How does gamification affect learning?

  • Gamification and Learning Environments: Designing for Engagement and Fun.

    Andres Lombana Bermudez's picture
    by Andres Lombana Be... — University of Texas at Austin 4 Comments view

    There are several ways in which the application and research of gamification affects learning. Although a popular approach for applying gamification is by implementing a system of rewards (badges and points), there are other forms in which the principles and mechanics of games can be used for pedagogical purposes. I am interested in exploring how gamification can be applied to the design of learning environments. Particularly, how can  we create learning environments that are engaging, that are as fun as games? How can we design contexts, resources, tools, roles and scaffolds that are motivating and empowering?

    In summer 2012 I had the opportunity of collaborating with researchers from the University of Texas-Austin in the design and implementation of an action research project in Freeway High School, a low-income majority-minority public school in Central Texas. During the course of three weeks we collaborated with a group of high school students and a teacher, in the creation of a connected learning environment. We strategically designed the context, resources, roles, and scaffolds, and chose to use networked multimedia devices (iPods and iPads) as tools, in order to foster a learning experience that was meaningful and fun. While we were applying the principles of connected learning, we were also embracing some of the principles that are at the core of play and engagement.

    An important principle of game design, for instance, is that the story and the fictional world have to be meaningful to the players. In a similar manner, the context of an engaging learning environment has to connect to the everyday lives of the students. Instead of having a fictional world as a context, we addressed a problem that existed in the real world. We stated it in the form of a  question: "Is the pervasiveness of sugary foods and beverages creating a toxic food environment?"  Since childhood obesity, toxic food environments, and the pervasiveness of sugar were issues that affected the everyday lives of our students and their communities, they could meaningfully engage in the different tasks and activities we created around this context.

    Another principle of game design is to keep constant challenge. Players confront several challenges and solve problems constantly in order to advance in the game. For our learning environment we designed a series of mini-challenges that kept the flow of tasks and activities at a constant pace. We scaffolded those activities in a way that allowed students to learn more about a complex problem and, at the same time, to build a series of multimodal designs (infographics, interactive maps, photo essays, visualizations, music videos, short stories) that would become part of a bigger challenge: the creation of an interactive iBook that told the story of the pervasiveness of sugar and toxic food environments. 

    The mini-challenges allowed students to play different roles while exploring and experimenting with different sources of information, data, and physical spaces in the real world. For instance, in one of our mini-challenges, learners played the role of ethnographers  collecting visual evidence of the presence of sugary foods and beverages in their own homes. In other mini-challenge students played the role of reporters and amateur cartographers while mapping the restaurants and grocery stores available in their communities. As learners advanced in the completion of mini-challenges they increased their expertise in the problem of study, as well as their capacity for critical design.

    Researching and applying gamification can be very generative for the design of learning environments, especially when we concentrate in the principles that are at the core of play and engagement. Game design principles such as constant challenge and feedback, meaningful context, and the freedom to explore and experiment in a world while playing powerful roles, can help us to design learning environments that are engaging, fun, and connected.

  • Does "gamification" disrupt enough?

    Sean Duncan's picture
    by Sean Duncan — Indiana University 2 Comments view

    In 2011, Ian Bogost claimed that "gamification is bullshit," arguing that the term existed "as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business." This certainly reflects the genesis of the term, if not the varied meanings that "gamification" has come to connote for many in academia.

    "Gamification," depending on the context, can refer to many conceptions of games and learning — most often the transformation of traditional learning environments through the use of incentive measures inspired by some games (e.g, badges, achievements, "leveling up"). Additionally, in some cases, it has come to refer to the mapping of structural/mechanical elements of games onto non-game environments (e.g., the accrual of experience points) and in rare cases, some have used the term to generally refer to the use of games in instructional contexts (e.g., playing Civilization in a history course). Bogost was, of course, correct in that the term was developed in and found purchase within the world of business. "Gamification" has become profitable, perhaps now reflected in the sheer number of prescriptive texts aimed at helping the "gamification consumer" to redesign businesses and schools using "gamification" principles.

    Some game designers, most notably Jane McGonigal, have similarly sought to use games to inject playfulness into otherwise dull, "broken" parts of the real world. In reference to McGonigal's influential Reality Is Broken, Heather Chaplin criticized her attempts to make "gameful" many unfulfilling work realities, essentially arguing that games served as a a new opiate for the masses in these contexts:

    McGonigal is not advocating any kind of real change, as she purports, but rather a change in perception: She wants to add a gamelike layer to the world to simulate these feelings of satisfaction, which indeed people want. What she misses is that there are legitimate reasons why people feel they're achieving less. These include the boring literal truths of jobs shipped overseas, stagnant wages, and a taxation system that benefits the rich and hurts the middle class and poor. You want to transform peoples' lives into games so they feel as if they're doing something worthwhile? Why not just shoot them up with drugs so they don't notice how miserable they are? You could argue that peasants in the Middle Ages were happy imagining that the more their lives sucked here on earth the faster they'd make it into heaven. I think they'd have been better off with enough to eat and some health care.

