Play to Learn: Notes on Gamification

Perhaps you’ve heard this term: gamification. If not, you probably will, especially if you’re in education, business, or other forms of motivation management. Time magazine, for example, recently ran an article in its Business & Money section called “Six Reasons Why ‘Gamification’ Will Rule the Business World.” The author, Gary Belsky, describes gamification as “any number of ways in which businesses try to engage customers and/or employees using the core principles of, well,  games.” More to the point, Sebastian Deterding, in his Goggle Tech Talk “Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right,” defines  gamification as “applying game design in non-game contexts.” Here “game” mostly refers to digital games, like those for mobile devices and on Facebook, game consoles, and various websites from non-profit sites (e.g., Nobel Prize’s new Blood Typing Game) to commercial sites (e.g., Blizzard’s World of Warcraft).

Temple on a spire near the magnificent Jade Temple, Pandaria (World of Warcraft)

“Gamification” has spawned a verb: “to gamify.” And gamify is what I’ve done to my social and political philosophy course this fall, a course I call SuperPhi (see my three previous posts). Only recently, though, have I looked at the growing scholarship on gamification. (Deterding, for instance, describes himself as a “grumpy German scholar” because he’s a critic of much gamifying practice – but his talk, which I highly recommend, is far from grumpy.) My purpose in this post is to try to come to terms with a major criticism of gamification that Deterding shares with another scholar, Scott Nicholson, who draws on Deterding’s work (among the work of many other scholars) in two recent papers. Both scholars agree that many gamifiers have a serious problem: they’ve left play out of game. First, though, I’d like to give a shout out to the Game Based Learning MOOC where I heard  Nicholson speak last Thursday (his talk “Meaningful Gamification” is available on YouTube and well worth the listen).

Jade Temple in the background (WoW)

In his first paper “A User-Centered Theoretical Framework for Meaningful Gamification,” Nicholson, like Deterding, sets out to improve gamification by first looking at its shortcomings. While Deterding’s Google Tech Talk audience seem to be techies with interests in the gaming industry, Nicholson’s likely readers are educators in the schools, libraries, and museums. Even so, both scholars aim their criticisms at gamifiers who, in Nicholson’s words, “typically use only the least interesting part of a game – the scoring system.” In his second paper “Strategies for Meaningful Gamification,” Nicholson calls this scoring system BLAP, an acronym for Badges, Levels and Leaderboards, Achievements, and Points. What’s often missing is play. So he calls for “the integration of pure play elements” – a “game without scoring” – and offers the delightful example of a Swedish subway that added a piano keyboard to its stairs to encourage people to walk rather than ride the escalator (“User-Centered”) – musical exercise in the tube, gotta love it!

The Jade Temple (WoW)

Play is voluntary, inherently interesting, improvisational, and fun. It’s done for its own sake, not for BLAP-style external rewards. In fact, research has repeatedly shown that external rewards decrease internal motivation – and they tend to devalue the activity itself. Moreover, when a company or educational system begins encouraging or requiring desired behaviors through external rewards, it has to keep it up – which underscores a perennial  problem for educators, whether they gamify or not: how to motivate students to want to learn – to want to learn rather than to want to accumulate points or letter grades.

Gamification is one avenue to pursue if, Nicholson argues, it adds “an overlay of play elements to a real-life setting.” Otherwise the educational innovation envisioned may actually be a continuation of the external rewards system, like putting old wine in new bottles, you might say: substituting experience points (XP) for grades, badges for gold stars, and so on. “When someone is engaged in a playful space,” he says, “that person will also learn more easily. Creating playful information-based spaces allows the learner to explore and engage with content on the learner’s terms instead of on the instructor’s terms” (“Strategies”).

Great! But how? It  won’t be easy, Nicholson warns, but he does offer advice, for example:  foster exploration, use role-playing, have students create content that’s shared with others, always include challenges and reflection, let students co-create and deepen the narrative, let them design badges and achievements, and so on. He concludes his second paper, “Strategies,” in this way:  “… to be meaningful, gamification models should allow participants the freedom to choose how to engage, the tools to create their own gamification elements, and the ability to build social connections with other users based upon common interests.”

Stone dragons guarding the bridge to the Jade Temple (WoW)

Deterding quotes Ralph Koster who says, “Fun is just another word for learning.” Like Nicholson, Deterding emphasizes the importance and power of play. Play is at play, so to speak, in all three elements he says are often missing in gamification: meaning, mastery, and autonomy.

(1) Meaning occurs whenever players (“users,” “customers,” or “students” – all three apply) bring their personal goals and passions to the platform, whenever the game allows for customizable goals and especially prosocial goals like helping to “save the world,” and whenever the game is wrapped in a compelling story with engaging visuals.

(2)  Mastery has these components: the presence of clear goals with rules, well-ordered structure of steps, interesting and scaffolded challenges, achievable missions in which tasks match players’ abilities, varied pacing of tasks with hard interspersed with easy, opportunities to fail in order to learn, and excessive positive (“juicy”) feedback for major accomplishments.

(3) Autonomy is at the core of play – voluntary and open to creativity (like a child’s sandbox). Autonomous players decide how they want to reach desired outcomes and, ideally, pursue the task for its own sake. They reap meaningful rewards because their activity is something they want to do and take pleasure is having done. Should students  find “Easter eggs” (unexpected extrinsic rewards) in their basket, from time to time, well, that’s part of the fun.

Entrance to the Jade Temple (WoW)

Recall that Deterding is talking mostly to techies in the gaming industry, not specifically to educators for whom student autonomy is a much more difficult issue given the demands of covering content and meeting external standards. Yet Nicholson believes that autonomy, which he also calls self-determination, is so vital to learning that he spends much of his first paper stressing it. He says that “[a]llowing users to self-identify with goals or groups that are meaningful is much more likely to produce autonomous, internalized behaviors, as the user is able to connect these goals to other values he or she already holds.” Yes, prescribed outcomes have to be achieved, but everyone doesn’t have to hit the mark in the same way: “either allow different ways for users to achieve goals so that users can be involved in the ways most meaningful to them or … allow users to set their own goals and achievements.” Constraints, he says, “can be placed upon the user’s choices to guide him or her toward making choices that are both meaningful to the user and that meet the needs of the organization.”

Another part of the Jade Temple complex (WoW)

Whew! Tall orders. Reflecting on SuperPhi, I’m pleased to say that it does, in some ways, respect student autonomy. For example, the way students complete quests (prescribed outcomes) is limited only by the skills, interests, and creativity they bring with them, and students are involved in creating the narrative and visuals. In fact, a lot of what we do feels like play (and I now feel less guilty about that aspect of the course :^).  Our achievement badges for certain accomplishments and for reaching milestones have no point value, and I occasionally give out unexpected rewards, “Easter eggs.” I don’t use a leaderboard for the same reason Nicholson mentioned: its possible negative effect on student morale. But I have fallen into the trap of using external rewards – mostly experience points (XP) for quests – and I don’t know how to get out of it. I suspect that earning  XP, rather than learning the material, remains students’ primary motivation. I’m wondering, is there any way around external rewards in an educational system that requires grades?

Cloud Serpents and their riders near the Jade Temple (WoW)



About Lotus Greene

I started the blog called "Educating Lotus" in 2011, shortly after I began exploring the virtual world Second Life. With friends I met there, I migrated my virtual life to World of Warcraft (WoW) and joined an educators' guild. Lotus Greene is my gamer name, one I kept when I started another blog in 2015 called "Not Quite Ignored," which originally focused on the lighter side of news and now also includes political news and opinions.
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