Kinder and Happier Schools: Gaming to Improve our Jen ratio

Jen ratio: the total positive interactions among people in a shared environment divided by the negative interactions; a measurement of the social well being of any shared environment.  (Dacher Keltner, What’s your Jen ratio?).

Promoting positive and supportive school cultures and environments is among the very highest of our priorities as principals and school leaders.  We all believe strongly that a happy and safe school is a prerequisite for learning, and we recognize that this is characterized by positive social interactions that lift our moods and enhance our joy and motivation for learning.

Jane McGonigal‘s excellent and inspiring new book, Reality is Broken,  delves into the intersection of positive psychology (the happiness movement) and gaming, and offers many ways we can consider bring gaming into reality and improve it.

In one of the book’s many sections I know will be fascinating and compelling for educators and “connected principals,” a chapter entitled  Happiness Hacking,”  she writes about “transitory public sociality,” and for this reader it spoke directly to our goal for our schools to be positive places of support, encouragement, and good will.

We experience it in all kinds of public places: sidewalks, parks, trains, restaurants, for example.  These transitory social interactions, when they happen, are usually brief and anonymous: we catch another’s eyes, we smile, we make room for someone else, we pick up something someone has dropped, we go on our own way.  But these brief encounters, taken cumulatively, have an aggregate impact on our mood over time.

Researchers have shown that sharing the same space for even just a few minutes a day with kind and friendly strangers makes us more optimistic, improves our self esteem, makes us feel safer and more connected to our environments, and generally helps us enjoy our lives more. And if we return the favor, we benefit as well: when we give to others, or act cooperatively, the reward centers of the brain light up.

Devastatingly, though, there is growing reason to think that our social/public environments are becoming less friendly.   One way of getting a handle on the problem is measuring what has been labeled, McGonigal writes, the jen ratio.

Jen comes from the ancient chinese word for human kindness, and to measure it, you apparently “simply watch very closely for a fixed period of time, say an hour.  Count up all the positive and negative interactions,” and calculate accordingly.   The inventor of the jen ratio, Dacher Keltner, reports “Signs of a loss of jen are incontrovertible… with a jen ratio trending toward zero.”

What is the jen ratio in our schools?  Can we actually measure it– and could this be a worthwhile and successful student project– even at any grade level, K-12?

Think of teams of students in the hallways at passing, or the lunchroom, with clipboards closely observing and marking their observations.  Think of the way teachers could have students do comparative jen ratio studies, and inquire why they are higher or lower in the morning vs. afternoon, or before or after exams, etc.   A learning experience in itself, it might just possibly have its own lasting effect in those students becoming more self-aware of their contributions to jen.

What can we to improve our jen? Surely many of us who lead or work in schools actively seek to enhance it by our own practice and modeling.  Not to brag, but I make my best effort every morning to be on the curb and greet every student (and many a parent) with a warm welcome and if possible an encouraging inquiry, with every hope that is pushes up the jen just a tad.

Returning to gaming, McGonigal calls for us to create new gaming type activities to improve our jen ratios in our communities, and I think we in our schools should consider taking her up on it.

She herself has done so: she doesn’t tell us whether it has been practiced in any K-12 school settings, but I am struck by the wonder about whether it might be applicable, in its same or modified form.

[Image from Cruelgame.com]

The game is something of a cross of the popular college (and sometime high school) Assassin game with Secret Santa and some crowdsourcing elements.   She calls it Cruel 2 B Kind. Rules, details, and a video is here: http://www.cruelgame.com/

At the beginning of the game, you are assigned three secret weapons. To onlookers, they will seem like random acts of kindness. But to other players, the seemingly benevolent gestures are deadly maneuvers that will bring them to their knees.   Some players will be slain by a serenade. Others will be killed by a compliment. You and yourpartner might be taken down by an innocent group cheer.

You will be given no information about your targets. No names, no photos, nothing but the guarantee that they will remain within the outdoor game boundaries during the designated playing time. Anyone you encounter could be your target. The only way to find out is to attack them with your secret weapon.

As targets are successfully assassinated, the dead players join forces with their killers to continue stalking the surviving players. The teams grow bigger and bigger until two final mobs of benevolent assassins descend upon each other for a spectacular, climactic kill.

Will innocents be caught in the cross-fire? Oh, yes. But when your secret weapon is a random act of kindness, it’s only cruel to be kind to other players

Reality is Broken‘s author is consistently and emphatically optimistic about the power of games to change the world for the better, and she certainly has high hopes and expectations for the power of “Cruel 2 B Kind.”

C2BK is the kind of emotionally charged experience that can forever change how you see your own kindness capabilities.  Even if you play it formally once once or twice, you may find yourself continuing to think of friendly gestures as secret weapons you can deploy anytime, anywhere.  This is exactly what players report to me weeks and months after playing the game.

Important to note, I think, is that though the game itself is only a one or two time “stunt” (though perhaps if it is really fun it could become more regular),  McGonigal believes it can jolt or kick-start a community into an improved pattern of habits that perhaps, just possibly, perpetuate themselves.   Then, as the effect wanes, perhaps we take the momentum of the event to brainstorm and create new games to strengthen our community “transitory public sociality,” or, in plainer terms, happiness.

As school gets going here in Arizona in the next few weeks, I want to discuss the idea of playing C2BK with our student council, and if I can get it off the ground, I will certainly share the results here.

More broadly, I want to continue to think about and seek opportunities for students, teachers, and administrators

  1. to measure jen ratios,
  2. to take positive action to improve these ratios,
  3. and to consider how games like C2BK or similar activities can help.

I’d love to learn from readers your experiences and ideas on these three things.  Go ahead, share in a friendly way, and contribute yourself to improving jen online and in your community.

Have a happy day!

2 comments for “Kinder and Happier Schools: Gaming to Improve our Jen ratio

  1. July 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    This notion of a Jen ratio is quite interesting, particularly since I’ve been reading a lot about empathy recently. These two topics seem a bit similar, perhaps tangentially. You might find this article useful: http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture/teaching-the-me-generation-to-care-33824/.

    One concern that I have about the game is borrowed from Keen’s “Empathy and the Novel.” She points out that students tend to respond without empathy to texts that are overly didactic. In other words, if they see this game as contrived, I think there’s a potential that it might fail or backfire. To me, the “group cheer” feels overly contrived, but things like opening a door for someone or saying “good morning” do not. In fact, I think these small gestures are as powerful as McGonigal claims.

    I will be very interested to see how things turn out.
    Ryan

  2. March 10, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Every couple of seconds it changes – up an eighth, down an eighth -it’s like playing a slot machine. I lose $20 million, I gain $20 million.
    Informed decision-making develops from a long tradition of guessing after which blaming others for inadequate results.

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