made a fortune, and came back from business school a year later to tell me how much he loved the game.

KM: That’s interesting: did any other bartering or trading mechanics emerge around the C-sticks? Or, generally, did the C-sticks take on meaning and value outside the strict confines of the “game”?

PD: Lots of outside stuff, most of which was never made clear to me. The Day Room was a pretty active site, any many of the transactions spilled out to goods and services outside the game. One notable example is that the students who were not formally part of the game began recording people speaking out of turn. Instead of turning in the recordings to The Big Nurse, they sold them back to the perps for a lower C-stick cost than what it would cost them in points if they were turned in. This was done on a black market auction site one of them was running in a secret Facebook group.

KM: Do you have some examples of the “mystery envelopes” rewards? Would love to hear any fun stories of what you gave and reactions/gameplay strategies that resulted from them.

PD: Yes, lots. Here are some good ones. I provide explanations when necessary. There are many more.

Password Hack: You can request any in-game password from The Big Nurse. Only one use. This can also be sold or traded in the Day Room. If this card is lost or stolen, it will not be replaced.

Counter Espionage: If you are caught participating in an unauthorized discussion, you can give this card to The Big Nurse to convince her she has been misinformed and not lose any points. This can also be sold or traded in the Day Room. If this card is lost or stolen, it will not be replaced.

Film Fest: This card allows you to complete a task using images from the Milos Forman film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This can also be sold or traded in the Day Room. If this card is lost or stolen, it will not be replaced.

Players were not allowed to use any images from the film when they completed prescriptions (brochures, comics, etc.), UNLESS they had the above card.

Pecking Party Free Life: You can turn this in and remain in a Pecking Party in which you have been eliminated. This can also be sold or traded in the Day Room. If this card is lost or stolen, it will not be replaced.

This was a free life for a popular and lethal mini-game based on group therapy.

Prescription Extension 48: This card buys you a 48 hour extension on any prescription. This can also be sold or traded in the Day Room. If this card is lost or stolen, it will not be replaced.

Acute Immunity: You can use this to preserve your natural point value until you reach 65 points with no losses for being Acute. This can also be sold or traded in the Day Room. If this card is lost or stolen, it will not be replaced.

When player reached 50 points they became “Acute” and all points earned were chopped in half. When they reached 80 they became “Chronic” and they were chopped in half. This card extended natural point extension beyond the first threshold. There was also a super rare “Chronic Immunity” card.

Make it Stop: This card allows you to ask Dr. Spivey to stop playing Lawrence Welk for any session. This can also be sold or traded in the Day Room. If this card is lost or stolen, it will not be replaced. 

By far my favourite. In the novel, McMurphy is driven a bit nutty because Nurse Ratched only plays Lawrence Welk in the ward. He begs her to stop, but she won’t and he eventually reacts violently. At one point in the game I started playing a Lawrence Welk song (“Misty”) on repeat for all subsequent classes. This card was the only way to make it stop. It drove a couple of the students a bit batty.

KM: I love those examples! I want to shift gears for a second, and talk about learning outcomes. What were your learning outcomes? And how were these “prescriptions” designed to support those learning outcomes?

PD: The learning outcome depended on the task, but all tasks were tied to themes and events in the novel. So, if an aspiring engineering student accepted a prescription to design the schematics for an electroshock therapy machine, they would practice their design skills within the framework of the narrative. What emerged a self-determined multidisciplinary program that was held together by the novel’s narrative. If a student reached 100 points, they were “released” from the asylum, so there was a double impetus to earn points: 1) the points translated to grades 2) if they reached the threshold, they would have the freedom to do what they wanted for the reminder of the time allotted to the game.

KM: I was wondering about learning outcomes on a higher level too- on the entire experience, not just on individual tasks. Over the 30 day experience, what did you expect students to come to learn or understand about the book?

