I am a huge fan of games. Here are some things I learned by playing the computer game SimCity 2000, when I was around 11 years old:
- what zoning is, and the difference between residential, industrial, and commercial zoning types
- what utilities cities provide, and how utilities have to be connected to all areas of the city
- how cities generate revenue through taxes and bonds
- the advantages and disadvantages of different types of transit systems
- how high crime or a lack of city services can create a “blighted” neighborhood
- the advantages and disadvantages of coal, nuclear, wind, hydroelectric, and solar power
- and on a sillier note, I found out that if you build high-rise offices next to your airport, planes will run into the buildings attempting to land (I finally realized the recurring “boom” sound effects and the disappearing buildings were connected)
More importantly, I still remember all this, unlike most things I was taught in 6th grade! I learned at least this much from several other games, such as Civilization. Games are amazingly powerful learning tools. They are especially useful for learning about complex systems, such as how a city works or the broad patterns of technological change and development over time. And as a bonus, games can be a very fun way to learn.
So I like games. The issue with gamification is that, by its nature, it’s adding game elements, such as point systems, achievement badges, or “leveling up” into content that is not already structured as a game. Those game elements can have very powerful influences on behavior, but in a way that is often unhelpful to education.
Why? Game elements are a form of extrinsic motivation; that is, they motivate people to engage in behaviors for reasons other than the intrinsic worth of the activity. There is a large body of research that shows that extrinsic motivators will temporarily and often powerfully shift behavior, but will ultimately lead to less interest in the activity that is being rewarded.
Moreover, there is reason to believe that students learn much more when the game is an intrinsic part of the content that is supposed to be learned, rather than an extrinsic element added on top of the content.
If our goal is to create intrinsically motivated, life-long learners, extrinsic game elements won’t help. Gamification means we’re taking the risk that students won’t learn much and will lose interest in learning over the long term.
If you’ve had an experience with educational games or gamification, we want to hear from you. What worked? What flopped? What kept your students engaged? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.