If I measure the success of the analog mission in terms of meeting my expectations, then it was a failure. A right-royal failure. But, this is the life of a games designer. You have to learn to live with your mistakes. You have to learn to dance in the rain. You need to harden up. I’m talking about being a games designer in the context of education. I’m not professing to be any kind of expert. I’m a newbie, but already I’m learning a few things, and that was the purpose of the analog mission.
So, what is an analog mission? I have stolen the term from NASA. Because you want to learn from your mistakes before you go into space, rather than while in space, NASA runs complex missions underwater and in the desert. These analog missions are designed to test people and equipment in harsh conditions akin to the extremes of heat, cold, and isolation that will be experienced on real missions in space.
My analog mission was a puzzle game that used digital technology for communications, but not to define or enhance the game. I chose Twitter as the communications channel, but the game itself was old school and real world. A wooden puzzle called the Locked Cross was disassembled, and each piece was packed into a luscious and mysterious blue purse with a gold cord for hanging it around a players neck. Then the purses were hidden around the venue which served as the game environment. A player who had followed the clues via a Twitter hashtag would know another player by their unusual and similar attire. The queen (the senior female present) held the key (a clue to be found in Robert Bly’s title Iron John mysteriously left lying around for players to find). This game was designed to test the concept for a fully blown augmented and alternate reality game called Fragmented, where the wooden puzzle pieces will be replaced with fragments of a narrative embedded (electronically) in a real-world learning environment. Up to now, everything was going to plan.
Then a bombshell dropped — no-one was tweeting.
Two years previously at this same event, everyone had a device in their hand. “Enjoying the in-team session Pasifika rools KO! #this #that", and so on. But this year … nothing. Well, almost nothing. The culture had changed. It isn’t just at events either. The culture has changed in our private lives too: people who text at dinner are roundly criticised by their family and friends. You see groups of young professionals pushing their phones into the middle of the table. They often mute them. They’ve learned to ignore incoming alerts. Suspending notifications is the new cool.
So, my analog mission was on the rocks. But that’s the idea. To learn now, while the stakes are low. My idea for a comms channel was fatally flawed. I generalised this specific learning into a Golden Rule: Do not make assumptions about anything.
Later, at a weekend house party, I hung the five puzzle pieces in their beautiful little bags on light fittings, on stag antlers, on the back of the bathroom door. Then, like a fisherman, my net set, I waited patiently for the action to start. This time I would use old-fashioned face-to-face communications to drive the game: Chinese whispers, nods and winks, meaningful glances. I was relying on the guests' sheer curiosity to look in the bags. Surely that couldn't fail?
Not one person looked in any of the bags.
Later, like Hercule Poirot, I had them all gather in one room. Why had they not looked in the bags? What bags? they asked. Oh, those bags. We didn’t think those applied to us. Were you not curious? No.
So, I had broken my own new Golden Rule already. I had assumed the houseguests would be curious, and they were not. On reflection, they were curious, but not about the bags. They were curious about their individual and personal lines of enquiry: the habits of the trout in the lake; the motivation of Captain Cook in the days before his death in Hawaii; on the antics of the young generation. Not the bags. Dancing Bear syndrome had struck: people tend to not even see what they are not looking for.
I am over the disappointment now; I am growing into my new skin as a games designer. I realise that my analogue mission was, in its final outcome, a success.
I think you can apply some of this thinking to teaching and learning generally. There is an article on the Google testing blog by Alberto Savoia (the man who introduced pretotyping) titled, Pretotyping: A Different Type of Testing. If this piece of mine has sparked your interest, then start reading some of Alberto’s stuff, he is the man. Traditionally, people have not applied design thinking to education, it’s not been thought of as a product. Whether you think of the graduate as the product or the processes and materials of education as the product, either way, it’s a modern way to think about teaching and learning. Game-based learning could be thought to be trivialising learning, but it’s quite the opposite: it takes you into some hidden depths.