Gamification of education

Here’s an interesting video which was shared with me by @misterlamb today.

While I’m not thrilled about the use of experience points as group awards (external motivator), I do like the idea of incremental improvement rather than requiring students to make large changes in order to improve. I also get the point that the traditional grading system is poorly designed, and that if we must use some sort of grading system, one that expects improvement through "trying again" is a huge improvement over our "you failed, oh well" system. Further, in a system of levelling up, it would be easier to get away from the notion that how old a student is determines what path they should be taking.

There are some questions I do have about implementation of this kind of system.

  • Would students tend to become specialists in this system rather than generalists? Would they think that because they are doing well in x subject that they can forget about y subject? I’m level 55 in math, but only level 3 in writing, but it’s okay because level 55 is really good! Is this something we should worry about, or just part of the further personalization of education?
  • A huge part of any game I’ve played is the competition between the players. Most games are zero sum, in which one player has to do poorly in order for another to do well. Our comparison system of grades is such an example. In order to feel good about your A, there can’t be too many people who get one, hence your gain, is someone else’s loss. In a leveling system, being level 50 feels better when you realize you’ve beaten other people in the race to that stage of the game. I worry that this type of system might foster more competition than it would encourage cooperation. There are some suggestions in the video on how to counteract this, but none of them seems sufficient to me to overcome this effect. How can we encourage greater cooperation in a gamified classroom?
  • What do we do with a child who refuses to play the game? We have this problem already in education, where there are lots of kids who don’t participate in the classroom because they can see they will "lose" at the game, or the rules of the school game aren’t interesting to them.
  • Should we give points for mastery, or for good learning behaviours? Who hands out the points? How do we ensure that kids don’t find ways to get lots of points without really learning (gaming the gamification system)?




  • Thanks for showing us that video and for sharing your thoughts, David. The zero-sum nature of most games never occurred to me. Monopoly is the poster child for that, I think. You win by making the others lose. Has anyone ever played a full game of Monopoly where everyone walks away smiling?

    Whenever I hear “gaming” and “education”, I immediately think of this awesome paper by James Paul Gee (E-Learning, v2 n1 p5-16 2005) (might require subscription/access)

    I first read about when I was studying situated cognition — learning what you need to know at exactly the moment you need it. But this gaming paper resonates in many things I’ve done since. The part that sticks in my brain, paraphrased and morphed, of course, is that participants (gamers playing Wii and students in class) will *demand* they get the opportunity to learn the next concept so they can move to the next stage. Just imagine: “No, Mr. Teacher, you can’t send us to lunch. We don’t know how to figure out how many solutions this quadratic equation has! Please, pretty please, stay and teach us how?”

  • I didn’t find this video to be a strong argument in favour of “gamifying” education (by which I assume they mean something more than just using games for learning). In fact, their arguments lowered my confidence in gamification, for the reasons you describe. Adding “experience points” doesn’t make an unfun thing fun. In a fun activity, points are a measure of the fun — they are not the fun itself. In an unengaging activity, it can give you something else to focus on while you survive the unengaging thing. Expecting points and badges to fix disengagement is like adding smoke detectors to fix a fire. Do we really believe that we’ve got this incredibly exciting content, but students are refusing to engage until we add some points?

    I found Maria Andersen’s points, badges, levels, leader boards, and rewards are ‘key game mechanics.’ This is wrong, of course — key game mechanics are the operational parts of games that produce an experience of interest, enlightenment, terror, fascination, hope, or any number of other sensations.” Generation YES has published a list of concrete questions for evaluating gamified activities.

    I agreed with the video’s creators that it’s “hard to be motivated without agency.” But agency isn’t the “feeling” of having control over your life. It is the reality of having control. Even if the students get to design the points and the badges, they’re not designing the game.

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