“Well done Josh! +1 for teamwork!” Gamification and Crabs – a guest post by Paul Driver

A decorator crab covered in borrowed bling. (Photo by q.phia)

A decorator crab covered in borrowed bling. (Photo by q.phia)

“Well done Josh! +1 for teamwork!”

Gamification and Crabs

By Paul Driver


Nobody seems to know what gamification is. I used to think it was a pretty straightforward case of appropriating certain elements associated with games and then applying them to systems that are not games. These typically include creating multiple levels (or levelling up in gaming jargon), adding points, leader boards, virtual badges and medals. The idea is that these things all work so well in games, so why not apply them to address real-world problems? Simple.

But as the popularity of the term has spread so its meaning has become similarly smeared. It is now often used to refer to anything from game-based learning, serious games and problem-based learning to company loyalty schemes and marketing gimmicks designed to increase “customer engagement” (in other words, spending).

While video games are increasingly being embraced as valid and practical learning tools, regardless of whether they were designed with that in mind, the practice of gamifiying education seems to have thrived on this ludic zeitgeist.

One prominent example, Class Dojo, which describes itself as “Behaviour Management Software”, claims that it can “improve behavior in class with just one click of a smartphone, laptop, or tablet” . It enables teachers to send instant customizable notifications such as “Well done Josh! +1 for teamwork!”. Apparently, Generation Y is particularly responsive to such positive reinforcement.

So why is it then that so many people who appear to know an awful lot about games are so vocal in dismissing gamification as, at best, an over-hyped and misguided fad, and, at worst, an evil and manipulative strategy for getting people to do things they normally wouldn’t want to? Ian Bogost, award-winning author, theorist and game designer, has described gamification as “exploitationware” and “bullshit”.

Other high-profile members of the gaming community like Jane McGonigal, world-renowned designer of alternate reality games and best-selling author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, has distanced herself from the concept. In a 2012 NYT article she states,

“I don’t think anybody should make games to try to motivate somebody to do something they don’t want to do. If the game is not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.”

The problem is, many of gamification’s leading proponents often produce substantial amounts of evidence to support that it works. Student grades and behaviour have been shown to improve, absenteeism has demonstrably decreased. On the surface, rewarding learners with points and badges might sound like a very pragmatic and efficient way to get them to do what we want, but is this just a short term solution? What happens when the rewards are removed? What happens when the learner is already motivated to learn or complete a task? As McGraw (1978) notes,

“Incentives will have a detrimental effect on performance when two conditions are met: first, when the task is interesting enough for subjects that the offer of incentives is a superfluous source of motivation; second, when the solution to the task is open-ended enough that the steps leading to a solution are not immediately obvious.”

Personally, I find it hard to get past the awkwardly glued-on suffix “ify”, which implies that the characteristics borrowed from games are mere adornments, designed to deviate attention or disguise something that has fundamentally remained unchanged. I’m reminded of the decorator crab, an otherwise unremarkable crustacean that sticks sedentary plants and other colourful animals to its shell in order to conceal its presence.

Similarly, although gamification may be an efficient way to produce better-behaved students who perform better in standardised tests, is it also concealing more fundamental problems with the ways we educate people? Is it being used to dress up and disguise anachronistic systems of ideas of what school and learning should be? How might gamification be used instead to challenge the status quo? Also, are teachers qualified to design gamified systems? Is it ethical to haphazardly apply operant conditioning techniques and half-understood game mechanics?

Perhaps these are some of the questions we can discuss at the next #AusELT chat?

Further reading:

The #AusELT chat with Paul Driver is on Thursday October 3, 2013, 8:30pm AEST.

9 thoughts on ““Well done Josh! +1 for teamwork!” Gamification and Crabs – a guest post by Paul Driver

  1. Karenne Sylvester

    As Paul states, one of the biggest problems emerging in this application of ‘gamification thinking’ in educational circles is basically a confusion of terminology. Fun or not fun, a pedagogically valuable experience or not, gamification is not so much about turning day-to-day class-to-classes into a game. While I see some merit in referring to the game dojo process as “gamifying an entire class experience” it’s a misuse of the term gamification.

    Firstly, to understand the term gamification, before even thinking about how this term applies to educational practices, we should look at the etymology of the word. Although illogically disliked for the suffix, -ify, this suffix is happily used without comment in modify/modification, classify/classification, ratify/ratification. To -ify merely refers to changing a ‘thing’ to another ‘thing’ and it comes from the Latin to ‘make’ or ‘do’… so the first step to understanding what the term gamification means is to let go of the idea of not liking the sound of it.

