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....