Level Up

Before I intro this week’s essay — y’all had a lot of thoughts on last week’s piece by Hal Triedman on Ineffective Altruism! We’re collating a “replies-to” newsletter (see the last Replies piece) and would love to formally collect thoughts from Reboot readers. We will choose a set of substantive, forward-looking, and constructive responses. Email Archana at archana.ahlawat7@gmail.com with a 200 word response by 6/5.

This week we’re sharing an excerpt from an essay from Reboot member Bianca Aguilar, on games, education, and crypto. Read the full essay here, and read Bianca’s essay for Kernel issue 1 on edtech here.

📈 Level Up

"You'll find the future wherever people are having the most fun." — Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

As a kid who grew up on the Internet, playing was a way of living. Play came in the form of creation; I remember spending hours telling stories online, whether it be through drawing fanart or roleplaying characters. It got to the point when my mother enforced a limit, worried that I was getting addicted to the computer. Now, I've found myself with an abundance of opportunities — exciting Web3 projects, international freelance gigs, a prestigious scholarship — thanks to being well-versed in design, art, and writing: skills that I primarily gained not through sitting in school, but through having fun online.

Around me, I see kids growing up the same way. At one end, there are developers learning programming through creation games like Roblox and Minecraft. At another, there are artists cultivating their craft in fandom communities on Twitter and Discord. I believe that these kids aren't just making their own futures, but the world's as well; investor Chris Dixon says that these present-day hobbies will seed future industries. Today's youth will be tomorrow's innovators.

So why aren't these hobbies taken seriously? It's because schools are still seen as the main venue for a person's development. However, there's more to learning than what can be found in school. In this essay, I'll be talking about how environments encourage or block students' growth, how existing virtual spaces fit into this, and how a giant game could become the best classroom of all.


How environments enable students

Our environment is the invisible hand that shapes our behavior. In line with this, the best learning environments are enabling environments; according to researcher Andy Matuschak, these significantly expand its participants’ capacity to do things they find meaningful and important. To do this, the activities they provide must directly serve an intrinsically meaningful purpose. When participants are fuelled by an intense personal connection to a subject, they'll naturally partake in effortful engagement, which naturally leads to deep understanding. These activities must also focus on action. Compare reading about a sport versus actually playing the sport: the level of immersion corresponds to the amount of proficiency one can gain in the skill. Overall, enabling environments empower participants in acting on their interests by creating opportunities for personal growth and highlighting bridges to opportunities for action based on that growth.

Schools aspire to do this, but often fall short. This is because their primary purpose is knowledge/skill development, which isn't intrinsically meaningful on its own. Because of this, students depend on teachers not only for expertise but also for purpose (i.e. learning for the sake of passing the subject). This dependence hinders the cultivation of an intense personal connection, making it less likely for the students to develop a deep understanding of a subject. Meanwhile, well-designed software can create better enabling environments for youth because they empower them in pursuing their passions (e.g. expanding range of artistic expression, distributing to millions with zero marginal cost).

Games are a prime example of this. Philosopher C. Thi Nguyen describes them as an art form shaping our agency: what we do, how we do it, why we do it. Game designers accomplish this by creating rules, constraints, and affordances that make up the form of agency that players inhabit. For instance, chess is designed to focus players on calculational thinking, while Civilization focuses players on political strategy. By restricting players to various practical mindsets, games teach them new ways of inhabiting their own agency — helping them become more free. After all, you can’t break the rules without learning about them first.

Matuschak clarifies that most games aren't enabling environments. Even if they're effective at developing knowledge and skills, they rarely expand players' capacity in doing things they find meaningful and important, since the primary purpose of most games is to create an aesthetic/emotional experience. However, there are a few that do enable agency: Minecraft's creative mode enables serious creative expression, while the structured social environments of massively-multiplayer online games enable interpersonal connection and community formation. These types of games, alongside other types of well-designed software, are the new schools of today's youth.

Virtual spaces: what they give and take

So how do these virtual spaces serve as enabling environments for learners? The essay "Video Games are the Future of Education" offers several conclusions.

One, they give students the environment and tools to make discoveries themselves. This is because they provide space, time, and autonomy, which enables students to choose what they learn and how they learn it. Schools cannot provide this level of freedom. That's why kids remember what they encounter through engaging in these spaces, and forget what is taught to them in classes. They need to feel like it's just play.

Two, these spaces provide a deep understanding of subjects. This is because they simulate reality and provide fast feedback loops, thanks to innovative features like immersive environments and real-time communication. Outputs are tangible to students, and directly related to the skills they learn (e.g. Git repositories for code, published pieces for art). Students also receive more realistic responses to their work (e.g. comments, metrics). Compare this to the typical school experience, which is quite shallow; when you're focused on memorizing information just to pass exams, you don't have the capacity to dive deep into a topic.