    It should be noted that while her approach to game design shares many common emphases with the gamification movement, McGonigal does not use the term "gamification" in her work. Yet, if Chaplin was correct that McGonigal's experiments with adding game-like layers to unfulfilling tasks was tantamount to sweeping issues of labor and equity under a rug of fun, then we, educators and educational researchers, should take notice.

    Bogost's and Chaplin's criticisms are over two years old, and the choice to include these early criticisms in the present argument was intentional. "Gamification" is not a new idea, and despite the early warnings, seems to live on in our discussions of games and learning. Why are we still discussing it? As the present call for responses indicates, I suggest that the "gamifiers" have won a battle that we might not be aware was even being waged.

    We now take for granted that the "gamification of higher education" is an appropriate way to frame the task ahead for games and learning, and that our shared goal as faculty and administrators is to understand how to best implement a form of "gamification" (whatever it may be) within the realms that we have control over. We have been sold that the specific term "gamification" — and its problematic use of the idea of a "game" — is something that's up to us to implement and experiment with, and that we can "-ify" existing instructional systems using games. The term reflects a specific stance toward games, and an implicit conception of what "games" are. "Games" are tools to do things with, as if our work within potentially problematic institutional structures (extending Chaplin's critique) makes it our responsibility to figure out how to Angry Birds-ify away those problems.

    For the strongest "gamification" proponents, this is not a particularly controversial statement, though it does reflect a limited view of games. Games are conceived as useful technologies first and foremost, rather than modes of participation in cultural forms of play or as expressive media which can communicate values through play. Games are tools to be strip-mined for interactional elements that we can airlift and then drop into systems that were designed to serve very different purposes. For even the most conscientious of "gamification" proponents, games are sets of mechanics and structural devices (points, achievements, badges), whose main purpose is often to serve as a motivational impetus, intended to drive engagement in topics that contemporary students often find difficult to relate to. How can I make Shakespeare more fun for students in 2013? Students may not understand why they should care about the Krebs cycle, but can a game help them to understand it anyway? If I "gamify" my history course, will I see an increase in students' performance on their multiple-choice exams?

    I do not mean to disregard the very real and practical concerns of faculty interested in connecting their students to content areas that may be difficult for them to relate to, but this instrumental use of "games" rings as false as gluing hubcaps on a horse and calling it a Prius. The classroom context is not eliminated by the use of a game in a classroom (be it a videogame, board game, or "gamified" participation). But in these kinds of "gamification" experiments, we often pay little attention to students' goals and what they bring to the "gamified" experience — many students enroll in educational institutions because they are mandated to do so or are seeking credentials that these institutions currently hold sole ownership over. And to extend the earlier ludicrous metaphor, a "gamified" classroom may include elements reminiscent of games that exist outside the classroom, but no matter how many flashy hubcaps, fenders, and windshield wipers we affix to it, the heart of the experience is still equine.

    Games, as philosopher Bernard Suits has described, are willingly agreed upon by participants, who adopt a "lusory attitude," or willingness to adopt the rules of a game, which puts the player in a space where they agree to conduct less efficient means to achieve goals (such as a golfer repeatedly hitting a ball toward a distant hole rather than simply picking it up and walking it to the hole). As many of us have seen firsthand, students in formal instructional environments often seek the exact opposite approach to educational content, seeking to minimize the impediments and difficulty to achieve the goals that they seek from the educational experience.

    "Gamified" instruction is thus in direct conflict with what many students expect and desire from their educational experiences. Is violating these expectations a problem? Certainly not, but this does point to a gap between the limited instructional goals of "gamification" proponents and the potential influence of the institutional structures that give rise to such expectations. "Gamifying" a unit in a class is a very different thing than adopting the forms of learning prevalent in games throughout a curriculum, or throughout an institution.

    In his 2003 book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee made the argument that games could and should be seen as drivers of educational change, and that they provide models of situated learning that can serve as the basis of new instructional environments. And yet, the question that all of us working in this area seem to face more than any other is "What games should I use in my classroom?" or "What game should I buy my child?" The revolutionary thrust of this area of research has been tempered by the everyday needs of educators, and the creation of "good games for learning" is now a dominant approach, with very few experiments in large scale institutional change based on gaming (c.f., Quest to Learn and Chicago Quest).

    The framing of the "gamification debate" poses a similar problem — by selling "gamification" as a means toward the end of propping up existing instructional structures, are we devaluing the potential of games? Are we reducing them to tools and resources for us repurpose, rather than wrestling with how we conceive of play and games more broadly? By employing a conception of games as designed elements that we implement in our classrooms to drive motivation, are we doing exactly what Chaplin warned against in the context of education?

    I'll end with a hopefully even more provocative question: If the problem of "gamifying" learning has been pushed off to the relatively powerless — higher education instructors and faculty — how can we transform the structures of institutions to better foster the forms of situated learning that games and learning research has long advocated? While the "gamification" debate provides us with a problematic framing of what games are, its presence helps to clarify what our tasks may be in changing the structures of institutions. If we wish to seriously engage with games and other forms of informal media, I suspect that at some point we will have to wrestle with more, much more than adding experience points to our classrooms.


