Should Gamification Rule in School?

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Classroom games can be fun, collaborative and motivating, but the idea that by gamifying any existing task that the performance of the majority of students is going improve is highly debatable, and somewhat naive. My career as a teacher has spanned over 20 years and in the early years of my profession I incorporated a lot of games into my teaching and used charts with stickers and stars for rewards for all types of achievements. However, as time went on, I decided to use these quite sparingly after discovering through observation, backed by the growing body of research, that the use of rewards undermines intrinsic motivation and results in the slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process. Furthermore, I saw how the dangers of competition in the classroom were directly related to the incentives that were built into the games played.

The argument that a good recipe for sustained improvement in students’ performance is to apply a set of game rewards to an existing set of educational activities is flawed. In fact, many game designers, including Michael John and Ian Bogost admit this. As Michael John states:

“…as a game designer, it was painful to listen to the education world talk about gamification as if it was a special sauce that can be applied to any existing task in order to improve performance. As a practitioner of game design, I know that this special sauce just does not exist, especially when it comes to  K-12 learning.”

I have to agree with him; there is no magic tool . And then there’s the fact that gamification techniques strive to leverage people’s natural desires for competition and status (as reported by Gamification Wiki). The potential risks of high levels of competition in the classroom are numerous as outlined in John Shindler’s Transformative Classroom Management. He sees that competitive games have the potential risks of damaging teamwork ethic, corroding students’ self-esteem, establishing a fear of failure in students and even harming the learning process in some instances. In relation to the race to the finish line to complete a challenge first, he writes:

“The purpose of the activity moves from the learning goals (i.e., engagement in making sense of the elements of the process and the attempt to interpret and make a quality effort) to efficiency, speed, and the outcome relative to others…we can see this change in focus occurring no matter what the teacher may say either to encourage or discourage it. The structure by its nature encourages the shift in the participants’ attitudes.”

I saw many of these damaging features play out when I set up a task in the classroom where there was some competitive element. The motivation to win was always high, but there was a win at all costs mentality among many, which was pretty ugly to watch- cutting corners, the desire to cheat, accusations of cheating, friends turning on each other, and those without the competitive edge just bowing out. This makes me feel very skeptical of the supposed ‘tremendous potential’ gamification has in the education space.

Gamification may be able to increase students’ motivation to learn but this motivation is primarily extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation will never have the learning power of intrinsic motivation so educators need to focus more on how to intrinsically motivate students rather than gamifying their classrooms.

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But, if a game is able to raise students’ capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self assess, the six facets of understanding and allow them to readily transfer these skills into real life contexts, then I would happily endorse it. However, I have not come across one that can do that yet, – not even Minecraft!.

11 thoughts on “Should Gamification Rule in School?”

  1. Hi
    I am totally agree with John Shindler’s statement that competitive games destroy teamwork. Teachers think that these competitive games help students in improving their performance and motivate them in study. This is true at some extent. But teacher’s thinking is different than student. Students do not think at that level. Because of competitive games students feel jealous from each other and some times these games destroy their friendship. What do you think?

    1. Thanks for your comment Beant. I do agree that too much competition through game playing in school does cause animosity between students and the drive to beat other becomes a force unto itself. Students lose sight of the reason for playing the game- to consolidate skills or learn and from or collaborate with others – and are just fervent about winning.

  2. Hi Lisa

    I strongly agree with you. Espically in China, many teachers use games during teaching. However, many students just want to win the game and get the reward and praise from teachers. This is not what we expect.

    1. Hi Alex. Thanks for your comment which I certainly agree with. The whole focus for most students is on the coveted prize (be it a physical reward, status or an ego-boost and opportunity to boast) rather than any inner motivation to improve their understanding of a concept. I know this sounds negative and I am not saying that pride in winning is a bad thing, but the idea of gamifying education seems somewhat pernicious to me because of the winner/loser aspect of so many games.

  3. Hello Lisa, I really enjoyed reading the perspective of gamification from a teacher’s perspective. I still remember being overly excited to get a sticker for my good work on homework back in primary school. However, perhaps you would agree that too much of this competition between students and wanting an instant reward for your work at such a young may be counterproductive when you become older and no one is there to make a game where you finish an assignment. Oh if only! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Hi Jade,

      Thanks for your reply. I absolutely agree with you. These days, many teachers seem to coax students into trying their best or participating actively through the use of games with prizes. I have seen the negative effects of this to the point where students keep asking, “What do we get if we win?”, and if the reply is, “Nothing other than pride in your achievement”, then they’re just not that interested in doing their best.

      I am not adverse to students having fun and believe that their educational experience should be as enjoyable as possible. However, learning and teaching are not primarily about game playing and either is life. I think of myself as quite a progressive teacher, and incorporate many elements of play, if they are educational, into my teaching practice. Yet, learning requires commitment, mental discipline and hard work, and sometimes this is just not fun. Life is not always games and fun and I think we are doing our students a great disservice if we are constantly trying to keep them entertained at school.

      Furthermore, many students play online outside of school for hours and hours, so I do not believe that gamifying more of their time, whether the games are educational or not, is beneficial.

  4. Hi Lisa,

    This is a good post and yes its spot on the competition destroys the student relationship / friendship at times. Gamification has more merit in different industries or areas which need to keep the learning cost low but need to improve the capability in short period of learning time. i.e. aircraft simulation, war simulation to name a few.

    1. Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your reply. I can see that gamification definitely has its benefits outside of the K-12 school arena. It would certainly save on time and costs in becoming skilled in flying an aircraft if no aircrafts with fuel needed to be used or in the practice of battle if the military did not have to transport soldiers to large rented areas of land for combat training.

  5. Hi Lisa,
    In your post I could totally feel the experience of a teacher, and is awesome to have the opinion of someone working in the education industry for that long. I agree with the fact that competition can be dangerous in many ways when applied to education. However, a part from simulation, which necessarily to come as a game, I still think games still have a strong educating power. Until the end of high schools I’ve been a passionate videogamer, and I’m sure that actually playing some videogames really helped my developing and exercising my logic skills, they also allowed me to learn about many things outside of the italian culture (like ninjas, skateboarding and also english), and never forgot what I’ve learned thanks to gaming.

  6. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for your experience. Before, I didn’t think about the ugly mentality when we bring game into school. You are right. We always want to make class more interesting with gamification, but forgot how kids are eager for winning. They are too young to control their behaviour.
    I’m agree with your opinion, ” if a game is able to raise students’ capacity to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathize, and self assess, the six facets of understanding, and allow them to readily transfer these skills into real life contexts, then I would happily endorse it”, but I think parents and teachers should guide students how to tread games.

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