In short, virtual spaces can be optimal learning environments because they provide additional context and creative freedom. Aside from this, they bring together people with diverse ideas and interests since there are no barriers of physical location. This allows for a more equitable and effective distribution of knowledge, skills, and information.

However, these spaces are still capable of exploiting or underserving youth, just like in traditional education.

For instance, real life inequality is elevated due to the digital divide. Those who can't rely on their own devices or connectivity won't be able to benefit from these spaces as much as people who can. Even worse, these spaces can also bar people financially. In many MMO games, the premium experience (i.e. exclusive items, more user privileges) is reserved for those who can afford a membership. Free members can't get these unless they work for it (a.k.a. putting in more time for less pay).

One benefit these spaces bring is that they show youth that they can find professional success with their talents by bringing them practical experience that is difficult to get in school. We see artists earning from their own merchandise and commissions and developers getting thousands of players for their games. However, most creators don't get to fully benefit from their work, since the majority of profit goes to the platforms.

For example: Roblox’s model makes it challenging for game developers to make money from their creations. Developers only get a 25 percent cut of revenue, which is one third of the industry standard. If they want to take out their earnings, they must have a premium subscription ($5 a month) and earn a minimum of 100,000 Robux. Artists are also at the mercy of social media platforms. Feed algorithms value frequency of posting over the time and effort art takes. Consequently, artists’ careers are being defined by the number of followers and positive reactions they get. This pressures them to constantly create and market content for the sake of making a living.

Overall, these conditions make it difficult for youth to derive value not just from these spaces, but from the work they produce in them. It's why many parents and guardians discourage their kids from spending time online; they see it as a waste of time and money, and are unable to see how it could be beneficial long-term. Yet imagine how much youth would be empowered if these barriers to participation were removed. How can we tackle these problems? It's time to get creative.

Changing the game

I believe that youth learn best when they feel like they're engaging in play; after all, we humans are Homo Ludens — born players. But I don't necessarily just mean playing video games. I'm talking about the games we play in life. According to writer James Carse, there are two types of games: finite, which is played for the purpose of winning, and infinite, which is played for the purpose of continuing play. Even if infinite games are best for learning, most of our educational environments are designed as finite games. Offline, we're optimizing for name-brand schools and 4.0 GPAs; online, we're grinding to top leaderboards and increase our reach. After spending all our youth playing in point systems, we end up valuing product (earning) over process (learning). So what if we approached education as an infinite game?

The Internet already serves as the venue for the biggest infinite game ever: The Great Online Game. Coined by investor Packy McCormick, this is a game where you play as yourself, racking up points, skills, and attributes that can be applied to your online and offline lives. Leveling up here is simple: the more you provide value (without expecting anything in return), the more you'll be rewarded. The best part is that anyone can play this game; it's nearly free to play, and leveling up is easier since your financial and social capital isn't tightly tied to real life credentials and connections. Playing this game is the ultimate way to experience learning by doing.

People have always learned this way, but the Internet has given this approach the spotlight it deserves. We've arrived at an age of embedded education, where learning happens everywhere instead of being limited to individual platforms. Now, people are learning through encounters they have in systems that may have been created for non-educational purposes. On one hand, it looks like teenage girls learning about HTML/CSS and feminism on Tumblr; on the other, it looks like productivity nerds creating resources and tutorials for Notion.

However, the current web isn't designed for the new ways we're learning. Standard online educational platforms like Canvas, Coursera, and Youtube see learning as consuming content; they don’t explicitly show how knowledge can be applied in actual context. This must change. In the future, I believe that the future of education will look like an infinite game that rewards learning by doing. This meta-game might be composed of multiple sub-games, where learning takes many forms: going to events (e.g. lectures, workshops, panels), creating insightful content, taking on job experiences, and working on side projects. Thus, everyone becomes a lifelong student; why would you want to stop learning when there are so many opportunities for it?

This was an excerpt — find out how Bianca substantiates this vision in the rest of this essay here:

Bianca Aguilar (she/her) is a designer, artist, and educator from Manila, Philippines. Her work revolves around education, innovation, and community in the digital realm. Find her on Twitter, Substack, or her personal website.

Reboot publishes free essays on tech, humanity, and power every week. If you liked this or want to keep up with the community, subscribe below ⚡️

🌀 microdoses

it’s been a long week.. short microdoses today

  • who is writing these marketing playbooks!!?
  • cool math!!!
  • apropos of, well, everything

💝 closing note

Again, thanks for all the comments on Ineffective Altruism — we want to publish your replies! Email Archana (archana.ahlawat7@gmail.com) by 6/5 with ~200 words.

Reboot team

Subscribe to Reboot

Essays, events, and community about reimagining techno-optimism for a better collective future.