Wednesday, February 29, 2012

An Issue of Context

So what I do for my 9-to-5 involves application of game theory into education. Coming from a strictly games-for-entertainment background, this has been a learning curve for me, especially when it comes to theories of learning. A year ago I was trying to teach my audience how to aim an M4. Now I show them the distribution property.

I didn't remember what it was either.

It may not come as a surprise that the current education system in the U.S. is broken and backwards. If you don't know what I mean, go and watch Waiting for Superman. It's on Netflix, and afterwards you will fear for your children's futures much like Outbreak made you fear the monkey from Friends

Patient Zero. Side-effects may cause constant, whiny voice.

We have a system of schools that were created for the Baby Boomer generation and receive funding based on state tests, which then motivate schools to only teach to perform better on those tests. Unless you are a Baby Boomer (my mom has figured out Facebook, so I imagine there's quite a bit of you on the internets these days) the system has failed you. And it continues to fail us as it in no way prepares us for the world around us.

Disclaimer: everything in this post are strictly my own opinion and in no way reflect any companies that I have worked for, past and present. I am my own person, which pretty much makes me a raging a-hole.

Toys and the Noise

At home I have a daughter. She is a beautiful girl and I intend on providing an environment that she will be safe from harm, as well as prepared for her life ahead. Somehow this also means I flood her world with toys.

Most toys you can buy nowadays advertise some aspect of learning. She has a dinosaur that spits balls that the box said "teaches cause and effect". I'm not sure how a spitting dinosaur teaches cause-and-effect, unless it is teaching that when the dinosaur spits, daddy now has to move the sofa to find the ball.

Most of the toys are electronic. Which means they make noise. Which in my mind would makes a more impressive display if cat burglars practice moving through a dark living room loaded with noise-making toys and a napping, teething toddler rather than laser yarn.

This toy-noise is repetitive and migraine inducing. I firmly believe a toy company is figuring out a battery-powered chalkboard, that when you touch it, makes the sound of nails running across it. And for some reason it is like crack-cocaine to kids.

One toy in particular is supposed to teach basic shapes. The intended design is that the child is supposed to take pieces that look like food and place them through slots of the same shape. The toy then gives feedback, "the cheese is a [pause for dramatic effect] TRIANGLE". 

Horror film and game makers take note. These voice-overs in kid's toys are the creepiest things around. You cannot use real kids for recording. Take a 3-year-old, shove them into a dark room with a big microphone in their face, and have them read lines of script all day. They'll have a breakdown fit that makes the first Rambo seem tame. 

Back then, David Caruso only came in the "shades off" variety

So instead, these professional toy designers hire professional actors and actresses that specialize in sounding like kids. Imagine thirty-something actors squeezing their vocal chords to helium-induced levels so they can squeeze out "the cheese is a triangle" with Shatner-esque rhythm. Then an audio engineer takes these recordings and compresses the ever-loving crap out of them to fit in the limited memory of a kids toy. You now have the soundtrack that nightmares are made from.

Intended Design meets the Toddler

But back to my daughter's toy. In it's design, it is supposed to reinforce the understanding on basic shapes in positive and negative spaces (square peg ≠ round hole stuff). On paper, the child is free to experiment, but when an expected behavior occurs, the toy designer rewards them with sound. For the child, the sound fires off dopamine in their brain, which motivates them to repeat the behavior again and again. Neurologically it is how pop-music works, so now you know why Ke$ha and Nikki Minnaj have careers.

There had to be a scientific reason

The key part to this is inside the hole for the shaped-pieces is a tiny, innocuous button. For my daughter, she has no priming that has prepared her that the cheese needs to go into the triangle space. If she understood that, I'd have no reason to buy the toy in the first place. Once placed in front of her, she understands there is a large part of the toy with holes, and a few smaller pieces. That's it.

Within minutes of play, she was able to find the tiny, innocuous button. She hits it and the toy rewards her. No cheese. No triangle. No square peg and round hole connections. She has learned that button = noise. And because of the dopamine hook, she presses it A LOT. Daughter 1, toy company 0.

Preparation for Tomorrow's World

So my daughter understands now that with a digital toy, pushing buttons lead to entertainment. In a weird way, she is now a little more prepared for a computer/internet world. It will not take much to build off of this base learning to show her how the TV remote, XBox controller, or daddy's Droid works. I'd actually prefer if she understood these concepts before she attempts to fill the XBox with bologna.

But what she is ill-prepared for is the rudimentary logical concepts, such as square peg/round hole. And now I cannot introduce a non-digital toy to teach this concept, because she is already has learned that noise-making toys are more fun. 

I actually see this problem come up quite often in education. Basic concepts are fancied up with gamification or new digital designs, when the audience is actually way more sophisticated than the designers thought. The audience breaks the entire system by finding an unintended short-cut, and we are all a little poorer for it. Game design 101: if there is an exploit in your system, the player will find it in seconds-flat.

The only solution I can come to is direct parental intervention, and showing her repeatedly that the cheese goes into the triangle hole. Which means I am now crawling on the floor playing with her toys as she watches. Which teaches her that daddy's knees are not what they used to be. And there's your cause-and-effect.

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