It’s Not a Game (Thoughts on Gamification)

Sometimes I wish school was a game. I would combine structures I didn’t like and they would disappear like Tetris.

Gamification has become an educational buzzword as the techies think through the best ways to transform schools in the future. Although examples vary, the basic concept is to take the best aspects of video game design and apply them to teaching.

I am drawn toward gamification in the desire to make learning more relevant. I’ve used the video game metaphor before to describe how we can push students from completion to mastery. However, I think it goes beyond simply providing the right level of challenge.

I love what we can learn from one another when we play and have fun. I love the interdependency in games (indeed, I’ve gotten to know Philip much better due to Draw Something) and the challenge that exists. I love the immediate feedback in games, the inherent conflict, the self-paced approach and the personalization that exists. I love some of the social aspects of the more complicated games.

Where I get skeptical is that teaching is not a game. When students debate the meaning and the progress (or lack thereof) of the “I Have a Dream” speech, it isn’t a game. When students interview a public official who is outspokenly anti-immigrant and they share their own stories, while advocating for the DREAM Act, it’s not a game. When students find their voice through blogging or learn to put something together in a functional text or fall in love with a book series, it’s not a game.

I’m skeptical, too, with certain aspects of video games that go against authentic learning:

  1. The need to quantify learning. Sometimes there isn’t a metric and yet many of the gamification models require a visual to demonstrate progress toward mastery.
  2. The use of badges. These can easily turn into another pizza dough coupon. It becomes a classroom version of Cub Scouts.
  3. Giving challenges in incremental doses. Sometimes students need a challenge that is far beyond them (think jumping from level two to level twelve), that causes extreme anxiety, in order to see large growth. 
  4. Gamification tends to treat learning as a structured system rather than an organic process. If we’re not careful, it becomes an online worksheet packet. I know that this isn’t the goal of gamification. However, I can see the day when gamification is simply another Jamestown Intervention program. 
  5. Gamification fails to differentiate between skills, concepts and processes. 
  6. There are so many things in learning that don’t fit into the gaming model. Debates, discussions, book studies, filming documentaries, painting murals and developing one’s own math problems are all examples.
  7. Often a simulation works better than a game. A student can play a stock market game or they could track their stocks independently while working interdependently with students in another class on a problem-based learning project dealing with the pros and cons of transnational companies.
Instead of turning the classroom into a gamified space, I would rather incorporate games, models, simulations and play into learning. I would rather take the “game” out of it and simply engage in meaningful learning. 
Let students engage in project-based learning. Encourage them to serve their communities. Find ways that they can express their creativity. Then, when a game is relevant (playing Risk in order to understand World War I or modified Monopoly to learn economic systems) use it within the larger framework of meaningful learning.

Photo Credit: Loozrboy on Flickr Creative Commons

11 thoughts on “It’s Not a Game (Thoughts on Gamification)

  1. I agree that this 'gamification' thing has problems, points and badges being a big one for me. But there are lots of ways to conceptualize what it means to play a game.

    I just went to a super-cool workshop last weekend on learning Latin, that's (to me) really about how we learn. Their conception of game is much more child-like. It's not about points or winning, but just playing. I'm going to post about it soon. If you email me, I'll show you what I've written up so far.

    1. Just to clarify: I am all about playing. I'm all about games. What bothers me is the gamification models I've seen where it becomes extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation.

    2. Gamification has been co-opted as badges and points — you're absolutely right, John, about it being extrinsic motivation.

      Game-based Learning needs to be separated from the cheap mechanics and looked at much more thoroughly. Amazing things happen when the entire curriculum is framed as a play-performance with collaborative role-playing at the heart. With careful mapping of learning objectives on to play objectives, you can achieve transparent continuous formative embedded assessment, negating any need for explicit summative assessment. That's what games do best — not the points and levels.

  2. I agree with your post, though the big problem is here:
    "… Take the best aspects of video game design and apply them to teaching."

    While that IS the stated goal of most gamification proponents, they are simply dead wrong on "best aspects of game design." They have taken the *surface* elements (including "mechanics") of games, while completely skipping the BEST aspects of game design. Your previous comment described the diffence: intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators. Actual game design — when successful — is ENTIRELY driven by creating an intrinsically rewarding experience. In contrast, virtually all gamification today is based on operant conditioning / extrinsic rewards (which need not be tangible to be external… Leader boards and virtual badges are still external rewards).

    There is a powerful place for game design and play design elements in learning. There is a subset of educational goals that can even benefit from the shallow mechanics of gamification (especially in areas where rote memorization or other drudge tasks are required). And some things labeled gamification are simply good learning and/or coaching tools, like feedback, and don't need (or benefit from) the extra trappings of game mechanics.

    But the scary part of gamifying education is that there is far too much research to ignore on the damaging role of extrinsic motivators when — and if — there is the possibility for a behavior to be intrinsically rewarding. Much of education may never be, so no harm from gamification in that sense. But for the kinds of behaviors we hope will one day ignite for a student — or for things they already DO find rewarding for their own sake — we risk squashing that intrinsic motivation and replacing it with a super-engaged, superficial, non-sustainable engagement around a reward structure. Skinner box vs. Flow.

    1. I love what you say, "There is a powerful place for game design and play design elements in learning." I agree. Too often, though, it becomes a behaviorist model and there is nothing deeply meaningful in the process.

  3. Something that I've found useful in thinking about gamification is the distinction between finite and infinite games, as described by James Carse in the book of the same title. (This book has a disproportionate influence on my thinking, considering the small amount of it I've read.) The distinction feels similar to the one you're making here.

    I think it's important to share with kids the notion that there are times in life that we choose (or someone chooses for us) to put ourselves in a limited and artificial situation for some purpose; that this is in fact a choice, and so is opting out; and that it matters how we act both inside of these boxes and in life as a whole.

    If I can convey that–and I don't know if I can–then I'm all for gamifying aspects of my classroom in order to make it home to better learning experiences. But while school can be played as a (finite) game, I don't want that for my students. Ultimately I want them to see school as a part of the infinite games that are their lives.

    1. I like the distinction you make. And I would argue that there is even a place for the Angry Birds elements – simplicity, repetition and incremental challenges all have a place in learning.

  4. Doesn't it all really come back to either a) quick, rewarding opportunities (think Space Invaders or Angry Birds) or b) crazy good storytelling (think Zelda or Elder Scrolls)? Either we attempt to get them to learn something in short pieces or we create a narrative that we weave throughout a longer period of time. The more I teach, the more value I see in storytelling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *