Thank You, Jane McGonigal! Pt.1

While attending DevLearn 2017 in Las Vegas I had the opportunity to meet Jane McGonigal. I don’t usually do the book signing ‘thing’ but, after her keynote, I bought a copy of “Reality is Broken” from the conference book stand and waited in line. I wanted to thank Jane for the writing a book that profoundly altered my understanding of game design and how it could be used to create engaging and challenging learning experiences.

When it was my turn at the book signing table, I told Jane how “Reality is Broken” had transformed my teaching, my understanding of the learning process, and, ultimately my career path. I also promised to write her a note explaining this in more detail. I started writing this post to fulfill that promise.

I originally conceived this as a short account of a course design problem that had come to a head at the end of the Spring 2011 semester.  From there I anticipated telling the story of how, quite by happenstance, I had chosen to read (listen to) Reality is Broken, by Jane McGonigal, on a trip to the beach and how the book addressed the course design issues in a very positive way.  Finally, I would share the  changes made to the course in the context of concepts from Reality is Broken.

Somehow, this short article has turned into a five-part series. This, first, post will set the stage by defining the problem.  Part Two will introduce the four defining traits of game design as told by Jane McGonigal.  Part Three will discuss problems that tend to plague group projects.  Part Four and Five will illustrate the McGonigal-inspired changes made to the course and how both, the individual student experience (Part Four) and the group experience (Part Five), were transformed.1

May 2011
I was one of three instructors standing in a lecture hall, facing 47 students who had just completed one of the most challenging courses they had ever experienced. It was the last day of class and we were asking for the students’ feedback on that experience. The course had been conceived as the centerpiece of our business school’s transition to an integrated curriculum. I had led the committee charged with designing the new curriculum; which included a 9-credit mashup of what had formerly been three separate 3-credit courses; Principles of Marketing, Principles of Finance, and Organization and Management. The objective was to transform these three core business courses into an experience that would provide students with an understanding of how management, marketing, and finance worked together in ‘the real world’. For the purposes of this article, I will call the course ICB3002. All business majors would be required to take it at the beginning of their junior year.

Neither faculty nor students had ever experienced anything like this and the challenge was to seamlessly blend the courses without overwhelming either the students or the faculty teaching them. If this didn’t work it would make a lot of people very unhappy and would be a bad start for our fledgling integrated program. We weren’t exactly pioneers. We had benchmarked a number of business schools that had already created integrated curriculums.

I visited one such school and was emulating their integrated, junior-level course. Their integration consisted of 4 courses (they included Intro to Project Management). Students worked in teams to create business plans that were competitively judged at the end of the semester. The faculty who created that course told us they made a very big deal about the competition. The final presentation was a well-attended event. The faculty also showed off student produced t-shirts and mugs proclaiming “I survived….”.

We determined that the logistics of coordinating student schedules to accommodate 4 courses would be daunting so we went with three. Once we excluded the project management course, we reduced the scope of the final team project by requiring a marketing plan rather than a full business plan.
Here are the elements of ICB300 as originally designed:

  • Course Structure
    • Team-taught by the three instructors who previously taught the original 3 credit courses.
    • Classes met 3 days a week in three-hour increments.
    • Sometimes one professor would teach an entire 3-hour class.  Other times the day would be split between two instructors.  On presentation days all three instructors would be in the room.
  • The Marketing Plan Project 
    • Students would be grouped into teams and would participate in a semester-long marketing plan project.  Each team would have 2 graded presentations; one midway through the course once a SWOT analysis was complete and objectives had been formulated and again at the end of the semester when they would propose a marketing strategy.
    • The team with the best marketing plan would be exempt from final exams in all three disciplines.

