COETAIL, Course 4

Gamification: why I’m a skeptic

Pixar's Up :Carl Fredricksen by Imaginesto

Just get started already…
I’ve been contemplating this post for a couple days. Now it’s time to stop the researching and thinking and just write. We’ll see how this goes! [This post got LONG…sorry!]

Gamification vs Game-Based Learning
There’s a difference. And neither are particularly new.

Learning through games is not a novel approach. Elisabeth Corcoran (Corcoran, 2010) claims that there are at least 3 types of games used in education: the classic edu-tech games, games developed by students themselves like Scratch and the last approach gamified courses, meaning adding game mechanics to various applications, tasks, etc. Whether offline or online, games have helped scholars reach their educational goals in a more engaging way. Nevertheless we must note the difference between the so called “educational games (serious games, simulators)” and the gamification of e-learning. While the first employs a bigger quantity of resources, game design knowledge and graphics, the second one does not engage as many resources or a special design. (Muntean, 2011)

Go read Corcoran’s article. There’s a difference. However my point of view is a little different than Corcoran’s. I prefer how Glover put it…

Educational Gamification is not to be confused with Game-based Learning, Simulation, or Serious Games. These focus on creating games (and game-like experiences) which impart an educational benefit, and includes software such as simulators. This is the direct opposite of educational gamification, which seeks to add game-like concepts to a learning process.

Game-based learning is using (video) games to learn content. Gamification is adding game elements (competition, achievement, etc) to non-gaming situations.

[Warning: I’m about to be honest.] I don’t love the idea of gamification. In fact I kind of hate it.  I wouldn’t mind being convinced otherwise but I’m having a hard time seeing how it’s going to make education better.

Games make use of many different reward mechanisms, depending on the context, but three main categories typically evident: Leaderboards, Prizes, and Achievements. (Glover, 2013)

Hold on…hasn’t education already been ‘gamified’? Students do work. They get letter and/or number grades based on their work. They tell all their classmates what their report cards say (leaderboards). If they get a certain GPA or make honor roll, we give them prizes (my last school gave cupcakes to freshmen on honor roll; Family Video gives free movies for A’s…). And if they pass enough classes they move on to the next grade level and eventually earn a diploma (achievements). Most people agree that extrinsic motivation is not the type we should be striving towards in education. So we’ve shined it up and put a new label on it…and now it’s okay?

Gamification Part 2 – Motivation

I struggle too Rebekah. It seems to me that it’s already a battle to intrinsically motivate kids…so why add gamification and make our job even harder?

Gamification seeks to increase motivation by providing extrinsic recognition and reward for completing activities, however there is the possibility that such rewards can serve to de-motivate learners with an already high intrinsic motivation (Groh, 2012). This psychological concept, particularly evident in gifted children, is called the ‘Overjustification effect’. In fact, a negative correlation between extrinsic motivation and academic achievement can sometimes be observed; that is, increased extrinsic motivation, such as rewards, reduces learning and achievement (Lepper, Corpus, & Iyengar, 2005). In order to mitigate the potential negative effects of Overjustification, it is therefore important to make the gamified elements of a learning process optional. This will allow those learners who are already motivated to remain so, and provide motivating elements to the remaining learners. (Glover, 2013)

Optional. Okay – but then I have to create two lesson plans? How about if I just try out gamification for awhile. What happens if I decide it’s not the best thing for me and my students?

Thom, Millen and DiMicco (2012) investigated how removing gamification elements from a social networking system in a large organisation would affect levels of interaction and found that, without the extrinsic incentives, participation was dramatically reduced. However, analysis of the comments and posts on the system showed that the overall quality of the interactions was lower when the gamification elements were being used. This suggests that, without careful consideration of the rewards for interaction, gamification can be counter-productive and give tacit approval of distracting and time-wasting activities for some individuals. (Glover, 2013)

Uh-oh. So experimenting with gamification could actually be detrimental to the quality of learning and reflection in my classroom? No thank you!

Gamification Part 3: Girls
In my former school district, we had a single-gender magnet program. I didn’t teach in it but I was able to attend a couple professional development sessions on single-gender strategies. One of the big ideas that has stuck in my mind is that boys thrive on competition while girls thrive on collaboration. However UKSTL has me on this data kick so I wasn’t comfortable discussing single-gender strategies unless I could find some evidence to back it up.

Our experimental evidence suggests that women seem to be shying away from competition, as also shown by other studies. However the bulk of our evidence suggests that a girl’s environment plays an important role in explaining why she chooses not to compete. We have looked at the choices made by girls from single-sex and co-ed schools and found that there are robust differences in their behaviour: girls from single-sex schools behave more competitively than do coeducational girls. Furthermore being assigned to an all-girls group affects the decision a girl makes, even when controlling for composition of he group to which she is randomly assigned for the experiment. We also compared girls’ behaviour with that of boys from single-sex and coeducational schools, and found that girls from single-sex schools behaved more like boys. (Booth & Nolan, 2009)

Most girls are in coeducational settings. These girls aren’t very comfortable with competition (compared to boys in the same setting). By introducing gamification, are we actually negatively affecting girls motivation and learning? We need to be careful. (more resources: single-gender best practicessingle-gender classrooms)

