How Gamification Uncovers Nuance In The Learning Process
by Terry Heick
This article was originally written in 2011 and most recently updated in 2021
Gamification is simply the application of game-like mechanics to non-game ‘things.’
The big idea here is to encourage a desired behavior. In this way, ‘gamification’ amounts to installing mechanics or systems that recognize and reward behavior. Through increased visibility of nuance, documentation of progress, and rewarding of seemingly minor (but critical) behaviors, a specific outcome can be achieved.
Since it encourages internal motivation through an outwardly-created set of circumstances, gamification sits at the awkward intersection of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
While for many the term’s connotation suggests video games, video games are only one example of the concept of gamification in action—and only insofar as they are very much games. Video games are interactive, digital sequences that themselves have been gamified. Otherwise, they’d simply be interactive digital experiences.
In fact, life is itself ‘gamified’—loosely, through informal social competition (‘keeping up with the Joneses’), to the buzz extreme couponers get comparing receipts, to cryptocurrencies and comparing 401k portfolios, gaining access to ‘Platinum’ or ‘Black’ credit cards, or collecting frequent flyer miles. Even sticking a push-pin into the map of every traveling destination you’ve ever visited is a form of ‘gamification.’ As are Boy Scout Badges. You’re making a game out of something that isn’t.
Almost all social media is deeply gamified—in the ease with which friends can be ‘collected,’ status updates are often used to update progress or activities throughout your ‘real life’ day, or ‘like’ buttons brings you both dopamine and a sense of identity when you align yourself with others that like the same thing. Share a pic or an update and watch the ‘likes’ roll in, each one like a point in a game.
The current issue around the idea is less about definition and more about tone.
Reducing the process of ‘gamification’ to something simply recreational whimsical, silly, or juvenile represents a fundamental misunderstanding of gamification as a process. For years, classrooms have been gamified. Letter grades are indeed first subjective evaluations of knowledge proficiency, but once they are passed to the hands of the students, they become game components, passed around as proof of the completion of some task, or the achievement of some desired goal (mastering a standard, fulfilling the requirements of an assignment, etc.) Here, rubrics become instructions for task completion.
Here is the goal, here are the criteria being used to establish the terms of quality, now give it a shot and I’ll evaluate how well I think you did.
The Grade Point Average might be the most visible example of gamification in school. Knowledge is evaluated with a slew of assignments and tests, and a letter grade is given as a kind of trophy—As are big trophies, Fs trophies of the wrong kind, but trophies still. Class rankings? This is a contest to collect as many As as possible, trying to make neat what is inherently messy: learning.
Consider how much ‘3.2 GPA’ misses about a learner, their interests, their history, their progress, and their potential. Letter grades are the attempted quantification of understanding and/or performance in hopes of hiding the ridiculous complexity of the learning process. Via the letter grade (versus alternatives to letter grades), performance becomes apparently synchronized across otherwise asynchronous situations. Different learners with different teachers, through different assignments, completed in lieu of different learning styles, with the overwhelming influence of incredibly different personal lives—through this environment of disparity, the letter grade attempts to be the one thing that is universal.
But at a tremendous cost.
In fact, the power of the letter grade has become more powerful than the learning itself for many, subsuming notions of knowledge, discovery, and self-awareness. It is assumed that letter grades and test performance are reliable quantifications of knowledge, but anyone that’s ever graded a test knows the peril of this assumption. Using a letter to describe simple, singular performance may be acceptable, but when the implications move to longer-term notions of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding,’ these themes gravitate dangerously towards self-worth.
Other examples of gamification? Student of the Month, Most Likely to (insert verb here), Cum Laude designations, ‘Lettering’ in a sport, and countless other acts and icons. In the past, however, there have been more learners than there are visible rewards—more individual pathways than opportunity for recognition of those pathways. More learners than podium spots. The rest are sent to vocational school.
The Nuance Of Teaching & Learning
Research (by Pintrich in 2003, for example) illustrates that student motivation is driven largely by the intrinsic desire to accomplish goals:
“The fifth family of social–cognitive constructs that has been a major focus of research on student motivation is goals and goal orientation. There has been a great deal of research on different goal constructs and their role in motivating and directing human behavior (Austin & Vancouver, 1996), but in research on student motivation, there have been two main programs of research. One program focuses on goal content and the multiple goals that students can pursue in school settings, whereas the other has focused on the nature of achievement goals or goal orientations. In both cases, the specific content and the nature of the goals serve to motivate and direct behavior in classroom contexts.”
What is the ‘nature’ of a student’s goals in your class? (Academic) A good grade? (Personal) your praise? (Social) peer pressure? Gamification allows broad content areas (like English-Language Arts) with few measures of performance (alphanumeric symbols) to be broken up into more granular–and achievable–concepts and skills. ‘Writing,’ for example, can become ‘Expert and self-initiated application of the ‘revision’ step of the writing process.’ Accomplishing this gets them a badge or trophy or some representation of that achievement–something that students understand and can collect over time. Then, each time that skill is used and improved, the badge can become bigger or a different color or tiered or somehow changed to reflect the natural growth of learning over time.
There have been attempts at correcting this: every student gets a trophy, pass/fail registration, social promotion in lieu of failing letter grades, and countless others. But gamification can go so much further for those willing to think carefully about it. This idea is nowhere more potent than in the ability to document and curate diverse learner nuance. Rather than only offering a handful of slots for the ‘highest performers’ to occupy, within gamification lies the ability to recognize the deeply personalized nature of learning. Not all students want trophies or gold stickers, or to be patted on the head for ‘studying hard.’
Rather, learners want—and need—recognition of their unique nature: past experience, interests, cognitive and creative gifts, and critical interdependence with those around them. This results in self-knowledge and authentic placement with a peer set and community that offers an again larger, important social context.
A gamification system–if well-designed–offers the ability to make transparent not just success and failure, accolades and demerits, but every single step in the learning process that the gamification designer chooses to highlight.
Every due date missed, peer collaborated with, sentence revised, story revisited, every step of the scientific process and long-division, every original analogy, tightly-designed thesis statement, or exploration of push-pull factors–every single time these ideas and more can be highlighted for the purposes of assessment, accountability, and student self-awareness.
In the ‘perfect’ learning model, gamification wouldn’t be necessary. But until we get to that point, it is an ideal fit in highly academic learning environments where students are expected to master huge piles of non-authentic content and are measured for their ‘proficiency’ constantly.
There are as many pathways to ‘success’ as there are individual personalities; this is a theme of the 21st century. Gamification allows not just for recognition of these ideas, but convincing validation for truly personalized learning. To continue to move towards healthy communities and useful global interdependence, we will need to not simply recognize ‘different learning styles’ or half-heartedly reward ‘low-achieving students,’ but rather correct the hurtful tradition of overly narrow visions of academic success—a challenge with strict standards and outcomes-based instruction.
Through the creative application of game mechanics—and related innovation in curriculum and instructional design–this is possible, but the discussion must move beyond video games and badges towards notions of learner empowerment, and a nearly-angry broadening of the definition of academic success.
This article was republished from a 2011 article by Terry Heick