EFL Gamification 3: Mechanics

This is the third post on gamification in EFL. If you have read the first post on motivation and the second post on changing behaviors, you might be wondering when I’ll get around to actually talking about how to deploy gamification in classes. Well, hold on to your roses for a bit because the over-riding principle everyone needs to understand is that gamification is not a toolbox you fling open to pull out badges and points that you can use to change the motivation and engagement levels of your learners. The key to successful gamification in education is to design it into an educational intervention with clear goals and good understanding of your learners. You need to understand what their motiviation status is, and you need to understand how you can change the behaviors of that group and how much you can get away with. But mostly, you need to wrap your head around the idea that gamification is not coercion; it is helping learners motivate themselves and organize themselves and have fun reaching goals they themselves really want to reach. So in this post I’d like to take a look at how we can gamify something to make it easier to do.

Jane McGonigal is the author of Reality is Broken, a wonderful book on how games can change the world, as well as a famous TED talk presenter. She is also, I might add, not a big fan of the term gamification or what passes for gamification in most quarters. But she is passionate about games, gaming, and gamefulness. What does it mean to be “gameful?” Well, it means “…to have the spirit of a gamer: someone who is optimistic, curious, motivated, and always up for a tough challenge” (from her CDC talk How to Re-Invent Reality Without Gamification, or We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!, as are the next few quotations). Doesn’t that also sound like an ideal student? And how do we get our learners there? Well, we design for it by “…[creating] platforms and experiences that empower [students] to have the spirit of a gamer in real life.” And how do we start? Well, by remembering that what we are really trying to do is “…empower [students] to get more of what they really want from life..or give them positive powers in real life,” rather than just toss out points or badges, etc. which don’t have any value in and of themselves. In the above quotations, I took the liberty of changing the original “players” to [students]. This is problematic, I know, and if Ms. McGonigal were to read her words altered in this manner, she probably would object because there is a very important difference between players and students: choice. You see, voluntary participation is one of her defining traits for  games, and I am worried that she and many other people don’t see students as voluntary participants. But I don’t think I am wrong in describing high school students as voluntary participants. I know, plenty of students, teachers, and rock songs emphatically disagree with me, I know. But they are wrong. A strong case can be made that just by being in a classroom, students have accepted that they are there to learn or at least subject themselves to experiences that have learning as a goal. Legally, I’m right. Obligatory education ends with junior high school. High school students have elected to be there. They aimed for it, studied for it, and their parents poured lots of money into preparing them to take the tests for it. But they won’t see it that way. And they may balk at a class that is organized with game features and claim that they never elected to be put through that and why can’t they be allowed to have the regular droning teacher who stops droning at the bell. In other words, they still will need to be sold on the idea so they can “volunteer” to participate. Let’s leave it at that for the moment. We’ll have to come back to this topic in a future post.

So, you’ve got the learners in the classroom. Good. Now let’s gamify!  We want them to improve their English proficiency. What does that mean to everyone? Is there a difference between the teacher and the students on that point? If there is, it will need to be addressed.  Then, according to Keving Werbach and Dan Hunter in For the Win, here’s what we do. We define our objectives and delineate our target behaviors. This involves chunking content into manageable pieces. Then we think of feedback loops (how we’ll provide specific feedback for each chunk on our agenda),  and progression stairs (how we’ll show progression or improvement over longer spans of time). While this approach addresses the actual process of learning as it will take place through activities in the classroom, I think it misses an important point: there is no connection here between the content and the mechanics. It is as if any content could be used with these tools. And that is just not the case. There’s no story here. There’s no fun here. There’s no purpose here.

So let’s go back to Ms. McGonigal and motivation. “Games,” she writes in Reality is Broken, “help put people back in control…Progressing towards goals and getting better at a game instills a sense of power and mastery” (pg. 149). This is the same idea that Self-determination Theory posits, as we saw in the first post in this series. For a better, more actionable model, let’s look at SuperBetter, a game she came up with to work on her own challenge.

After suffering a rather severe concussion, Ms. McGonigal found herself suffering from headaches and vertigo that just didn’t get better–not after a few hours, not after a few days, and not after even a few weeks. She began to despair as the symptoms didn’t improve and she was unable to read, write, run, work,or  play games or use a computer at all. When the doctors told her her window of recovery was likely three months to a year, she decided to assert her power and take a greater role in her recovery. She made a game. She called it SuperBetter. She didn’t need a website (though the game is online now), and she didn’t need badges or many of the other trappings of games. But what she did need is other participants. Let me summarize her missions to get an idea of how it worked.

  1. First she created an identity based on a fictional hero whose context she could leverage for her own situation. She chose Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and named herself Jane the Concussion Slayer.
  2. Just as Buffy has allies and foes, she chose friends and family to play the parts of allies who would help her to overcome her condition. These people played the roles of information gathering, tracking progress, advising, monitoring, encouraging, etc. When facing this kind of problem, you need help, she says, and it is easier to ask people to play a game than to help you again and again.
  3. She identified the bad guys, the challenges, that she needed to address one by one. She made a list and prepared to vanquish them.
  4. She identified her power-ups, the fun things she could do to make herself feel better (hugging her dog, listening to classical music–whatever she could do when she felt she was not making progress)
  5. She created a to-do list. She included things she could do immediately and things that she would do as she got better. These improved her quality of life and gave her things to look forward to. Jane included baking cookies for friends and wearing some special clothes out on a date.
  6. Once she had completed the 5 missions above, she kept going with #4 and #5. She had a secret meeting with one of her confidante allies at the end of each day. And she recorded your exploits in an audio journal.
What Ms. McGonigal did was create an alternate reality game (ARG), and a very flexible one at that. It provides narrative structure and social support but allows her–no actually requires her–to put in her own challenges, her own aids, power-ups, escapes, and her own long and short-term goals. “Doing these [power-ups and short-term quality of life enhancers] didn’t require being cured; it just required making an effort to participate more fully in my own recovery process” (pg. 140).
These, I would argue, are the key mechanics of gamification. Let’s give it a try. Rethink the concussion challenge above. Instead of a young woman with an accident or illness, try to imagine some low proficiency high school language learners who have experienced little if any success in junior high school. They could be poster children for learned helplessness. They are in first year of high school and are facing three more unpleasant years of English inefficacy. How might Ms. McGonigal’s approach help them to participate more fully in their own learning process? And then, how could your feedback loops and progression stairs help them to develop and recognize their own efficacy and sense of power and mastery? And yes, feel free to use points and badges and leaderboards, if and when they actually mean something.
Finally, take a look at the About Page for SuperBetter. It tells you very clearly what SuperBetter is and is not. They give you a good idea of the possibilities and limitations of this kind of approach. I know, it is meant for people with illnesses. But I think a similar general approach could be deployed in educational settings as part of a gamification/educational game design/gameful undertaking.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs


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