One time…
I haven’t participated in team sports since I quit playing AYSO at age 12. I’m not, and have never been, a gamer (although I do play Plants vs Zombies every once in awhile). Maybe that’s why I don’t like gamification? But I am competitive. I ran track for 9 years and cross country for 3. Put me on a track or in a 5k and I want to beat people. But I compete just as hard against myself. Here’s a story of when using a few gamification mechanisms actually worked on a whole group of high school girls [warning: this may be a little long]: I started running cross country in 10th grade because I didn’t want to be in marching band anymore and because I wanted to stay in shape for my true love (track). I was pretty bad and completely unmotivated to do better. Three years later during the banquet my senior year I balled while giving a speech to the team (actually I might shed a few tears now just thinking about it). During those 3 years I fell in LOVE with cross country and found the balance between having fun & being motivated to run! Why? A few ideas: first & foremost I was competing against the clock and myself. For each race, our coach gave us a small slip of paper with the splits she wanted us to run. If we ran a Personal Record (PR) we earned a small pin that our coach’s art students made.

PR pin

This little guy was the ultimate prize. I cherished those pins and (10+ years later) still have them in a box in my parents house (as do many of my former teammates). That pin meant that I had accomplished something I wasn’t always convinced I could. I was MOTIVATED to get that special PR pin (prizes). Secondly, we became a team. From the 1st to the 25th runner, we were there for each other. No matter who was on Varisity (top 7 runners) and who wasn’t (junior varsity = Jarsity) we ran together at practice and supported each other (leaderboard). Those girls MOTIVATED me because they cared. This ‘gamification’ of running lead us to the state championships my senior year…where the top 7 girls ran their way to an MHSAA Division 2 State Title (achievement). By 38 points. Our championship t-shirts had every girl’s name on it (I still have it btw).

Gamification Part 4: What I’ve Learned
However. That was a sport. Not school.

It is important that gamification elements such as leaderboards and points are completely divorced from the formal assessment of learning, and that the learners understand this to be the case. Gamification should only be used to increase motivation and should not be another mechanism by which to grade learners. It is not a paradox that the person at the top of the leaderboard might also be the lowest achiever in formal assessments, but it would suggest that the gamification choices need to be refined. (Glover, 2013)

School has already been gamified and we’re all trying to find a way to make it better (because it’s a little broken). Gamification enhances external motivation while running the risk of squashing kids’ natural internal motivation. Competition (=gamification) can be detrimental for girls. Gamification elements should be completely separate from assessment. So remind me…WHY?

Game-Based Learning
My husband is what I would call a “gamer” and has been talking to me about (video) game-based learning for several years. One of our middle school humanities teachers is extremely enthusiastic about MinecraftEdu and has created the World of Humanities. I’ve been skeptical. Then I really started thinking and reflecting on my why. [See Glover‘s quote above, page 2000]  I’m all for learning through play in early childhood education. Is game-based learning the older sibling? My favorite reason for using technology in education is to connect people around the world that otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate/collaborate.

Another way games can be helpful in simulating situations is when recreating real situations is too expensive or dangerous.

van de Pavoordt goes on to give two examples of using simulation games:

For example, if you want to teach students about how to handle with toxic chemicals by using expensive equipment. In a real life situation this would be too expensive and dangerous, however the game Environmental Detectives lets teachers recreate these situations by using augmented reality.


In Revolution each student takes on the role of a townsperson in a colonial Virginia community in which they take on events leading up to the American Revolution. The game combines research and role-playing in teaching history. It is not a simple visit to a “living history” museum, but the players personally experience the events leading up to the American Revolution.

Game-based learning has the potential to give students experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to have. Wouldn’t you say that that is an instant when technology has the potential to redefine education? I might be able to get behind this (if it’s done right).

Done Right
I wouldn’t consider using ‘existing commercial games for learning’ game-based learning. Finding something cool and trying to pigeon-hole it into education isn’t technology integration. The examples above are games specifically created for/by students.

Finally the study showed that the students were very enthusiastic about using games. They found that it was not like a boring lesson, they had actually fun and at the same time they learned something. Also more than half of the teachers were enthusiastic about using games for their lessons. And among younger teachers the numbers were even higher. (Glover, 2013)

That’s great that kids are more enthusiastic. But where’s the data showing the benefits to learning, the increase to achievement? Because that’s what matters to me. Here’s a start at least.

_____-based learning
This seems like it’s become a catchphrase in education.
-based learning

Glover asserts that

As learning is a participatory process, it follows that there could be greater benefits from incorporating games concepts with education than with these other, passive activities.

Why is the solution gamification? All of these you-name-it-based learning approaches actively involve students.

After all of that…
I’m not convinced by gamification. I still need to be talked into game-based learning. But I’m open-minded…I just want to see the proof.

p.s. Did anyone else find Glover‘s article contradictory? He discusses game-based learning and gamification, brings up valid criticisms and then goes on to tell us how to gamify our classrooms. I don’t understand. (pages 2003-2004)

p.p.s. Watch Dan Pink talk about Drive. Interesting things motivate us – autonomy, mastery & purpose (not external factors). How do those sync with gamification?