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.
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!.