The Irony of Gamification

This appeared in issue 3 of the British Council's IED magazine

Perhaps I’m living in an echo chamber. On examination, my PLN does appear to be worryingly comprised of mostly like-minded peers and my RSS aggregators do a pretty decent job of trimming the fat by carefully curating the news and articles I encounter. Even taking that into consideration, over time I found myself secretly hoping that gamifiction was just a faddish neologism, but if it is, it’s proving to be an extremely stubborn one.

Don’t get me wrong, I love games. Board games, word games, card games, pervasive games, digital games — I study them, play them and have even designed a few. I also frequently use games in my classes. But we’re not talking about games here, we’re talking about “ifying” something that is not a game. To “ify” something (apologies to any hardline grammarians out there for contorting a suffix into a verb), is, according to the Cambridge online dictionary, “to cause an increase in the stated quality”. So, to gamify is to make a non-game more game-like by suffusing it with game-like qualities.

It’s not hard to understand why one would want to do this, especially in the field of education. Games are fun, intensely engaging and highly motivational systems. They can also be extremely complex, challenging and rewarding experiences. Modern video games can often take tens or even hundreds of hours to complete. They involve actively acquiring new skills, making difficult choices, digesting huge amounts of contextually situated information and repeatedly applying critical problem solving skills to overcome what may at first appear to be overwhelming obstacles. Gamers do all of these things routinely, voluntarily and enthusiastically. Many games are also extremely collaborative and social, with communities of practice spanning thousands of blogs, wikis and forums produced by and dedicated to players who want to share what they know and learn from others. What teacher wouldn’t want to imbue their lessons with more of these qualities? This is the siren-song appeal of gamification.

As with most things though, the proof of the pudding is to be found in the eating. And, to risk stretching the metaphor to breaking point, with the pudding of gamification, the problem lies in the ingredients used, the cooking technique applied and the chef on duty. Examples of gamified systems can be found all around us. Department stores and supermarkets have long co-opted the psychological power of the points and rewards game mechanic to promote customer loyalty and increased sales. Fast food restaurants routinely offer tokens and scratch cards which can be traded for fries and burgers and more recently location-based social networks like Gowalla and Fouresquare, which allow you to “check in” to specific real-world locations and earn virtual badges, have been used as promotional tools by shops and restaurants who offer discounts to frequent visitors. Arookoo, and many similar mobile apps, even turn the act of walking into a game by rewarding users with points and badges for the distance they cover while being tracked by the GPS in their phones.

Schools and universities all over the world are jumping on the gamification wagon to seemingly great effect. Back in 2010 I heard a radio interview with the headmaster of a school here in northern Portugal. They were in the second term of a trial which involved dishing out points, badges and rewards to their students for everything from good behaviour to test results and attendance. Classes were pitted against each other to accumulate the highest number of points and win rewards such as trips and prizes. This encouraged students to put pressure on anyone who appeared to be slacking, so as to boost the class average. The headmaster was enthused by the project and cited bucket loads of statistics revealing attendance improvements and test scores.

Another apparent “win” for gamification was the focus of an article in Forbes magazine earlier this year. The article, entitled “Education Meets World Of Warcraft” describes a polytechnic teacher who begins the academic year by informing his students that they all have an F, quickly calming the ensuing panic by adding that they can “level up”. According to the article he then, “...divides the class into small groups called “guilds,” which complete quests such as taking tests and making presentations to earn points and then advance to a new level. At the end of the course, he determines the grade by points and skill level.” Like the Portuguese experiment, gamifying the course led to significant performance improvements: “Ever since I turned education into a game”, he says, “the average letter grade in the class went from a C to a B, and attendance is almost perfect.”

The thing is, although many games use such points and rewards systems to track player progress, they are only the most superficial components and not fundamental to the experience of what a game is. They are but one of many ways of providing feedback to players about how close they are to achieving their goals. Of course, feedback is essential to learning as it helps you to keep on track and enables you to try out new strategies and see how well they work. Games of all kinds are great at providing immediate, frequent and intense feedback in multiple ways which are not always possible or practical in traditional learning environments. This rich feedback may be in the form of audio, video, haptics, social interaction or narrative progression among others. Furthermore, because the feedback is usually immediate, it is strongly situated in the context in which the action took place. Games are complex systems, a point which seems to currently be ignored by the majority of gamification proponents.