Each semester, we would choose a different industry segment and the teams pick a company from within that segment to represent. We believed that this would give context and relevance to the principles being taught. We chose the burgeoning tablet segment for the Spring 2011 semester. At the Spring Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, 2011 had been dubbed “The Year of the Tablet”; with 100 or so new tablets being introduced to compete with Apple’s iPad. Accordingly, each team was asked to chose one of the new entrants in the tablet market and to create a marketing plan for the, now crowded, tablet computer segment.

We knew this would be a challenging course. We were, however, fairly confident that using the real example of a market segment filled with iPad wannabees would create a sense of relevance and would promote some friendly competition between the teams. It turned out we were right on both counts. It also turned out that we had overestimated the extent to which students would appreciate this ambitious course.

As instructors, we really believed in this course and were confident the students would understand the value of the integrated approach. We also took every opportunity to communicate this message as each new element of our course design was introduced. Now the semester was drawing to a close. After some pomp and circumstance, during which the winning team had been announced, and we had, once again, extolled the virtues of the integrated approach, we asked the students to share their opinions about the experience.

At first, there was a general murmur of approval and some comments from students about their hard work ‘paying off’. And then, we were blindsided. In a scene resembling a modern-day version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, a student, we’ll call her Abby, raised her hand and said, “This course has been nothing but a headache and I didn’t learn anything”. Abby was a good student, who worked hard. As instructors, we could have simply attributed her resentment to her team’s lack of commitment to the marketing plan project. She was, after all, understandably frustrated that her grade would be affected by others on her team. But we knew there was more to it than that. We agreed that changes would be needed moving forward but we really didn’t know where to start.

July 2011
Now, two months later, my wife and I were driving from our home in Pennsylvania to spend a couple of weeks on the beach in Hull, Massachusetts. I grew up in Hull and this was an annual pilgrimage. Our kids would usually meet us there, as would my parents. As with any long car trip, we had cued up a book from for the 6-plus hour drive. For this trip we had chosen Reality is Broken. I had no idea what a relevant, timely, and fortuitous read it would turn out to be. I didn’t approach Reality is Broken as a gaming ‘how-to guide’. I simply wanted to learn more about game design. I certainly hadn’t considered that the book would offer a potential solution the course cum ‘headache’ that had been gnawing at the back of my brain. That just happened; as a series of surprise revelations that kept coming chapter after chapter. Listening to the book, while I learned some very valuable and actionable information about game design, I also discovered the close relationship between game design and course design. This led me to understand that I had been, instinctively, trying to incorporate game elements in courses for quite some time. It also led to the humbling realization that I had been doing it badly. Reality is Broken spun a narrative that somehow managed to identify all the ways I had gone wrong in designing ICB300 and provided ways to fix those issues, as well as detailed examples from real games.

The Most Important Things I Learned from Reading “Reality is Broken”:

  1. Games are not random or haphazard.
  2. All games have four defining traits; ‘Goals’, ‘Rules’, ‘Feedback’, and ‘Voluntary Participation’.
  3. The four defining traits are designed to give purpose, foster creativity, provide motivation, and promote buy-in. (Note that these traits are for the benefit of the player/student and not the game designer/instructor.)
  4. “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”(McGonigal attributes this to Bernard Suits as referenced in Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.)

  5. The Four Intrinsic Rewards of Happiness are satisfying work, the hope of being successful, social connection, and meaning.
  6. Collaboration is a superpower that, to be voluntary, needs to provide participants with tasks that require them to work with others, while at the same time maintaining autonomy and agency.


  1.  It needs to be made clear at the outset that I’m interpreting the events of 5 and 6 years ago with the perspective of one who knows how the story turned out. So, if, 5 years ago, you had asked me how we had developed ICB300, I might not have told the story exactly this way. There is no doubt that I would have credited Jane McGonigal, but I might not have understood the profound influence her work would have my teaching style and course design approach 6 years down the road.  I also need to stress that without my colleagues, who understood the importance of ICB300 and were fully committed to this project, there would be no story to tell.
  2. ICB300 is not the real course number and all the names have been changed to “protect the innocent”.

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