Gamification – should we slap a badge on that?

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“Sure, how else would you gamify it, just slap a badge on that and done!” That seems to be the general approach these days whenever I read about gamification.  While I see most of the experts condemning exactly that type of approach it unfortunately seems that over the last few years this has become the standard application of gamification for many. Yes, there is a merit in giving out badges and it can be a tool for motivation but if that is the extent of your gamification it is a very narrow approach. The inevitable failure of the concept if such an approach has left a bitter taste in many mouths of many clients and has undermined the validity of the idea itself.

Just like other buzzwords gamification quickly gained attention, then a following and like vultures smelling carrion many dubious  ”experts” started consulting to the market and gave very shallow advice for exorbitant fees.

When I first had the idea to approach my teaching in this way and started doing research on this “brilliant new concept” I came up with I was dismayed to find that  not only was I not the first person to think of using game techniques to encourage engagement, but that I was not even the first to think about doing it in education. There is decades worth of research on these concepts and the first experiements and theses were published long before I was even  born. Why then, if this has attracted so much attention and interest and seems to contain so much promise, has it not really been thoroughly embraced.

One of the problems lies in the term itself. Gamification seems to imply that you are taking something, a concept, a process, or even an action and turning it into a game in an effort to motivate people to engage with what you are applying it to.

It is therefore no surprise that Jane McGonigal, sometimes called the “current face ” of gamification by many, has herself  condemned the term.

“I don’t do ‘gamification,’ and I’m not prepared to stand up and say I think it works, I don’t think anybody should make games to try to motivate somebody to do something they don’t want to do. If the game is not about a goal you’re intrinsically motivated by, it won’t work.

Jane McGonigal – accessed 1/11/2013

In a lot of the research and case studies I found that people were doing exactly this, trying to dress a task people were not motivated to do in a new “game skin” and then sit back, expecting everyone to suddenly be inspired and motivated to engage with the task. This is a recipe for disaster. If someone does not like sweet potato, preparing it like French fries will not change their opinion. I can attest to that, my mother tried it on me.

As one expensive project after another failed people became disappointed with the idea and decided it is just another fad that will eventually move on and I must admit I don’t really blame them, there were times I felt the same as some of my own teaching experiments failed. The flip side of the coin is that there are many great examples of companies applying it in a brilliant way and showing excellent results. This and the fact that I am still fascinated that my little girl can commit  many hours of her time to a simple game and show measurable improvement so fast tells me there is merit in these ideas and this has kept me motivated to try different approaches.

As I delved deeper in the research  I found more trustworthy resources and came to understand that the application of these techniques goes much deeper, tapping into psychology and brain physiology and  in some cases requires a complete redesign of systems. This tends to be a critical obstacle, especially in education where entrenched systems and ideas means change happens at a glacial pace. This is further obstructed by legislative bodies, parties with vested interest and pedagogy to the point where it feels like a mountain that needs to be moved, and you start questioning the payoff vs the effort.

The good news is once you understand the principles of gamification and the various ways or levels of application it becomes easier to adjust your delivery methods to include it without upsetting the status quo. Once you understand that gamification as a concept is not about changing everything into a game but rather about applying the principles that make games successful you will find that it is extremely scalable and robust and can be adjusted to most situations. You will also learn that there are cases where it can be detrimental and that you need to evaluate whether it is really worth it. Always remember you are not changing content, only the delivery method.

How much different your approach needs to be or to what extent the delivery and assessment structures needs to change still depends largely  on the level of learning that needs to take place, the resources available and the legislative or pedagogical obstacles you may face.

So, after all of this should we turn tasks into games to foster engagement?

I don’t think so, in my own experience this has never worked.

What we should be doing is changing our approach to the design of tasks to incorporate the techniques from the gaming industry that ignites intrinsic motivation in the participants. If applying these techniques can motivate people to spend hours playing Angry Birds, which basically means spending your precious time flinging birds at pigs, then surely we can apply it to engage our students in the classrooms.

In the introduction of this blog I pledge to show you the practical ways in which you can create your own engagement in your classes and this will surely come, it is after all the fun part of doing this. When it comes to education though there are several very important principles that should not be ignored and this necessitates that we need to look at the research and theory that drives these concepts as well.

Sometimes however, things just don’t work so well in the real world as it does on paper and in subsequent articles I will be exploring these concepts and also discuss my ideas of applying gamification techniques that I learned by evaluating the theoretical knowledge I gained through research against the actual practical implementation and the measured results.  In most cases these results are anecdotal but if a student can pass an assessment and have fun doing it, I am happy to call it successful.

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