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What do sheep and goats have to do with educational games? Exclusive

What do sheep and goats have to do with educational games?
June 19, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

June 19, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Serious, Art, Design, Exclusive

Game designer and Schell Games founder Jesse Schell told a packed Games for Change Festival audience that there are two types of learners: Sheep and goats.

Sheep learners do as they're told, and follow instructions disciplinedly. Goats don't like to do as they're told, and instead want to know why they're doing it. While they can be disruptive, goats "truly own their education" and are passionate learners.

Thanks to the advent of technology, "we now have the ability to self-educate in ways we never had before," Schell says. Before the industrial age, no one had the luxury of questioning whether their education or skills were purposeful -- largely education was directly related to making things necessary to live. A society of sheep, in other words.

There are a lot of side effects of a "society of sheep," though. "You have a society easily manipulated by advertising," Schell says. "For the big companies, this is really great, and it's sort of scary to think about what big industries want out of the educational system. If you're a big company, you want as many sheep as possible: When you put that big ad on the Super Bowl, you want them to go [buy something].... and you don't want a bunch of entrepreneurs coming out of the schools. It's competition; it's not in your best interest."

But the world is changing. In the 80s, Schell was self-motivated to learn about electronics, and spent months bugging people to help him understand it. Today, a kid who wants to learn about electronics just goes on the internet: "Bam, here's a hundred videos about how to make your own robot."

Schell Games has created GameSprout, a community that fields game ideas, seeks collaborators and the company helps, as part of an apprenticeship model. "Anybody can design a great game, and all of us working together are better designers than any of us are alone," he says. "It's all about goats helping goats, and communities like this are springing up everywhere."

"Goats" are fueled by curiosity, Schell says. And curiosity can spring from a single insight. "All of a sudden, you see something, and a question forms in your mind, 'what is that?', and you want to chase it down. It trumps fear and drives learning -- and leads to wonder. "You have a feeling like, 'oh, my god, I had no idea that the world works this way.' And it becomes addictive, because once you have that feeling of wonder, it leads to more curiosity... we call it 'wonder' because it makes you wonder."

What does it take to become a curious person? Telling a child that a game might be out of his or her reach makes a student want to defy that instruction, makes the child curious about why they can't do something and motivated to try to find out.

There are a lot of benefits to being a goat, but being a sheep also has upsides: Those that can't sit still or follow instructions may find some kinds of learning out of their reach that would become accessible through discipline. "There's something important about having this balance through education, and right now, education is unbalanced."

"Bringing games to the table is really important, because the games fit really well with self-education, with pursuing things at your own pace and your own rate," he says. A world of "goat madness" that prizes highly specialized education may not, as one might think "accept important aspects of human psychology." Changing the educational system will not be so simple, Schell believes.

For one, schools are big entities that are slow to change, motivated most often by the desire to save money or when they find themselves struggling. Second, sheep skills are useful and ought not be thrown out. Third, "there's a game that anyone who goes to school plays -- we call it the Sheepskin Game." In other words, the diploma.

"People care about the sheepskin game, often more than education," Schell says. "The first 13 levels are free, until you're hooked, and, 'well, there are these really special ones, but they cost a lot more.'"

It's a lot to spend on a piece of paper. Why don't goats just go and learn things on their own? "It's not just a piece of paper," Schell asserts. "It's not just a piece of paper -- what the diploma represents is social proof, and as human beings we care about social proof. We care about the fact that the 'elders of the tribe' said 'yes.'" People who presume higher education will just go away are missing an important part of the human mindset, he says.

What does that mean for educational game developers? Good teachers know they have to balance sheep and goats, encouraging students both to discipline themselves and to find their own unique roles. "Teachers know that the school's bad at supporting the goat side of things, so if [they] can find tools that help kids get what's important to them, they're going to find ways to ask for the money [for the software] and get grants."

"If you can deliver to the teacher something that really makes the difference for them and lets them fill the gaps, they're going to embrace it, praise it, and be loyal to whatever you make next," Schell says. Think of the teacher who made a real difference for you, and rather than thinking of creating software for kids, parents or administrations, consider what tool you could make for that teacher that would have made their job easier and that would have made a difference.

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