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Learning Is a Game

Learning Is a Game

An educator friend of mine recently shared this article lamenting the gamification of schools. I found it infuriating. According to the author:

The problem is gamification’s premise. It suggests that we should capitulate to a generation of students who supposedly can’t muster interest and curiosity on their own.

There are two kinds of polemic: the kind which laments that young people these days are unmotivated, shallow, and naive and that they will cause the downfall of civilization; and the kind that laments how the previous generation is tragically underinformed, uncaring, and self-destructive and that civilization's problems are their fault. One of these types seems insightful in the retrospection of future decades, while the other ends up consigned to the dustbin of misguided history. There was once debate on whether novels were a form of entertainment that would lead to society's moral failure.

The author of this piece seems to have started from the premise that kids these days lack the skills for intrinsic motivation and that the use of games in education serve as extrinsic motivators that stunt these poor students' growth. The author couldn't be more wrong. Right now we're looking at the most intrinsically motivated group of young people in history. We have a generation with increasing ability to find things that they enjoy and to pursue that joy as efficiently as they can.

It's only natural that these students clash with the staid approach of many educators. They have higher standards. They know that learning is best when it's fun, and have little patience for instructors that don't know how to make it so.

Gamification Is Bullshit

Ian Bogost put it most succinctly in his 2011 rant "Gamification Is Bullshit:"

More specifically, gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.

Gamification is the application of game design techniques to other areas of life. When clumsily implemented by the marketers Bogost is criticizing, this means awarding people points and intangible rewards for doing what you want them to do. Maybe putting things on your product wishlist gives you XP. Maybe you can earn a badge for reading all of the documentation.

The problem with this approach is that it's cargo cult logic. It mistakes the trappings of games for the core of game design. It's like a drug-store drive-through studying what makes fast food restaurants successful and deciding to include free ketchup packets with every prescription. It's not enough to make something look like a game: if you want the learning benefits of game design, you have to actually make a game about your subject matter.

Games are teaching devices. They present the player with a system and, when designed well, they slowly explain and explore that system in a way that teaches the player how it works. By the end, the player has an excellent understanding of the system and has demonstrated that understanding. Thanks to Oregon Trail, a generation of students have a deep and disproportionate understanding of a relatively minor aspect of US history. When you've finished Human Resource Machine, you know the basics of assembly programming. Play enough Kerbal Space Program and you understand orbital mechanics.

Games can literally turn you into a rocket scientist. And they don't need to force you to participate.

Two Kinds of Motivation

Why do you do anything? Because you're motivated to. Psychologists discuss two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is what makes you eat a delicious meal. You enjoy the pleasant tastes, the sensation of fullness, and the nice company of your dining companions. Extrinsic motivation is what makes you pay the bill. You recognize it as a necessary task in order to get the food and avoid being arrested afterward.

People spend most of their lives doing things that are extrinsically motivated. Unless you truly love your job, you probably do it because it's the best way you've found for you to get money. You want the money so that you can avoid the discomfort of unmet needs and so that you can acquire pleasant things. One of the secrets of lasting happiness is finding the joy in tasks like this, to discover intrinsic motivations that make work and chores more satisfying.

Video games are fun. They give us interesting challenges to overcome, opportunities to be creative, ways to compete with others, and engaging stories to explore. These are intrinsic motivators. We enjoy the act of playing not because it is a means to an end but because it is directly pleasurable. Points, badges, and levels aren't the goal of this play. They might serve as a memento of our accomplishments or as a gauge for tracking our progress, but they derive their value from the play they represent.

Contrast this with one of my favorite firsthand experiences with bad gamification. The schedule app for the 2015 Game Developer's Conference had a leaderboard for people who performed certain social tasks in the app. If you posted to the in-app news feed, you earned points. If you posted a picture, you earned even more points. Everyone could see who got the most points. The game was clearly created to encourage social discussion and engagement.

A colleague of mine who's prominent in the IGDA decided to win the game. He saw how the system worked and proceeded to exploit it. His feed on the app was full of photographs. Twenty pictures in a row of IGDA student volunteers. Random shots of promotional banners, some of them blurry. He recognized that the game wasn't actually motivating social engagement; it was motivating posting pictures; any pictures.

As a result of this system, my colleague was consistently in the top three conference attendees throughout the event, and the news feed was less useful. The app's developers had taken an activity with intrinsic motivation — sharing with interesting people — and applied a layer of extrinsic motivation that didn't actually promote the desired activity.

Which takes us to the state of education.

Education Is Already Gamified

There are education researchers and practitioners doing awesome and creative things to advance the state of teaching and learning, which I'm not equipped to discuss. But the prevailing practice, at least in US schools, is to have a standardized curriculum which is measured by a set of tests. Subjects are presented in an isolated format, with a different period and/or teacher for math, literature, science, and so on. Students are given a constant series of assignments and tests, each of which is graded. These grades are averaged to show how close the students' performance comes to a perfect measurement.

Percentage grades are points. Letter grades are badges. At the end of a major segment of schooling, such as high school or college, students get a bigger badge called a diploma. This system teaches students that they should learn facts and do assignments so they get enough points to get a diploma, and that they need a diploma so that they can get a good job.

Gamification is bullshit.

Many of us find out far too late that learning is actually intrinsically motivating. People love learning things when there's no threat of failure looming over their heads. The challenge of understanding and the joy of discovery are universally pleasurable experiences. Beyond that, there is already an excellent extrinsic motivation for knowledge: knowledge is useful. It lets you feel less confused, it lets you do interesting things, and it is actually an indicator of how well you'll do at tasks at work and elsewhere.

In our existing system, most students need to teach themselves how to find intrinsic motivation in their schoolwork and their life at large. But the more that they play games, in and out of school, the more good examples they have of how to find joy in the things they do. This is why schools must be gamified well.

Traditional percentage points and letter grades are the same clumsy extrinsic motivators as the meaningless levels and badges that Bogost discusses in his rant. Instead, for the future, educators must learn to craft games that teach through intrinsically motivating experiences. Instead of saying "this knowledge is useful," educators must ask "why is this knowledge useful?" and then demonstrate that usefulness in their games.

I'm very excited to see what they come up with.

Secretly, a secondary goal of our in-progress game Exploit: Zero Day is to help teach players internet literacy and basic computer security concepts. For more news and an opportunity to get early access to the game, sign up for our mailing list.

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