Gaming the education system

Posts have been less frequent than we'd like here at Motivate.Play lately, and it's high time to change that. But we can't let Travis' coverage of GDC take up the whole spotlight (just kidding...he's doing an awesome job). So while he's off covering hot new video games, I'm going to take a moment to discuss a very different kind of "game", higher education.

Gamification has been a recurring theme here, and its applications to education have been getting a whole lot of attention lately. And it's no wonder; games are fun, engaging, and highly motivating, while school is (too often, unfortunately) boring, uninspiring, and lacking in short-term motivational factors. It's a no-brainer, then. If we can turn education into a game, kids will just love it. They'll work harder, learn more, and be more successful once they come out of the education system.

So goes the common logic, at least. I would argue, however, that there are some pretty serious flaws with this perspective that need to be remedied if we want edu-gamifi-cation to really work. I'm not criticizing the whole gamification enterprise in principle - I think it stands to make education a whole let better - but I do think we need to approach it with a bit more caution before we latch onto it as the big fix for our broken schools.

The most proximal motivation for me writing about this topic was reading this article from Educause review, written by a professor from my very own Indiana University, Sarah "Intellagirl" Smith-Robbins (please don't ask me to explain that nickname). In the paper she lays out her definition of a game and how higher education maps onto it, arguing that the education system actually is game (well, a "weak" one at least). The defining characteristics of games, under her view, are that they (a) have clear goals, (b) have obstacles in the way of these goals, and (c) involve either collaboration or competition. An interesting extension of applying this definition to education is that the collaborative/competitive nature of the education "game" changes depending on the goal students see in it. If they see the goal as pure intellectual growth, then students and teachers have a collaborative relationship, but when the goal is to "beat the system and earn more money", the game becomes a competitive one with professors and other students serving as competitors. I like this point a lot, but I'm worried about where she goes from there, namely how we can fix this "problem" by throwing game elements into the classroom (badges, tokens, progress tracking, etc.). There are three central concerns I have with what Smith-Robbins wants to do here, and with gamification of the school system more generally:

1 - You need to consider how exactly you map game elements to the non-game experience VERY carefully. If they don't map on effectively, they'll seem artificial and won't achieve the motivation/engagement goals you're looking for. For Smith-Robbins, this issue is most apparent into how she connects the elements of her game definition to the education domain. First, she seems to assume that students have the "wrong" goal in mind when they focus on "beating the game" that is school so they can reap the rewards of a higher-paying, more fulfilling job. The "true" goal of education, under her analysis. is "intellectual" growth, and many of the problems of education come from the mismatch between professors with the right goal and students with the wrong one. But wait! It's not that education only satisfies one of these goals (see this comment for a very nice treatment of this point) - they're both totally valid reasons to be in school, and I don't think we can argue that one is the "real" point of an education. Therein lies the first incorrect mapping in Smith-Robbins' analysis. Games typically have a clear win condition, but education does not. What constitutes success varies widely between different students, and different timescales. Learning is of course important, but so is the degree, and is it fair to accuse those students who just care about the degree of playing the game incorrectly? Perhaps they're just being pragmatic.

But let's give Smith the benefit of the doubt for the moment. Assuming she's right about the problem, what's her solution? She says matters will improve if teachers can connect individual activities to the long-term goals they will help satisfy (i.e. "How you can use this skill in the future"), and if they offer means of tracking progress on these goals. That's great, and certainly can help contextualize information for students and hopefully be motivating in that sense. But is that actually effective gamification? I'd argue that we don't typically play games for the long-goals they satisfy, but for the constant stimulation of our reward pathways that they give us. Sure, beating the game is satisfying, but the real fun is to be had when we're in the flow of gameplay, with it near-instantaneous feedback. The point I'm getting at here is that game elements can be useful in the classroom, but probably not so much in this particular context, and the reason is that this is a mapping problem. The win-condition in a game and that in education simply do not map on to one another well, and that has implications for how we attempt to map game elements one domain to the other.

There are other mismatches to discuss, but I should move on. The lesson is simply that we must consider how the game world maps on to the real world before we start throwing badges and and other game elements into the mix, or even assuming that gamification will work.

2 - Life is not a game. Sometimes school sucks. A lot. But that very well may be teaching students something very important about the real world. You don't always get instantaneous feedback, not every activity you do is fun, and you regularly have to do things for which you receive no immediate reward in the service of more important, long-term goals. Is it possible that over-gamifying education might be a disservice, preparing kids for a world that doesn't exist? Remember, one of the biggest reasons we love games is that provide an escape from the real world, so we have to wonder how well a game-inspired educational environment will prepare students to be successful in the real world. I'm being deliberately pessimistic here for the sake of argument, but this is something worth thinking about. You could argue that (as I think Jane McGonigal would) that this should encourage us to pursue gamification of more domains of life, rather than question its applicability to education. This may well be true, but I think this raises the real question of whether being able to gamify a activity necessarily means we should gamify it.

3 - Don't forget the magic circle! The magic circle is a term coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, and refers to the line that closes off the virtual world created by a game from the outside world. We might typically think of this as applying to games like World of Warcraft, where there is a fully realized virtual world living on BLizard's servers, but you can apply the concept to any game. As soon as you define a set of special rules governing play that only apply in the context of the game, you have a created a magic circle. I bring this up because gamification often tramples all over the magic circle, pushing game elements into a non-game environment where there is no restricted "game world". Think about this way: When you earn gold pieces or other rewards in an RPG they have no "real" value, they're just 1s and 0s in the game system's memory. But within the magic circle defined by the game they have obvious value, being spendable on new weapons, armor, and so on. Now what about in the classroom "game" environment? You can give students tokens, badges, or other rewards with no intrinsic value, but that forces you to circumscribe some sort of magic circle in the education environment. But here's the rub: You need to draw the magic circle to create value for your game elements (badges, whatever), but once you draw that circle you disconnect your "game" from the outside world. And you can't do that in education! It's hugely important to maintain focus on how the things kids learn in class fit into their broader educational goals and their lives post-graduation. So how do we gamify the classroom in an engaging, satisfying way without isolating education from its place in the real world. I wish I had a good solution to this dilemma, but I don't...yet. But I think it's something we need to consider before we start gamifying our schools willy-nilly.

Finishing up, I realize I sound a bit more crotchety about this than I really am. I just want to stress that can be serious concerns about how and when we apply gamification to any non-game environment, and we would do well to be a bit more judicious about things. The gamification train isn't stopping anytime soon, and I don't think it should - we just need to make sure that we're laying tracks in the right places.

Gaming the education system by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

One Response to “Gaming the education system”

  1. Ryan F McCann says:

    Top of the class in being better than everyone.

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