EdTech Friday: Gamification


This is part three of our discussion of the interaction of videogames, gaming, and education. Today we look at gamification. Previously, we discussed educational videogames and using videogame design to engage students.

Though many writers confuse the concepts, gamification is explicitly defined as using game elements in a NON game context. The word was introduced by Nick Pelling in 2002, but was not much used until 2010-2011. (see chart below) Many people are familiar with the world of gamification via the Ted talk and books of Jane McGonigal, though she has since distanced her work from the term.

The idea has spread widely through the fields of marketing, customer service and retention, and customer engagement. But it is also being discussed heavily for its potential use in education. Basically, gamification takes game concepts such as scaled rewards and competition and incorporates them into tasks that might otherwise be boring. Of course some might think that education has been doing this ever since teachers started giving out gold stars, or even that grading homework is, to a certain extent, gamification. Some critics do address this, claiming that the word is basically a buzzword that does not add real meaning or value. Gamification experts have also expressed discomfort with the word.

Meanwhile, researchers who at least believe that the word means something are producing studies that show it can work. The studies do come with many caveats, however. Mostly that the effectiveness depends on the context and the participants. There is also a concern that gamification can produce unexpected side effects.

Often, however, reports of gamification being used effectively end up being reports on the effective use of videogames to educate—which is significantly different. With a videogame, the entire experience is designed around game principles and occurs within the game environment. Gamification, on the other hand, attempts to take these ideas and use them in a world where many other influences and factors are happening at the same time.

However, there are some schools that have gone all in on gamification. The Epic charter school puts students into a three-year journey where they:

“tackle complex quests, earn points, level up to more difficult tasks up until the time they graduate eighth grade.”

Other examples are the Institute of Play’s Quest school model. The first example was Quest to Learn in a NYC public school. A second Quest to Learn school opened in Chicago in 2011. In Los Angeles there is a game-based school called the PlayMaker School which is also attempting to apply the gamification principles all across the educational environment.

Gamification is probably too new to either embrace or dismiss completely. It seems likely that something good will come out of these experiments whether or not the whole “gamification” package is widely adopted or not. Most likely the best parts will migrate out under different names.