Engagement and Motivation (Including Your Own): Dave Burgess Explains How to Teach Like a Pirate

One of the main forms of teacher training is the Super Teacher approach. Accomplished teachers give demonstrations for large groups of regular human beings who happen to also work as teachers, in order to inspire, demonstrate certain activities, or otherwise give hints for improved performance. It is a common approach and one that, as an EFL teacher trainer I can tell you, rarely seems effective.

Why? Because Super Teachers tend to be viewed as super humans with super specific skills that cannot be replicated by mere mortals: “It works for them, but I could never do that / or my students would never do that.” And because in a Super Teacher demonstration, we usually see a cherry-picked activity and have to imagine the process that led to it. It appears as a magic trick of an activity, the development of which is similarly left to the imagination.

book cover

Well, Dave Burgess is a Super Teacher, and a magician BTW, and he is well aware of these problems. I first heard about his “high-energy, interactive, and entertaining” workshops and presentations (take a look at this one, for an example), before ordering his wonderful, inspiring, little rollick of a book, Teach Like a Pirate. Yes, it did elicit the usual Super Teacher response, but it is much much more. The section on asking questions to explore your own creativity and maximize engagement and learning is worth…well, gold. He stresses (and then later shows) that ideas come from “the process of asking the right types of questions and then actively seeking answers.” It is a process that all teachers should be asking for everything they do and every activity they introduce. And the unit that focuses on presentation skills (“the critical element most professional development seminars and training materials miss”) is spot on. It is amazing to me that so many teachers do not see themselves as presenters, even though they stand in front of people most of the day, trying to get and keep their attention.

The book is roughly in three parts. The first one explains some general concepts and approaches and gives some examples. He talks about passion, enthusiasm, rapport, positioning material, the necessity of enthusiasm. It is a mishmash of theory and experience and made me nod politely in places and enthusiastically in others. The second part is the practical meat and potatoes of the book. He goes through a series of hooks that can be used to increase engagement. The beauty of this is not only in the nice collection of hooks, but in the way they are presented first as a series of questions: How can I gain an advantage or increase interest by presenting this material out of sequence? is the first of three questions for The Backwards Hook, for example. These questions engage you, allow you think up what you are already doing, and explore some things you might not have thought about. You’ll find many things you can’t or wouldn’t try, especially as a teacher in Japan who goes into the students’ room: food in the classroom, some of the decorations and costumes, and (in my case) dancing, crafts, and singing. But most could and should work, depending on how you envision them. A lot of them are pure gamification. Although Mr. Burgess is a history teacher, his ideas and the questions he poses are sufficiently adaptable for language teaching as well. The last part is clearly meant to be motivational, to push you to take the leap and try some of these things in your own classrooms now that your are fired up a little. As he says on his blog: Inspiration without implementation is a waste.

He has a website and a blog, but I did not really find them worth spending time at. It might be better to follow him on Twitter or watch some of his presentations on Youtube. Or better yet, keep pondering the questions in the book. The answers you come up with will decide the ultimate value of this Super Teacher’s book.

EFL Gamification 9: Jr. and Sr. High


In August, I gave–or I should say attempted to give–a presentation titled Gamification and High School EFL. Things did not go well. I tried to condense a previous 3-hr. workshop into an informative and thought-provoking 30-minute presentation. That was problem No. 1. But it wasn’t the only problem.

The day before, a keynote speaker named Kishimoto Yoichiro had talked about gamifying his university class on game design. It was very similar to what Lee Sheldon (another game designer teaching another game design course at a university in the US) had done. You can see my mini-review of Mr. Sheldon’s book, The Multiplayer Classroom, at this page. I enjoyed the presentation. Mr. Kishimoto was a thoughtful presenter and explained his rationale nicely and walked us through his syllabus carefully, explaining the assignments and the interactions. Having read Mr. Sheldon’s book, I understood what he was trying to show and say. But I don’t think many people listening felt that what he said had any relevance to their own classes;  I don’t think many people left with a clear idea of what gamification is and how they could put it to work in their own classes. When I started my presentation the next day, I asked the participants if they had been at the gamification plenary the day before and if they now understood what gamification is. Most of them had: “Um…not really,” was the hesitant reply.

I had hoped to drag them into the light in my 30 minutes. But in the end, speaking too quickly and working on an unfamiliar computer and with one of my pair of two short videos refusing to play, I realized that I had failed. I think I managed to explain gamification fairly well. I think I managed to communicate what intrinsic motivation is and why it is important. I think I even got everyone to understand why narrative is so important. But what most certainly did not happen was enlightenment. Participants did not leave with any sense other than that gamification is a quirky, fringe movement, kind of like cosplay, that some people are doing, but definitely isn’t for everyone.

I was angry that I wasn’t able to show my second video. There was a contrast I wanted to show between two classroom scenes,  a before and after a-ha moment I wanted to induce. At the time, I felt like I had brought them to the cusp of understanding, but lacking an essential component, the whole idea had collapsed. Thinking about it later, though, I realized that the stark truth is that my second video probably wouldn’t have made much difference. The stark truth is that real gamification–what I’ve been calling gameful design–requires a much better understanding and acceptance of the role of formative feedback, and the role of engagement (fun) and involvement (meaningfulness). The stark truth is that a form of gamification already exists in schools. Yup, you heard that right. It’s the way things are: students get points of performing actions. What teachers need to learn is not actually what gamification is, but rather what is the difference between bad gamification  and good gamification. What Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Kishimoto are doing is not replicable in most high school classrooms, not bymost teachers or most normal human beings. That’s not only because it is uber-geeky and requires intimate familiarity with the culture of games (as it most certainly does!), but because those two teachers were willing to throw out the prevailing system of point-giving after teaching and testing, and replace it with a feedback system based on earned points for everything (user experience points). And they were not shy about having learners do unconventionally fun things in the classroom, sometimes things which mimicked game elements (quests, boss fights, zones), and sometimes quirky, fun things for no other reason than because they are fun (everyone wear yellow on project yellow day).

