“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?