What Is gamification?
There has been a lot of talk lately about the gamification of education. The basic idea behind gamification is to add game elements – like badges, points, and competitions – to otherwise boring activities to make them more engaging (think tax forms and online surveys). General interest in gamification has been stimulated in part by some well-publicized success stories in marketing and web usage. One company, for example, saw the number of users completing a set of online tasks jump from 10% to 80% when they gamified their site. Proponents cite such examples to support the idea that education could be improved by engaging students through similar tactics.
What, exactly, is the concern with gamifying learning?
On the face of it, gamification sounds like a great idea — if it works, we increase student motivation dramatically, and in the worst case it can’t possibly hurt…right?
Wrong (unfortunately). To understand why, we need to take a detour into what research tells us about motivation and learning.
All motivation is not created equal
For starters, it’s important to recognize that there are different kinds of motivation. Intrinsic motivation, in particular, is enjoyment that emerges directly from participation in an activity and makes a person want to continue doing it. In a sense, the activity is its own reward. Intrinsic motivation to learn is good to cultivate in all learners, because it contributes to well-being and high performance throughout life.
Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, refers to a situation in which a person engages in an activity in order to receive a separate reward, such as candy, money, or grades in school. Research has shown that extrinsic motivation is a bit of a wildcard. In the best case, it can enhance engagement in an activity. In the worst case, it can completely backfire and actually generate resentment and resistance to the activity, and it can also extinguish any intrinsic motivation the person might have had for it at the outset.
If the activity in question is doing taxes or completing an online survey, the risks associated with turning people off to it are minimal. To the extent that gamifying education means layering extrinsic rewards onto otherwise uninteresting learning activities, however, designers run the risk of systematically turning students off to learning.
Motivation and learning are deeply intertwined
There is another concern, however. People often talk about learning and motivation as if they are two separate components that can be added to or removed from an experience independently of one another–like ingredients tossed together in a salad (throw in a dash of math, add two cups of fun animation…). But that is not at all how the brain works.
In reality, motivation and learning are so deeply connected that when high quality learning is happening, the feeling of “fun” is actually the person’s experience of the learning process itself. In other words, the person is engaged because they are learning, not despite that fact.
Because there is an enormous amount of information coming in through the eyes, ears, and other senses all the time – so much that the brain can’t possibly take it all in without getting bogged down with lots of useless details; it would be like an attic that has lots of items in it that would be useful…if anyone could find them when they need them. The brain has to be selective in what it learns. When our brain deems something “worth learning,” it gets us to engage with the learning process by releasing chemicals into our bloodstream, thereby triggering intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation not only makes us want to continue the activity driving the learning but also makes our brain more receptive so the new information becomes more “sticky.” When the information has been learned, the brain stops treating it as worthy of learning, intrinsic motivation drops off, the information stops being sticky, and the person stops experiencing the activity as engaging. It’s an amazing biological system that makes an activity engaging only as long as there’s something to be learned.
The absence of intrinsic motivation means the brain doesn’t see the information coming in as worthy of learning, and so it will be neither engaging nor sticky. Two common strategies used in an effort to drive learning anyway are 1) badger the brain into submission (typically through lots of repetition), and/or 2) “trick” the brain into thinking the information is worthy of being learned – most commonly by layering on extrinsic motivation as in gamification. The problems with the first strategy tend to be pretty obvious – the experience is arduous for the learner and it doesn’t produce high quality learning. The second strategy may actually boost engagement. The problem here is that the learning and the engagement are no longer synchronized as they should be – they have become separated like two ingredients tossed in a salad – and so the learning is not being properly managed by the brain. Instead of storing only the useful information, for example, it tends to store both the wrong information and too much of it – and so any potentially useful information is likely to be trapped in a cloud of irrelevant details about the learning experience itself. In addition, there can be unanticipated side effects of learning under such conditions. Instead of learning the math that the designers intended them to learn, for example, students using one gamified math tutorial have been found to learn lessons like “math is not intrinsically interesting” and “math is not useful in real life” – inferred from the fact that the designers had to embed the math in an arbitrary game setting involving dungeons and monsters instead of in a more authentic context.
When it comes to learning, the stakes are always high
It would be great if we could add a dash of fun to otherwise boring educational activities to give students a better experience and drive high quality learning. And gamification of education would be a no-brainer even if there were a chance we could increase engagement with no risk of doing harm. Unfortunately, research on motivation and learning suggests that gamification of education can do harm – for example, by generating resistance to learning, by extinguishing any existing intrinsic motivation for learning, and by making it easier for kids to learn the wrong information.
There is no question that engagement is essential for effective learning. Education is a very different process from filling out a survey, however, and we should carefully consider the learning implications of gamification before rushing to apply it to education based on its success in marketing. Instead of trying to badger the brain into submission or to trick it into learning, a more productive strategy would be to design for intrinsic motivation in the first place. Gaming, after all, basically derives its fun quality from exploiting learning mechanisms without (in most cases) providing substantive learning benefits. We don’t need to gamify learning so much as we need to re-learnify gaming.