Gamification: Is it all just a ruse?

Chris McNutt
June 7, 2018
I was quickly swept up in gamification. Being a “gamer” all my life, the draw of “gamifying” my content seemed like a no-brainer.

I was quickly swept up in gamification. Being a “gamer” all my life, the draw of “gamifying” my content seemed like a no-brainer. I love video games, board games — anything — it sounded incredible! Of course, I wanted to avoid “edutainment”, we wouldn’t want kids to be bored - it should be real entertainment. I tried XP systems, guilds, badges, anything I could think of. The result? Students clamored for more cool “class systems”, competed in “raids” as guilds, and demanded more and more badges! Great, I thought — this is fantastic!

Then it hit me. Although my students were loving my gamified class — what were they actually learning? Did they care at all about my content? What was their take-away? Simply put — what students remember about my class was that they successfully obtained the max level of “Lobbyist” in US government. They were more concentrated on earning as many badges as possible than they were on the what they were learning.

My takeaway from this wasn’t that all gamification is bad or it wasn’t worth doing. However, it made me call into question two arguments:

  1. Gamification is used, primarily, as a corporate means to mask the user into buying more of their product. It’s a “fun” way to earn more of a profit, meant to be a “win-win.” Users obtain rewards for using their app., earning points, completing certain tasks, and the corporation is rewarded through increased profits. Is gamification simply masking something students don’t (or shouldn’t) want to do?
  2. Students are being extrinsically motivated by these rewards, but is there any intrinsic motivation at all? Will students actually seek out any knowledge after this class or want to?

Overall, it made me jaded. Although I love games (and still use them) — I didn’t want it to be the forefront of what I was doing. Like many “great teaching methods” that are sold on websites and books everywhere — it was a great way of teaching standardized content. It was excellent at masquerading “boring things” into “somewhat interesting activities!” And, even though this may seem like a great idea, I worry it is not. The majority of people aren’t using this information — it’s just for school:

Sidebar: I don’t want to imply that all core academic content is pointless. It’s just the overemphasis of this specific content seems to conflate it as the only facts worth knowing. As Ken Robinson explains beautifully in Creative Schools, why aren’t we seeing dance as core content? Or cooking? Or painting? Hell, I would have loved if school had drilled basic cooking rather than mathematics. To argue that Biology is somehow the key to understanding everything and without the Scientific Method we’re doomed to fail, but Archeology is some worthless “just for fun” class, demonstrates this line of thinking — especially if you’re an Archeologist. I’m sure archeologists everywhere reading this are upset that someone would think they’re worthless — just as biology teachers would be offended that I’m disregarding the Scientific Method.

Simply put, the more one analyzes this conflation of certain subjects, the more one starts to wonder: does my subject matter at all? Does anything matter!? There are core things we want everyone to know: we need people to read, we need basic arithmetic — a variety of other things. And, as a history teacher — I want students to understand systemic social structures and why many problems exist today. However, I’m sure that a geometry teacher will argue how important logical thinking is and its importance to the human soul. It’s not that this argument isn’t correct — but we are going to argue our passion in teaching.

The tough pill to swallow, and something that’s difficult to grasp — is what if the certain content we teach, in the long run, is almost unnecessary? What if it’s more about relationships and how people feel? Hopefully, they’ll pick up concepts along the way, but classes remembered are ones where you liked the teacher, or you had friends in it — or the subject was specifically fascinating — to you.

Imagine if painting was still a core element of education (“Fine Arts” credit has been regulated to “extracurricular” in comparison to our reigning “core four.”) Then, someone told the painting teacher — your subject doesn’t matter! We’re going to remove it and instead implement geography! The painting teacher would be shocked and dismayed — she’d argue about the importance of creative expression and problem-solving that one learns through art. And she’d be absolutely right. That’s the conundrum — anything someone learns has benefit. But, because of our infatuation of historic subjects, we’ve been blinded to assuming those are only of importance. Our goal, as educators, should be finding what interests students and supplementing mentorship and advice along the way. We don’t need to throw all baseline knowledge as it’s currently taught out the window, but we need to re-evaluate the nuances of subject hierarchies.

To return to gamification, I would ask: why would I want to create some weird, fun structure to teach obedient fact-knowers? It all seemed convoluted and hazy. Here’s a few of the problems I immediately noticed:

I don’t believe that games don’t belong in education — it’s simply how they’re used. We play games all the time — and many times (to the disdain of some administration), the game isn’t even “academic.” All games teach something — some more than others. Games where you work together, solve puzzles, are creative, utilize resources around you — anything that pushes social, emotional — and yes, at many times, practical learning — work as a fantastic classroom game.

So, why not simply just play games to play games?

We play government-based “simulation” style games, and try to refrain from classic “competitive review games” (see this article for my thoughts on that.) Also, we play Quiplash, Monster Seeking Monster, and Mafia. All of which are great for teaching professional conversation techniques, social interaction, emotional reaction, creative thinking, problem-solving, and, of course, deception.

In America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks, Ruth Whippman lays out a convincing argument that the major problem with Americans (and increasingly, the Westernized world) is we don’t have social bonds. People are lonely, social media has isolated us, and we’re ultra-competitive — becoming increasingly “me”-focused. Our solution is mindfulness techniques: isolating people and making them feel at ease. Whippman says this industry is actually hurting us: it’s not that mindfulness isn’t practical — it’s just that solely as the solution it is making us unhappy. Instead, we need more social bonds.

Although Whippman speaks little of our school systems, this content fits entirely within them. Students are mandated to only have social lives during lunch and after school. Talking during class — even during group work — about something not relevant to the lesson is “disrespectful” or “being ‘off-task’” (ignoring, of course, that in any teachers’ meeting you’ll find a variety of people talking about their lives.)

How can we expect students, who are isolated throughout the day, to not talk about the latest movies, getting their driver’s license, or what they did last weekend? The predicted response would be twofold: 1) School is a place of learning and we’ll never get anything done if kids talk all the time. And 2) When I was in school, we never were able to speak to each other, we just hung out after school. Both are valid arguments, but I believe the landscape and philosophy of education has changed. There’s still a need for quiet reflection, on-task work, and traditional learning. However, there is also a need for play, for socialization for its own sake, and “doing whatever you want.”

These unequivocal methods of “wasting time” are how we connect as human beings. (Note: the verbiage of that phrase — “wasting time” — implying that having fun or socializing is not useful.) School is a stressful place for many of our students — and those who perform poorly in a traditional academic setting are usually those who feel most ostracized. In addition, those who perform very well tend to feel overly pressured. There’s nothing wrong with spending more time being people — simply having fun for its own sake, just talking because why not? We shouldn’t feel guilty for leaving the regiment of traditional school.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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