On Playing Nurse

I’ve been trying to pull together my thoughts on gamification, but I haven’t figured out how to pick out a chunk that’s blog-post-length. So instead I’m going to tell you about nursing my husband through surgery, which was my main non-dissertation activity through most of May, and why it’s made me think carefully about pleasure, process and rewards.

My husband needed to have some growths removed from his throat, which is not a risky surgery but has quite a long recovery time. It’s also extremely painful. I knew my job as nurse would involve both physical care and keeping an extremely cranky patient entertained.

I was, I admit, dreading the experience. I am neither especially patient nor particularly nurturing. When my alarm went off for yet another middle-of-the-night round of medications, would I just be irritated by the whole experience?

It turned out that the answer was no. Sure, some of the 4am wakeups weren’t so fun. But I found it deeply satisfying to fall into a task-based routine, an almost monastic existence. I had two humidifiers, three cases of Gatorade, a giant bottle of pills, and a comfortable chair from which I could see my husband’s sleeping face. I learned I couldn’t expect to get much writing done, but I could enter bibliographic data into Mendeley, or read those articles I’d always meant to get around to, or finally copy-edit the paper I’d intended to finish months ago. Yes, I’d be periodically interrupted, but the interruptions and the work and the napping and even the sleep deprivation were all of one piece, woven together into a world that made coherent sense from the inside even as it was a step away from my ordinary life.

Here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t give myself points when I administered medication on time. I didn’t collect the empty Gatorade bottles to symbolize the triumph of calories successfully administered. I didn’t advertise my activity through social networking, though I did use it to update my community on how the recovery was going.

I did, I admit, wear a nurse costume. But only once, and no, you can’t see the pictures.

This is the heart of what I have to say about gamification: that what’s meaningful about it is not any particular trappings or techniques, but whether we can successfully create a magic circle within which certain activities become important, necessary and right. I played nurse, and it was magical. I want to figure out how to get people to play learning in the same way.

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