Games, Gamification, and the Classroom

Since around 2010 the term gamification has been widely used to describe the trend of incorporating game mechanics and elements in other environments, such as work, health-habits, and education. The idea is that games have created complex incentive structures and rewards that can motivate people to be more productive or effective at tasks they might not otherwise find enjoyable.

One issue is that the meaning of the term keeps shifting. The people who were strong advocates of gamification tried to distinguish it from the use of games themselves as instructional tools. However, games are being developed or modified to be used as educational tools and the term “gamification” is just too tempting when discussing these new innovations.

The drive to incorporate video games into the classroom experience makes a lot of sense. Games are often “fun,” providing incentives for the student’s progress through whatever lessons the games may contain. They are digitized and provide measurable results. Games can be educational and social at the same time.

Some studies have shown that using videogames in the learning experience resulted in better understanding of the material.

However, there are critiques both of games in the classroom and of gamification. There is also a pretty good argument out there that what we call gamification is really just a re-branding of classical pavlovian conditioning.

The major argument against gamification is that it reinforces some of the defects that currently plague our educational system. Videogames simplify the processes of the real world and provide algorithms that lead to solutions in ways that the real world doesn’t. The process of playing a videogame, for many players, amounts to learning the underlying algorithm and optimizing for this algorithm. The world that the algorithm is meant to represent is often secondary to beating the numbers game. I can confess here that I have sometimes played games where you could save minutes by killing your character and re-spawning nearer to your destination.

If the goal is teach the complexity of the world that the game represents, optimizing for the algorithm that balances the game to make it playable runs exactly counter to this goal.

Still, games can and do teach us a lot. As they become more complex, or more focused on specific issues, the educational value will probably increase. But the caution still has to stand—the game can help, but if the student is left to play it without any other context, eventually the student will only learn how to beat the game.

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