Category Archives: Gamification

“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.


Our next #AusELT chat (3/10/13 8:30pm AEST) is going to be on the topic of gamification. On behalf of the #AusELT community, I would like to thank in advance Paul Driver (@paul_driver) for joining us for a discussion of gamification. Even more generously, he has written a fascinating article on the topic to get people thinking about gamification and its implication for Australian ELT. I’ve posted this separately, but I’d like to provide a short introduction.

'Burning Pac-Man' by Patrick Hoelsy

‘Burning Pac-Man’ by Patrick Hoelsy

Gamification and Paul Driver

Gamification is fashionable. The term is gaining increased currency in Australian ELT. Like other such terms – the flipped classroom, mlearning, dogme, even communicative language teaching – it evokes responses ranging from excitement, through boredom, all the way to revulsion.  Like other fashions, it is often misrepresented and misunderstood; often the most prominent examples of it are also the worst – little more than simplistic and/or cynical attempts to capitalise on a temporary buzz.

I recently came across this bold claim from the website of a popular language learning app:

Learning, gamified.

Lose hearts with incorrect answers, practice against the clock, level up.

I tried the app (briefly, I admit) but found that the gamified aspect to it was much less motivating than the simple reward of applying my existing knowledge of French and learning something new.

At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘Dragon Collective Trilogy’, a ‘transmedia alternate reality game’ developed in part by the University of Melbourne’s Chinese Teacher Training Centre and Education Services Australia. In the game, students engage in a wide range of (learning) activities with the aim of ultimately defeating the ‘Doom of Not Knowing’.

Along similar lines is the inspiring work of Paul Driver. According to the bio on his Digital Debris website, he is “a language teacher, researcher, teacher trainer, graphic designer and illustrator working at a university in northern Portugal” who is engaged in “exploring the educational application of pervasive games, mobile technologies and locative storytelling for second language acquisition.”

Take some time to look at the Digital Debris pages dedicated to his pervasive game projects, Spywalk (for which he received an ELTon 2013 nomination) and Urban Chronicles. I’m sure you will quickly see how enviable a combination of skills Paul has acquired (teaching, researching and designing) and how this combination has allowed him to lead the way into thrilling new territory which highlights the hollowness of most ‘learning, gamified’ claims.

Please also join Paul and others for our chat, Thursday October 3, 8:30pm AEST. It is a great opportunity to find out more about Paul’s work.