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Is Gamification Really a Bad Word?

June 17, 2011 by Josh Caldwell


The first day of GLS7 brought with it plenty of spirited debate and intense arguments, as you are likely to have with any diverse group of passionate professionals, but none so hotly contested as the validity of gamification as an educational tool. Commonly associated with social media marketing, gamification seeks to engage consumers by incorporating game mechanics (most commonly achievements or badges) into otherwise boring or unexciting activities, such as filling out surveys – in essence, it’s the Madison Ave version of hiding your dog’s pill in a block of cheese. This arguably crass, commercial interpretation of gamification has tarnished the concept of using game mechanics in education for feedback or recognition. As a telling tone-setter in his Wednesday keynote speech, Eric Zimmerman characterized educational gamification as the beginning of an “unholy alliance” between marketers and learning researchers; certainly a reasonable call to be careful and cautious about with whom and for what reasons we share student information, but is that really reason enough to eschew gamification outright. Is gamefication so tied up in commercialism that we can’t have a successful discussion about it in education without adopting new terminology?

Why Such Aversion?

Aside from the unfair connotation with advertising, many argue against gamification because they see it as purely a source of extrinsic motivation (though the extrinsic/intrinsic argument is a whole other kettle of fish). Must achievements be purely extrinsic? Is providing a badge for meeting a learning goal a more extrinsic motivator than providing a grade?

Others express concern that achievements or badges take focus away from content, providing opportunities for students to “game” the system for grades. Just recently a keynote speaker presented gamification as a way to get students to do something they don’t want to. Again, these concerns speak to the purpose and design of a given achievements. If you are concerned about students gaming the system for grades, you’ve got to wonder if your achievements actually reflect meaningful learning.

Couldn’t these arguments be leveraged against any number of instructional tools or grading systems, when used poorly or without sufficient forethought?

Why do so many assume that educational gamification as a concept is inherently flawed?

Achievement Unlocked!

In reality, teachers began gamifying education long before there was a term for it. What are gold stars, certificates, even grades if not signifiers of achievement? We have to acknowledge that the game-based framework of achievements, badges, and social recognition is familiar and meaningful to students; they share them on Facebook, or FourSquare, or Xbox Live, or a plethora of other environments that may be inherently more or less game related. Gamification isn’t just a marketing tactic, it’s a way of documenting and recognizing effort exerted, challenges bested, and goals reached. It’s up to us as teachers to ensure that we use this tool to recognize meaningful achievements that align to learning goals, instead of to coerce students into participation. A few great ideas for achievements/badges that came up at GLS7:

  • Mark student progress in terms of an overall school narrative
  • Acknowledge mastery of specific curriculum standards
  • Identify students as specific resource “gurus”
  • Reinforce cross-curricular
  • Celebrate students who demonstrate “non-academic” skills in an academic setting
  • Combine known achievements with “mystery” achievements
  • Display progress toward certain achievements

The key here is to provide a variety of achievement types so that all students can experience success while allowing for exceptional students to receive recognition for their talents. Take advantage of the social nature of gamification to connect struggling learners with peer “gurus.” As I personally strive towards standards-based grading, properly aligned achievements could serve both as a benchmark for my students as well as a tool to keep me honest with my grading.

As I see it, creating meaningful achievements that align to standards is the fun and easy part; getting a simple yet usable gamification system set up, now there’s the challenge. For those interested in a DIY setup (probably the direction I will take) there are a few fledgling frameworks out there with some potential, such as the Mozilla Open Badge project, UserInfuser, or this hodgepodge of WP plugins. On the other hand there are university projects, such as the MS/RIT collaboration Unified Game Layer for Education, which could be good tools for K-12 ed once they make it out of the university and into the public. To my knowledge, however, there aren’t yet any plug-and-play education-specific gamification platforms available, but I’ve got a feeling that it’s only a matter of time.

[photo from Flickr user rocket ship]

This article cross posted at Dangerously Irrelevant

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  1. Robin Browne says:

    I agree with you Josh that gamification is just a tool – an old one – and the real question is why and how it’s used. I recently experienced a neat example when I went on my 4th grader’s field trip to an educational nature reserve run by a local school board. The guide led the kids through active, outdoor games to teach them about things like migrating animals (played by the kids) and the dangers they faced from predators (played by us parents). The point here isn’t to have class outside (for obvious reasons) but to use game dynamics that engage kids.
    And thanks for letting me know about the GLS7 conference!

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