11 December 2012

Gamification... I'm not a fan

I'd been thinking for a while about writing something on Gamification, but I'd never got round to it.  I was kicked into action today, though, by a video appearing on Slashdot by a US lecturer by the name of Clifford Lampe:

Gamification, if you don't know the word already, is to use game mechanics to improve whatever it is you do.  It started as an idea for education and I wasn't a fan of the idea.  It moved into business and I wasn't a fan of the idea.  It's now moving back into the classroom ... and I'm still not a fan of the idea.

My main criticism is pretty blunt: learning is fun already.

"Now wait a moment," I hear you cry, "not everyone enjoys learning."

Well yes, yes they do.  What they don't enjoy is when they're stuck in a classroom and they aren't actually learning anything.  In fact, years ago I read an article claiming that by using a brain scanner, scientists had proven that all the fun in a game comes via the learning centres of the brain.

Gamification, in whatever I've read or heard on the subject, doesn't take this to heart.  Instead, it focuses on the accoutrements of gaming, and tries to manipulate "achievement addiction".  In business, you give out little badges to regular contributors to your website to encourage them to contribute, rather than making the actual process of contribution inherently rewarding.  That's fine for customer retention, but it's misdirected focus if you're attempting to teach.

Basically, the teacher ends up looking for ways to convince students to complete the task in the hope that in doing so, they will learn, instead of designing a task that is so inherently educational that the student becomes engrossed in the process itself.  The latter is what is traditionally known as "good teaching".

Gamification therefore continues the trend that talk of multiple intelligences and affective factors have established: an single small part of the puzzle eclipses the bigger picture and distracts educators from looking critically at their material in its own terms.

Now, Lampe's video is somewhat disingenuous (although that may be the editor's fault, not his).  At no point is there any mention of what his course is, although the mention of a mix of computing and sociology students gives us a clue that it's something about online interaction, and if we look at his personal university page, we can see he teaches two things: a first year undergrad Introduction to Information Systems and a higher level course called eCommunities.  Without this context, his talk about the use of social media in the classroom is utterly meaningless -- because web 2.0 isn't just the medium of the lesson, it's also the topic.

It's pretty hard to generalise out of this.

Worse, he himself suggests that the content of his teaching appears to be more memorable precisely because his teaching style is unique.  Consequently the technique must logically lose effectiveness if used elsewhere.  That's true of any mnemonic technique, of course.  Give a student 2 or 3 useful acronyms and they'll remember them.  Give them 2 dozen and they'll start to clash with each other and because impossible to use.  So "teaching style as mnemonic" suggests we should all be doing very different things, not all adopting the same technique (for example: gamification!).

Some of the other things he suggests are elements of gamification are choice of assignments, but many teachers already do that.  The question to be addressed is which teaching points can be fairly tested with a free choice assignment, and which need a specific task, because every point is different.

Moving on from Lampe specifically, the problem is that gamification comes down to the notion of "achievements".  The notion of achievements started with scout badges, as far as I'm aware.  Games started to recognise various skills rather than have everyone chase the same goal: the high score.  With online high-score tables, that high-score became harder to achieve.  But this evolved out of existing behaviour.  Games provided sufficient information to start manually comparing metrics -- people started replaying Mario games and finding as many coins as possible.  Sonic players took up the idea of the "speed run" in early levels.  Games started giving more and more information to allow players to track their metrics: Doom told you how long you'd taken, how many secrets you'd uncovered and how accurate you were at shooting (shots on target:total shots).

So what does that mean?  Early achievements were led by the players' existing behaviour -- it was not an imposition of "gamification" rules on gaming.

Of course, later achievements were an imposition of gamification on gaming.  A target like "kill 500 orcs with the axe" doesn't reward skill specifically, just persistence.  It doesn't promote learning, then.  Others involve very specific skills that are not of general use.  I tried for a while to get "Terminal Velocity" in the Steam achievements for the game Portal.  To do it, you have to perform some very delicate maneouvers to fall continuously for 30,000 feet.  But it's just fiddliness for its own sake, it's not a necessary skill to do anything pratical within the game itself.  How ironic is that?  Gamifying the game actually takes you away from the game?

They really are just using achievements as a drug to keep you coming back as an alternative to giving you a genuine reason to do so.

Copying this strategy into the university is a hiding to nothing, because you're encouraging time-on-task, but you're perverting their drive.  You're rewarding time instead of rewarding learning.  That's pretty rough.

And in the end, of course, any game can be gamed.  We already have enough problems trying to prevent cheating against established metrics (exams and assignments), but any new assessment metric is going to need hardened against cheating....


Yousef said...

I really enjoy reading this blog because you analyze methods and ideas in a way that show how they work (or don't work!); that critical stance is very refreshing and helps me think clearly both as a language teacher and as a language learner. A lot of other language learning resources just tend to accept things on face value.