    Photo on front page from Tsahi Levent-Levi and available on flickr. 

  • Gamification: Don't say it, don't do it, just stop

    Jeff Watson's picture
    by Jeff Watson — OCAD University 3 Comments view
    I think it's time we had a frank talk about what gamification is, and why we should stop doing it — or at least, why we should agree that if we're not going to stop doing it, we ought to stop calling everything that involves real-world game design by that name. 
    Gamification as formulated by its proponents — let's thumbnail it as, "the application of points and badges and other representations onto real-world behaviors under the assumption that doing so will 'incentivize' or motivate certain actions" — is anti-human. It's about closing down possibility rather than opening it up. When "successful" (which, to be sure, it often is not), it amounts to a sleazy kind of behavioral control system. Population control is anathema to what games are, or have been, or ever will be. 
    A true game is a set of rules and procedures that generates problems and situations that demand inventive solutions. A game is about play and disruption and creativity and ambiguity and surprise. A game is about the unexpected. Gamification, on the other hand, is about the expected, the known, the badgeable, and the quantifiable. It is about “checking in” and being tracked. It's not about breaking free, but rather about becoming more regimented. It's a surveillance and discipline system — a wolf in sheep's clothing. Beware its lure. 
    Of course, if your goal is to create compliant employees, students, consumers, or citizens, then maybe gamification is for you. What better way to hammer home the idea that innovation, intellectual development, identity, and citizenship consist of doing what one is told and checking off boxes than by, well, "rewarding" people for doing what they're told and checking off boxes? This is the essence of gamification: here are X number of things that you can be rewarded for doing. Now do them. Your activity will be monitored, and you will be credentialed accordingly.
    In education, gamification is the hellspawn of No Child Left Behind and other kinds of quant-led learning policies. It posits that the main role of the educator is to identify a finite set of things that students ought to learn and do, and then to make them learn and do those things by whatever means necessary. If trickery is involved, then so be it. The principal "trick" gamification deploys is to make the tasks it seeks to support feel like game activities by using scorekeeping metaphors drawn from videogames and role-playing games to track completion. But aside from superficial similarity, is this approach really any different from handing out As and Bs, certificates and diplomas, GPAs and SAT scores? 
    Make no mistake: gamification — for we must differentiate it from game design proper, else the term is meaningless — is a credentialing system, and while it sometimes poses as a way of honoring and acknowledging informal learning, what it really amounts to is an extension of the formal into the realm of the informal. It is not concerned with teaching learners how to learn, but rather shockingly exclusively with offering them a set of discrete objects that they must accumulate (in part or in whole) in order to be credentialed. This is not a recipe for creating the kinds of creative problem-solvers our civilization needs. This is a recipe for creating rule-followers who are more concerned with optimizing their badge collections than with truly exploring and engaging with the world in which they live.
    So just stop. End this dark chapter, this Frankenstein perversion of all the beautiful and liberating things that games can do. Refuse the marketing pitch. If you want to design games to make your school or city or country a better place, then do it — design games and change the world. But don't do gamification. It's bad for people. And if you're an acolyte who just won't let go, then at least do the rest of us a favor and keep your dirty word to yourself.
    Image in front page from Drew McLellen and available on Flickr. 
  • Gamification Roundtable at CCCC '14

    Matthew Beale's picture
    by Matthew Beale — Old Dominion University 1 Comment view

    When I wrote my Master’s thesis in 2006 on game-based pedagogy in the composition classroom, it was greeted with both excitement and apprehension by my review panel. Nearly a decade later, this continues to be the response that a number of instructors—writing or otherwise—express when considering what an effective gamified or game-based classroom environment looks like.

    To address some of the elements of this tension, my fellow Old Dominion University colleagues and I will be hosting a roundtable session during the upcoming Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) titled “Ludic(rous?) Pedagogy: The Promises and Pitfalls of Gamifying the Composition Classroom.” In proposing the roundtable, the most difficult element was determining how we wanted to structure our divergent viewpoints on a gamified composition classroom. We eventually decided to self-select theoretical camps that each of us would represent during the discussion: the materialist (Dr. Kevin Moberly), the constructivist (Danielle Roach), the pragmatist (Matthew Beale), the behaviorist (Megan McKittrick), and the narratologist (Kristopher Purzycki, formerly of ODU—now at University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee). This approach will allow each of us to not only explore the problematic elements of gamification based on our own pedagogical and research investments, but also set up the discussion in a way that will prompt debate.

    Our goal for the panel is to create a space that will give faculty members and students of varying backgrounds an opportunity to work through—and parse out—a number of issues that constitute the practice of gamification. Some of these issues include the ways in which gamified learning often uses the “banking model” of instruction at its roots, the rhetorical strategies employed when discussing (and promoting) gamified learning, and the efficacy of varying game designs that are deployed within gamification frameworks. Most importantly, though, is that this panel is meant to open a dialog among not only the presenters, but the audience members as well. We are eager to learn how composition scholars from across the country wrestle with gamified learning and what it means to have a gamified classroom.

