I am interested in gamification. That is not to say I buy into everything that gets labelled as such. Gamification is a concept being applied scattershot recently in both marketing and education in the hopes of making something more marketable, attractive, palatable. But gamification is NOT a set of techniques that can be used in any situation to add a little coercion or motivate customers or learners. In a recent Mind/Shift blog post on using games for education, gamification gets this rather abrupt dismissal:
Gamification is the use of game-based elements or game mechanics to drive user engagement and actions in non-game contexts. In gamification, the game mechanics are divorced from the content being taught and are instead added in the form of some sort of reward element after completion of an activity. For example, a short-form math game that involves answering math questions where correct answers are followed by a badge or the reward of playing a “dunk the clown” game would be called gamification. David Dockterman, Ed.D., Chief Architect, Learning Sciences with Tom Snyder Productions/Scholastic is concerned about this use of game mechanics, stating “Gamification can begin to undermine a kid’s desire to learn” (CS4Ed interview, March, 2012).
Read that part in red again. I’m afraid it’s true sometimes. But not always. The effectiveness or lack thereof (or even detrimental impact) of gamification lies in the approach that it becomes part of when deployed. The key is educational design, and crucial to that is feedback, but I am getting ahead of myself. As a recent participant in Coursera.org’s Gamification course who has to give a few presentations on gamification in EFL in Japan this year, I have an obvious interest in finding out just what it can do for education. So for the next few posts, I plan to look into different aspects of gamification and language education. First up is motivation. Because that is really the reason gamification exists at all.
Motivation is a topic I have written on many times–here in describing the general problem of motivation by English language learners in Japan, and here describing what most teachers mean when they talk about motivation. The literature on motivation in ELT is not always that helpful because it focuses on issues of identity and tends to ignore the realities of the classroom and the role that engineered instructional environments and learning situations can have on forming motivation. I don’t want to reduce the importance of Mr. Dornyei’s work in any way, but with the teachers I work with, when they talk about motivation, they are talking about motivation problems that require behavior change. For that reason, I have found Self-Determination Theory (SDT) to be more functionally applicable. Essentially, it posits that humans are motivated by needs to be competent at things, have autonomy, and be part of a group/society/meaningful unit.
Recently, on Julie Dirksen’s blog by way of Amy Jo Kim (instructional designer and game designer respectively) I found out about Chris Hecker’s 2010 presentation entitled Achievements Considered Harmful?. He is, by the way, another game designer. You can watch it here, (or just skim the page for the most relevant bits). If you have an interest in motivation, it is well worth your time because he grapples with the problem of intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards. You see, activities are intrinsically motivating if they help you fulfill your inherent desire for personal growth by achieving some kind of competence (“I am good, getting better, mastering this”); if they help learners feel they are working towards their own set of goals with some amount of autonomy (“I am in control and doing things that match my values”); and if they contribute to the sense of relatedness that learners feel by being part of a group, or some kind of purposeful movement larger than themselves (“I am a part of something here that I think is kind of cool or important”). Some creative and engaging activities just do this naturally. Dan Pink, in his famous TED talk promoting his book Drive, both explains this nicely and makes a pretty strong case for it. Intrinsic motivation springs from within when people are engaged in work/study/activities that align with their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. It is powerful, wonderful, and fragile, and you really really want it to grow in your learners. Though you have some ways to cultivate it, intrinsic motivation does not come about as a result of tool kit rewards that you can just pull out. It emerges as a result of the learner’s experience–from the teacher’s success in designing interactions and engineering instructional environments. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand is all the trifling enticements and punishments that are used to make subjects do what they are told to do: salaries, grades, threats of prison time, as well as points, badges, leaderboards, and other tools of gamification. Amy Jo Kim has a nice slide from great presentation she made in 2011, illustrating the two groups in the world of games (and gamification).
Everyone agrees that improving intrinsic motivation is the name of the game in education. Indeed, overt use of extrinsic rewards can actually damage intrinsic motivation when the tasks are interesting or require creativity! That is Mr. Dockterman’s point above. But it is not true that the presence of extrinsic rewards necessarily kills intrinsic motivation. You can still enjoy your job even though you are being paid, and you can still get seriously interested in an assignment even though it will eventually result in a grade. Here is what Mr. Hecker says the research definitely says (and he has obviously waded through a lot of it) about rewards when people are engaged in activities that are interesting:
- Tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation, and
- Verbal, unexpected, informational feedback, increases free-choice and self-reported intrinsic motivation.
So cheap rewards such as points or prizes will not work only on their own when the tasks should be interesting and engaging as they are. And you’d be dumb to try. But real gamification lies not in the scattershot application of points (or badges, or whatever) but in the design of a learning experience that engages (and delights!) learners and helps them to see where they are going and how they are doing at any one time (feedback). So a better way to define gamification–effective gamification–is that it is the use of game mechanics and game elements to drive engagement and provide meaningful feedback for learners when it is appropriate to do so.
The above paragraph and most of the literature on this subject make a very important distinction regarding the nature of the task learners are engaged in: is it interesting (requires creativity) or is it boring and repetitive? For the former, you can do real damage by breaking out your extrinsic rewards. For the latter, well, maybe a game of dunk the clown could come in handy. Extrinsic rewards “…can encourage positive behavior and outcomes when one is dealing with dull, repetitive, and/or tedious activities” says Mr. Werback in For the Win (pg. 62). And yes, extrinsic rewards can actually help to nudge people toward more intrinsic motivation. They can help a learner to feel progress toward competency, for example. Or they can make a playful social environment that learners can feel part of. The crucial point for learners like EFL students is to tie gamification to feedback. That is, make learning clear (clear assessment of where the learner is and needs to go; and clear, effective advice on how to get there). Clear formative feedback is essential, and if it can be done in a way that is fun (and leads to improvements in competency, autonomy, and relatedness), then we are well on our way to having a humming learning system in place. As an instructor, it is best to think in terms of feedback loops for our target behaviors (skills, use of strategies, etc.). Good loops make progress clear and they do in a way that is delightful. So we might even better describe gamification as the delightification of feedback. Of course, if your lessons are a series of tedious slogs, then the deployment of extrinsic rewards will eventually flounder and fail. But to get over the tedious bits, gamification can help. Mr. Werbach has three important lessons or guidelines for use of extrinsic rewards:
- Unexpected, informational feedback increases autonomy and self-reported intrinsic motivation
- Users like to get reinforcement about how they are doing
- Users will regulate their own behavior based on which metrics are provided to them
If you have points or badges or leaderboards, you have to have them for something. It is the choice of those categories and the setting of manageable (attainable yet meaningful) steps that are perhaps the biggest part of the teacher’s job with gamification in education. Lee Sheldon, in The Multiplayer Classroom states that “game design, at it’s heart, is deciding what the player can do.” That means both what and how much. And that is true for formative feedback as well. Notice also how both Mr. Werback and Mr Hecker mention verbal, unexpected feedback. This gives us a good idea of what we should be doing with our learners while they are learning. It is not enough to throw gamification tricks or treats at them. Engagement in their learning by the instructor is essential. Focus on feedback. Focus on learning. And try to have some fun!
In this EFL gamification series: