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  • Writer's pictureBrett Darlington

Junior Year Essay: The Gamification of Computational Thought and Coding.

Coding can shape our interpretation and interaction with the world by influencing our habits, preferences, and values, and by permitting or constraining our actions and experiences with technology. From a post-phenomenological perspective, coding can be seen as a socio-technical practice that mediates the relationship between humans and their environment. Examples of this include the Calm app, key fobs, and modern televisions.

From this perspective, coding can be studied as a cultural phenomenon that reflects and reinforces certain assumptions and power relations, both economically and socially. This cultural phenomenon is present due to computational thought and the application of mathematics in computer systems that have been developed in recent decades. Therefore, for us to discuss the relationship that coding has created between humans and their environment, we will discuss in this essay how computational thought is learned, experienced, and applied through its introduction to the subject, specifically by way of gamification. Computational thought can be defined as the process of solving problems algorithmically, logically, and mathematically.

Games are entertaining, and solving challenges that require coding concepts can be entertaining as well. There is a specific skillset that must be developed throughout the game to continue—this skill is coding. The coding skill itself encompasses computational thought and coding language literacy. By gradually acquiring these skills, players will be equipped to progress throughout the game by completing challenges with the knowledge they develop. This is the gamification of computational learning.

Combining learning and entertainment builds anticipation and reinforces the knowledge one acquires through in-game achievements and milestones. This is beneficial as it will keep the student or player interested in the game. We will discuss how learning computational thinking through gamification assists one’s agency and autonomy as their intentions are expressed more fluently in many aspects of today’s world. We will also talk about how this phenomenon ultimately mediates our objective and subjective experiences within our immediate environments.


Creating Knowledge Through Causal Experience and Computational Concepts

Hermeneutics is a term used to embody the idea and act of interpretation, especially in the context of literacy and literature. In the context of this paper, we will use the term hermeneutics as consistent with the context in which Don Idhe conveys it here: "The artifact does not withdraw from our relation to the world but provides a representation of the world, which requires interpretation in order to impart something to us about it" (Verbeek, 2001). The artifact in this case is coding through computational thought, which must be learned extrinsically and is not inherent in our abilities, which is duly the goal of gamification in the context of this paper.

Computational thought is a lens through which the world can be perceived and interacted with, especially in the modern era. This is because modern life requires a degree of interaction with modern technology (electronic technology), and modern technology is developed through the use of mathematical computations (radius of tin can, traffic light engineering). As computational thought includes many mathematical concepts, these concepts can assist in one’s general understanding of the modern world.

Executing on technological use cases is often done with a set of expectations and intentions. These intentions are derived from prior experience with other related technologies. We can assume there are certain perspectives that grant a person’s intended agency more effective autonomy than other perspectives. Using a computational perspective to interact with modern technology provides more agency and imparts a type of hermeneutical relationship with the technology. More specifically, the process of interpreting modern technology through this computational lens can be considered a type of hermeneutic for understanding modern technology.

Coding provides an individual with the ability to understand, manipulate, and create on these modern electronic systems. Developing specified knowledge, such as coding, requires one to be consistent in their pursuit of coding knowledge. It also requires a conscious effort to think computationally as well as causally. This causal mode of mental being refers to the way in which observable relationships between variables and events are explained by a set of determinant rules that interact with each other, creating an outcome. Observing this effect creates an experience that restructures one's understanding of the compounds or variables within this relationship. By restructuring their understanding, they can then interpret and solve relevant problems presented to them, as they now better understand the nature of those compounds.

Events as they are presented do not occur in a void but are developments of other occurrences and are initiated by specified interests. These interests, analyzed from a post-phenomenological lens, present themselves in our case as the desire to obtain skills in computational thinking via gaming or, more directly, learning how to code in general. These skills allow the world to reveal itself in a way that is consistent with causality. This is due to the similarity between causality and computational thinking. Whereas causality is a set of related events, computational thinking and/or problem solving are analytical tools for understanding the nature and relationship of multiple causal events. Thinking causally provides a player with the necessary tools for developing a computational solution or an algorithmic method for completing challenges in the video game. Computational thinking, on the other hand, is a trained mode of thought that utilizes tools like algorithms, patterns, and information to assess one's environment or interests. These computational tools can be used to relate causality and oneself to the world around them and act in a way that satisfies one's interests, which in this case is the interest of progressing the game.