    For those of you who will be attending the CCCC, the roundtable will be held on Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 1:45 in room 105. We hope that you will join us and contribute your voice to this important discussion.


    Image on front page from Citt and available on Flickr. 

  • The Many Faces of Gamification

    Richard N. Landers's picture
    by Richard N. Landers — Old Dominion University 2 Comments view

    One of the problems that educators face when considering gamification for their courses is that gamification is a quite imprecise umbrella term which can refer to several different specific “applications” of games to education.  That creates several sources of disagreement when none are necessarily present.   When someone says “I would like to gamify my course,” they might be thinking:

    1. I’d like to add some games to my course.
    2. I’d like to teach my students using games.
    3. I’d like to make assignments more fun.
    4. I’d like to motivate my students to do more work.

    These all represent somewhat different models of “gamification” but have quite different implications for success.  So when asked to comment on how gamification affects learning, my first response was that it depends on what you mean by gamification.

    Despite common usage, the first two items in my list above are not what I would refer to as “gamification.”  Instead, this is the application of “educational/instructional games” or “edugaming”.  This is not at all a new concept.  Games with learning as their purpose have been around for millennia, back at least to the invention of competitive sports (be faster and stronger than your competitors to be judged as superior by your peers!).  Even digital games for learning have been around for decades – the first blockbuster of this genre was Oregon Trail, which was created in the early 1970s.  Such games are intended to teach through play within a narrative framework.  In the very best edugames, we learn by being pulled into a story that we find compelling, where it is necessary to understand complex relationships within that narrative in order to effect change as an agent operating within it.  One cannot win at Oregon Trail by running at a breakneck pace across the American West with inadequate supplies.  One only wins by understanding resource rationing, caution, and risk management.  And the ability to shoot wildlife doesn’t hurt.

    The last two items in my list are a quite different approach from edugaming, and they represent the core of what I would call “gamification.”  They involve the use of digital games as inspiration for changing the motivation or behavior of students.  The most common gamification systems are badge-based, where students are awarded badges for completion of learning-related tasks.  But gamification can take any game-inspired form – for example, one course at Indiana University was gamified by layering a fantasy component over the course, converting “tests” to “monsters” and “grades” to “levels.”  As another example, in one research study I conducted recently, we randomly assigned students within a class to experience either a leaderboard or nothing when completing an online semester-long wiki-based class project.  In past semesters, we had noticed that most students didn’t work on their wiki entry until the end of the semester, and we wanted to motivate them to work on it more often to bring greater value to everyone.  Unlike the use of Oregon Trail, the purpose of the leaderboard was not to teach students about anything in particular – instead, we only hoped to motivate students to access the wiki more often.  And it worked exactly as intended – students with the leaderboard on their wiki logged into the project more often, ending up with higher quality projects, than students without a leaderboard.

    Just as we should not consider “all edugames” when considering how edugames can affect learning, we should not consider “all gamification” when considering how gamification can affect learning.  Some gamification is useless.  Some gamification may even be harmful.  But value can be found when its use is tied directly to learning objectives.  What skills are you trying to develop and how does the edugame teach them?  What behaviors you are trying to change, and does gamification change those behaviors?  If such ties cannot be made, games and gamification should not be used.

    Giving a tablet computer to a child and assuming she will magically learn something is not a useful application of computers, and adding points and badges and levels to a course without any particular purpose is not a useful application of gamification.  Yet despite early missteps, few would now question that computers can be valuable to education if properly applied.  As we’ve discovered, it is not nearly as simple as “use a computer and learning is improved.” We should not expect the same from gamification, and we should not judge its merit based upon these early applications alone.

  • Reconciling Rhetorics: Gamification and Play as Progress

    Danielle Roney Roach's picture
    by Danielle Roney Roach — Old Dominion University 2 Comments view

    As a language-bender-turned-game-studier, I’m fairly fascinated with the idea of play and with thinking about how we talk about play. One of the most noted contributions to the scholarly conversation about play comes from Brian Sutton-Smith, who puts forth seven rhetorics of play in his book, The Ambiguity of Play. Sutton-Smith points out how overwhelmingly the conversation about play in education tends to be shaped by a rhetoric of progress, reminding us that “most educators over the past two hundred years seem to have so needed to represent playful imitation as a form of children’s socialization and moral, social, and cognitive growth that they have seen play as being primarily about development rather than enjoyment” (9-10). Arguably, many instructors (and likely even more administrators) would likely eschew the use of play for play’s sake; instead, gamification always arises to meet some need:

    • Students need to learn a skill set.
    • Students need to be familiarized with a new environment or task.
    • Students need to be socialized.
    • Students need to enter the academic conversation.
    • Students need to grow as readers/writers/thinkers.

    Above all, of course, all these needs rise out of the academy’s prime directive: students must be assimilated. Play in education is situated as a means to an end, a method of ensuring the progress of students through the academy and into the marketplace. As we talk about play in the academy and the place of play in learning, then, it's worth mentioning that “gamification” is a term that actually rose out of industry.

