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


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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