As we barrel on into the 21st century, the educational landscape seems to notice a lack of engagement in our current students. From content that feels disconnected from students’ daily lives to outdated modes of presentation, engagement (in an intuitive sense) seems to be the main struggle for educators. Many educators have proposed solutions to this problem, but one method has been gaining ground in classrooms throughout the nation: gamification.
Simply put, gamification is defined as “the application of typical elements of game playing to other areas of activity.” Gamification, which originally started a marketing concept, has managed to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, especially how we engage with technology. For instance, I currently use an app on my phone that tracks my daily water intake by watering a virtual plant whenever I drink water. Other gamified apps can track jogging distances for competitions between friends, give out rewards for repeated visits to businesses, or turn dieting into a point counting exercise. Gamification typically adds goal-tracking and competition to otherwise menial tasks, in order to increase the engagement with the task. Instead of just drinking water, you are trying to keep a plant alive; instead of reading a book, you are competing against friends to see who can read the most in a year. Ultimately, gamification works because it gives us a “fun” task to do in tandem with a not so “fun” task, thus (consciously or subconsciously) making the important task seem less tedious.
On paper, gamification looks like a perfect antidote to education’s engagement problems, since it is specifically designed to increase engagement in tasks. In practice, educators have found success in implementing gamification into their classrooms. In a series of blog posts, Deanna Mascle details her use of the strategies, remarking on how gamification-minded practices helped her classroom. In her article, “Students Respect the Badge,” Mascle describes her badge system, which she used as an assessment for student blogs. The badge system used superheroes as a shorthand for strengths in student writing (like Wolverine representing “sharp and incisive writing” and Spider-Man representing “great at making connections”), where students have a common language for assessment and positive feedback. Further, the badges gamify the assignments by adding a collectible reward for their strong writing. However, rather than using these badges in a competitive capacity, Mascle decided give students the ability to award badges to classmates. In my opinion, I think that this is an excellent way to use gamification in a productive, positive way, as students are able to build communities and provide constructive feedback, rather than feeling an urge to compete against each other. In an environment where students are positively providing feedback and rewards, students will be more compelled to share their best work, as their peers will recognize their efforts.
Reflecting on Mascle’s experiences definitely made me wonder how I would use gamification in my own classroom. Ultimately, I would like to take a similar approach where gamification would be less competitive and more productive, in the efforts of not pitting students against each other. Among the ideas I kicked around in my head, I thought I could something similar to the badge system, where students could collect badges or stamps for completing certain writing or reading-related tasks. In this scenario, students would use independent goal-tracking and collectibles to engage them with various tasks, like writing a certain number of pages, or reading a certain number of books.
Despite these ideas, I feel as if improper use or overreliance on gamification can actually cause detriments to student learning, largely because of the reward-centric approach it takes to learning. Even if certain spheres of the world are becoming increasingly gamified, there’s no guarantee that students will interact with gamification-based designs in their adult lives, meaning that students will come away from a lot of experiences thinking that everything they do should come with a reward. By setting that expectation, it can cause problems for their self-efficacy and independent skill development later down the road, as gamification rarely reaches the pie-in-the-sky “students will learn that learning is it’s own reward” ideal. Plus, the emphasis in most gamification materials about competition acting as a motivator would foster a distrust of collaboration and community building, in favor of individualism at all costs.
While gamification is certainly useful in measured amounts, I feel like educators need to step their game up and find other ways to engage with students. I would say that the majority of education is focusing way too much on changing the methods and strategies, and not enough on changing the content in a way that is interesting to students. If students constantly sleep through a century-old novel, try delving into some modern day literature instead. If students are sick of writing persuasive essays, make an effort to develop their creative writing skills instead. More often than not, a lot of the standards that we are expected to teach can be achieved through other, more varied types of content. And educators fall into this trap of “I need to change up this content with new strategies,” only for the lack of engagement to still persist. Ultimately, as educators, we have a responsibility to actively seek out what our students want to learn about. If we aren’t giving them that avenue, then why should they listen to what we have to say?
Until next time,