PD: So much! Every single prescription was tied to the novel: creating a rap sheet for McMurphy, a brochure for the ward, a song about Bromden, laws around governments commandeering indiginous land, types of psychiatric medication, acting like a character in class, etc. All of these reinforced content. However, they also lived the story’s most important lessons. For example, extrinsic rewards and coercion were a commentary on Ratched’s similar tactics to “normalize” patients, while the intrinsic playfulness and choices were 100% McMurphy who used games and chance (poker, monopoly, betting, fishing) to motivate patients to discover their true selves. Did I make this obvious? No, not at all, but that’s the art of it. By living it, and enacting it, it will sink it and maybe 10 years from now it will hit them, or maybe never. Some got it right away and were pretty impressed. Also all the minigames reinforced events from the novel: group therapy, the fishing trip, the dynamic between two epileptic patients. Cigarettes were currency in both worlds, and even the low level paranoia that pervades the Ward in the novel infused the students when they all started “ratting” each other out. Even the Lawrence Welk thing enacted the novel, and made those who weren’t keeping up with the reading curious to know what was going on. Two elaborate treasure hunts were designed where all the clues related to passages and elements from the book and The Big Nurses’ Facebook page put up challenges that were all related to the book. Did this incentivise them to read it more than a normal class. I’m not sure, but they lived and walked away with an understanding of its key messages.

KM: Tell me about student motivation- I know your students were highly motivated for the most part. What part of the experience seemed to motivate them the most?

PD: Although I never formally studied this, I have a pretty good sense of their sources of motivation. How they intermingled in each individual is impossible to tell, as each student was motivated for different reasons. Some were motivated because they enjoyed the combination of freedom and unpredictability offered by the experience. They liked to play the game, which was a refreshing and dramatic departure from school business as usual. Another source of motivated was the extensive choices offered to build points. Many could pursue their passions (music, art, writing, designing, basketball, etc.) in a time and a way that suited them. Some were competitive and wanted to be the first to reach 100 points, while others wanted to earn their “release” and enjoy their free time. Finally, there were those that wanted to maximize their points to maximize their grades. These factors worked in various combinations depending on the student. Finally, there were a number of students over the years who earned 100 points before the game was over, and were actually disappointed that they would no longer play. Consequently, they remained in the game. Another interesting point is that there were students who were not in my class who inserted themselves in the game for the sake of enjoyment, as they did not benefit from the points/grades.

KM: So let’s talk about grades then. How did letter grades factor in the experience?

PD: So each successfully completed prescription was awarded an absolute point and reward value, thus the product or task had to be completed to the highest level of a rubric, which was included with the mission. If the work or task was sub-par, rather than diminishing the reward value, it was returned to the student with a time limit to improve it. I rarely had to send anything back because students carried out projects that they chose, which usually invested them in the process. In the end, their score translated to a traditional grade, which amounted to 20% of their overall mark for the course.

KM: Did students seem aware of, or think about, the fact that there was a grade attached to this? Or were they just so absorbed in the mechanics and narrative that the grade element was forgotten most of the time?

PD: I honestly think most of them had lost site of their grade and, if anything, it was more about the points in and of themselves than the grade that they would convert to. They were competitive, wanted to be “released” and liked to see their scores go up as they completed tasks, etc.

KM: How might the experience have been different if there wasn’t a formal grade attached to the experience?

PD: I’ll reverse your question, then, and speculate what would have happened if there was no grade attached to the game. I think there would have been a substantial decrease in motivation. This doesn’t mean the game cannot motivate without grades, as shown by students who participated without benefiting from the reward system, but it was their last month of school many would prioritize activities that contributed to their grade average which, in turn, maintained their university acceptances. I completely believe that instructional initiatives can invest students without grades, but rarely within the confines of a traditional school system. They have been conditioned for years to operate for grades, and everything in the system pushes them towards that. Choice certainly helps, but there are no magic bullets. Ideally, the entire system would be reorganized to individualize learning at all levels, differentiating how students learn, what they learn and when they are learning it. I think there will always be and should always be a place for extrinsic motivation, but we must do a better job of promoting a love and passion for learning, rather than a love and passion for grades.