Coherence in the mechanics of a video game provides the player with a feedback loop that reinforces the experience of the game’s lessons and required knowledge (Low, 2001). Both computational and casual modes of thought offer coherence, reinforce experience, and build knowledge throughout the game. The building blocks of this knowledge are developed through experiencing the causality between actions in a game and then developing a computational solution to satisfy the requirements of the challenge.

Computational thinking is different from thinking causally and involves systematic methods for analyzing events and problems. This can be good, as it offers structure both for developing and participating in video games. In both the development and practice of gaming, there are computational interpretations that occur at the fundamental level of each interaction. The player in this instance wants to learn to progress through the game, while the developer wants this process to be attainable yet arduous, providing a set of boundaries and limitations. The caveat is in the challenge presented, which in most cases gives a game its purpose. How, though, do one’s efforts equate to the other’s maze of challenges and intentions, and how is it that the player can intuitively understand the developer's intended outcomes and vice versa without having any direct contact at all? One reason is that, at a fundamental level, the subject assumes a set of potential outcomes from the initial introduction of a challenge presented by the game based on player experience. This experience often includes the main menu, a storyboard presented at the beginning of a game, and an understanding of the available controls.

Another potential answer is in the code itself. Code and computational structures are constructs invented and proliferated through almost every aspect of the modern world—by humans and potentially AGI, which will be theoretically trained on these same constructs. It then makes sense that these algorithms and modern structures are inherently understandable from a computational perspective. In other words, human actions and decision-making naturally mimic programming constructs at a level that is structurally inherent (Shift Society, 2018) and can be applied to the challenges presented in a video game, which has boundaries and limitations set by code—a computational hermeneutic. It is then evident that coherent causality plays an important role in reinforcing relationships that the player has directly observed between their avatar and objects in the game. The reason, though, that one would assume the player picks up on these potential algorithms that are left available by the developer—an individual that has never spoken to the player—is because the hermeneutics of coding languages are fundamentally human instructions and intentions that mimic human actions and desires. Therefore, by providing observable coherent causality and a natural way to apply the lessons learned by these causal events, players can ideate on computational methods for completing challenges presented by the developer, reinforcing the computational lessons they’ve developed throughout the game from the experiences the developer has methodically led them through. That is, provided these relationships are coherent, the player understands the limitations, understands the controls, and is then able to execute on his interests. In doing so, the player will apply these lessons to satisfy the challenges presented in the game, which will reinforce the computational knowledge they’ve utilized so far.


Reinforcing Knowledge Through Expectation and Experience

We have established why video games are a more than reasonable way to educate students on computational literacy. Now, how, throughout the progression of a video game, does one learn and embody the knowledge that was intended for them? As the player internalizes each moment spent focusing on the game, the causality they’ve experienced between their intentionality and the game’s unyielding mechanics becomes secondhand in that game environment. This experience establishes an embodiment relationship between the [player-avatar] and the [game] interface (Shamir et al., 2022). Relating to the avatar as an extension of one’s own being is necessary to act on and accrue new knowledge that can be later utilized. This newly gained knowledge is then used to face challenges presented as one progresses, using experiences to create algorithms that solve the challenges ahead. This relationship with the game creates a dependency on learning to progress. This new computational knowledge can then be applied externally, outside of the game’s interface. This degree of engagement nurtures a familiar method of thought that can be revisited to utilize this new knowledge. In essence, the computational thinking methods obtained and nurtured during gameplay are now used to assess other systems within the real world, establishing a hermeneutic relation between the [player] and [tech-world] (Shamir et al., 2022).

As discussed, this relationship is also due to programming’s inherent relation to human action. As the player embodies their avatar, the information now appears more relevant and tangible due to the personalized affiliation they have with their in-game character. The game, therefore, as a means for computational literacy, is instrumental in developing a student’s understanding of computational thinking.

Gamifying the learning process includes necessitating the lessons learned from prior experiences to understand the dynamic of the world or interface that is manipulated. There are often new techniques to learn in gaming, but as one progresses throughout a game, they incorporate methods from past challenges into the new contemporary challenges that the game displays in front of them. Therefore, it is critical and indicative of the game developer’s ability that a player intuits their next move and moves according to the developers’ intentions.

This continued engagement renders the [player-technology] interaction into an alterity relationship where the past use cases of their new skillset brought forth via techniques developed from interacting with the video game are now relevant to new challenges in their immediate environment in and outside of the video game. For instance, let us imagine: Jolie learns about the concept of for loops while learning to code in the Python language from this game (a beginner-level concept). She finds that she’s able to redefine a range of variables relative to each other with a computational Excel equation that conveys relationships between data sets in a visually appealing way for her boss, who fancies the more creative writing side of things and does not understand computational concepts that are highly relevant to coders.

