Monday, March 3, 2014

Gamification: Motivation and Competition

I've read some about gamification in education over the past year or so, and I find the idea intriguing. First a clarification: gamification is not the same thing as game-based learning. (Which is also interesting to me, because I think people can and do learn by playing games. But that's not the point here...)

Image by dullhunk [CC BY 2.0]
Gamification is adding game-like elements to your teaching practice, or to a learning situation. That might sound a little strange to be honest, I wasn't sold on it either.

Until this semester, when I'm actively trying it from the students' side of things.

My classes I'm taking for my doctoral program are entirely online, which means I have to be deliberate about keeping in touch with my classmates. (No hallway conversations online!) But many of us in my cohort are actively working on this--finding ways of collaborating, encouraging, and motivating each other. And here's where the gamification comes in...

My friend, Darin, started a spreadsheet to keep track of the tasks we need to do this semester in the two courses we are taking, and shared it online so the rest of us could benefit from this. Very quickly, it turned into a checklist where we began marking off the things we had completed. And shortly after that, my friend, Alice, had a stroke of genius: she gamified the checklist.

Basically, she gave each task an arbitrary number of "experience points" (XP) for their completion (not related to the number of points the task is worth for the course.) And then she assigned "levels" for achieving a certain number of XP, sort of like a video game. You can read her explanation of how she set it up on her blog.

Now, this sounds crazy, but knowing that finishing reading a chapter will gain me another 5 XP or participating in a group conversation will gain another 10 XP or submitting a paper will bring home a whopping 100 XP is surprisingly motivating. The to-do list has become a sort of leader-board for those of us who have chosen to participate, and while it's going to be tough to catch Darin (Mr. Level-20!), it is fun to jockey for position with a few classmates.

It's not that I wouldn't get the tasks done, and on time, and done well anyway. I'm motivated enough in this learning that I'm going to to work and do it well regardless. But attitudinally, gamifying the tasks has made a big difference for me. I'm enjoying the competition more than I thought I would!

This has me thinking about the courses I teach. I have a lot of questions...

  • Would my students benefit from gamification? 
  • Would they be more motivated to learn if they had an easy way to track tasks?
  • Would they be more motivated to learn if there was a leaderboard?
  • Is this intrinsic motivation--because I want to succeed? Or extrinsic--because I want others to see me succeed?
  • Is this behaviorism at its finest? All about the external behavior and not the inner mental process?
  • Gamification has been very effective me in terms of motivation by way of competition. Would this be true for all learners?
  • Are there ways I can experiment with gamification without having to chuck everything I'm currently doing?
  • Would gamification be an asset for assessment? Or would it defeat some of the other things I'm trying to do?
What about teachers in K-12 schools? I'm curious what gamification looks like there as well.

I would love to hear your thoughts in response to this. This adventure in gamification has been very interesting for me so far!


  1. Hi Dave, My graduate research is in the area of gamification of education, so I think a lot about it. My quick answers to a few of your questions are: different students respond differently to gamification - leaderboards can motivate and demotivate; poorly implemented gamified systems give gamification a bad name, and progress mechanics (PBL's) don't represent the full power that game elements can have in a learning environment. I have just written the wikipedia article for "gamification of learning." Check it out if you have time!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Heather! Article looks great--very helpful information there. And thanks for your answers to my questions too. I may have some more research ahead of me...