Knowing what I know about high school EFL in Japan–the primacy of the textbook, the tyranny of entrance exams, the necessity of loose coordination of syllabuses between teachers due to sharing of exams while accommodating different  approaches,  my advice for most high school teachers is instead of gamification, think about introducing more gameful design elements into your classes.


Some of the features of gameful design will work so long as you concentrate your efforts on two things: formative feedback and fun. You must have both of these. If you have only formative assessment, you risk being joyless (though certainly you will still be pedagogically effective). If you have only the narrative/fun, you risk being delightfully ineffective and eventually being seen as old hat and dull. I should add at this point that in my observation, most classes now provide neither narrative nor effective formative feedback. And if you are at all unsure why, you probably have never experienced an English class at a Japanese high school and you need to read up on formative feedback (start here). The hardest thing for most people to understand is how narrative can be used. Simply put, narrative  is a story structure that can be used to add a meaningful context for activities. Activities under a selected narrative assume part of their meaning from the story.  If a Hunger Games narrative, or a Harry Potter narrative, or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer narrative is applied to a series of activities, these activities become embedded in a system in which the heroes, villains, and general story organization and progression are already familiar.


So can any of this be useful to high school teachers? Absolutely. And below I am going to offer some things that can be tried in almost any class and that fit with the gameful design approach. Notice how each one has a narrative element (based on a story), has a play element (competition here, collecting or challenging), and a formative feedback element (students learn right away what to do and how to do it, since it impacts the ongoing play). These are only a few examples, but I think you’ll get the point. All aboard!

General Organizing Narrative Approaches

The Harry Potter Approach: Organize your class into three groups to match the houses in the Harry Potter series: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, and Hufflepuff (leaving  Slytherin out). The three houses are told that they will compete for the house cup throughout the year. Points will be awarded for in-class effort, assignment, quiz and test performance, etc. Points may also be taken for behavior infractions. Different parts of the syllabus can be re-named according to various classes held at Hogwarts: potions (grammar), herbology (vocabulary), charms (speaking), and defense against the dark arts (writing). Just about anything you can think of doing in or with your class can be re-imagined as something from the Potter series. And the pull of Potter on HS students is strong. This past summer saw a Harry Potter exhibition in Tokyo (with 8000 yen souvenir wands!) and next year sees the opening of a Harry Potter theme park in Osaka.

For Homework or Discipline

The Homework Tessarae: If your high school is like my daughter’s, you have trouble getting students to do homework. Well, in addition to connecting homework to classroom lessons (make sure HW content is “necessary” in the subsequent lesson), try the Hunger Games Tessarae. Tessarae is a system in the book/movie where characters can get more food for their families if they add their name to the Hunger Games lottery (reaping). In the book, adding your name to the lottery increases your chances of being chosen for the games (and probably dying), but we can we can put a nicer spin on this by saying that if you COMPLETE your homework on time and to a certain standard, your name gets added into a pot for a class lottery with a good nice prize. This idea is similar to the speed camera lottery idea tried successfully in Europe. If you do an exceptional job, you can get your name added even more times! This gives the teacher an easy way to acknowledge and reward effort. For classes using a Harry Potter narrative, this could be a Goblet of Fire.

The Secret Student: This idea, via Dylan Wiliam, requires that you select and monitor one student each day–secretly. At the end of the day, if the student’s behavior has be sufficiently positive, the student is identified to the class and a point is added toward a future reward prize (a class trip, a class party, a special sweet, etc.). If the secret student’s behavior has not been good (the student has been uncooperative, disruptive, or failed to speak only in English during the pair work activities, etc.), then the class is informed that they didn’t earn a point for the day. The name of the unsuccessful secret student is NOT revealed. For classes using a Harry Potter narrative, this could be used just as it is, with the addition of house points also being given or taken away.

For Projects

From Project to Game (extended from an idea by Nicola Whitton in Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching): Ask students to design and make an A-Z school or community introduction booklet. Each pair of students is assigned a different letter of the alphabet and a different topic (a=art class, b=basketball club, etc.). Their task is to take a picture and write a short description introducing that thing. The goal of the project is to make a student-produced photo introduction to the school or community. For the game part, the teacher is assigned the letter X. The teacher makes a cryptic photo card explaining that the X marks the location of some kind of treasure or treasure map or clue to the location of some treasure that students have to puzzle out. Over the next few days/weeks, the students are engaged in solving clues or riddles to find the treasure. See the post on ARGs if you would like to know more about this type of activity.

That’s it for now. I hope to update this list in the future, but I think there is enough here to help you understand what gamification–or rather gameful design–can do for you and how it can do so.