With most gamified systems and processes the feedback is provided in the form of a simple, superficial layer of points, badges and other rewards that are not contextually integral to the activity itself. In the field of education, this is compounded by the fact that we have already introduced such a feedback layer in the form of test scores, grade averages and certificates, so in essence we are rewarding the rewards, much in the same way as parents who give material gifts in return for As. I’ll leave that argument for another time.

Over the short term this approach may lead to measurable outcomes as students make an effort to perform better in order to achieve better results, or more attendance points. The unintended consequence of this is that it frames learning as being an action of accumulation, about gaining or having either material or virtual capital. The rhetoric is that of the age-old carrot and stick metaphor in which learners are conditioned to act and behave in certain ways in order to gain certain rewards. This is the classical operant conditioning model which externalizes motivation through the promise of extrinsic reward.

Students want to “have a degree” and “get a good grade” rather than be learners and it then becomes logical for them to ask questions such as “will this be in the test?”, in order to avoid wasting effort on unrewarded content (for more on the whole having vs being debate I highly recommend Fromm’s “To Have or to Be”). This attitude is precisely the opposite of what we should be encouraging if we want to produce a society of self-motivated and reflective lifelong learners. To make matters worse, although renaming classes as “guilds”, grades as “levels” and better marks as “leveling up” may manipulate learners into modifying their behaviour, it does so by reinforcing and perpetuating an anachronistic industrial model of education through concealment and thwarting intrinsic motivation. Prepackaged web 2.0 services like Class Dojo promise to enable teachers to:

"Create an engaging classroom in minutes” by providing “instant visual notifications for your students (‘Well done Josh! +1 for teamwork!’) with a whole host of game mechanics: think level-ups, badges and achievements to unlock, in-classroom games, avatars and leaderboards.

Similar gamification platforms are popping up every day, their brightly coloured, cutesy vector graphics thinly concealing the underlying rhetoric of increasing reward dependency and undermining intrinsic motivation.

Dewey expresses this nicely in chapter seven of The School and Society:

If there is not an inherent attracting power in the material, then (according to his temperament and training, and the precedents and expectations of the school) the teacher will either attempt to surround the material with foreign attractiveness, making a bid or offering a bribe for attention by "making the lesson interesting"; or else will resort to counterirritants (low marks, threats of non-promotion, staying after school, personal disapprobation, expressed in a great variety of ways, naggings, continuous calling upon the child to "pay attention," etc.); or, probably, will use some of both means.

...But the attention thus gained is never more than partial, or divided; and it always remains dependent upon something external —hence, when the attraction ceases or the pressure lets up, there is little or no gain in inner or intellectual control.

Such instrumental learning may be easy to implement and convenient for administrators to tidily quantify into grades and statistics, but we need real change in education, not merely a shift in perceptions. Games can help us achieve this if we respect and embrace their complexity and refrain from stripping them of their intrinsic power to motivate and engage learners on multiple levels. Educators can and should use games and game mechanics in different contexts, but they should do so reflectively and unravel their underlying rhetoric. Games can serve as excellent examples of how active and stimulating learning environments can be created for the purpose of learning, as good games already embody many of the characteristics of good learning principles (see James Gee for more on this and John Hunter’s World Peace Game for a real-world example of a gamified learning program that embraces the rich complexity of game dynamics).

So the problem of gamification is, somewhat ironically, that in the majority of its current implementations, it is not game-like enough. By overlooking the depth and breadth of the potential games have to empower and motivate learners and create meaningful experiences, and instead employing only a myopic and superficial game mechanic, popular gamification is doing a disservice to both learners and educators. Completing tasks in order to achieve an extrinsic reward is more akin to how we describe work in its most alienating form. One of the many things commonly missing from gamification is playful freedom. Playful freedom allows learners to take risks and test new strategies in an environment protected within the “magic circle” of gameplay, that is safe from real world consequences. An environment in which failing at challenging tasks is as integral a part of learning as succeeding, and the reward is the learning that takes place between the two, and what that skill or knowledge might empower you to do or be in the future. 

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