A Level 4 Response to Gamification is NOT a THING

Games and gamification are concepts thrown around within education. They can sound like far more solid concepts than they are. Will Thalheimer’s (@WillWorkLearn) wrote an impressive post, Gamification is NOT a Thing!!, to his Will at Work Learning blog. He included a bit of a challenge;
“To get to WAWL Level 4, create your own list, reflect on what you discover, post it somewhere, and send me the link.”

HCLE’s Founder, Liza Loop (@LizaLoopED) responded.


Liza wrote:

“Bravo, finally some sensible talk about computer games and learning. Let me continue with some nitpicking and further ideas…

1st – A distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’: Work is done for some extrinsic reward; play is done for the joy of the activity itself. The reward for play is intrinsic. Games (exclusive of ‘war games’) are forms of play that are bounded by a set of rules that limit what the players can do during the game. For the majority of young learners, what is offered in schools is ‘work’. Computer games, like recess, have a much larger element of ‘play’.

2nd – ‘Learning’ and ‘teaching’ are different activities, performed by different actors, often on the same stage, sometimes connected by a common intention or outcome. Learning takes place within an organism (and, by analogy, within a computational machine) and is often observable to an outsider by some change in the behavior of the learning organism but often is not noticeable for some time. Teaching is an activity performed by a person either in the presence of a target learner or delivered remotely via a book, video, computer, some other recorded medium or the structure of an immersive environment. Teaching has an intended outcome, some identifiable change in the learner of which the teacher may or may not become aware. Teachers and educators who complain that their students “are not learning” are merely ignoring the palpable but unintended lesson they deliver every day. Most people who discuss “e-learning” are really talking about “e-teaching” and are also ignoring the learning that is taking place within those who contact their products.

3rd – A lesson can be either intended or unintended by a teacher, it depends on whether you are taking the teacher or the learner perspective. From the teacher point of view the lesson is what the teacher wanted to teach and is deemed a success only if the learner subsequently performs as intended. From the learner point of view a lesson is what the learner takes away from the experience with the teacher (or the teacher’s recorded medium, e.g. text, audio, computer game, etc.). For example, one of my sons learned that if he swore at his coach during P.E. he would be suspended from school for the balance of the day. The intended lesson was that swearing at the coach was a bad idea. The learned lesson for this school-aversive child was that getting out of school was incredibly easy.

4th – Different individuals (including humans, chickens and perhaps even flat worms) experience different events as intrinsically rewarding. Just because a teacher would be pleased to receive a gold star doesn’t mean the learner is going to respond positively to having that same star posted next to his or her name on the class bulletin board. In the example above, the school assumed that being suspended would be a negative reinforcement for my son – they were wrong and had inadvertently administered the strongest positive reward for “bad behavior” in their tool kit. Chickens are easier, especially if you keep them hungry. They pretty reliably find a kernel or two of corn rewarding.

5th – A possible definition of ‘gamification’ is the imbedding of teaching (intended lessons) into games (play environments, sometimes presented via computer, always with rules of engagement). Recall that ‘play’ has to be intrinsically rewarding to the player. For the 39 years that I have been exploring computing in learning and education, educators have been dazzled by the seemingly intrinsic motivational power of the computer and computer games. In this thrall they have ignored most of what they know about research and evaluation of varying educational strategies and have used grossly differing situations as study treatments and controls. Throwing in a multiplication problem as an obstacle to continuing along a thematic pathway in the context of a completely unrelated computer game might be considered as ‘gamification’. But it doesn’t address pedagogical strategies for teaching numerical manipulation skills, issues of intrinsic reward or what unintended lessons are completing for the learner’s attention. In other words, most of the existing research on the use of computer games for teaching is so poorly designed that it is useless. No wonder we aren’t seeing replicable results!

To recap (and expand a little), Gamification Factors include:

1. Intrinsic and extrinsic reward structure

2. Rules of the game

3. Medium of access (including type of computer, internet access, game station, etc.)

4. Teaching goals

5. Additional anticipated learning outcomes

6. Presentation medium

7. Learning modalities targeted

8. Characteristics of target learners (age, natural languages, educational level, social context)

9. Prerequisite learner skills needed for game entry (reading, calculation, sensory abilities, eye-hand coordination, cultural context, etc.)

11. Learner’s previous experience with game

12. Embedded instructional strategies All these factors need to be controlled in order to draw meaningful conclusions with regard to efficacy of any game for teaching anything.

Do I get to Level 4?

Please visit the History of Computing in Learning and Education at www.hcle.org.”

Well, do you think she made it to Level 4?


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