This post is part of a series on gamification:

  1. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards
  2. Triggers, Ability, and Motivation
  3. Mechanics
  4. The Downside and How to Avoid It
  5. The Whole Hog?
  6. ARGs
  7. Required Reading
  8. HabitRPG and Other Web-based Systems


First Image: Fagment from Train Wreck, 1922. Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/31/Train_Wreck_1922.jpg

Second Image: Fragment from Train on a Big Bridge. Source: https://ja.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E3%83%95%E3%82%A1%E3%82%A4%E3%83%AB:KSR_Train_on_a_big_bridge_05-02-12_71.jpeg


EFL Gamification 8: HabitRPG and Other Web-based Services


Gameful design is something that is perhaps better learned from experience than from PPT slides or blog posts. When we start an explanation with motivation (as I did here) or habits (as I did here), it is hard to understand what gameful design should “look like” when it is deployed. One thing in particular, the use of narrative, needs to be seen to be understood. In another earlier post (here), I described what was for me a kind of epiphenal moment in my quest to understand how gameful learning  can help with motivation and learning. It came when I was reading Jane McGonigal’s book. After I read that, I felt like I finally had a workable example of the power of narrative in creating a game from something else entirely. I called the post Mechanics because for me the process of laying a narrative onto a something that would become a game equaled the process of “gamification.” Points and badges are often thought of as the mechanics of gamification, but if we think about making something more gamelike–that is playful, meaningful, delightful–then points and badges are really part of the  details that need to be worked out later. It is the narrative structure, in combination with a workable feedback system (here’s where your points and badges come in) that makes the experience meaningfully gamelike.

In order to see this idea of applying a narrative onto something different, I offer for your consideration today a few examples. You can try them out with your friends or family or by yourself to see how they feel. Of course, it is not the same as laying a narrative on top of an EFL class, but you’ll get an idea of what it is like to work toward your goals within the details of a story. All of these sites require registration and regular participation, so make sure you have the time and the stomach for a month of “play.” And notice first of all how each of these sites works on the same basic idea–nudging you to complete YOUR goals.

HabitRPG is a site to help you to establish positive habits for life, for work, and for study. It’s really a flexible task and time management tool that has a gamelike design. You use the system by deciding your daily routines and one-time to-dos. You also set your rewards and monitor your habits. It sounds a little confusing, but it is actually a fairly easy interface. The system is incredibly flexible and could be used as easily with training learning strategies as with developing good diet routines. Here is a blog article by Nik Peachey detailing how to use it. It includes his assessment of the tool.

Similar to HabitRPG but with more of a focus on healthy eating and living is Health Month. It uses a simple, friendly user interface at which you play turns (set goals and assess yourself). They also nudge you regularly with e-mail messages. It’s a nice system that works on a monthly basis; but it’s not really focused on study goals, and not really flexible beyond its health and lifestyle focus. Within those areas, however, it is quite a nice experience. I tried it to help me diet and reduce my internet time.

For more of a fitness emphasis, try Fitocracy. Its purpose is fitness motivation and it uses a combination of awareness-raising, goal-setting, habit-forming, and social media to get you to understand fitness better, plan your own fitness routines, and network or challenge other Fitocraccy players. It works for all levels of fitness they say, but unless you are fairly familiar with some exercises and terminology, you may find it a little difficult to understand what you should do. Plus the system is quite large with many functions. I found it a little  hard just to get orientated. But if you are serious about fitness, you will probably find this site meets your needs.

Nextup is Chore Wars. Chore Wars is designed for families or couples or any people  living together who find it hard to get the everyday chores of cooking and cleaning done regularly. The solution? Gamification. Each person chooses his/her chores and competes with others in completing more of them more efficiently. The narrative, as the name suggests is a World of Warcraft / Dungeons and Dragons world of adventures (chores) and quests (chores again). As you complete chores, your elf or wizard or dwarf earns XPs (experience points). If you are really using the system well,  you can introduce your own creatively-named rewards into the play.

But let’s not forget the world of education. World of Classcraft is a site offering the service of listing and tracking your class within a World of Warcraft / Dungeons and Dragons theme. According to their website, they are “an educational augmented-reality multiplayer role-playing game.” You really have to be familiar with the play and progression in World of Warcraft to understand what you have to do here. For that reason alone, it may be a little daunting. Recently, they tried (unsuccessfully) gain funding for a free web-based version of the game. If you just want to check it out, there is a nice video at the site showing how a teacher (actually the game developer) uses it in his physics classes.

And finally, in one of the more unusual (and looser) applications of gamification for learning, there is the Teacher Development game. It is a loose collection of online videos and tutorials showing how to teach EFL better. You can find it here.

And that’s it. If you really want to understand gamified learning, trying out any one of these sites can help you learn a little. As you play, however, keep thinking about what works and doesn’t work for you. Is the system accessible? What is the narrative? Does it make any difference? And finally, most importantly: Does the system make it easy reach your goals? How exactly does it do this?

This post is just one of a series of posts on gamification. The others are here:

  1. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards
  2. Triggers, Ability, and Motivation
  3. Mechanics
  4. The Downside and How to Avoid It
  5. The Whole Hog?
  6. ARGs
  7. Required Reading


Image fragment from Les Portes by Paul Evans http://unsplash.s3.amazonaws.com/batch%208/les-portes.jpg




EFL Gamification 6: ARGs

This is the 6th post in a series exploring the use of gamification (to use the buzzword) or gameful design (to more accurately represent my intentions) in the teaching of English as a foreign language, particularly in secondary school settings. Earlier posts  dealt with (1) motivation, (2) habits, (3) mechanics, (4) pitfalls and misunderstandings, and (5) turning your course into a game. This post will look at ARGs, or Alternate Reality Games, and for a definition I’d like to turn to Whitton & Moseley from their 2012 book, Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching, the best resource I’ve found for designing this type of game activity:

“ARGs use narrative, community and problem-solving in a game that unfolds over weeks and months, combining the real and virtual worlds. The players work together to solve the puzzles and develop the story themselves through [the interaction with and/or] the creation of artifacts, both digital and real world, and the mythologies that surround the game” (pg. 143).

ARGs are often interactive narratives in the form of a mystery/treasure hunt (see National Treasure or The Da Vinci Code if you are somehow unfamiliar with the genre) and players work together to unravel  clues or collect items. The AR part is that the story is just a story, while the clues are placed in the real world in the form of e-mails, websites, letters, maps, audio tapes, graffiti, or just about anything that can convey information. In the book, Ms. Whitton discusses what ARGs are and  how to set one up, and mentions several examples. She  describes her involvement with the ARGOSI project, the design and creation of an ARG at a UK university. The purpose was to help new students get used to an unfamiliar new city, the campus, and the library system. In terms of process, they first decided on the learning outcomes they wanted to aim for and considered the limitations they had to work with (time, money, etc.); then they drew up the initial concept for the game and sketched out a narrative; next they designed the challenges (puzzles) and created the artifacts (letters, maps, etc.). In some ways, the process is similar to Jane McGonigal’s SuperBetter (covered in this earlier post–you’ll need to scroll down a little). Both are organized by narrative. If you have a gripping story, the rest should flow along. For SuperBetter, the story was personal recovery. It is obviously important to the player. For an ARG, the artifacts (and how they fit in the story) will probably be key.

And for language learning, the artifacts are what you’ll be directing your learners towards and so you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions as you plan and create them:

  1. Are they intrinsically interesting? Do they have good ‘face validity’? Do they fit with your narrative?
  2. Are they accessible/doable for your learners in terms of level?
  3. Is feedback built into each task so learners know when they are successful?
  4. Are they in the right mode (reading, listening) for the skills you want learners to practice?
  5. Are they accessible to learners inside and outside of class (web-based, snail-mailed, copied)?
  6. Will interaction with them result in learning? How? And how will you know?
  7. Where will learners interact with artifacts? Will it be homework or group exploration and/or discussion in class?
If we think about the content we need students to learn, it shouldn’t be hard to design the artifacts. You can use textbook language (or even the textbook itself) for puzzles. You can make recordings on cassette tapes  to make clues seem quaint or dated (and so students need to use school players!), and you can create letters and websites using target language that students will need to read and re-read. The only limitations are your creativity and the amount of time you can dedicate to the project. For the sake of keeping appearances real, it will really help if you have a graphics designer or some graphic design skills yourself. But with a few tools (MS Word, for word processing and image processing, Audacity for sound recording and editing, WordPress.org, Edublogs.org or some other blogging service), you should be able to make most of the artifacts you want. Ms. Whitton’s team based their story on the blog of a fictional character. The other artifacts they made and used are available from the ARGOSI website (click the Resources tab). And you can see the blog and game itself at violaquest.org (if/when it is available again–it wasn’t at the time of writing). Other ARGs can also be found online and they may provide you with some ideas for creating your own. One similar to the ARGOSI project, Who Is Herring Hale?, is presented as a case study here. And another ARG, created to raise money for cancer research, can be found here. For something more language-focused, please take a look at the work of Paul Driver, an educational designer based in Portugal. At his website you can find information about his Spywalk game and other “location-based urban games.” There are links to academic presentations and articles and Youtube videos showing the game in action.


An important point to consider is learning outcomes. The ARGOSI project had a fairly short and straightforward list. The designers wanted the new students to learn a little more about Manchester and how to use the university library. As a language teacher, you’ll need to decide where to put your focus. ARGs are probably best for introducing learners to content or behaviors. In order to maintain the illusion, novelty and fun of the game, you can’t really add drills or require repetitions of behavior, though if you get the challenge level right, you can get learners to repeatedly interact with the text. In contrast with a game like SuperBetter which could be used to establish positive learning habits, an ARG might best be used to have learners explore resources and language. Of course, you could in your design of artifacts steer learners to all sorts of practice–intensive listening or reading, skimming or scanning, dealing with different accents or genres, etc.). How you design the artifacts and how learners will interact with them in the game are really crucial for pedagogic success. This is especially tricky given that you are trying to balance the narrative and fun with the pedagogy. It all comes down to design in the end. Without a clever story and appropriate-challenge-level artifacts, the game won’t fly; without pedagogically sound tasks with appropriate language level/skill focus/strategy focus, the game won’t teach.