    The wholehearted embrace of gamification across disciplines and sectors amuses me, given the term’s checkered history. Software developer Nick Pelling is generally credited with coining the term “gamification” in 2002. Pelling outlines the term’s origin story on his blog, admitting that he coined a “deliberately ugly” term to describe the process of using game strategies to create for consumers a more satisfying transaction experience.

    These days, however, companies like Badgeville enthusiastically endorse sites like this Gamification Wiki, where the term is defined simply as “the concept of applying game-design thinking to non-game applications to make them more fun and engaging.”

    Still, it seems that gamification has, for many people, jumped the shark. Many scholars and popular writers associated with play and game studies have sought to distance themselves from gamification:

    As we make our way through this discussion of gamification in education, these types of objections from across disciplines and sectors should give us pause enough to ourselves consider the dark side of gamification, including its potential to:

    • reinforce “Sage on the Stage/ Game Show Host” classroom model
    • disrupt equitable classroom labor practices 
    • create “creepy treehouse” situations
    • overshadow sound pedagogical goals with game mechanics and procedures
    • suck the play out of games

    If the academy’s objective, pedagogically, departmentally, and/or institutionally, is the “progress” of students (and in a capitalist system, my bet is that we’ll keep telling ourselves that it is), we would do well to tease out some of the inherent complications and contradictions that gamification brings to the classroom.

  • Game...check. Research...check. Practitioner buy-in...?

    Zoe Corwin's picture
    by Zoe Corwin — University of Southern California 3 Comments view

    Just about four years ago I became involved in a project to develop an online game to engage students in the college application process. I had been researching college access for a decade and knew a few things about best college outreach practices and greatest challenges that first generation students face. Together with Bill Tierney and researchers and outreach staff from the Pullias Center for Higher Education at USC and game designers Tracy Fullerton, Elizabeth Swensen and Sean Bouchard and their team from the USC Game Innovation Lab, we developed the Collegeology Games project. Our first game was a strategy card game called Application Crunch where players role-played college applicants. Through interactive play infused with a “snarky” tone, players master balancing a variety of activities conducive to building a strong college application. Application Crunch served as a prototype for a Facebook game, Mission: Admission. We now have a suite of four games including: FutureBound, targeted at middle school students, and (soon-to-be-released) Graduate Strikeforce, a game about college choice, financial aid and financial literacy.

    Before joining the project, I was not much of a gamer. Yet as I started to observe high school students playtesting the games, I became more and more fascinated with the power of play. I had given many talks to high schoolers, imploring them to take the necessary steps to become college ready. But more often than not, students would zone out before the period was over - despite my best attempts at humor, a high energy presentation and cool break-out activities. Teachers and counselors shared the same frustration. Presented with a game, however, students engaged very differently. I was amazed. When we conducted qualitative observations of game play (with over 400 11th and 12th graders), their attention was sustained for a full 90 minute period; students collaborated with ease, often waved down teachers to ask real-life questions inspired by game play (ie. What is a subsidized loan?), and were extremely animated. Quantitative pre and post tests illustrated that if students played the game two or more times, their college-going efficacy increased significantly. In interviews, students were able to articulate what they had learned by playing. They were clear about changes in strategy they would make in subsequent game play– and how they thought lessons from the game related to reality. Players did share, however, that even though they enjoyed the games, they were more likely to play them at school than at home. Teachers and access practitioners responded favorably to the games and used them as tools for college guidance.  As we developed and playtested new games, we saw similar patterns of learning and engagement: the games were effective as learning tools and worked particularly well in schools and/or after-school programs.

    As a game convert, I was ready to preach the power of play to practitioners across the country. Equipped with research data, I spoke at practitioner conferences and meetings. I was usually met with one of two reactions: with enthusiasm for what we had developed (you know the type, laptop or tablet open, browsing the project website during my talk) OR with great skepticism, even fear.  And here is where my question/concern lies. It’s one thing to conduct research on the utility or efficacy of games for learning. But if we don’t involve practitioners and/or parents/guardians in the process of how best to implement games, then we run the risk of creating great games for learning that face gatekeepers in school and home contexts. I taught high school for seven years and remember the pressure to cover material and how taxing the job was – so I understand teachers and counselors not wanting to take on new projects, especially if they are not tightly related to their core curriculum. And as a parent, I'm often overwhelmed by the countless games and apps boasting to be the newest and greatest educational learning devices created - and am frequently underwhelmed when I relent and the kids and I download a game/app and don't find the content or format compelling. I’m curious if readers have suggestions for sharing new products (games/apps) and related research with practitioners and families/guardians. What venues and formats are most accessible and well-respected?

    Image on front page by VFS Digital Design and available on Flickr. 

  • Cyborg Tea Parties and the Pedagogical Opportunities of Alternate Reality Games

    Alexandrina Agloro's picture
    by Alexandrina Agloro — University of Southern California 1 Comment view

    I think a lot about critical literacies for young people of color and the pedagogical opportunities using games. Critical literacies “emerge as young people inquire into their lives and environment, … reflect on the social and historical context of their experiences to understand the root causes of inequities, and then become agents of positive change.”1 I’m currently co-designing and co-building an alternate reality game based on local Black and Latina/o activism with young people in Providence, RI. The ARG is anchored in historical instances of activism, shaped by group archival research, and eventually executed in the physical locations where this activism took place. What’s important about this project is not just involving young people of color in game play, it also offers creative agency where young people of color are primary media makers who create their own digital archive that reflects the importance of their often ignored histories.

