Leveling Up In Your Gamification

I often feel like one of the characters from Lost who keeps entering a series of numbers (4 8 15 16 23 42) into a computer program to save the world.

My numbers, though, are 17 23 31. Like those numbers on Lost, mine are a source of mystery, stupification, and are a sign that the wheels are coming off the bus. I keep thinking if I shout those numbers loud enough and long enough that school leadership, colleagues, policymakers, and parents will take heed and save our country. (17 23 31. 17 23 31. Can’t get them out of my head.)
A few weeks ago I blogged about gamification and bringing game mechanics into non-gaming environments. If you missed it, you can read it here, or, in the spirit of multimedia mashups and gaming, you can just watch the recap here:

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a number of educators who are gamifying their classrooms. This science teacher in North Carolina shared her introductory “story” for her class. She has slowly flipped her classroom and added game mechanics. I look forward to hearing about her results this fall.

I’ve also had the opportunity to counter-act with a number of colleagues who are convinced that gaming is a bust. It’s just another “thing” in the onslaught of technology that’s thrown at them. Besides, gaming is all based on extrinsic rewards, and that’s not how children learn.
I had this conversation with a former teaching colleague:

HIM:  Learning must be intrinsic. Gaming, rewards, points, that’s all just extrinsic. Learning must be intrinsic to be meaningful.
ME:  What’s that mean anyhow? Intrinsic?
HIM:  You know, intrinsic. From the inside.
ME:  From the inside of what?
HIM:  You know, from within! From the inside! (Points to chest.)
ME:  Like bloody and gutty? That kind of inside?
HIM:  Oh, here we go . . . .

No matter how much I pressed him, he couldn’t nail down for me what this “intrinsic learning” was or is. But I got the idea that it’s from the inside. Or something. And probably not very quantifiable.
Nevertheless, his argument about rewards, points, leaderboards . . . . that’s not what gamification is about. Gamification, first of all, is a process, not a “thing.” Rewards, points, leaderboards, those are all low hanging fruits in game mechanics. If fact, most teachers are doing some or a lot of that in their classrooms already without gamifying, but the mechanics are wrapped in the boring, stilted cloak of education. It’s like having the opportunity to put on a magnificent show for kids, but instead of bringing out Kelly Clarkson you bring out Lawrence Welk.
Gaming should leave children with wanting more. How often do children leave our classrooms eager to get right back in that seat the next day? Seldom. The thrill of defeating a game with the risk of failing (game failure not class or assignment failure) has a tremendously powerful effect that non-gamers might not realize. Scientists and brain researchers have taken note, though. More on that in a moment.
Check out what these 4th graders are doing in John Hunter’s classroom:

This quote from Hunter stands out:

I want it so thrilling that they don’t want to be without it, but so challenging that they almost can’t do it. That kind of tension is where learning occurs.

My goal as a classroom teacher should be to make my class so awesome that it actually ruins the last fifteen minutes of students’ classes right before mine because they can’t stop thinking and talking about what will  happen next in my class. Likewise, I also have the desire to spoil the first first fifteen minutes of the classes right after mine because my students again can’t stop talking about what just happened. Sorry fellow teachers! Of course, I hope that it’s your goal, as well!
If you’ve been a classroom teacher, you’ve likely experienced this: It’s the end of the school day and students run out to the buses in the parking lot with a ton of unspent energy, laughing, yelling, skipping, and frolicking. Meanwhile, teachers are inside wondering why they can’t even get one hour out of a five-hour energy drink. We need to reverse that, and gaming is a big piece of the puzzle.
Now take a moment to check out Ananth Pai’s classroom.

Ananth Pai’s experience reinforces the ideas of letting students advance at their own rates, having individual paths, driving decisions with data, and flipping the classroom.

Brain Gaming

We are in the brain business. We must understand how the brain works. With students, we are very much like parachute riggers.  We have to pack the parachute with all the right stuff because one day, it will open. I’m also reminded of Sandra Day O’Connor’s quote:

If children can’t learn the way we teach, then perhaps we should teach the way they learn.

She gets gaming. In fact, if you’ve not checked out her iCivics gaming site, you need to!
Brain researchers get the importance of gaming, too, and they understand what a powerful learning method it is. Games are nearly perfect in their design for learning. And it’s not based on educational philosophy, but on thousands of years of biology and brain circuitry. Neurologist Dr. Judy Willis blogged about gaming for Edutopia. She writes:

. . . .the real jolt of dopamine reward is in response to the player achieving the challenge, solution, sequence, etc. needed to progress to the next and more challenging level of the game. When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed. Through a feedback system, that neuronal circuit becomes stronger and more durable. In other words, memory of the mental or physical response used to achieve the dopamine reward is reinforced.

Back to Mr. Hunter. This tension is where learning occurs. In the simplest of explanations, we need goals that are right at the very edge of what we believe we can do. We also need to be able to see successful incremental progress toward that goal. That describes just about every successful video game out there.
Willis continues with . . .

It may seem counter intuitive to think that children would consider harder work a reward for doing well on a homework problem, test, or physical skill to which they devoted considerable physical or mental energy. Yet, that is just what the video playing brain seeks after experiencing the pleasure of reaching a higher level in the game. A computer game doesn’t hand out cash, toys, or even hugs. The motivation to persevere is the brain seeking another surge of dopamine — the fuel of intrinsic reinforcement.

