I was asked to do an impromptu lunchtime session today on a topic of my choice, which I thought would be a timely opportunity to unpack a particular bugbear of mine. And because I do so love an overworked allegory, I’ll tell you a story.

People like cars. They buy them a lot and spend hours a day driving them everywhere. One day, Bill and Bob, who were refrigerator salesmen who had never driven a car, noticed that people seemed to like cars an awful lot and got a bit jealous of the success of the car industry. They thought if they made their refrigerators more like cars, people would like them more and buy more of them. Bill said to Bob ‘Gosh Bob, how can we make our refrigerators more like cars?’. Bob said to Bill ‘Well, Bill, it seems that cars have wheels. Maybe if we put wheels on our refrigerators they would be more like cars and people would love them’. So this is exactly what they did, and they spent a lot of time going to refrigerator conferences telling everyone about it and all the other refrigerator salesmen got excited and put wheels on their fridges too. Then everyone got all surprised when people did not actually want a refrigerator with wheels on it, and only bought a few of them for novelty value.

You get my point. Gamification – that novelty “engagement layer” of points and badges smacked on top of completely unchanged content and materials – fundamentally misses the point of what games do, why people play them and the benefits we get from them. Especially when implemented by people who have never played games. Going further and shoehorning content into level structures or game models is no better (in fact arguably worse). You cannot take traditional content, -ification it and voilá, engagement. Shameless bribery is not innovation. If we’re really serious about pulling the benefits of gaming into education we need to knock the playing field flat and rethink everything.

Take Angry Birds (I know I keep going on about Angry Birds, but it’s a good, solid, easily accessible example). When you first open it, you get this:

Angry Birds screenshot

What you do not get is a list of learning outcomes, a bunch of lecture notes and an assignment. They’re in there (learning outcome: able to utilise trajectory to inflict damage; lecture notes: help screen; assignment: destroy all pigs), but none of it is explicit and none of it is the primary goal of the design. When we use educational concepts as designing principles, we’re doing it wrong. Games design for one thing and one thing only – engagement. Rovio give not two hoots if you learn anything, they care if you keep buying and playing their games. Frankly, legislation and a culture of credentialing are the only reasons the education industry is even remotely competitive with the gaming industry in terms of dollars and seat time. Our obsession with counting and tracking learning shoots us in the foot when it comes to the type of engagement that games enjoy. I’m not saying that we should ignore the realities of the systems we’re working in, but we could be doing a lot better than just -ification with points and levels.

S0 – how can we do better? Put the edu stuff down for a minute. Start with – if you were taking your unit (course/class/MOOC/whatever), what’s the most interesting thing you can possibly imagine that you would want to do? What would make you want to engage and keep coming back? Go from there, and then once you get to the end, then you can ask – did I achieve all my learning outcomes? Explore a narrative. Give people a place to explore and find things rather than prescribing. Use badges if you want, but use them for humour or to encourage exploration, not to bribe people to log in, read articles or post in forums. Lots of other ramblings, ruminations and cases in point here.

And finally – Dinosaur Comics on the cars and gaming metaphor :D.




Chris Fellows (@cfellows65536) · March 20, 2014 at 3:56 am

“Legislation & a culture of credentialing are the only reasons the education industry is even remotely competitive..” http://t.co/WZxxsjUB97

Chris Fellows · March 20, 2014 at 4:15 am

if you were taking your unit (course/class/MOOC/whatever), what’s the most interesting thing you can possibly imagine that you would want to do?

In my case it is pretty obvious: Play with liquid nitrogen/fire/exploding things/machines that go ‘ping!’

So my goal is to get them in to the lab. The only reason for them to do non-lab stuff with me (instead of for free on the internet) are those legislative and cultural factors that are subject to change without notice…

    Sarah · March 20, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    Fire and explosions pretty hard to top, I do agree. Damn humanities.

@gaw101 · March 21, 2014 at 12:44 am

“Games, gamification and why we can do better” http://t.co/2JnDULrujo

Ryan's blogroll (@r20_blogroll) · March 21, 2014 at 1:46 am

Games, gamification and why we can do better http://t.co/3fTWAVht8M via @sthcrft

Mike Bogle (@edugnome) · July 2, 2014 at 1:38 am

Games, gamification and why we can do better http://t.co/eRiqaaXIBv by @sthcrft

@rlhughesPNW · June 4, 2015 at 3:21 am

Link to Sarah Thorneycroft article referred to several times this evening http://t.co/tHlRQNbDV4
@skyler #chifoo15 @chifoo

@skyler · June 4, 2015 at 5:52 pm

Thanks to @SarahThorney “@rlhughesPNW Link to […] article referred to several times this evening http://t.co/eTPK18QExU
#chifoo15 @chifoo”

Language learning + games = win? | EnglishSafari · March 30, 2014 at 2:59 am

[…] is that proper games engage in a way that learning games can’t (Sarah Thorneycroft’s critiques of gamification come to mind). While both ‘regular’ and ‘serious’ games leverage intrinsic […]

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