To finish here, I’d like to add a few cautionary words (summarizing from Ms. Whitton’s unit on ARGs from her book). You really need to test out your games. Get feedback from everyone you can and plan on tweaking it for all eternity. You also need to have realistic expectations. All of the ARGs mentioned above–funded, backed by unis, and made by teams of talented professionals–were underutilized (to be polite). The Herring Hale game saw only 42 people play even one task and only 12 participants finish the game. Violaquest was similarly ignored en masse. As a teacher you have a captive audience. You’ll likely need to build participation into your course instead of relying on the Field of Dreams approach (if you build it, they will come). That said, one of the most successful (highly rated and attempted by the largest numbers of people) activities/tasks were those that were designed for action–planning and taking pictures and uploading them, for example. These tasks drew more interest, engaged more participants, and got them to collaborate and share more. Make sure you include some of these; don’t just make your ARG a series of puzzles. This may beg the question of whether you want to aim for more of a game with project-based elements or project-based activities with more game-like elements…


This leads to the final question of whether it is worth it. If done right, I guarantee  you’ll give your learners an education experience they’ll never forget. But it’ll cost ya. It will take a lot of planning and production time.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog


Photo Credit: Detail from Look at the Map, or Play Some Checkers by Dr. Roy Winkelman,  at http://etc.usf.edu/clippix/picture/look-at-the-map-or-play-some-checkers.html

EFL Gamification 5: The Whole Hog?

This is the fifth post on gamification in EFL. The first was an attempt to understand motivation. The second considered changing specific behaviors. The third looked at mechanics, or the structure needed to make game-based learning engaging. The fourth was about some of the problems that can happen when gamification (especially just pointsification–the casual addition of points and other game elements) is put to use for manipulative purposes without enough attention to the underlying motivations and personalities of learners. This post will look at  turning your whole class into a game, or put more metaphorically, going the whole hog. There are really two ways of doing this. One is to design the course as a simulation. That means to create an immersive and realistic environment that requires learners to play a role. It  is a kind of extreme content-based form of learning and requires considerable flexibility with curriculum content and probably works best if you are aiming learners at a specific career. An example might be simulating planning and opening a store for business students. The instructor would then need to create all the websites, documents, etc. needed to support the simulation. The second, and the one I’ll focus on in this post, involves re-imagining the present content using a role-playing game structure. Traditional content (including textbooks and teaching modules) are used, but a wider variety of tasks and assignments are used. Game genre details and a  narrative structure are employed to make the progression through the material seem more like a game. This is more possible in institutional EFL courses, but still comes with a few conditions, the first being your familiarity with the genre of games.

Are you a gamer? I’m not talking about a little Angry Birds while commuting. I mean, have you spent huge blocks of your life immersed in World of Warcraft or Halo or The Sims or one of the many other places/pastimes where gamers spend time? Ask yourself how much you know about games and how much you really play. If you play 13 hours a week, you can consider yourself only an average member of the gamer sector of society; if you are up to 20 hours a week, you are officially “hard-core”; and if you can somehow cut your working, sleeping, and social hours down far enough to manage 45 hours a week, you are (by any account) “extreme”  (McGonigal, 2011, p. 3). Of course, you don’t need to be a fanatic about games to turn your classroom into a game, but you do need a certain amount of familiarity with the genre. You will need rather intimate knowledge of the structure and pacing of games–the way items are acquired, the way quests go down, the types of challenges, the way characters interact, the reward systems, etc.–and you will need to be able to retool your classroom and syllabus in a way that mimics this. You will need to know the lingo: guilds, raids, wipes, (point) farming, experience points (XP), etc.  Unsure of yourself? Back away from this idea now. But if you are a gamer and game lover, it is an option to embrace whole hoggedly. I speak as a researcher/observer here. I have not done this myself and so I will be only reporting on what I have read, pointing you to other sources and egging you to go out there and give it your best shot if you are interested.

There is, admittedly, something of a square peg in a round hole fit when taking the immersive multimedia world of a game and using it for a brick ‘n mortar face-to-face classroom. First of all, students are not sitting at computers interacting with audio/visual/narratives made by teams of talented professionals with an average production cost of $10 million (Whitton, 2010, in Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching). But if everyone is up for a bit of pretending, or suspension of disbelief, it can go well. Both Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken, and Lee Sheldon in The Multiplayer Classroom believe that game culture is second nature for the students in our classes. They have grown up playing games and are very comfortable with the way games engineer player progression. Ms. McGonigal states that the members of the gamer generation have more problems with reality–including most school work–because it lacks interesting challenge, the satisfying work, promise of success, and actionable feedback that is usually the norm. In other words, most courses aren’t engaging for many learners and they are likely to be up for a change. Or as Mr. Sheldon optimistically puts it, “we have yet to discover a class that cannot be taught in this way” [as a game] (pg. 9).

Mr. Sheldon’s book is the best resource I’ve been able to find for designing coursework as a game. Indeed, that is the sub-title of the book. In addition to being a trial-and-error account of his attempts to do this with his own university game design courses, the book contains several case studies by different teachers, the closest one among them to a high school language course was Denishia Buchanan’s  high school biology class. If you really have no idea where to begin, this book and in particular Ms. Buchanan’s case history, will help you out.

Mr. Sheldon will help you understand basic class organization and his unique (to the world of institutionalized education) approach to grading. By setting up coursework as a series of group and individual challenges and by creating a point system where students start with “0” and have to climb up through the levels towards their final grades, he manages (albeit not without a lot of tweaking) to make a grading system that mimics that of game progression.

In addition to just renaming groups as guilds and assignment as quests, both these teachers managed to make use of narrative to envelope the course and allowed learners considerable choice and flexibility. Narrative pulls the players/learners forward, making the course a story–their story; it creates in learners the desire to achieve hero goals; and it keeps everyone looking forward to what will happen next (Dansky, 2007). For this to work, however, there must be challenging but achievable things to do. Adoption of an inquiry-based curriculum that provides both variety and flexibility and lets the learners put their creativity to work seems a prerequisite. The balance, however,  of choice and rigorous requirements seems to be a tricky one to manage (Whitton, 2012).