I definitely agree with the idea that learning is inherently fun. By learning I mean the taking in, or discovering of information. But most classrooms have another component as well: practice, the repetition and reinforcement of what was learned, such as essay writing or listening/reading exercises. In class, students seem to enjoy the learning process, but definitely not the practice. I think that it could be one of two things: the students haven't learned properly, making the practice sort of a muddle, or the system itself is flawed and there needs to be a new way to practice. Would be very interested to hear your insights about it!

Nìall Beag said...

Hello Yousef, nice to hear from you again.

My view is that the practice is part of the learning process -- I feel your definition of "learning" stops too early.

I follow the school of thought defined by Ausubel as "reception learning": we give the students information explicitly (so they "receive" the information) and then they learn it by applying it in varied situations.

I'm sure I've commented before on Jan-Arjen Mondria's myths about language learning. One of Mondria's research projects was to study vocabulary learning and verify whether vocabulary learned by inference from context was learned any better than vocabulary that was initially given by the teacher. (This is therefore "discovery learning" vs "reception learning".) His findings (summarised under myth 5) said that the method of introduction of vocabulary didn't change the amount of practice required to learn it, and it wasn't until they were quite sure about their inferred meaning that they really started to learn it.

His research is consistent with my view that practice is part of learning, not a separate thing.

One thing I find problematic is "free practice", because students tend to avoid the new language features as too difficult. When I was studying for my CELTA certificate, that was justified away by the trainers as a sign that they had different "levels" of language, and they only used the "safe" stuff in free practice, and that the new material would become "safe" later. But how can it without further practice if practice is a crucial component of the learning process...?

Yousef said...

Hello Niall, thanks for the reply.

Maybe my definition was a little limited. So learning = instruction + practice. And engagement and enjoyment are the byproducts of learning. Now, making instruction engaging seems fairly systematic: connecting new information to what is already known, providing varied examples, clarifying any ambiguities. Yet making practice engaging is very hit-or-miss: too repetitive and students get bored; too hyperfocused and they get confused; too loose and the practice has the same problems as "free practice" that you've mentioned in your reply. With more complex tasks like essays there's a host of variables that can make writing a frustrating experience for the student. And here lies the temptation to use "gameification", as a way to ensure the fun part of practice, if only superficially (that video...dressing up and playing D&D in class seems awfully tedious unless you enjoy LARPing).

What I'm still struggling with in class is: what kind of practices ensure maximum engagement without relying on so-called "fun" activites TESOL and CELTA courses use as crutches?

Nìall Beag said...

I think the big problem with most "controlled" practice is that it's too narrowly focused, and it becomes a mechanical, meaningless task.

There has to be a lot of variety, because the students have to need to think about what language feature to choose.

But the task description needs to be able to demonstrate quickly and effortlessly to the student what is expected of them.

Which always leads me to the conclusion that the only effective task for grammar learning is translation.

Properly written native language prompts are understood with no need for any conscious "decoding" of the intended meaning or the task required.

This is why Michel Thomas's courses have proved so popular -- it engages through constant variety and manipulation of the target language.

random review said...

Nice post (as usual). Can I be a bit cheeky and request you write a post about fun versus effort in learning?

I think it is true that it is the learning itself that is most enjoyable and motivating; but equally I think that there is a lot of truth in the view that it takes a lot of hard work and effort to learn anything worthwhile. An example of what I mean is this article (www.fluentin3months.com/comfort/), which I think makes some extremely valid and useful points but seems somehow to be missing something important (really sorry to use an example from Benny, I'm honestly not trying to bait you, I respect the guy (I know you do too) and it was this article that started me thinking quite some months ago. If you ever do have the chance to write the requested post, I obviously don't expect you to reference this article).

I remember using MT when starting out and it was an incredibly enjoyable experience; but (marketing hype be apart!) it wasn't effortless, more that the effort itself was somehow "effortless" (you can see I can't quite get my thoughts clear on this, hence the request)...I suppose "rapt" is a good word to describe my state. The only thing that *is* clear is that too many of us wrongly equate hard work with drudgery (perhaps because for so many of us that is true in oiur jobs). Anyway, I understand totally if you're too busy. Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Nìall Beag said...

You always ask the difficult questions, RR....

Benny's probably right that there will always be some level of frustration, but one of the reasons that Benny gets my back up so much is that he won't discuss stuff.

I genuinely believe that a great amount of frustration can be eliminated by good teaching, whereas he seems to have equated teaching with "evasion" of frustration -- avoiding "real" language, hence never encountering frustration.

It's true that a teacher can't anticipate the learner's every need, and even if they could, there's still always going to be an order of teaching, and some things will not be available to the learner until they reach that stage.

I'm of the school of thought that says "don't work hard, work smart", but I couple with the pragmatic view of "if you can't work smart, work hard".

But fun vs effort... that will require some thought.