Life is Not a Game

Gamification.

Not a new term at all, but it is one I see popping up on my Twitter feed a lot lately. So many folks seem so excited about it, but for me, it makes my gut clench every time I read it.

Let me be blunt: I don’t think we should be making educational activities into games.

For me it comes down to an issue of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation: Why do you do the activities you do?

Turning an activity into a game with points, levels, badges, etc. fundamentally changes the reason people do the activity. There has already been much written about the negative impacts of reading incentive programs such as Book It! and Accelerated Reader, which are essentially reading games. In the case of Book It!, students read so many books, so many pages, or so many minutes, and eventually they “win” a gift certificate for a personal pan pizza. In the Accelerated Reader program, students read books, take short quizzes, and earn points. Kids involved in these programs read, some even astound their teachers by reading more than normal, but when you go back to the question, “Why do you do the activities you do?” the answer isn’t that encouraging. These kids are reading to get free pizza or more points, not because they love books. Sure, in the short term they may read more than they did previously, but the long term effect is that these students tend to read for pleasure less than students who never took part in these types of incentive programs in the first place. If you’re interested, here’s a passage from Alfie Kohn on reading incentive programs that elaborates more on what I just said.

Gamifying the classroom essentially adds yet another layer of extrinsic motivation on top of what already exists in a classroom – grades and parents (the desire to please). It’s a step in the wrong direction. Sure, fostering a love of learning for its own sake is not a cake walk, but that doesn’t mean we should instead be putting our energy towards making learning “fun” through points and prizes. You might feel like a rock star because your “gamified” class is super engaged and having a good time, but take a few moments to consider your students when they are no longer with you. Consider the negative impact it might have down the line when those students are off making their own decisions about what subjects/activities to pursue. What if they end up avoiding those subjects they rocked with you because they don’t find them inherently (read: intrinsically) interesting? Doesn’t it end up feeling like a hollow victory?

That’s not to say that we should never play a game in class. At times it might actually be part of the content. Perhaps you want to help students understand immigration so you develop a game with rules that are meant to illustrate the ideas you want students to discuss related to the experiences of immigration to this country. (I’m probably not describing it well. It’s an activity I really liked in the Social Studies Alive! curriculum.) Or maybe you want students to practice identifying points on a coordinate plane so you have them play a modified version of Battleship. Other times the game may come after the content has been taught, such as review games. By that point you’ve already fostered what interest you’re going to foster in the material. The game is just a way for students to demonstrate how much they’ve learned and for you to check for understanding.

I know one of the arguments I’ve read is, “But students play games all the time when they’re not at school. They persevere through adversity in those games. We must tap that in the classroom.” I disagree. Look elsewhere. Put your energy into finding ways to make classroom activities interesting for their own sake. It may be hard work, but I believe the long term pay off is a much greater reward than any number of points, badges, or levels completed in your class.

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One thought on “Life is Not a Game

  1. gradland

    I come up against this all the time in Japan, where everyone wants to turn ESL/EFL learning into a game (mostly for kids’ classes, but also for adults). Or just wants to emphasize how “fun” and game-like language learning can be. To which I always say: stop. Please stop. Language learning is not a game, and it’s not always fun. Sure, it can be rewarding and meaningful and exciting, but much of the time it’s frustrating, hard, time-consuming, and not at all easy. Which is fine, because the rewards are usually worth it. But when you set kids up to believe that language learning is all about singing and dancing and getting badges and chocolates when they utter a single word, you’re setting them up for massive disappointments later on.

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