Marguerite Dibble wants to tackle big problems. The title of her address, “Unlocking Behavioral Change with Games,” which she delivered at this year’s Faculty Institute, is itself evidence of Dibble’s ambition.
She presented June 16th at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee, Vermont, addressing a crowded room of nearly 150 faculty members. She is founder and CEO of GameTheory, a Burlington-based game development and consulting company. On Thursday morning, Dibble brought a palpable energy to the room; with short hair and sharp glasses, a neat white dress, and a pair of earrings that swung as she spoke, she was at once authoritative and inviting: she had something important to share, something about which she is deeply passionate, something which she believes has the potential for unprecedented impact.
While Dibble’s work as a designer and consultant is focused largely in digital and video gaming, Thursday’s discussion was all-encompassing; she referred to practically any form of game—from Parcheesi to Tag, from Atari to Angry Birds to Dragon Box—to help illustrate her theories on why and how games are invaluable tools for affecting change.
She compared making games to cooking, saying her work is more similar to that of a chef than an artist because of the end result. She said that food “comes to life completely through someone else’s hands,” that the work of the chef comes to fruition when it’s put on a plate in front of someone else, and when that person eats and enjoys; similarly, a game comes to fruition when a person plays it––by engaging, participating, and learning.
Faculty Excellence Teaching Awards
Each year at the faculty retreat CCV gives Faculty Teaching Excellence awards to instructors whose dedication to their students is deserving of formal recognition. Students, staff, and faculty nominate instructors for the award, and the final recipients are chosen by a college-wide committee. This year, over two hundred nominations were submitted. The 2016 Faculty Teaching Excellence award winners are:
Bruce Baskind teaches political science and history courses at CCV’s Montpelier academic center.
Gabor Gyurkovics teaches science courses at CCV’s Morrisville and Newport academic centers.
Ali Lanzetta teaches English classes at CCV’s Winooski academic center.
Dibble’s talk was organized around her “Three Key Concepts to Harnessing the Power of Games.” The first of these concepts is “Agency,” which she described as “the capacity to make choices. Agency is the most powerful tool games have. It is the empowerment that you can make choices and those choices will have effects. This is a natural and powerful tool that we seek out from the time of infancy.” She described it as a near epiphany, that moment when you understand, “my actions have results! What can I do next?” This realization lends itself to a form of freedom––freedom to explore, itself a form of empowerment.
The second key concept of Dibble’s theory is “Flow.” The Flow Mindset, as she referred to it, is most commonly understood as “the zone—a mental state in which a person engaged in an activity is fully immersed.” Many have likely experienced this sensation—whether during a great run or bike ride, while painting or drawing or playing the piano, or, as Dibble aptly noted (“since we are in Vermont”), splitting and stacking firewood. She said that this is one of the greatest challenges of game design, as in, how do we create a user experience that stimulates the flow mindset, a state that is invaluable to the absorption and retention of information? Dibble and her colleagues have articulated three guidelines that they believe are a kind of “recipe” for this experience. One is that the person must have a clear sense of the goals of the activity, and how to progress toward those goals; another is that the activity or task must have clear and immediate feedback; the third is that there must be a balance between the task and the user’s skill level. “If we can see the goal, and also the steps,” said Dibble, “it’s much less intimidating.”
The final key concept Dibble explored is “Reward.” “What’s the difference between games and reality?” she asked. “In games, problems are the fun part. In games, we want to have a challenge to solve, whereas we push challenges away in so many other parts of our lives.” Rewards can come in many forms, such as status, skill mastery, and completion. Furthermore, Dibble explained, there are “demographic-driven rewards”; for example, what might be rewarding to eleven-year-old Charlie is social competition and excitement, while what might be rewarding for sixty-one-year-old Eleanor is community connection. “Reward lets us answer ‘so what?’ with gusto,” Dibble said. And ultimately, she noted, “if we find the right way to reward, we accelerate action.”
By now, you might also be asking “So what? What do games have to do with education?” Well, says Dibble, the short answer is that games engage people. She quoted Ken Robinson, who said about teaching, “you have to create an environment for curiosity and a way to encourage people and get the best out of them.”
“Games represent an active form of learning,” Dibble said, allowing us to “collaborate and compete to unlock achievements in science. Games allow for a uniquely empathetic experience. Games let you frame things in entirely new ways with entirely new tools.” Here Dibble paused, barely able to contain her excitement: there’s a new game, coming out this very month, called “No Man’s Sky.” She played the trailer on the big screen, and we all watched as we were taken on a virtual tour of the universe; the science-fiction game uses algorithms to produce and design planets ad infinitum. Dibble was beside herself. “There are 18 quintillion planets, and you can visit them all!” (If only there was time enough). But her point was clear: The possibilities are, quite literally, endless.
And she did have some practical advice for CCV faculty, many of whom were feeling boggled by the thought of bringing something like “No Man’s Sky” into their classrooms. But Dibble reassured her audience that “game” can, and should, be interpreted broadly, and that board games, simulations, and role play can be just as valuable to teaching as a game like Dragon Box, a digital game that teaches algebra to kids. “Use students as a resource for game ideas,” she suggested, noting that they’re often the ones with the knowledge of what’s out there, and the ones with the best ideas for creating an effective and fun game for the classroom. She also advised getting back to the basics. “We [at GameTheory] always build a game with paper, pen, and scissors before creating a digital version,” she said.
With that, she sent everyone off to try for themselves. Each table in the room was charged with the task of creating a game. But first, of course, there were the rules: everyone write down a common classroom challenge they’d like to solve; each table draw one of these problems from the bucket in the middle of the table; design a game using at least two of the three props they’d been given, which were just words on index cards—everything from classic board games to individual elements of a game.
The thirty-minute workshop produced a lot of games that might need further fleshing out, but it had many wheels turning, and Dibble certainly succeeded in providing a tangible application of her ideas. She had her audience—teachers temporarily playing the role of students—talking, asking questions, and laughing: she had them making problems fun.