KM: I will say, I love how you chose to use grades. Maybe it’s not worth thinking about grades as a binary choice- something is either for your grade, or it’s not. There’s clearly lots of ways to insert a grade into a gamelike experience, and your way was very unique. The individual tasks were not graded, they were pass/fail, and given a point value. It was the cumulative number of points that you gained that gave you your grade. Forming a grade out of a cumulation of discrete, completion-based tasks feels very different from the classic grading structure, which is formed from an average of several measurement based tasks. Do you use the more classic grading structure in your “regular” class? And any reflections on how students’ specifically responded to, or were motivated by, this alternate structure of getting to a letter grade?

PD: Yes, I use traditional grading in most of my classes most of the time. The Ward Game system was so much more dynamic, fluid and differentiated. They seemed to enjoy it so much more, and seemed much more motivated. Also, there was always the chance to improve and do well - the system is much more forgiving. There was no “bombing a test” leading to an inevitably damaged grade. But there are so many variables to consider: the time of year (they were checked out), the age (they were graduating), etc. These made grade slightly less important. I think working to mastery is much better than simply giving bad grades for bad work. Unfortunately, it’s so hard (near impossible) for teachers to keep working with kids until they get it right. Running the game took everything out of me - it required nonstop work for 30 days. I’m convinced advance AI and computers will make this a reality. Our current system is so stale and outmoded. Assessment will become much more fluid and granular, using data and analytics, which also comes with its problems. In light of that, our current system will seem ham fisted and slightly absurd. I see the Ward Game as an emergent form of educational art that doesn’t accomplish the next step in all its refinements, but playfully points to and shows how education will inevitably change in the digital age. Yes, it will be more fun, flexible, enacted, oral and differentiated, but it will also include elements of surveillance and paranoia and increasingly leave the written text behind, for better and for worse.

Below, Paul shares some examples of prescriptions from the class.

I like the following because it populates a public forum with art and information related to mental health. Students mobilize their work to elevate the community:

Below, Paul shares the initial “user agreement” that all students signed before entering the game.

The Ward Policy 
(User Agreement)

This document certifies that I understand the stipulations and regulations involved once I voluntarily commit to The Ward. I understand that all forms of treatment while I am on the INSIDE are to better help me adjust to my surroundings on the OUTSIDE. I also understand that the care I will be subjected to during my 30-day stay is in the interest of my long-term mental health.

While in The Ward, I also understand that:

1)     I will strive to get as close to 100 points on the Mental Health Meter (MHM) as possible, which will translate into my ISP score (10%).
2)     I understand that once I reach 50 points I will become Acute and all points earned will be cut in half, and when I reach 80 I’ll become Chronic and all points earned will be cut in half again. The only exception are Protected Points, whose value always remains constant. Some patients can earn immunities that will allow them to preserve original point values beyond the aforementioned thresholds.
3)     I will never discuss what occurs in my ward with anybody outside my ward, and I will abide by all the codes of silence and discretion as requested, or risk punitive measures.
4)     If it is proven/discovered that I had an unauthorized discussion about my treatment, it will cost me 5 points. If I send proof to The Logbook that an unauthorized discussion took place I will be awarded 5 points. If I submit evidence to the Logbook, my identity will always be kept anonymous.
5)     I will not use any material or images from Milos Forman’s film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for any task I complete or activity I will undertake.
6)     I understand that there are many ways to gain Dismissal, but if I earn 100 points and prove that I completed One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in its entirety, I will be released from the ward.
7)     I must check my First Class account on a regular basis.
8)    The ward is a democracy, but The Big Nurse reserves to right to alter, add or eliminate rules.
9)     I understand that completing the 3 Mental Health Research Videos and all surveys will earn me 10 protected points. I will forfeit these points for missing any of these.
10)  I will complete all my Prescriptions within the stated time limits, or suffer a MHM setback.

You will be committed from April 27th and ends on May 25th when, in 1960, the most powerful earthquake in history occurred.

On this day, April ______I, ____________________________ (Print your name legibly, please), hereby declare that I willingly consent to be committed, and thus admitted, to The Ward.


Your signature here

The ©ombine

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