And even if you get that right, you’ll need to spend some time designing to facilitate greater interaction. Though it is often touted as a great feature of online games, the  forming of groups to combine strengths to overcome particularly difficult challenges is not as common as game proponents might suggest. Ducheneaut (2006) studied World of Warcraft and found that players only begin to start grouping at the latter stages of game play at higher levels of the game, after they have found what they cannot do alone. That means that you can’t expect learners to collaborate on their own; you’ll have to design your activities so that group sharing is facilitated. Mr. Sheldon, for example, required both individual and group assignments during his courses, a practical way of ensuring both accountability and collaboration.

But finally, even if you get everything right, you still might not make everyone happy. There is considerable research that suggests that not all students like to experience courses as games, especially as one of those role-playing types of games that can can sound so hokey to the non-fan (Bekebrede et al., 2011).

Well, there you go. It’s obviously a challenge. It’ll take a lot of time to design all the quests and restructure the flow of lessons. But reading the stories of teachers who have done it can help you see the attraction of going whole hog with turning your course into a game. If you think you might like a little help with creating the structure and rule details, there is now a web service to help you. Called World of Classcraft, it provides roles, progressions, and rules of acquiring experience points or taking damage hit points.

And finally, you can read about an attempt to turn a language course into a large-scale alternate reality game (ARG) in Europe in Connolly, Stansfield, and Hainey (2011) linked below.

June 2013 Update: I recently came across a blog post from a teacher who had tried to gamify her class (as in turn the classroom experience into something closer to that of a game). Titled How I Turned My Classroom into a ‘Living Video Game’ and Saw Achievement Soar, the post explains (frustratingly) briefly how Ms Joli Barker, a second year elementary school teacher used technology (Skype, QR codes, GoAnimate, Voki, and Xtranormal), project-based learning narratives (?), and some  international exchanges to boost the scores of her students quite dramatically. She created a  basic structure of tasks and levels, challenges, and avatars, and re-tooled her assessment in a way that matches video games (similar to Mr. Sheldon). Without a little more detail, it is hard to picture what classes were really like, but the idea is very interesting and the results impressive.

Another June, 2013 update: Here is a geography class taught as a zombie survival game.


Bekebede, G., Warmelink, H., and Mayer, I. (2011). Reviewing the need for gaming in education to accommodate the net generation. Computers & Education, 57/2, 1521-1529.

Connolly, T. M., Stansfield, M., & Hainey, T. (2011). An alternate reality game for language learning: ARGuing for multilingual motivation. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1389-1415. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.01.009

Dansky, R. (2007). Introduction to game narrative. In C.M. Bateman (ed.) Game writing: Narrative skills for video games. Boston, MA: Charles River Media.

Whitton, N. (2012). Good game design is good learning design. In N. Whitton and A. Moseley (eds.) Using games to enhance learning and teaching. New York: Routledge.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 6: ARGs


EFL Gamification 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Not everyone is enamoured with gamification. Jane McGonigal wrote an entire book about using games as a force for good and avoided the term completely. And if you google “problems with gamification”  you’ll come across many pages encouraging caution or vitriol against gamification. And a lot of that is from some very smart people. Stephanie Morgan, a game designer like Ms McGonigal, actually called her Nov. 2012 presentation Gamification Sucks. She says what  a lot of critics say: most commercial application of gamification is based on a “shallow and cursory” understanding of the concept. Her talk covers scores and points, achievements such as badges, and avatars, and if you have 30 minutes, it is both entertaining and enlightening. Points (and other components) have to mean something, she says. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole reason we might want to use gamification in the first place.

A very nice example of this can be found at the website Progress Wars. Please go there now and click until you get it. You’ll see. Go on then. This website makes very effective use of gamification techniques to make the effective point that it can be pointedly pointless (in a bad way).

Sebastian Deterding is one of the smart people I mentioned in the first paragraph. He has a couple of presentations online that address this issue. I’ll embed them below. The first one explains the problem with most gamification really well–how it is often misunderstood and how it can often have negative side-effects. The second one looks at the same problem from a user experience design perspective and gives some suggestions for avoiding pitfalls and making experiences more playful or gameful.

For teachers, the essential problem comes down to two things, I believe. The first is that there exists already a system in place at schools for delivering content and assessing mastery. If you try to add gamification to this system, there is a strong possibility that you will be seen as just sugarcoating, in which case you can cheapen your curriculum or quickly bore your learners. The second problem is that games by definition require voluntary participation. I touched on this in the last post, but this is really the big challenge for the teacher-designer. This needs to be addressed in several ways.

One is to understand the power of the feeling of self-efficacy. Learning and progress are fun. Put another way, “kicking ass is more fun.” But there must be real achievement.

“The more we analyze and reverse-engineer passion, the more we see learning and growth as a key component. No, not a key–the key. The more knowledge and skill someone has, the more passionate they become, and the more passionate they become, the more they try to improve their knowledge and skills” (Kathy Sierra).