    But how can an ARG affect their learning? To answer this question I turn to critical education scholars and cultural theorists that enhance my understanding of how games can influence the learning process. In my alternate reality, I’m having a tea party with Audre Lorde and Chela Sandoval and I ask them how they feel about the ARG we’re building. They’re hard on me, but supportive of this work.

    Audre Lorde speaks first, saying, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of the same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”2 To me, Lorde’s statement critiques the educational system as it currently stands as a racist, patriarchal system. Game-based learning allows for a small margin of change, but as technological systems are mainly created, utilized, and funded by straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men, the actual liberatory potential is small. Lorde reminds me that the master’s (contemporary technological) tools will not dismantle the master’s house. She says, “They allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”3 What I take from this is that we need to fundamentally rethink the purpose of our educational system, and game-based learning is a temporary bandage on a larger gaping wound. I agree with Audre Lorde—games will not triumphantly topple our ailing educational system. But I haven’t given up on planting cyborg seeds that will help us re-imagine the true value of learning.

    Chela Sandoval sips her tea and chimes in. “Colonized peoples of the Americas have already developed the cyborg skills required for survival under techno-human conditions as a requisite for survival under domination over the last 300 years.”4 Sandoval offers The Methodology of the Oppressed and its methods for deconstructing dominant narratives, and lets me know that technology—and teaching with technology—offers a particular form of oppositional consciousness for people of color. Developing this form of radical hope is the kind of learning I want to take place by designing and playing our ARG on Black and Latina/o activism.

    I hope that for my youth co-designers, developing an ARG will impart cyborg skills of critical literacies that grow into bravery, courage, and generosity. And these tools might stand a fighting chance to re-imagine and rebuild the education system. For these reasons, I’m still hopeful about the future of engaged learning and see the possibilities of games as emancipatory tools.


    1McDermott, M., Dukes, D., Rajkumar, S., & O’Reilly Rowe, D. (2007). Youth media and social change: One perspective from the field. Youth Media Reporter, 1(5), p. 94

    2Lorde, A. (1983). The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In C. Moraga & G. Anzaldúa (Eds.), This bridge called my back: writings by radical women of color. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, p. 98

    3Lorde, A. (1983). p. 89

    4Sandoval, C. (2000). New sciences: Cyborg feminism and the methodology of the oppressed. In D. Bell & B. M. Kennedy (Eds.), The cybercultures reader. New York: Routledge, p. 375

    Image on front page from Ingo Lutkebohle and available on flickr. 

  • Learning on the Inside and the Outside

    Kevin Werbach's picture
    by Kevin Werbach — Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania 1 Comment view

    In August 2011, I hosted the first-ever symposium on gamification.  Gabe Zichermann, a well-known consultant, got up at one point to argue that gamification would be a great way to get kids to read more books.  University of Wisconsin professor Kurt Squire, a digital learning expert, challenged him.  That might produce short-term results, Squire said, but how would it instill a lifelong love of reading?  Zichermann responded immediately: “Who cares if they love reading?”  

    This is the debate about gamification and learning in a nutshell.

    When we talk about learning, we tend to shift between two things: what happens to a student on the inside and what we can see on the outside.  The first includes growth in knowledge, conceptual understanding, problem-solving ability, and so forth.  The second is what students and other learners do: show up for class, study, work through assignments, participate in discussions, etc.  Those aren’t learning, per se. Not surprisingly, though, students who display those motivational traits tend to do better. This is especially true for students who would otherwise be poorer performers.   

    Gamification is primarily a motivational technique.  It uses design elements and techniques from games to encourage players to engage in certain behaviors. There are countless opportunities to apply game thinking to motivate learners: promoting good attendance; giving badges for completing homework; turning completion of a unit into a “leveling up” moment; providing “choose your own adventure” challenges that give students a sense of agency. Show me a popular game such as Candy Crush Saga or Farmville, and I can break down a litany of motivational tactics that are easily ported to an educational context.   

    Some forms of educational gamification are essentially souped-up versions of the sticker charts, grades, and other scoring systems used since time immemorial. However, online systems can provide rich feedback, leverage data analytics, and capitalize on the familiarity of a generation marinated in games and gamified achievement structures from an early age.   

    The effects won’t all be positive.  If gamification just means adding badges and virtual points willy nilly, it’s going to make education worse. Rewards alone don’t encourage deep, sustainable learning. (I’m with Squire, for the most part.) We know from psychological research that if people are not intrinsically motivated, rewards alone may actually reduce their level of engagement.  Poorly designed gameful systems focus too heavily on competition, which turns off some students.  And they encourage students to cut corners on the actual learning to rack up points as quickly as possible.  I’m sure we’ll see gamification exploited to feed the maw of the testing obsession sweeping K-12 education today.

