Learning on the Inside and the Outside

In August 2011, I hosted the first-ever symposium on gamification.  Gabe Zichermann, a well-known consultant, got up at one point to argue that gamification would be a great way to get kids to read more books.  University of Wisconsin professor Kurt Squire, a digital learning expert, challenged him.  That might produce short-term results, Squire said, but how would it instill a lifelong love of reading?  Zichermann responded immediately: “Who cares if they love reading?”  

This is the debate about gamification and learning in a nutshell.

When we talk about learning, we tend to shift between two things: what happens to a student on the inside and what we can see on the outside.  The first includes growth in knowledge, conceptual understanding, problem-solving ability, and so forth.  The second is what students and other learners do: show up for class, study, work through assignments, participate in discussions, etc.  Those aren’t learning, per se. Not surprisingly, though, students who display those motivational traits tend to do better. This is especially true for students who would otherwise be poorer performers.   

Gamification is primarily a motivational technique.  It uses design elements and techniques from games to encourage players to engage in certain behaviors. There are countless opportunities to apply game thinking to motivate learners: promoting good attendance; giving badges for completing homework; turning completion of a unit into a “leveling up” moment; providing “choose your own adventure” challenges that give students a sense of agency. Show me a popular game such as Candy Crush Saga or Farmville, and I can break down a litany of motivational tactics that are easily ported to an educational context.   

Some forms of educational gamification are essentially souped-up versions of the sticker charts, grades, and other scoring systems used since time immemorial. However, online systems can provide rich feedback, leverage data analytics, and capitalize on the familiarity of a generation marinated in games and gamified achievement structures from an early age.   

The effects won’t all be positive.  If gamification just means adding badges and virtual points willy nilly, it’s going to make education worse. Rewards alone don’t encourage deep, sustainable learning. (I’m with Squire, for the most part.) We know from psychological research that if people are not intrinsically motivated, rewards alone may actually reduce their level of engagement.  Poorly designed gameful systems focus too heavily on competition, which turns off some students.  And they encourage students to cut corners on the actual learning to rack up points as quickly as possible.  I’m sure we’ll see gamification exploited to feed the maw of the testing obsession sweeping K-12 education today.

This is where research comes into play. Educators need guidance and best practices on how to integrate gamification with pedagogy. We need better data on how different student populations respond to these techniques, examples beyond the familiar points/badges/leaderboards (PBL) systems, and stronger principles around gamification ethics. And we need to keep the focus on learning as the ultimate objective.  Gamification is a means, not an end.   

Gamification shouldn’t be seen as a way to substitute cheap fun for the hard work of learning. Done right, it’s a tool to help unlock the fun that was always there in the learning itself.  

Image by Fabian Broman and availble on Flickr. 


With gamification's adoption by businesses and the different intended outcomes of businesses and higher ed, this breakd in expectations is not all that surprising. In A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster says "One wonders, then, why learning is so damn boring to so many people. It’s almost certainly because the method of transmission is wrong. We praise good teachers by saying that they “make learning fun.” Games are very good teachers… of something. The question is, what do they teach?" I wonder if we aren't still figuring that out. One of the things about Farmville and Candy Crush is that they are really rather boring in themselves, but we the rewards system is adequate enough to keep us playing something that is neither challenging nor interesting, yet we keep playing. Learning, however, is challenging and rather interesting, but also harder to engage so we call it boring. LIkewise, Zynga wants us to get bored and play a new game while educators hope to incite a lifelong love of learning and critical thought. In adopting gamification to learning, how do we adopt techniques of rather different content for different purposes? 

Koster, Raph (2010-10-14). Theory of Fun for Game Design (Kindle Locations 511-512). O'Reilly Distribution. Kindle Edition. 

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