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The Trouble with Gamification

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

In a May 29, 2012 post on her blog, game designer Elizabeth Sampat outlined some of the problems with the gamification movement as seen from the perspective of a seasoned game designer. Here is a look at what Sampat believes is wrong with the gamification of education as well as a few other issues with the concept, and some suggestions for what we might do to move the concept beyond the canned solution it is becoming.

The Game Designer’s Perspective
Quoting herself on Twitter, Sampat stated her main issue with the movement is that: "Gamification assumes all games share the same mechanics, which means everything that’s gamified is basically the same shitty game. Using badges and leaderboards and offering toothless points for clearly-commercial activities isn’t a magic formula that will engage anyone at any time. Demographics are different, behavior is different— things that will work to motivate users of product X will not work to motivate users of product Y. And no one is motivated by badges." (Sampat)

This is a valid perspective that illustrates the basic problem with one-size-fits-all education in general, as well as the idea that there is any quick fix for the problems that are currently plaguing the system. Gamification cannot be a simple application of some basic game mechanics and strategies in contexts that do not reflect games in any other way. As for no one being motivated by badges, there is research to support that this sort of motivation does work under the right conditions. This is a concept that is essential to game designers whose entire livelihood is based on inspiring people to be motivated to perform under artificial circumstances. Certainly it is a fallacy to think that badges will work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that they are a completely invalid form of motivation, particularly if digital badges become an acceptable credentialing alternative.

Other Problems with Gamification
While Sampat’s issues with gamification highlight two of the major problems with the concept – one-size-fits-all solutions and a reliance on toothless point systems – other problems with the concept present equally daunting impediments to the movement. Some limitations that hinder a real integration of game-based learning in education range from the availability of games to teacher training. To be clear, there are three distinctive ways in which games and gaming can be introduced into a curriculum: incorporating game mechanics in a traditional curriculum; using educational or entertainment games to supplement the curriculum; or having students produce their own games. Here are a few of the other problems with these models for gamification.

  • Lack of Usable Games
    At the most basic level, gamification is the integration of games into the curriculum. Unfortunately there are few really good, education-ready games available that can be directly imported into classrooms in real and meaningful ways. One additional problem is that consumer entertainment games take an average of 40 hours to play to their conclusions. There rarely is that much available class or computer lab time available in schools, or even in higher education.

    Commercial game content also represents an obstacle for meaningful integration. The most popular current games are massive multiplayer online games (MMOG) such as World of Warcraft, and military style war games such as Call of Duty 3. The content of these games does not lend itself to classroom use, even in higher education. There are many mods of popular games that have been done for educational purposes and entire communities committed to modding and understanding games such as Civilization, but most strictly education games lack the engagement factor of mainstream consumer games.

    A movement towards developing educationally relevant and engaging games is needed. Game designer Jane McGonigal, and gaming researcher Constance Steinkhueler, who is currently working on integrating educational games into society for the White House are leading the charge, but there is not nearly enough integration between consumer game designers/producers and educators to make this a realistic market.

  • Lack of Teacher Expertise
    In two very significant ways educators lack the skills and knowledge to delve into a rich integration of gaming in their curriculums. For starters, most teachers have not been trained in the pedagogy of gaming in their teacher education programs. Using games in the classroom requires a rethinking of the student-teacher relationship, a new model for ownership of tasks, complex structures for support of learners, new ways of evaluating learners, and a host of technological integration issues that most teachers are not prepared to undertake.

    Additionally, teacher training programs seldom include even a list of educationally appropriate games. Consumer games are also relatively expensive and change with such regularity that it is challenging for teachers to evaluate them to determine their efficacy in the classroom. 

    On top of these difficulties, the technical and financial support required for a real integration of games is daunting to say the least. Consumer games do not have site license options, often require high-end machines to run them, and can present challenges for network security.

  • Lack of Clear Objectives
    Even specifically designed educational games do not always come with instructions for how they integrate with a curriculum, what the learning outcomes are, or why they are relevant. Consumer games definitely do not come with that information. Essentially, teachers who wish to use games in their classes must search for games that they think might be educationally relevant then completely design lessons around whatever the game offers to make it work in their classes. Why undertake such an endeavor when the benefits may not be clear, there may not be institutional or parental support, learning objectives need to be adjusted to fit the game rather than the game being adjusted to fit the objectives, and the entire process requires a complete reworking of curriculums that already work. Creating a mod of a game is not a task that is lightly undertaken by most – it is generally not an easy thing to do.

    Educators may have objectives that they would like to use games to help their students reach, but finding games that do exactly what they need or that can be adapted to do so is largely an unrealistic task for classroom teachers. Given the technical requirements of many games, the need for support in installation and play, and the diversity of student access, this may be an unrealistic model to adopt.

If You’re Gonna Do It, Do It Right
Sampat makes the point that, "the core principle to remember is that game design is everywhere. Instead of trying to stick a crappy, half-formed game onto real life, the real challenge— the one that’s tough, the one that will bring the greatest results— is to fix the bad game design that’s all around us. Abstract points won’t motivate employees who aren’t motivated by a paycheck! Finding the reward structures and the rules that are already in place, and figuring out how to make them more effective, is the key to making life better for everyone— not adding an additional layer of uninspiring mechanics that push us to engage with mechanics that already suck" (Sampat).

There are many ways in which games and gamification can be incorporated into education. The application of game mechanics in the classroom is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to changing education through games. While this model is flawed, other models such as a push for more engaging educational games would help broaden the possibility for the use of games in education. A more collaborative approach to game design between educators and the gaming industry would allow for an even greater number of potential games that could be of use in schooling. Expanding teacher education and professional development programs to include the use of games would also enable teachers to be better prepared to use games in the classroom. The final possible strategy for gamification is to encourage students to create their own games. If the concept of gamification is expanded to include all of these categories of activity, many of Sampat’s concerns will be addressed.

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