    This is where research comes into play. Educators need guidance and best practices on how to integrate gamification with pedagogy. We need better data on how different student populations respond to these techniques, examples beyond the familiar points/badges/leaderboards (PBL) systems, and stronger principles around gamification ethics. And we need to keep the focus on learning as the ultimate objective.  Gamification is a means, not an end.   

    Gamification shouldn’t be seen as a way to substitute cheap fun for the hard work of learning. Done right, it’s a tool to help unlock the fun that was always there in the learning itself.  

    Image by Fabian Broman and availble on Flickr. 

  • Gamifying Learning at Conferences

    Catrina Mitchum's picture
    by Catrina Mitchum — Old Dominion University view

    In the Spring of 2012, I went to Philly to run a game at the League of Innovations conference that was designed by Shelley Rodrigo and Laura Ballard. The game, PinPoint, was designed using Twitter. There were two parts. The first involved having attendees go to the exhibit hall and jump through exhibitor hoops. Of course, that's also where the larger prize was (and iPad). The second part involved regularly tweeting during the conference and award prizes like a Starbucks gift card for a particularly thoughtful tweet. 

    The exhibitor part of the game proved to be a bit of an issue. They paid to be part of this game, whereas the presenters did not. So really, we should have been pushing the attendees into the exhibit hall. However, one of our goals listed was to increase attendee engagement in the conference content. We just couldn't do that with the exhibit hall. The iPad seemed to be an incentive for attendees to visit the exhibitor hall, but were they really learning anything by tweeting out the one of five phrases the exhibitors told them to? 

    When the time came to revisit the game design for 2013, we did make a few changes. They primarily involved our use of Twitter. In 2013, we had someone constantly monitoring the conference hashtag stream, we had badges all prepared (not creating them on the fly), and our focus shifted even further toward the presenters (where the conference content was coming from). 

    Now, we're getting ready to work on analyzing the data. So we're making decisions about how to do that. How exactly do we measure learning in 140 characters or less? How do we account for some of the things that gamifying the conference might have caused such as tweets that are not genuine? How do we measure whether or not the game increased learning? What else do we need to take into consideration because we gamified it? 

    While I invite you to help us answer these questions, I'll let you know what we've been thinking so far. We're considering measuring learning by measuring engagement (using engagement tools of other scholars as a base). That's not really effected by the game itself though. The issue of tweets that are not genuinely engaged, it seems as though the primary source would be the exhibit hall tweets, and it might be that we remove them. As far as measuring an increase in learning, I'm not sure if it's possible because we don't know how much learning was happening before (and there's not really any way to tell other than possibly a survey). Gamification is a newish area to dabble into for me, so we've been trying to consider how we and our game design might have affected the outcome. 

    Suggestions and questions welcome!

    Photo Credit: Shovelling Son via Compfight cc

  • Communities, Learning, and More on Zombies

    Jamie Henthorn's picture
    by Jamie Henthorn — Catawba College 2 Comments view

    Running is an often-tedious task that must be done daily in order to accomplish marginal increases in speed and distance. For many, the act of starting running is in not as challenging as continuing running. The comparison between running and the disciplined act of critical reading and writing I teach in my classes is apparent, at least to my students who are regularly subjected to the comparison made by this runner/professor.

    On Monday, Wendi Sierra, gave a great explanation of Zombies, Run! (ZR) and brought up significant points about the problems of engagement and sustainability in gamified spaces. ZR is a gamified running app that encourages runners to train by representing them as a hero in a zombie apocalypse. The game treats the runner like a video game character and his or her local neighborhood as the level to be conquered, zombie chases and all. There are plenty of other running apps that utilize gamification strategies, from points and badges to social media and healthy competition amongst friends. ZR is a more expensive running app in an oversaturated market, but still manages to sell competitively.

    Last spring, I conducted interviews with users of ZR to learn more about the attraction to and use of the app. The overwhelming attraction was the narrative, and the app can be likened to the paperback propped up on a treadmill. It uses the narrative and music to distract the runner from the fact that he or she is running the same neighborhood route before work (participants were much more likely to use the app on their ‘normal run’ than on a new or long run). Participants were also attracted to the hypermediated space that ZR created. This both introduced a level of play (imagining one’s neighborhood as host to a zombie apocalypse) while also intermixing imagined dangers with very real ones (cars and dogs mostly). A majority of participants wanted an even more hyperreal experience from the game, like the chance to run missions with friends or to build missions around their individual neighborhoods.

    Of the many game elements in ZR, the ability to get the user invested in the community that Runner 5, the protagonist, works to protect is perhaps the most significant. The plethora of running apps available mean someone can have friends who also run, but they may not all use the same app and, therefore, no one gets the social benefits built into the apps. While one can share his or her runs through social media or through Zombie Link, the community one runs for in ZR is imaginary and projects a sense of community where a cohesive group does not necessarily exist. In considering how to use games in the classroom, I think of how most video games meant for long term play are built on community and collaboration. Players often play online games long after they have mastered the game mechanics and would have become bored if not for their guild or clan.

