What Should School Leaders Know About Gamification?

Gamification. It’s become a popular buzzword in recent years: a way to add game-like elements to non-gaming applications or activities in order to make them more fun and engaging. That’s very different than actually using games for teaching and learning. Here, EML editor Audrey Watters offers an “explainer” on the difference between “game-based learning” and “gamification” and asks some hard questions about what the latter actually means for independent learning.

Widespread adoption of games in education always seems to be “on the horizon” – never quite fully accepted or integrated into schooling despite the long-standing excitement about games’ educational potential.

There are a number of reasons for this, least of which being that the idea of games as “play” runs afoul of some people’s concept of learning as “work.” Proponents of games in education counter that this dichotomy between work and play is false, that games are far from frivolous, that games demand a certain type of mental effort (“work”) that fosters problem solving, and that they can boost student interest and engagement.

But this emphasis on interest and engagement as a goal in and of itself has led in part to the push for “gamification” in education, something that is quite different than “game-based learning.” Indeed, gamification might be something that looks a lot more like the traditional mechanisms and goals of education (something that, arguably, could explain why it’s seen a lot more adoption than has “game-based learning.”)

“Gamification” Is Not “Game-Based Learning”

A game is generally seen as “structured play,” with rules and objectives. While a game can (and probably should) be fun, it can also have educational components to it, particularly in the case of games of skill (versus, say, games of luck).

The term “gamification” has gained popularity in recent years alongside the rise of social applications that incorporate some rewards-based systems (Foursquare check-ins, for example). Gamification means making non-gaming applications or events more game-like by adding points, badges, titles, and other game mechanics. “Leveling up” can be used to demonstrate progress or mastery, for example. Khan Academy is just one ed-tech product that uses gamification to reward students for completing exercises by giving them badges and special avatars.

The point of gamification: to make things more “fun” and “engaging” and to incentivize certain behaviors.

Gamification is not about breaking free, but rather about becoming more regimented.

That latter element is important, particularly in education, as gamification can be seen to tie neatly into a long history of behaviorism (think BF Skinner and “operant conditioning”): curbing “bad behaviors” and rewarding “good behaviors” as key principles of schooling.

Many game-maker object to the idea of “gamification,” saying that it distorts games – emphasizing things like points and trophies without recognizing what’s valuable (or pleasurable or challenging even) about games. Gamification encourages “fake achievement,” as one researcher puts it.

Jeff Watson, who writes critically about gamification – “Don’t say it, don’t do it, just stop” – offers this distinction between games and gamification:

A true game is a set of rules and procedures that generates problems and situations that demand inventive solutions. A game is about play and disruption and creativity and ambiguity and surprise. A game is about the unexpected. Gamification, on the other hand, is about the expected, the known, the badgeable, and the quantifiable. It is about “checking in” and being tracked. It’s not about breaking free, but rather about becoming more regimented. It’s a surveillance and discipline system — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware its lure.

Can Gamification Support Independent Learning?

Why “gamify” education? Why not foster joy and creativity and agency instead?

When it comes to gamification and education, no doubt it’s worth asking what’s being “gamified” and how and why. (It’s probably worth asking too what we mean by terms like “engagement.”)

Can we reconcile gamification and independent learning? Can gamification encourage autonomy and creativity? Or does gamification necessarily re-inscribe someone else’s goals?

Watson argues that gamification is “not concerned with teaching learners how to learn, but rather shockingly exclusively with offering them a set of discrete objects that they must accumulate (in part or in whole) in order to be credentialed.” As such, is “gamification” simply a way to substitute interest in the creative and transformative potential for game-based learning for something much more akin to marketing or compliance?

Questions for Schools:

How can we design games for learning without falling into the trap, outlined here, of an overly simplified or meaningless gamification of the classroom? What do “good games” for learning look like? How can we get students involved in designing them?

Can game mechanics be used in ways that are liberatory? How do we avoid a focus on extrinsic motivations and encourage students to discover intrinsic motivations for learning?

3 thoughts on “What Should School Leaders Know About Gamification?”

  1. James R

    As the objectors pint out, gamification is not games, so why bring them together in this writeup? They share the trappings and nothing else; they are so different that any educator considering one is clearly not considering the other, at least not in the same context.

    So let’s not further confuse the issue by discussing them in the same breath, unless you want to talk about what gamification can meaningfully borrow from games.

  2. Alex E

    Obligatory comic:


    Over the past few years, the gamification hype (like any kind of hype) has been an attack on critical thinking. Thankfully, some people have been cutting through the hype, putting things in perspective. The takeaway, especially for “decisionmakers”, is that gamification has little to do with games. In a way, gamification is gaming without fun.
    Or, perhaps more accurately, gaming without play.

    Playfulness has a very significant part to play in learning. After all, animals learn by playing and the type of creativity that Sir Ken Robinson has been talking about is at the very core of playfulness. By being playful, we can explore wide arrays of possibilities, without worrying (much) about consequences. Though different from George Herbert Mead’s distinction between “play stage” and “game stage”, this approach to differentiating “play” from “game” can help us to think through social and psychological dimension of both notions, especially if we refrain from teleological thinking. In several acceptions of the term “game” is goal-oriented, rule-based behaviour while “play” remains open-ended and free. What Nachmanovitch calls “Free Play” in music is this liberating approach to exploration.

    In this context, gamification is game without play. It might still be fun (depending on “your definition of ‘fun’”). But it’s all constraint, no freedom. In these post-Foucault days, a major insight people gain from social sciences is about “who decides”. In game, decisions are made by design, with little recourse. In play, people may make decisions together as they play along… or elect not to make decisions.

    Many people (including both commenters to Watson’s piece) would argue that there’s (still) room for gamification in learning. Thing is, formal education is already gamified. Credentials and productivity (including “teaching effectiveness”) already dominate the field. We might argue that there’s room for more play in learning. “Engaging learners” needs not be about entertaining them or coaxing them into Csíkszentmihályi-like challenging situations. It can be about people creating things together. Sure, sometimes learners may demand external rewards, when they don’t find the learning experience itself rewarding enough. And we may use badges in peer-learning, where it might fit.

    Throughout, we may play with these concepts and listen to what feedback we get from other players.

  3. Mary D

    After reading this I dug deep into my brain to recall the works of James Paul Gee. In this paper he identifies several game mechanic elements which can be applied in the classroom. For example:
    * The learner has micro-control over his environment
    * The learning experience is structured by specific goals
    *Learners reason through or think strategically about the situation
    * The learner receives immediate feedback and is given ample opportunities to apply previous experiences to new similar situations
    * The learner needs to learn from the experiences of other people

    Obviously there is much more to it.

    You’ve given me something to think about as I prepare for the fall. Thanks.

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