What I do for Gamification

What I do for Gamification

I love games- board games, card games and especially digital games. But why do I love games so much and why are people talking about gamifying education? According to the wonderful wikipedia, to gamify is to “infused nongame activities with game like qualities.” Of course that’s why everyone wants to gamify everything, to make it fun.

I can see why, 10s of hundreds of hours are spent living in the skin of Desmond Miles from “Assassins Creed” fame, climbing jumping and working out puzzles. Fail at something and you just try again. These games are complex, challenging and very rewarding. You have to acquire fresh skills, make challenging choices, assimilate massive amounts of situated information in context and apply all this to overcome obstacles or solve problems that at first were insurmountable. Gamers, do these things all the time, routinely, willingly and enthusiastically.

Games are even social, teams of people get online and form, what can only be described as Communities of Practice, to defeat problems that are so complex and difficult that they spawn thousands of tweets, blogs and forums, so that devoted gamers can learn and disseminate their experiences and wisdom. World of War Craft, Eve, and Star Wars are described as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) that generate huge amounts of money and create their own living virtual societies. Once teachers understand these game mechanics they want to create lessons that use these assets to engage and hold their students interests. This is the appeal of gamification, but do these techniques actually encourage learning or do they just engage.


Gamifyied systems are everywhere. Supermarkets, credit cards providers, even airlines use these psychologically powerful game mechanics, in the form of rewards and points, to stimulate consumer loyalty and improved sales. This same game mechanic manipulates drinking coffee; loyalty cards encourage addicts to return for their next fix of caffeine. Even exercise has been gamified where you are tracked by your phones GPS and rewarded for the miles walked with badges or points.

It’s not surprising then, that colleges and universities are jumping at the chance to gamify their educational learning environments. This isn’t new, create “Harry Potter” style “houses” for sport, where points are gained from wining events or dressing up in the most outlandish costumes and rewards are then given out. This encourages students to pressure their peers to get involved and boost the “House” score. Forbes magazine ran a story titled “Education Meets World of Warcraft”

Teachers on college campuses across the country are using gaming techniques to turn classrooms into interactive experiences.” (Noer, 2011)

Students all start out the academic year with an F, and what they have to do is ”level up”. Study groups or “Guilds” are created and by completing assignments or “Quests” they can earn points that contribute to their “skill level” or their final mark.

“Ever since education became a game, the average grade has gone from a from a C to a B, and attendance is nearly perfect.” (Lee Sheldon cited in Noer, 2011)

But was this improvement because of the game mechanics or because of the teachers new found enthusiasm for engaging the students. Points and rewards are very superficial parts of learning, they are only giving is feedback of the experience, this is true for games and study. They are only a measure of how close the player is to achieving the goal. Failure is essential to learning and this score, point or feedback is fundamental to learning as the gamer can then decide what new strategies they should employ and then see how they work. For a gamer failure is not a defeat its just encourages a reappraisal of a situation. But for a gamer feedback is instant, regular and intense and this isn’t always possible in a traditional learning environment. Besides for a gamer feedback is strongly contextualised within the game and in the actions that were taking place at the time. Games are extremely complex systems that require all of our senses and cognitive activities.

The gamified mechanics that businesses use only provide very simple and superficial feedback; points and badges are not fundamental to the game itself. Education already has a feedback system; we already reward students with points, grades and certificates. So what do we gain by adding another layer? Students may well engage with the content because it is different to the 12 years of education they have already experienced, results and attendance may well improve, but does this frame learning as an accumulation of learning capital rather than a journey or a quest to gain knowledge. Will gamified educational systems encourage students to behave in a particular way just to benefit in some way such as attendance? This Operant Conditioning Model creates a situation where the promise of extrinsic reward results in the motivation becoming externalised. Students want to get a degree rather than become Learners, students often ask, “Will this be in the test” as if the value can only be found in the activity if it is graded. This has resulted in online courses having forums devoid of any real meaning or learning; barren learning spaces. Gamifying may even promote the industrial model of education that has been rejected by education doyens such as Sir Ken Robinson.

Gamified apps for education are springing up everywhere, such as Class Dojo, these promise to create engaging classes through the use a game mechanics; badges achievement boards and avatars. If you look beneath the glossy colourful skin you can see that they are increasing the student’s dependence on simple rewards and reducing any real intrinsic motivation. Dewey wrote about how learning was a “journey of discovery” and that grading and bribing student’s results in “little or no gain in intellectual knowledge”. Gamifying education is only sprucing-up a broken system of education, we need real change not just a change of focus.

We as educators should use games as they have an intrinsic ability to engage and motivate learners, but they should be used in specific contexts that support good pedagogical practices. To just complete a task for an extrinsic reward is devaluing the power of gamification. We should remember that playing a game is a playful fun experience. It should allow learners to fail and then new risks, try-out new strategies in a safe learning space, by this I mean having no real world consequences on my grades or position in the learning environment. Learning through gamification is about failure and success and by appreciating both results might encourage greater learning to take place.


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