    That said, Paul certainly has a point about the trend towards thinking of gamification as pointsification.

    This common misperception seems to stem from a misunderstanding of what games are, limiting what they offer and forgetting how very different the categories of games are – and what these differences provide their players psychologically. Some games are competitive, yes, but other games are about chance, freedom of expression, frolic, making decisions and having opportunities for roleplay.

    Whether 3, 7, 15, 35 or 69 there will always be some people who enjoy receiving points and badges and there will always be others who want something else from their game experiences. That said, it is very important not to pretend that there aren’t folk out there who do go “for the win” and there is nothing wrong with that.

    So, while Paul is absolutely correct in saying that there is more to gamification than just giving people points to change their behaviour, aside from allowing for the people who do respond to these elements, he doesn’t go into what the alternatives may be. To understand these we need to look at what the experience of playing offers and this can include,for example, but not limited to, following a game narrative, following or even breaking rules, collaborating and building things, random moments of chance, doing an action that is ‘impossible’ in the real world (e.g. shooting a baddie, flying in space), total silliness, repetitive yet soothing task, becoming a dojo :) which leads to experiencing pride, experimenting with alternative personas, and much more.

    Gamified educational e-tivities, given their inherent similiarities to games* have a potential to increase the level of motivation towards doing a learning task because they make that experience seem like it is more fun than just doing the learning task without any game elements, dynamics or mechanics added. It is worth noting that the word fun refers to activities which are easy, or which are hard, or which are relaxing, or which involve spending time with people in a community, or even which are taken very seriously. Fun just means an activity enjoyed.

    Additionally, gamified activities offer students the opportunity to autonomously become masters over a particular educational feature – via the system’s feedback, which yes, may come in the form of losing, not getting points – but it can also come via pop-up informational messages that instruct the student in how to do something better. This allows the players a chance to increase their levels of competence. And, unlike most other learning activities, these educational experiences can be voluntarily done over and over until the desired result is achieved by the learner-player.

    In my mind, gamification, or gamifying a language educational e-tivity, most importantly offers opportunities to the languge learner to pay attention to the core linguistic features on offer. For anyone who has played one of the photocopiable activities from Charles and Jill Hadfield’s books (or the photocopiable board games at the back of teachers’ books) knows just how much these sort of activities bring to the classroom. The question is not whether we should gamify… it’s how can we be better at gamification?

  2. Brian Engquist (@BrianEngquist1)

    For me your key point is how gamification might be used to challenge the status quo and I’m loving it. When I started looking into it in the past it was stuff like this that I found exciting:


    But I would have to agree that instead of unlocking real learning potential it seems that much of it has been geared towards the lowest common denominator stuff like rote learning and pavlovian behavioral modification. Why? Because, as with many technological applications to learning, we take the easy route and apply it to what we’ve learned that education is supposed to be rather than what it could be. Instead of tools at the learner’s disposal, tools that they could use to build anything their heart desired, to take them anywhere they want or dream to go, we increasingly have systems of tighter and tighter control.

    Marx would certainly have something to say about this idea of technology serving or enslaving mankind. A couple of years I was pretty hopeful about us being on the right path. I’m not so sure I feel that way anymore.

    Thanks for the article. Good piece.

  3. Paul Driver

    Brian it’s interesting that you should mention Marx. I think gamification can easily be framed as a coercive device to reinforce the dominant hegemony and that, as you spotted, was one of the key questions I was raising. I’m sure Gramsci and Foucault would also have plenty to say on the matter. Like you, I also get excited when I see games being used to challenge current practices, often from the bottom up like Foldit or EyeWire. Interesting that both of these examples are played purely voluntarily, either for fun, altruism or a bit of both. They share the key elements of self autonomy, mastery and purpose identified by Dan Pink (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc).

    Karenne, it’s increasingly hard to label anything as a “misuse of the term gamification” as the term has essentially already become meaningless (aside from having been a misnomer in the first place). For example, In some of your response what you’re describing sounds more like game-based learning to me.
    I also think you’ve misunderstood my “illogical dislike” for the suffix “ify”. It’s nothing to do with “letting go of the idea of not liking the sound of it”. In the same way that a stun gun can be used to “pacify” a protestor, the suffix in question is suffused with rhetoric. To “ify” something isn’t always “merely to change a ‘thing’ to another ‘thing’”. Sometimes it’s also to change how these things are framed and perceived. In the same way that the use of the passive in “mistakes were made” can distance a politician from guilt and responsibility, a simple suffix can carry a powerful rhetorical weight that can influence decisions, behaviour and policy. The reason I draw attention to it is because I believe that in this case the rhetoric could be dangerously misleading.

