‘Gamification’ Is Dead, Long Live Games For Learning

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Editor’s note: Michael John (“MJ”) is responsible for all creative product development at GlassLab. An industry veteran who has designed commercial video games for close to twenty years, his design credits include the original Spyro the Dragon games on PlayStation and the PSP classic Daxter, along with six years as a senior creative director at Electronic Arts.

When I entered the games for learning business a little over two years ago, there was one word everyone wanted to talk about: “Gamification.” I was asked about gamification by top philanthropists, accosted at the Game Developers Conference about the subject, and even had to drive by a gamification billboard every evening on my Silicon Valley commute.

The “gamification” concept goes something like this: Take an existing set of activities – say banking, or exercise, or rote schoolwork (the more mundane the better, apparently) – apply a set of “game rewards” in the form of points (or leveling, or badges), and as if by magic the world will become more fun, workers more efficient, and learning more effective.

As a game designer of more than twenty years, this idea rubbed me wrong. Like, really wrong.

Most people understand that wearing the right baseball glove will not magically allow them to throw pinpoint fastballs, and they get that listening to K-Pop will not suddenly teach them to speak Korean.

Yet as a game designer, it was painful to listen to the education world talk about gamification as if it was a special sauce that can be applied to any existing task in order to improve performance. As a practitioner of game design, I know that this special sauce just does not exist, especially when it comes to  K-12 learning.

Though this frustrating craze led to a proliferation of interactive drill games that incorporate gamification-style scoring and reward systems, we need to move beyond this, to a better definition and understanding of how digital games can impact student learning.

Rather than looking at “gamification of learning” as a process that’s applied to curricula to make school more interesting, we should recognize that learning at its best already has game-like elements that are latent and waiting to be unlocked.

Great teachers already bring to the classroom  that kind of interactive, discovery-based learning that works so well, and for their students learning already starts to look an awful lot like a game.

As an industry, our objective should not be to “gamify” learning at all.

Our task is to show how learning is already very much like a game and to draw out those gamelike qualities. Indeed, as famed game developer Raph Koster wrote in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, “That’s what games are, in the end … Fun is just another word for learning.”

After successfully launching SimCityEDU, a classroom version of the wildly popular consumer game, we at GlassLab set a mandate for our second game, Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy.

It was based on this philosophy of finding the game in learning: The core of the game would be the same activity as the core of the competency we were tackling. And for good measure, we took on one of the trickiest competencies shared with us by our GlassLab Teacher Network: The English Language Arts skill of Argumentation. If we were going to prove the possibility of uniting good game mechanics and learning of a common core subject, this would be it.

After doing extensive research on the fundamentals of argumentation, our game designer Erin Hoffman and learning and assessment designer Seth Corrigan locked themselves in a room for hours on end, drawing loop diagrams, sketching dialogue, and eventually discovering how a Pokemon-style battle/adventure game could be a clean, precise fit for the key activities of constructing an argument and critiquing another’s argument.

The crux of the design asks players to gather evidence by exploring a fictional future Mars city that we constructed in collaboration with NASA. The game asks players to structure that evidence into coherent arguments using an “argument core generator” and then to use that argument core to power their “argument robots” in exciting battles that decide important questions for the colony.

It’s not a piece of software that ‘gamifies’ argumentation…. It’s not even a “game about argumentation.”  It’s a game of argumentation.

When learners engage in battle to decide key decisions (like ‘what protein should we eat on Mars?’ or ‘what should we do with a robot gone rogue?’), little do they know they are exercising philosopher Stephen Toulmin’s method of reasoning through argument. But they are. And the game is as engaging and entertaining as the best of commercial entertainment software.

The kids themselves tell us so.

We’re starting to see this new philosophy of digital games in education finally take foot.

The White House recently hosted “Game Jam” inviting more than 100 of the world’s best designers to get together to create educational games.

Given a mere 48 hours and some very challenging prompts, more than two dozen teams of game developers and educational software developers put together some terrific examples of integrated learning and game mechanics.

A team from Disney made “Gloobal Doomination,” which required players to make thoughtful decisions to foster biodiversity, to save their cute “gloobs” from extinction events. A team of precocious students from UNC-Charlotte made a terrific game that made the physics concepts of acceleration and velocity not only visible, but playable.

GlassLab’s own team tackled the Electoral College, a notoriously tricky subject for social studies teachers (and television pundits) by inviting players to go head-to-head, James Carville and Mary Matalin style, to win the ‘ground game’ of an election. All these games demonstrated unlocking the games in learning… and all of them were fun.

Richard Culatta, the director of the White House’s Office of Educational Technology, has challenged game makers to “make fun and learning indistinguishable.”

Just a scant couple years from the gamification craze, such enlightened perspective harkens a bright future. At GlassLab, we have a slogan that we refer back to at the beginning, at the end, and throughout our design process: “Love Games, Love Learning.”

We believe these two things can, and will, be one and the same.

Image via Tutorial Save