In this example, a computational concept is understood through in-game experiences. These in-game experiences are then used by Jolie in a work environment. The relationship that Jolie had with the game in the past has now helped her complete out-of-game tasks. Using the game in this way establishes the alterity relation, as the game is no longer Jolie’s focus; instead, it is the knowledge obtained by playing the game and where she can apply that knowledge.

The skills developed during this experience can be used outside of the game, as explained in the recent example. By embodying the in-game avatar, players internalize the computational concepts as necessary information to progress in this extension of themselves in the game. These same lessons and computational concepts can then be used outside of the game, leaving behind the relationship that originally curated this knowledge.

 

Working Computational Knowledge

This augmented perspective that Jolie now has on the world around her provides a new analytical tool that she can use to perceive the world. This analytical tool helps her live and progress toward her interests, like a video game. Using the concepts and computational methods derived from the game provides a unique perspective from which to attempt tasks. The tasks she engages in are then mediated by her ability to think computationally. This perspective will benefit her in today’s world, especially since everything has a computation aspect to it, for example, your cup’s 3.14 circumference, a car’s mpg, the UI/UX of programs, and web navigation. These are all popular day-to-day activities that can be optimized by critiquing one's perspective and, therefore, how one relates to them. For example, finding the perfect speed that utilizes gas most efficiently and how to optimally navigate a user interface and complete a task efficiently. Understanding the underlying concepts that are used to create these systems helps Jolie optimize her relationship with them, whether that be time, or resources.

The new concepts derived from the experiences that one has within the game are now available for use outside of the game's interface. In this way, the lessons, and interactions one has had thus far via the game bring forth a new reality with which to associate. The relationship with technology is now taking on a different form. The world as it is expressed to the ex-player now constitutes different sets of value and meaning. What was then a background relationship (Verbeek, 2001) with technology now constitutes a degree of understanding that allows for new levels of interaction and interactive thought upon which to act. The individual now understands how their favorite app is constructed; their association is no longer led by the interface. Instead, their association with the user interface is that of its components since these are now more apparent. Relating to the technology in this way, they now see the potential and limitations of this interface as what could versus what is. With the knowledge of PHP and HTML code, one knows how a website works and can change it to match their vision or scrape the required information from it effectively. With the knowledge of SQL and Python, one knows how to access and manipulate databases and their functions, giving them information, they would have otherwise never had or thought to have. This ability provides them with the power to curate the world around them in a way that fits their interests and provides utility in ways that are only accessible to them due to their new knowledge.

 

Conclusion

This paper has discussed gamification as a means of acquiring coding knowledge and computational concepts. Gamifying the learning experience is beneficial to the player or student for reasons that do not exist in the traditional learning environment, which is defined mostly by lectures and copywork. One of the benefits comes from the reinforcement of knowledge through challenges. These challenges call forth the computational concepts learned earlier in the game. In addition, these concepts have a grounding in the constants set by the determinant game mechanics available to the player. In doing so, the player must be creative with the concepts learned thus far in the game. Not only are the challenges expected by the player, but as we discussed, they are also embodied by the player.

As the player progresses, this relationship with the avatar helps the player internalize the concepts expressed by the game. These concepts are then necessitated by challenges. The knowledge being applied in the context of the game is that of computational algorithms curated and left available by the developer. These algorithms allow the player to utilize the game's mechanics strategically to progress. A player's ability to intuit the next move is often a testament to a developer's ability to create the game and leave these algorithms available.

As the player uses code and computational concepts related to code, they progress. Learning to code then provides one with the ability to understand the game environment at a fundamental level. This is because the game itself is a product of code, and software is generally a product of the hermeneutics of coding. In this way, programs can be understood by their limitations and advantages due to the computational concepts that are relative to programming if one has this knowledge.

The ability to understand and manipulate one’s digital environments gives those environments more value and meaning. This meaning is manifested in the plethora of software available on the internet. Actuating this meaning depends on an understanding of computational concepts and the internet’s available applications. A computer is only a calculator if one only knows how to navigate file_explorer>programs>calculator. A computer is much more than that if one knows how to communicate with the terminal and create programs through IDEs that automate and assist in life's tasks.

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