    1. Karenne Sylvester

      Hi Paul,

      I understand that for you gamification is (now) a meaningless term, however for myself and many thousands of others it isn’t. I am sorry that you think/believe the rhetoric of gamification is “dangerously” misleading but this is your politics, yours and a small handful of people’s opinions, but I’m afraid that is the kind of subjective thinking that also makes a handful of people dismiss monopoly as being a capitalistic endeavour unable to look beyond and recognise the value in the fun that people experience while playing it. To be honest, and I really mean no disrespect, it’s the same sort of thinking as a parents deciding to have “Little Red Riding Hood” cut from primary school classes because they don’t like the idea of a grandma being eaten. However, before I get too side-tracked….

      I’m afraid that not looking properly at gamification, and not striving for an understanding of it, because in some circles gamification may be, for now, little more than pointsification is really rather unwise. And a waste. Apart from the fact that there really are people who respond to points, and again, there is nothing wrong with that, there is so much, much, much more to games, and as a result much more to transforming activities into game-like experiences.

      It would be far wiser to explore and understand these from psychological, philosophical, biological, pedagogical perspectives.

      I get the feeling, perhaps I am wrong, that you would prefer to call the very real learning opportunities that occur in gamified educational objects, game based learning (?) But, “game based learning” at its very best says very little, it’s a very messy term… Wikipedia calls it a branch off of “serious games” …which, sigh, is yet another misnomer, because it suggests that non-educational games are never serious, which of course they are,

      e.g. Chess.

      And the very semantics of the phrase….. Learning as based on games.. on what games?

      Are we talking about the oft misquoted so-called “educational games?” Or are we only talking about normal games and the incidental learning that occurs therein? Many games are by their very nature educational, whether the game is Battleship, Tennis or World of Warcraft, they educate. Punkt. You can’t change that – it’s what happens – so how do we separate between what is meant by the learning that happens in these real learning experiences vs the learning that happens in the games that have as their primary objective, an educational objective… if we name both these experiences Games Based Learning it doesn’t make any sense.

      To unravel all of this mess, of different people using the same terms to refer to different things or using different terms to refer to the same thing, there actually needs to be some discussion of actually what is meant by all this terminology and what is what.

      The first thing which has to be separated out from the conversation is the learning from normal play or even if you like from digital play – the stuff that Gee talks about and what Graham Stanley and Muwer are doing, i.e. focusing on the learning which can be explored or taken advantage of during the use of normal digital games. I personally would be inclined to refer to this as digital play learning – or incidental learning opportunities as based on digital game play – I’m not sure what they think, it’s what they called their book. so perhaps that’s what they wanted to say as it deals with this and provides activities based on taking advantage of these opportunities… perhaps GS and KM can chime in here…

      However these learning opportunities are very, very different from the learning activities which are specifically designed with learning as the core objective.

      This is what is meant by educational gamification.

      To be very clear, educational gamification refers to short activities and e-tivities which are designed to only “appear” as a game but the core objective is an educational one. All the stakeholders, author of said gamified experience, teacher who takes it into class and students who play the activity know and understand that it is not really a game, it is an activity made to look like a game.

      In other words, there is a clear, but unspoken, knowledge that it isn’t really a game because this is not a fully-fledged activity and all the stakeholders know that it is not meant to be one. Perhaps, even to be a little clearer, if you would like to look at some gamified objects, to get examples of digital language educational gamification in your mind, then visit http://www.eslgamesworld.com/ and the like, plus there’s a link to a fuller list on my blog, but that site should at the very least give you an idea of how this is different from digital play.

      For paper-based gamification, you only have a look at the back of a teachers’ book – you know the board games which have been designed to specifically practice one structure, for example a chutes and ladders game that actually practices the 2nd conditional, well that’s gamfication. So Paul, while I am no fan of pointsification, like you are, I’m not going to confuse or dismiss gamification as pointsification because a very small handful of people out there can’t manage to see beyond the points. That would be rather silly. Even in the gamified educational objects that do offer points, there is so much more going on than operant conditioning and the best thing I could possibly recommend is to actually play some of these with your students so that you can have the opportunity to see what these are too (already explained above).

