The Shell of the Game

I will usually include this phrase in the image below at least once at the end of a twitter chat. It is something I feel the need to both remind myself and the community: Read outside your discipline.

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Seems a bit of a no-brainer, doesn’t it.  Kind of like ‘diversity’. Who wouldn’t want that?  But I still openly and obviously advocate both.  And I always hope that as I read outside my echo chamber/filter bubble that I will find rationales for the advice I give.  I found one this week as I read Yu-Kai Chou’s new book, Actionable Gamification. Here is his Kickstarter for the book which you can get for as little as a buck! If you are of a video state of mind, watch this Google Talk.

Or listen here:

I have already uncovered some outsider wisdom inside its pages.  I love his phrase “the shell of the game”.  Here is the context for the phrase taken from my marked copy of the book.


Chou argues that PBL’s (points,badges,leaderboards) are surface cruft of gaming but not what he means by gamification. They are the shell of the game.  When he defines gamification it is with a broader brush that intends to more deeply engage the gamer.

How does this fit my discipline of teaching?  Over the years I have been disheartened by every wave of reform that pisses down from on high, each one a call to arms of various sorts.  Big data, portfolios, high stakes assessments, common cores…grit, mindset, learning styles, hemispheric learning….And every time one of these new games descends a curtain seems to fall over our judgment as professionals involved in helping our learners…learn.  The hue and cry arises at profession meetings from teachers new and experienced.  Help us game this new requirement. PUHLEEZE.

Corporate learning shills are only too happy to respond with “the shell of the game”, a layer of “points, badges, and leaderboards” that will help teachers get through the day.  What Yu-Kai Chou argues is that this “shell of the game” gives people the impression that they are gamifying much like these shells make teachers feel like they are learnifying.

As Sportin’ Life sings in “Porgy and Bess”, “‘Tain’t necessarily so.”

I admit that any time you are acquiring the skills of a discipline as complex as teaching that early on almost everybody is faking it, but at some point the game has to start welling up from inside from some mysterious confidence in the core of one’s own expertise.  That’s why there is no shell in the infinite game of teaching. That’s why good teachers are so rare and diverse. That’s why shell teachers are a dime a dozen and all the same robotic mess (and probably why more than half of them quit within five years).

So you see.  The shell of the game is a shallow shell game. Our ed schools seem to teach the shell of the game, perhaps necessarily so.  I believe they need to balance out this “precision” as Whitehead called it with “romance and passion and curiosity”.  Eventually, the content will be generalized and internalized but without the inner confidence of the game for its own sake it will be for nothing.  It will be all surface and no substance.  I have seen it.  I have done it.  I believe that ‘burnout’ is the realization that there is no there there…except that hard, shiny carapace that might win you recognition and that allows you to ‘fool the man’, but in the end reveals the hollow shell of the game.

Whether I am right,wrong, both or neither in this analysis, none of these considerations would have come to light had I not “eaten my own dog food” and read outside my discipline.  I get the feeling that while this book might have been better edited, the ideas in it will help me play the infinite game of teaching and learning.  You play, too.







  1. // Reply

    Isn’t this “read outside your discipline” concept the core habit/value of what we want to be passing on to future generations, parents and teachers to kids starting school today, becoming parents themselves in 20+ years?

    Rather than constantly narrowing the focus of learning to what needs to be studied in order to obtain a grade, or praise from an adults, wouldn’t it be ideal if we were encouraging kids to explore their world around them, like exploring the ripples caused by a pebble thrown into the water?

    Having a broad base of experiences, ideas, influences, etc. arms a person with a much broader perspective from which to understand what’s going on in their own life, work, and the world around them, and offers a much wider choice of ways to respond to any challenge or opportunity.

  2. // Reply

    The whole “gamification” concept continues to irk me, for some reason. You would think I’d be all over it — given my interest in game design and learning. Yet. Yet …. it often seems so contrived. Maybe I have not yet been lucky enough to come into a gamification example that makes sense to me. Or maybe I am stuck in my own little bubble.
    Dice, anyone?

    1. // Reply

      That’s what Yu-Kai Chou is saying. There is a shallow level (points/badges/leaderboards) and a core level–what I have been harping on about by referring to James Carse’s “infinite game”. Chou points to some aspects of this infinite play: fun, friendship and sharing, and challenge. I think you might call that the core of gaming, the intrinsic value. Thanks for dropping by. I don’t like the word “gamification” much either,maybe the better word is unsatisfied, but as I read Chou’s book I feel he is remarkably successful in rehabilitating the word. I am going to keep reading outside my discipline. I feel that this new use of the word resonates sympathetically with pedagogy and andragogy, teacher-centered and learner-centered, finite and infinite game.

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