No teacher would disagree with this. And yet many teachers fail to help learners see evidence of achievement. Without clear goals and generous feedback–from peers, from the teacher, from the learning system–learners cannot see  improvement. And if they can’t see improvement then they can’t feel improvement, and  motivation will not be sustained. It’s as simple as that.  Games provide fantastic feedback and teachers must get used to making something like that part of the experience in the classroom. That means clear goals and regular formative feedback and meaningful markers of progress. Yet at the same time, there must be ample opportunities to try out new skills and knowledge in low-pressure (i.e., not tested) situations. A culture of trial and error until we see progress should be cultivated. Learners will put up with a certain amount of skill-building or knowledge collection if they see how it will help get them to their goals.

But while the key component is perceived growth, something has to happen to make growth happen. Revolutions don’t start when discontents reach thresholds of self-efficacy. Revolutions use the power and passion of ideas to bring people to the barricades, people who then build the skills they need. And that takes emotion. There needs to be more emotion, more delight, more meaning involved with moving through the material. My biggest shock from observing dozens of EFL classes in Japan was the total disregard for the emotional content of the textbooks. The teachers might as well have been teaching with phone books. Now, I have many problems with the EFL textbooks in use here, but the quality of the stories used is not one of them. These stories and the characters in them can be mined for empathetic meaning. But that is not all. The course itself becomes a narrative (as I covered in the Part 3). The learners are the heroes. The design of the syllabus,  the importance of the goal,  the journey, and the group–all of these can contribute to the emotional content of a learning experience.  Emotional engagement must be there. So the key to teaching is to take  neutral learners and make them care and work enough to see themselves grow in power. And then keep this going  as long as possible with further challenges, further success, and further social support. But if that were easy, it would certainly be more common than it is now. The problem is the boring bits. And maybe games can give us some ides for how to do this better.

Games are not always non-stop action. Resource farming is a common feature of games. You undertake some sort of mostly mindless repetitive activity with the knowledge that you are growing or acquiring resources/skills/information that will help you ramp up, level up, or otherwise become more powerful in the future. Take a look at Plants vs. Zombie’s zen garden.

You just collect plants, starting with only one or two, very slowly adding more.  And then you water, fertilize, and provide other care for them. You water one and the others want water. You have to repeat the process. Then you have to fertilize some. Then more. Then you have to go and buy more fertilizer and do it again. The plants generate money, but your first few little plants bring in so little that you wonder whether it is worth the effort. It’s very, very close to a production line job or one of those busywork assignments some teachers are so fond of. It’s boring but the plants are cute, and in the beginning you go along with it as you try to suss out the purpose.  The plants generate money, you learn, but you have to collect it, which also takes up some of your time. Eventually, however, they start generating real money and you learn that you can use that money to buy cool new super plants or unlock certain special games. So eventually you learn that this busywork contributes to a better game experience–better performance at higher levels. But there is a hump that needs to be overcome. The same is true of a lot of EFL content, particularly vocabulary. To kick ass you need to know a lot of it. But it takes time to explore the elaboration of word information, and it takes time to perform the frequent rehearsals that acquisition requires (Laufer, 2009).. And I think students will come over that hump with you if they can see the purpose in it, if they can see how their power increases.

At first glance, it seems strange that the game contains anything as slow as the zen garden. Think about it: the game shamelessly includes a an activity that at first disengages you from the main play and then forces you to complete a series of tasks that are about as fun as washing windows, despite the humorous narrator and cute little plants. And it does this on purpose! I think it’s because the designers know that players won’t respect leveling up unless it comes with some skill improvement or some work. And the same is true of learners. They’ll accept the boring bits if they promise of rewards is real. But they’ll need some help–a clear goal, very, very  clear feedback, a dash of emotion, and splash of fun.

Laufer, B. (2009). Second language vocabulary acquisition from language input and from form-focused activities. Language Teaching, Vol. 42, Issue 03, July, pg. 341-254.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs


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


EFL Gamification 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation.

Gamification is a buzzword.  Gamification is being widely–and often mistakenly–deployed in business situations recently. But because of the haphazard way it is being deployed and the mixed results it seems to be achieving, it is often viewed suspiciously by many in the world of business, and most in the world of education, where the very mention of games seems to suggest an offensive lack of seriousness. There are good and bad reasons to be suspicious of gamification, and it is not surprising that many game designers have hesitations about it.

The main problem, as I see it, is that superficial features of gamification (especially points, badges, and leaderboards) are being applied without enough thought being given to the underlying cognitive and emotional constructs people –customers, employees, learners–bring to any situation. For education, gamification, game design, and user experience (UX) design present an opportunity to re-examine the mechanics and dynamics of motivation and behavior change. Yes, they apply to teaching, including language teaching.

The first post in this series looked at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and rewards.  My main point was that depending on the type of task or behavior, the use of extrinsic rewards–like many of the the tools of gamification–can help or hinder the development of intrinsic motivation. This is a critical point, but motivation is not the only factor in behavior change. So this post will focus on behavior change and the other factors involved: triggers, ability, and context. Yes, we are still in theoretical territory here, I’m afraid. But I promise to get more practical in future posts.