      Well, I better wrap up… I think I should end though with going back to your reference to GBL, which I think you keep mixing up with what is educational gamification… To gain a better idea , i.e. to sort out the difference between this and game-based-learning, I would recommend having a look at http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/tips/game-based-learning – as that’s the sort of thing that seems to be meant by this term, and also more akin to the digitization of an EFL scavenger hunt, that you have done with success in the past – i.e. not gamification due to the stronger narrative element, the duration of the activity and the commitment on the part of the learner-players…

  4. blogefl

    Hi Karenne, I think the gist of your last comment seems to be that as more educators become interested in exploring different aspects of gaming and applying this to different educational settings, the terms are starting to become inadequate. I agree with you and think there is a world of difference to what Kyle and I blog about on Digital Play (and which we wrote about in our book) and, for example, the ESL games site you shared. The same is true of gamification. As Paul says in his post, the term has started to lose its meaning and it means different things to different people. I don’t think this is a bad thing, however. For me, GBL is the actual use of games for learning and gamification is applying elements of games to other areas. That much is clear. I also think we are now stuck with the term – it reminds me of when ‘podcasting’ was new and many people complained about the name because it implied the need for an iPod. Alternative terms were suggested, but the term had got such a grip on people’s imagination, trying to change it proved to be futile.

  5. Elkysmith

    The debate sparked off by Paul’s post seems to have focused largely on the terminology and missed the key issues that Paul is trying to get at. By my reading, Paul’s main concern is not the process of adding a game layer to current educational practice (though he has of course asked some important questions about that). Rather, he is asking us to consider carefully our current educational practice and suggesting that applying game mechanics to it is actually reinforcing an outdated pedagogical model; by focusing our attention on designing the game elements (which are as often as not superficial and of limited value), we are losing sight of that. 

    This question is being asked of us: Are we using game mechanics to help us achieve a fuller realisation of our beliefs about effective learning and teaching or as a new way to motivate students to complete conventional classroom activities (gap fills, rote learning exercises, drills)? The answer is dependent on our individual contexts and, depending on the context, there is merit in both. However, as reflective practitioners, it is important that we reflect carefully on this point: what are our beliefs and (how) does our practice truly reflect those beliefs?

    At the risk of getting into ‘my term is better than your term’ territory, one concern I have with the term ‘gamification’ is its vagueness: what are trying to make more ‘game-like’ and for what purpose? The term ‘game-based learning’ has the advantage of keeping the focus very much on the process of learning. In a lot of the reading I’ve done about gamification, there is an over-emphasis on the process of gamifying at the expense of de-emphasising the process of learning. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the game elements ‘work’ rather than how to make the learning elements ‘work’. 

    This loss of focus on the core of what we do as educators – especially when technology is involved – has another negative side-effect: it frustrates and alienates a lot of teachers when we actually want to encourage and support them to experiment with new ideas and approaches. 

    I would like to point any readers back to Paul’s final paragraph and the deeper questions underlying gamification in education. 

  6. Paul Driver

    Hi Karenne, thanks for the comment. I find it difficult to respond though as it seems to have very little connection to what I actually wrote in either my post or response to your previous comment. You seem to have borrowed some of my points and presented them as your own, for example “It would be far wiser to explore and understand these from psychological, philosophical, biological, pedagogical perspectives.” (that’s precisely what I’ve been trying to get you to do!) and argued against things I haven’t said, while contradicting some of your own claims in the process. You then muddy the terminology waters even further by coming up with “gamified e-tivities”. I really can’t make head nor tail of it. Sorry! And by the way, the ELTons nominated Spywalk project was not a “scavenger hunt”. Perhaps you should read more about it: http://www.igi-global.com/article/pervasive-games-mobile-technologies-embodied/74711

    Kyle, thanks, I think that’s a pretty good summary and it’s good that you draw attention to that last paragraph, the centrality of learning in the debate and also the fact that what I’m doing here is asking questions, not providing all the answers or pretending to be an expert on any of these things (because I’m not).

  7. Karenne Sylvester

    Terribly sorry to have caused confusion by my comments on the terminology. In short, I actually see great pedagogical merit in gamifying educational activities and e-tivities and don’t see gamification as being merely based on points.


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