    For MediaCommons’ survey on teaching with technology, Chris Hager provided a great, non-gamified, example of how students can rely each other for meaning making in the writing classroom. However, many of the gamification apps and strategies are either individual or pit users against other users. How can we build game based collaborative communities in the classroom? If not, can we get them engaged with an imaginary community that fulfills that need?

    Photo Credit: Justin Block via Compfight cc
  • How Learning Is/Is Not Like the Zombiepocalypse

    Wendi Sierra's picture
    by Wendi Sierra — St. John Fisher College 1 Comment view

    Gamification, the blending of game mechanics into non-game spaces, has both evangelical supporters (primarily from the worlds of business and K-12 education) and voracious detractors (often those who make and study games). Thus, rather than respond to this question, I will narrow my response slightly, and consider how gamification can increase engagement.

    As an example of gamification, I present an app called Zombies, Run! Zombies, Run! is a training program which provides several different workout types, including a beginning runner’s plan and a more advanced interval program. In many ways the basics of the app are similar to other running programs and podcasts- simply put on headphones and begin; the app will signal when to speed up or slow down. However, unlike other running programs,  Zombies, Run! casts the runner as a player in a game about a zombie apocalypse. The “game” is played entirely through audio cues the app gives the runner during a workout. Runners are given a basic backstory, involving town of survivors whicht is barely hanging on in terms of supplies and defenses. Instead of completing workouts they complete “missions”. Each mission asks runners to explore the dangerous, zombie-infested world and gather supplies to help their struggling town. At various points during missions, zombies will close in on runners, encouraging them to run faster for their own survival.

    Zombies, Run! demonstrates some basic principles of a positive gamified environment. First, the game takes a role which might otherwise be challenging or uncomfortable (new runner) and transforms it in a way which appeals to an individual’s sense of achievement. While the measurable benefits of beginning a running program may take weeks or months to become evident to a new runner, playing the role of hero in this narrative of survival rewards players each and every time they complete a workout/mission.  The app also uses the game mechanics of missions and chases to introduce an element of spontaneity and excitement. Each workout, while ostensibly being similar to the last, is a new experience as runners hear about the status of their fictional communities, search for new items, and evade the ever-present zombie horde.

    In this case, the Zombies Run! app is able to increase engagement with a challenging task by providing additional levels of motivation, scaffolding difficult tasks, repeatedly rewarding players for successes, and bringing a sense of excitement/spontaneity to an otherwise fairly repetitive activity. Can this model work for learners? I think it can, and innovative new schools like Quest 2 Learn are already putting these ideas into actions. However, there are some hurdles worth mentioning. In the case of Zombies, Run!, players are coming to this gamified space with at least a bit of intrinsic motivation—they want to run. Though sustaining this motivation is often a challenge for new runners, an app like Zombies, Run! has the benefit of being used primarily by a self-selecting and interested population. Furthermore, while this app may act as the initial gateway which increases engagement with running in the short term, runners will fairly quickly “outgrow” the app by completing all of their missions. At this point the gamified space will no longer sustain their motivation, and runners will have to rely on or develop new strategies of engagement to continue in the hobby.

    So where does this leave us? I feel strongly that gamification efforts like Zombies, Run! have great potential to engage learners above and beyond traditional models. However, I am equally cognizant of the challenges in implementing these concepts into traditional learning environments.

  • Introduction: Gamification

    Jamie Henthorn's picture
    by Jamie Henthorn — Catawba College view

    While the concept of making tasks more fun and game-like is by no means new, the term gamification appeared at the end of the 2000s as a way to describe the use of some gaming mechanics into non-game contexts like the business world. Often this includes badge and point systems, but can include other game elements as well. This concept now expands beyond corporations to everything from classrooms to cooking apps. Its fast and ubiquitous spread seems to only continue into the future, even as many of these endeavors are projected to fail. Gamification is certainly not without its critics, who argue that gamification oversimplifies or limits the ways in which games affect learning and engagement, both in theory and practice. As with many hyped terms in new media, the term gamification itself seems to be slipping as corporate structures look for other ways to reframe incentivizing programs.

    For this three-week survey, the front page specifically asks how gamification affects learning. We have invited scholars of games and education to weigh in on the possibilities and limitations of gamification. Their responses focus on gamification in academic settings like classrooms and conferences, but also in other contexts where learning through discipline is necessary.

    We invite you to join us as we analyze the ways gamification is applied. Join us in the discussion on the site itself through the comments. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates on all of MediaCommons’ content.

    Week 1 Sept 9-13

    Wendi Sierra,  St. John Fisher College

    Catrina Mitchum, Old Dominion University

    Jamie Henthorn, Old Dominion University

    Danielle Roney, Roach Old Dominion University


    Week 2 Sept 16-20

    Kevin Werbach, Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania

    Alexandrina Agloro, University of Sothern California

    Zoe Corwin, University of Southern California

    Jeff Watson, OCAD University


    Week 3 Sept 23-27

    Richard Landers, Old Dominion University

    Matt Beale, Old Dominion University

    Sean Duncan, Indiana University

    Andres Lombana-Bermudez, University of Texas-Austin


    Images from Steven-L-Johnson available on Flickr and uses with CC License. Collage made through photvisi.