B.J. Fogg, a professor at Stanford U., is someone you might not have ever heard of if you are an EFL/ESL educator. He does not do research on motivation in education. Instead, his research is in how technology changes human behavior. And his main audience is business people involved in Internet-related start-ups, trying to get people to give their ideas or services a try. EFL teachers are often faced with a challenge that is really not so different from these young entrepreneurs: how do we get learners to engage in specific behaviors, in our case, ones  that we know will help them improve in proficiency? High school students in Japan are limited in the number of classroom hours of English. They are limited by a lack of technology infrastructure in schools. They are limited by the priorities of schools that want more kids to pass certain university entrance exams. That means that a lot of lesson time is spent on teacher explanations of language that is too difficult for many learners in the room, and not enough level-appropriate input is given, and not enough meaning-focused output activities are attempted. One of the possible answers to this problem is in everyone’s hands–mobile devices. But learners have no idea of how to make use of them and teachers are really really reluctant to even try to get learners to do so, fearing accusations of unfairness, steep digital learning literacy curves, and chasms of technology coordination and control issues. And the whole undertaking would require a massive shift in educational culture to begin with. But, ah, if only it were possible…Teachers could flip lessons, focus more on engaging learners in tasks requiring language production, and concentrate much much more on giving good formative feedback on comprehension or skill development in class before  the final summative tests. What I would like to suggest is that by making use of better design–and that almost certainly includes some game design techniques, but will also likely include user user experience (UX) design knowledge–we can increase engagement, push learners toward being more active participants in language learning, create a better learning experience, and hopefully get increased time on task and increased effort, and (eventually) increased target language encounters outside of class. Seriously, who wouldn’t want their classes to be more fun and more effective at the same time?

But before we get into the specifics of how gamification might be able to help with behavior change, we need to look at what Mr. Fogg has to say about changing behavior. There are, of course, other researchers working on habit and behavior change. But I think Mr. Fogg has the easiest to understand and most usable of ideas. As an introduction, let’s listen to the man himself summarizing his work: a short video is available on this page (sorry, the video is not embeddable into this blog).

Mr. Fogg sees behavior change as habit formation. His lab has produced a wonderful  chart that  lists the different types of change by whether it involves starting a new behavior, stopping a current behavior, or increasing/reducing a current behavior. He also distinguishes the duration of the behavior change, whether it is to be temporary (dot), for a fixed period (span),  or lasting (path). For language teachers in Japan dealing with low-proficiency learners (in general, students at ‘lower-level’ schools tend to have poor study skills in addition to poor language proficiency), green span or green path behaviors are what we should be aiming at. Duh, you might say at this point. But wait, because the simplistic beauty of Mr. Fogg’s model starts now. For a behavior to change, 3 things have to be present: a trigger, the ability to do the behavior, and motivation. And the last two, motivation and ability, are trade-offs. That means if you have low amounts of ability, you need to have more motivation. If you have low amounts of motivation (which is usually the case for the learners in our target group), you need to make the behavior steps really small. According to Mr. Fogg, behaviors are always the result of sequences. But you need to think and plan them carefully to be sure they meet certain conditions. That is,  you need to have an appropriate  trigger while you target a doable behavior with sufficient motivation available. Here is another graph that visually represents this.

First, think carefully about the target behavior. Is it simple/easy enough? Do you have a trigger? Because you need one. In the classroom, triggers can be certain events. Set fixed activities in your routines that will act as triggers. One teacher I know has his students get out their dictionaries at the beginning of class for an activity that requires them. Like clockwork, the class starts and the students get out their dictionaries as the teacher writes the day’s three vocabulary items on the board. Target behavior: use dictionaries. Trigger: vocab activity at beginning of every class. Ability: getting out the dictionaries and looking up only three words is doable.  Motivation: the students want to improve at English and the teacher has convinced them that using dictionaries is important.

Think about the current motivation your learners have. Is the behavior in sync with the learners’ goals? If not, you’ll need smaller steps, like in the dictionary example above. Target behaviors in small steps (Mr. Fogg calls them tiny habits). You really can’t go wrong making your steps really really small. Once one is established, you can target a subsequent behavior. An established behavior can  be used as a trigger for another behavior. You can also go the other way and work on the motivation. Explain to learners why a behavior is important. Make the activity more desirable. Or make the behavior more attractive (fun, social, meaningful, etc.). But Mr. Fogg suggests focusing on ability and triggers. Keep in mind that although people will rarely do things they don’t like, it is sometimes the case that people come to like what they do, rather than do only the things they like.

Or leverage a context change. Changes of context are times when humans are more willing and able to lose existing habits or form new ones. So, plan your big changes from the beginning of the school year. Or if you are looking to establish some new behavior, such as pair or group work, reconfigure the classroom seating and move the desks.

Here is Mr. Fogg’s list of patterns for success. These points are well worth keeping in mind as you try to get learners to change behaviors.

“Help people do what they already want to do.”
“Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”
“Trigger the right sequence of baby steps.”
“Simple. Social. Fun.” (You must have at least two of these.)
“Harness the motivation wave to make future behavior easy.
“Simplicity matters more than motivation.”

Another presentation of his looks at common pitfalls of behavior change. I’ll embed it below for easier access.


Now that we have covered the theoretical ground, it’s  time to look at the actual application of gamification mechanics. That will be the topic of the next post.


Also in this EFL gamification series:

Part 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs




EFL Gamification 1: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards


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:

  1. Tangible, expected, contingent rewards reduce free-choice intrinsic motivation, and
  2. Verbal, unexpected, informational feedbackincreases 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:

  1. Unexpected, informational feedback increases autonomy and self-reported intrinsic motivation
  2. Users like to get reinforcement about how they are doing
  3. 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:

Part 2: Triggers, Ability, and Motivation

Part 3: Mechanics

Part 4: The Downside and How to Avoid It

Part 5: The Whole Hog

Part 6: ARGs