Gamification: just passing Go or already bankrupt?

Gamification – broadly, the application of game mechanics outside of the gaming world – is becoming a powerful concept in education, fostering engagement, competitiveness and altruism in learners. Enhancing the learning experience with elements of gameplay – points, levels, incentives, and, most importantly, fun – harnesses the natural compulsions that spur on the videogames industry’s impressive and continuing growth. With the huge popularity of videogames among children and adolescents, it is only natural that educators should try to capture some of their magic in the classroom. Nevertheless, criticism of gamification itself is also mounting. These criticisms stem from problems inherent in the relationship between work and play, and between the serious and the trivial.


by Alasdair MacKinnon


The use of game mechanics is not altogether new to education. The teacher’s star-chart, where stickers are collected for good work or behaviour and the best pupils are rewarded at the end of term, has, for a long time, been a familiar sight in many classrooms. But in the computer age, as more and more aspects of life are supported by technology or translated online in their entirety, the opportunity has arisen to apply such systems more widely, and possibly with greater sophistication, than before.


Marketing was the first industry to realise the potential of gamification strategies, which have been used widely to extend and enhance the effects of loyalty schemes. Before the advent of smartphones, a loyalty scheme would involve collecting ten rubber stamps on a card and getting a free coffee; now, a visitor to Starbucks can check into a store on Foursquare, earn badges for regular attendance, and – by competing with other regulars to become the most frequent customer – earn special discounts. In other words, the simple game elements of loyalty programmes, when supported by social media, can be extended, using leader boards and levels to create a more competitive, more game-like experience and generate profits.


The recent gamification of businesses has generated a surge of criticism, levelled at the unimaginative methods it frequently uses, and its motivations. Game theorist and designer Ian Bogost damns gamification as a marketing fad created to exploit that power of videogames by people inexpert in their actual functioning; while Sebastian Deterding’s talk at Playful 2010 points out some fundamental errors in the understanding of games often made by gamifiers. “Games are not fun because they’re games,” he says, “but when they’re well designed.” People are motivated to play games not for insubstantial points and rewards, but for the thrill of the gameplay itself, its aesthetics, the sense of fulfilment and achievement gained when challenges within the game are overcome, and for make-believe and immersive storytelling.


With under-18s making up a quarter of the videogames market, these criticisms are of vital importance to educators seeking to introduce games to the classroom. The current generation of tech users is well-versed in gaming, has high standards to satisfy, and can judge astonishingly quickly what is a good game and what is not. As Jens Hilgers, keynote speaker at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2012, put it: “The game on Facebook that you play – you can just drop that tomorrow if it’s not satisfying for you… companies need to be agile.” Furthermore, children from the earliest ages have a very good idea of the difference between work and play, and “quickly differentiate between pure play and work being disguised as play”, according to Playing and Learning by Beverlie Dietze and Diane Kashin.


This sets particular challenges for proponents of game-based learning. Firstly, the games pupils are playing at home are complex, extensively tested on target audiences, and often are of a much higher quality than the products of gamification. Videogames are what educators must compete with for the learners’ attention. Secondly, school is regarded as a place for work, not play; and any game that tries to prescribe learning goals will most likely fail to engage. Games should not be used to try to incentivise learning, or reward pupils and students for their knowledge of a syllabus – such games will quickly lose any appeal they have. Rather, educational games must enrich the learning process through storytelling, inventive challenges and fun. What game-based learning needs is not reused marketing gimmicks, but imaginative designers with an understanding of teaching, ready to find innovative ways of making educational subjects exciting and engaging as games.


Games, game thinking, gamification strategies, game design and Serious Games will be a big topic at this year’s ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN, where creativity and engagement are core themes. Serious Games will also be discussed by speakers from the corporate, education and public sectors. One such expert speaker is Dr Ian Dunwell of Coventry University’s Serious Games Institute, who will deliver a pre-conference workshop entitled “Serious Games: Designing, Developing, and Implementing Games for Education”. By taking participants through the process of developing concepts into game designs and project structures, this workshop will communicate an understanding of the process relevant to all those involved in the creation or end-use of a serious game.

One Response

  1. Peter Cruise

    Games are the future of education, we just need real game developers to try their hand at educational (but highly entertaining) game development. An educational game, (if it hopes to hold the attention of young players) should be entertaining first, educational second. The educational aspect should be molded into the game cleverly so that children learn without knowing they are.


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