David Dodgson: Gamification? Pointless for learning

‘Gamification’ is a term that has indeed been around for a few years now. Yet, like many terms and buzzwords it seems to mean different things to different people. It often gets confused with one of my favourite educational terms: ‘game-based learning’. However, they are quite different.

I won’t go into too much detail as I have covered this before on my ELT Sandbox blog, but in brief gamification is the application of game-style elements, such as points, levels and challenges, to a non-gaming context (e.g. the language classroom) whereas game-based learning is about the actual use of games in the learning process as a source of and an inspiration for learner language.

Each term has its problems: gamification suffers from the issue of being over-used as a superficial way to motivate students with ‘points’; and game-based learning suffers from being confused with gamification!
As shamelessly plugged just above, I run a blog about game-based learning but this confusion often leads to people asking me about gamification. And they are often surprised by my response: that I believe it simply isn’t worth the effort to make it work properly.
Allow me to elaborate: gamification in many of the examples I have seen and heard of come down to an attempt to motivate learners by the imposition of extrinsic rewards such as points, levels, achievements, challenges and so on. This results in something occurring in the classroom which I have never liked – the quantification of the learning process by measuring student performance in terms of numbers (time, points, levels, etc.)
I saw two talks about gamification at the 2015 IATEFL conference (again, a plug for my blog in the form of a link!) One focused on the kind of gamified learning I am not a fan of – imposing time limits and awarding points in an attempt to relieve the potential boredom of text-based lessons and exam prep classes. The problem I see with this application of gamification is that it has very little to do with learning – it’s all about motivating students to move towards a desired outcome. It strikes me that this is about behaviour control as much as anything else.
Not all examples of gamification are like this of course. The other talk I saw at IATEFL focused on one teacher’s experiences of introducing gamification to her classes. She started with reward systems and incentives layered on top of the regular learning syllabus. However, she recognised it to be quite superficial and so went back to the drawing board and redesigned the entire syllabus as a game. That's where I can see more benefits – the learning programme is created with the game as an integral part and the learners learn by playing it.
As engaging and productive as it sounds, it also sounds like a lot of work! It must take many hours to prepare such a game and then many more to fine tune it and before you know it, you need a new game for the next set of classes. Personally, I barely have time to mark assignments and spend more than about 10-15 minutes preparing for each of my classes so I don’t know where I would find the time to design an original game to drive the learning process forwards.
But if we start to think about games and learning through play, why not make use of the rich and engrossing world of games that already exist? If you teach children or teens, ask them about games they like playing and you will more often than not find that even the least motivated or quietest students are keen to tell you something. I remember first hearing about Angry Birds several years ago from a nine year-old student of mine in Turkey. It had been a struggle up to that point to get him to say anything in English but he suddenly opened up, telling me all about the background story, the mechanics of the game, the different birds and what they could do… Admittedly, this was in less than perfect English but the important thing was that I had found a way to connect with this boy and he now had a reason to want to speak.
And then there was Minecraft – here was a virtual world that my students had the power to manipulate and reshape in any way they could imagine. It soon became the backdrop and inspiration for many projects, presented as posters with printed screenshots of their creations, or even as narrated screencast videos showcasing their creative efforts. Again, the English was not always 100% accurate but it was being produced and it was being used in an authentic context. The game was the motivation and the language was the result.
That for me is what game-based learning is all about – the focus is still on learning. The game simply provides a rich context in which the development and personalised production of language can take place. Gamification, however, often forgets about the learning (unless you have a serious amount of time to invest in it) – the points or rewards are the motivation and, well, the result is the result.
I strongly believe that games can be a positive force in the classroom as long as they are used in the right way. Learning must be the goal and contextualised language production must be the outcome. Points are of little consequence. In fact, when it comes to games in class, it’s much better for them to be pointless. ;-)
Dave Dodgson is a teacher, language programme coordinator, and freelance teacher trainer currently based in Gabon. He has also worked extensively in Turkey and has experience of working with children, teens, and adults both in general English, ESP and EAP. He believes personalising the learning process is the key to success in the language classroom and has a strong interest in using and adapting authentic input for learners of all levels. He blogs at davedodgson.com and also runs eltsandbox.weebly.com, a site dedicated to game-based learning.
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Submitted by peter@gamesfor… on Sun, 04/10/2016 - 18:16


I very much agree with you that gamification has few lasting benefits for learning. At gamesforlanguages we have combined easy games with a travel story, with the idea that learners want to get "to the end of the story". Our challenge is to find/develop stories that are interesting and compelling enough for the learner to continue, but also not to advance too fast, otherwise learning words, sentences and phrases will suffer!

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