Trying to find math inside everything else

(I suppose I shouldn’t say “the” problem, because there are many problems that I won’t be directly addressing, like extrinsic vs internal motivation.)

I’ve read a lot about gamification in the classroom, and while I’ve often thought about it and borrowed some elements from it, I’ve never gone whole hog. The motivation aspect is one of the reasons, but today, as I started reading Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal, I realized there’s more to it.

In the first part of the book, Dr. McGonigal provides a definition of games. A game has four defining features: a goal, a set of defined rules, a feedback system, and voluntary participation. And if you think about gamification, you can easily pick out which of those elements is missing.

Because schooling is mandatory and, if you are taking a particular class, the gamification of that class is also mandatory, gamification of ed itself is not a game. If I gamify my chores by playing ChoreWars, I am choosing to take part in that game (even if the chores need to be done regardless). But if my teacher chooses to use a system of leveling up and roleplaying in my class, it is no longer a game; it is a requirement.

When I tried to think, then, about what in education would best fit these four requires, the first thing that came to mind is BIG, Shawn Cornally‘s school in Iowa. There students choose to participate in some project of their own devising, creating the goal and the voluntary participation. Then it is the school’s job to provide the feedback and the rules.

(An aside on the importance of rules – Dr. McGonigal quotes Bernard Suits who said, “Playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” The rules are those unnecessary obstacles, and the excellent example given was golf. The goal of golf is to get the golf ball in the hole, but if we did that the most efficient way (walking up to the hole and dropping it in), we would get little enjoyment from it. But by implementing the rules of the game, we make the goal harder to achieve and thus much more fulfilling.)

So the big warning to those who want to gamify their classroom is this: if you require it, it’s not a game, no matter what game elements you include.

Comments on: "The Problem with Gamification in Education" (7)

  1. I heed your warning about requiring students to participate in gamification. Gamification is not a game, but rather, the use of game elements in a non-game context. I have had a few gamers make the point to me that gamification is not the same as a game. That is true, and so I don’t try to argue with them. In the non-game context of the classroom, whether or not a teacher implements game elements, ideally students will have opportunities to express agency and individuality. While students have to be at school and therefore nothing is purely voluntary, one of the game elements – autonomy, can be built into the environment. While this may not be experienced as fun in the same way that playing a video game is, giving students some control over their learning is a way of designing the learning environment to reflect something about games that makes players want to continue playing. In my opinion, a gamified classroom does not need to embrace every game element and mechanic there is, but rather, only those that specifically motivate and support particular students, at a particular time, for a particular learning situation. Thanks for starting this conversation!

    • Thanks for commenting!

      Heather, I have to disagree about gamification not being a game – or, rather, if gamification cedes the idea of being a game, it loses one of its most powerful properties. This is one of the reasons I mentioned IowaBIG – the choice it gives students remains one of its most significant features.

      I’m not making a wholesale argument against gamification, but rather against thoughtless gamification – the idea that I can just include some game elements and reap benefits from that. As you say, though, giving students control over their learning is key – but that needs to be one of the goals when designing your gamified classroom. If everyone is playing the exact same game in the exact same way, then it’s not really a game and the students have lost their agency.

  2. Great comment, Heather! There is quite some literature our talking about games and gamification in the classroom. Jane McGonigals book is in that context certainly not the best ar even aimed to addres this. I recommend Karl Kapp’s “The Gamification of Learning and Instruction” and Lee Sheldon “The Multiplayer Classroom.” The problem here is not so much that children and students are required to play, they are already required to sit through the most boring classes. Anything that gets them out of their boredom will help.
    And then there are some examples and numbers of how the amount of material retained by learners increases dramatically by choosing the right approaches:

    According to a report on educational games presented by Don Menn [1] at the 2006 Summit of the Federation of American Scientists, students recall just 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear. If there are visuals accompanying an oral presentation, the number rises to 30%, and if they observe someone carrying out an action while explaining it, 50%. But students remember 90% “if they do the job themselves, even if only as a simulation.”

    [1] Don Menn, “Multimedia in Education: Arming Our Kids For the Future.” PC World 11

    Here are a lot of examples from the training and education space that will certainly inspire you way beyond what Jane has mentioned in her book.

    • Mario, I know the book is not aimed at education – it is much more generalized, but that’s the filter I am reading it through as an educator (and a gamer) myself. However, your statement and the quotation you posted belies a certain assumption – that we are dealing with “the most boring classes.” Compared to a lecture where students are only retaining 10% of what they read and 20% of what they hear, yes, playing a game is far better than that. But when we are trying to gamify a classroom that is already discovery-based and structured around students problem-solving, then the benefits are less clear. I am not saying that there are no benefits, but that they need to be carefully considered

    • If you are teaching a boring class, nothing will save you.

  3. Aha, finally a more serious look at this topic – I find the ‘reality is broken’ ideas completely broken anyway. The author of that travesty happily quotes out-of-date theories of great minds like Csíkszentmihályi completely forgetting that the man is still alive, and that he himself has opposed those particular 40 year old ideas for something a lot more nuanced. I think its called selectively picking what works and ignoring the rest…

    My research shows the skim “evidence on gamification’s ability to improve outcomes, whether its completion of more tasks within a given period, improvement in exam results or creation of higher quality output is less convincing. Only 26% of the relevant studies show an increased output, exactly the same number showed a decrease in output and the remaining studies either didn’t show any difference in the output or did not contain enough information to be able to measure this.

    The critical factors in success appear to be closely linked with good design principles, where the intrinsic rewards relative to the culture of the community are identified and game-like interactions that help individuals in measuring their own progress against others are developed atop the activity. This is supported by Nicholson (2012) who proposes a user-centred theoretical framework for meaningful gamification, distinguishing this with reward based gamification.”

    For a chuckle check out :

    and other ref above is : Nicholson, Scott. “A user-centered theoretical framework for meaningful gamification.” Proceedings GLS 8 (2012).

    I’m currently spearheading considerable R&D around gamification in learning and creativity, with PhDs to boot, so if you feel like taking this further I’m always keen to hear of real people ;)

  4. […] I read more of Reality Is Broken, though, I encountered an alternative explanation. In the book, Jane McGonigal wonders why so many […]

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