Three Things You Didn’t Know About Gamification 

In recent history, gamification has overhauled the way most major corporations do business. You may have noticed that you literally cannot buy yourself a soda without being opted into some kind of gamified rewards system.

As of late, educators have been joining the gamification party en masse – which can be a very a good thing, as long as the folks in charge of these systems are aware of the delicate intricacies that make gamification tick.

If you’re thinking about gamifying your classroom, do yourself a solid and consider these three oft-ignored facets of gamification:

Most incentives are double-edged swords.

There is a large body of research that supports the notion that extrinsic rewards can have substantial negative effects on intrinsic motivation. Most of these studies focus on money as motivator, and given the popular experience most human beings have with their day jobs, it’s easy to imagine how cold hard cash can make you hate something you’d otherwise love.

Say that you love reading – but once reading becomes a paid endeavor, those feelings of pleasure give way to the burdens of greed, a fear of not cashing in, and the associated anxiety humans feel when they’re handcuffed to such dreadful emotions.

While gamified classrooms typically do not incentivize with money, external rewards like pencils and candy are more or less an equivalent currency. The most popular incentives in current game-culture – “badges” – walk a fine line. The difference is the context in which badges are presented and the classroom culture that surrounds them.

The good: Badges that symbolize status, that impact students’ perceptions of themselves in positive ways, and that make students feel better students. These badges are often public, reward learning, and promote self-esteem.

The bad: Badges that students collect for the sake of collecting. These badges might be mandatory, might be linked to grades, and might even be taken away for bad behavior. These badges make students feel overworked and underpaid – an awful thing to feel in the context of a classroom!

The fix: If you decide to gamify your class in any capacity, you’ll most likely find that students will do more than they did before – which is great, if your purpose is to increase a particular task. (For instance, a gamified independent reading framework will increase the amount of time kids spend reading, which will ultimately heighten their literacy skills.) But will your use of gamification foster a love for your content area, or will your students yearn for a vacation from your class? (A terrible thought!) Don’t hesitate to test your frameworks, “pause” your gamified classroom, take careful note of any changes in student behavior and adjust accordingly!

Your classroom is already a game.

Whether you’ve decided to deliberately gamify it or not, your classroom is already a game. The mechanics are already in place, and they have been for centuries: the players, rules, and mission objectives, the system for earning points, for leveling up a grade, for moving between dungeons and slaying substitute dragons.

This should come as no surprise as we often remind our must troublesome students that they must “learn to play the game,” and when our brilliant-but-lazy pupils manage to earn high marks with a minimal effort, we remark that they sure can “play the game well.”

The trouble is – the “default gameplay” offered by most classrooms is pretty lousy. The mechanics were built for a purpose and age that are largely irrelevant to 21st century generations.

The problem: Your students are happy to shell out sixty bucks to experience hundreds of hours of problems, challenges, frustrations, and losses presented to them by their video game console; would they pay sixty bucks to participate in your class?

The fix: Consider the same principles of “user-centered design” that make the most powerful companies in the world (Apple, Google, Microsoft, and so on) so successful. What is it that students want from your class? What do video games offer that your class can compete with? James Paul Gee offers a battery of principles in his book What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, but to name a few actionable practices, your classroom should:

  • Implement a framework for measuring progress that rewards achievement rather than penalizing failure;
  • Provide a low-risk environment where “failure” is never a “game over,” always a “continue?”
  • Create a meaningful experience – something game-designers often think of as simulations, educators think of as authenticity, I think of as anything pertinent and meaningful to a child’s life.

 This is hard work!

Gamification is incredibly difficult to do well. This is easy to overlook because the best games and gamified frameworks make engagement feel effortless, but their development inevitably takes loads of time, loads of work, and loads of deliberate thought.

The fix: Stand on the shoulders of giants. Wade into gamified waters with lessons first, then units, then more. Explore tools such as Kahoot! that instantly gamify your assessments. Read the seminal books, such as Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. Don’t be afraid to take risks in your classroom, constantly collect data, and revise, revise, revise. It’s hungry work, but the results can be magical.

Don’t forget to check out our gamified classroom lessons here!

Have you gamified a lesson, unit, or more? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!



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