Oh My Gamification! She just linked “intrinsic” with gaming.
Dear colleague, I have that intrinsic definition for you, but you might not be happy with it. (I love the smell of cognitive dissonance in the morning!)
The rewards that gamers relish are not badges, points, and leaderboards . . . . it’s the internal shot of dopamine. BOOM! Game designers, gamification experts, and gamified teachers have opened a new pharmacy on campus with healthy supplies of dopamine and serotonin.
If you need more literature, check out Brain Rules to start with, and Reality is Broken should be your next read to level up your gaming background.
The gaming detractors will remain, though, regardless of what current outcomes are. It’s amazing that when some people see something new, something outside the box, that they have to say it can’t be done that way. But like Sandra Day O’connor said, what we are doing isn’t working.  So why are you so resistant to change?
Oh, and those numbers that irritate me, take a look and decide for yourself:  17 23 31.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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Kathy Sierra

Psychology already *has* a definition of "intrinsic motivation", and it means the thing is pleasurable/enjoyable *for its own sake* without external rewards. In other words, it is the opposite of something that is pleasurable *because of the rewards."
Whether dopamine is involved has very little to do with whether something is intrinsically motivating, extrinsically motivating, or something in-between (motivation is on a continuum, and while intrinsic and extrinsic are at opposite ends, there are other forms of motivation along the continuum. (See Deci, Ryan, Self-Determination Theory)
One big problem with respect to gamification and education is that well-designed games. -- ACTUAL GAMES -- are intrinsically motivating, i.e. rewarding to play. Sometimes those games have what *appears* to be extrinsic rewards, though In good games they function pramarily as feedback, not motivators. *the act of getting better at the game is intrinsically rewarding*. This is what game designers build for.
Gamification, on the other hand, is the act of applying game mechanics to NON game things. And those mechanics are almost always in the form of virtual or tangible rewards, which means *extrinsic*. And while many say, "So what? If it creates "engagement" why does it matter whether it is coming from extrinsic or intrinsic motivators?" but unfortunately, science -- if you care about the decades of research, hundreds of studies, dozens of independent researchers, etc. -- has demonstrated a counter-intuitive and in many cases extremely damaging effect when extrinsic motivators (carrot OR stick) are used with things which are -- or have the potential to be -- INTRINSICALLY motivating.
So, it's complicated to look at gamification and education *unless* you qualify it. If by gamification someone actually means "using actual games", then there is typically no conflict of motivators. If the game inspires actual learning, and it is voluntary to play, and it is intrinsically pleasurable (the player enjoys it), no demotivation occurs. It IS *intrinsic*. (whether the learning itself is intrinsically rewarding vs. playing the game is a whole different thing, and there is not a lot of evidence that many enjoyable games ALSO produce transferable learning (as opposed to learning of what is necessary for the game itself, which obviously occurs).
A game that is built in such a way that the thing being learned In the game IS the learning goal, then it's beautiful. Simulators are good examples.
But this has nothing to do with gamification. Gamification adds a layer of game *mechanics* to non-games, and IF those mechanics involve rewards, points that act as extrinsic motivators, etc., then there is the same DEmotivating problem as forcing someone to learn, *unless* the mechanics are used for learning things that are NOT pleasurable, like tedious rote memorization. Things you just have to slog though, but that nobody actually finds interesting and enjoyable on its own. Then the extrinsic rewards cannot decrease intrinsic pleasure since there IS none.
But everywhere else in education, it gets dicey and risky. However, most education systems are already based on extrinsic motivators, just not *rewards* but pressure and consequences. In psychology, virtually any extrinsic motivator that is given as a direct consequence of behavior (do this and get that), is roughly equivalent. Skinner found that negative and positive reinforcement weren't that different in their ability to reinforce/teach and produce behavior.
Not all behavior is equal even when it might appear to be on the surface: not all "high engagement" is the same, and the trouble with gamification is that it so often creates excitement, enthusiasm, and "engagement" but it is typically engagement around the reward structure, not the thing being learned. And yes, it does make a difference long-term (unless it is the non-motivating behaviors of tedious tasks that are being reinforced, in which case, it's nearly all upside with very little potential for unexpected side-effects).

Adam Renfro

Wow, thanks for that, Kathy! I appreciate your response.
I definitely agree that to get the most out of gamifiying a classroom, a teacher must go beyond those simple mechanics of rewards, points, and leaderboards.
Mastery and a personalized pace, pathway, and rate are the gaming mechanics that have us (or at least me) excited as educators. The other things will hopefully improve as educators and game designers (who now have school-age children and are eager to make an impact) begin to collaborate more.
The gamified classrooms that I've seen have much more of a "do" mechanic in them. Students are gathering information and doing something with it, often producing something. This is in contrast to most traditional classrooms where students are purely information consumers who then take tests. Not much doing, just a lot of bubbling.
Psychology, though, tends to leave educators with a firm definition of what extrinsic motivation is but a fuzzy definition of what intrinsic motivation is. Quiz educators who are in the intrinsic motivation camp and see if they can truly define that, and they must drill down past "enjoyable for its own sake." If that's all it is, then the only things most students learn with intrinsic motivation happen outside of school.
And I'm not ruling that out!

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