Monday, May 7, 2012

The Shamification of Gamification

I'm late in getting out my post for the blog tour for Karl Kapp's new book, The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, and he kindly did not call me out on that last has a way of messing with your timing sometimes. In preparation for this post, I've been reading what everyone else on the tour has been writing and trying to think of what I felt most passionately about writing. I was most interested in reading what Kathy Sierra and Clark Quinn have written, as I know where they both stand on the term "gamification," because honestly I haven't been a big fan myself.

When Karl asked me to contribute a chapter to the book and he told me the title, I'll admit I was conflicted and I told him. After all, my favorite article on gamification, written by Ian Bogost, was titled Gamification is Bullshit. Karl explained his desire to "take back the word" from the marketers and use it to our advantage. Just like my policy with my kids on using curse words, I had to remind myself that there are no inherently bad words, just words that can be used to hurt people. Somewhere along the line, gamification has become (in some circles) a four-letter word. And I'll tell you why: bad design.

It should be no surprise...any time a buzz word emerges, the bad design deluge follows. E-learning? yes. Mobile learning? yes. Virtual learning? yes.

And now, gamification. Sadly, again, yes.

Game design is not actually easy. Good game design is difficult, great game design is rare. To think that you can slap a reward mechanism on any system or pattern of behavior and suddenly its a game is naive.  To think that you can give people badges to reinforce behavior and that will translate into long-term learning and behavior change, or overall performance improvement? Really? It's not how humans learn, and its certainly not how we change.

The discussion of extrinsic motivators actually harming intrinsic motivation is critical here...we know, ultimately, people do what they want, not what they are "supposed" to do. Intrinsic motivation drives behavior long-term. Game design that can apply extrinsic motivation until intrinsic motivation is developed is what the goal of gamification SHOULD be; the reality is that badly designed gamification can actually cause learners to stop performing the desired behaviors once the rewards of the game are removed...the exact opposite of what we want to achieve.

This is why the casual use of gamification is so dangerous: the downside of bad design isn't benign or a simple waste of money. The downside of bad design is causing people to NOT do the things that will help improve their performance and achieve organizational goals. Just like medical school students are taught, the goal of gamification should be "First do no harm." The stakes are higher for bad design for the gamification of learning than for bad mobile learning or bad e-learning, and so, I'm taking my responsibility in talking about game design for learning all that much more seriously.

My chapter in Karl's book is on alternate reality games (ARGs) for learning. ARGs are an interesting blend of RPG design and gamification of "life"...they mix storyline with real-life tasks that you must complete to succeed in the game. For corporate learning, that looks like the recreation of the learners' work environment through the storyline, with the rewards/scoring mirroring how they would be evaluated and rewarded for performing successfully in their jobs. Creating an immersive learning environment that allows learners to practice in authentic contexts and rewards successful that gamification? Yes. Do I think a well-designed ARG is an example of a positive use of gamification for learning? Again, yes. And therein lies the rub.

I can't throw out the baby with the bath water. Yes, much current gamification is poorly designed and potentially harmful to accomplishing the goals its supposed to address, but there is potential for good design and learning and performance improvement when the design gets it right. We shouldn't be shaming people for embracing the concept of gamification; we should be educating people on what good game and gamification design looks like so that they can spot the bad design. As a designer of games for learning, I've worked hard to get to a place where I can talk to organizations openly about the potential of games for learning and performance improvement. It was inevitable, once that door was opened, that the snake oil salesmen would start clouding the market...and so they have.

Let's focus on the challenge of educating the market, not vilifying a word. After all, it is kinda catchy...and aren't games supposed to be challenging in order to be fun?


  1. Great post. You really addressed many of the design issues I see in educational games. As someone who works with children's apps on a daily basis I too feel that educating the market is very important. Hopefully with more discussion and focus on apps that model good game design we start to see even more thoughtfully designed educational games - no small task!

  2. Koreen,
    Thanks for being a stop on the tour. And better late than never! Also, thanks for your wonderful contribution to the book. I strive with both the book and with the tour to have a balanced approach to the concept of Gamification knowing that it does have some series critics (and with good reason) but I also think, as you indicated, that properly providing examples and talking about the right use of gamification is critical within the field.

    Terms don't just go away, we need to intelligently deal with them.

    And you correctly point out how difficult it is to properly create a game to promote learning and to use the proper elements from game design (as opposed to badges, and points) to create a well crafted learning experience.

    Modeling good design as Carolina pointed out is necessary for learning and for making sure that we "do no harm" with gamification. We need to do good with it. Also, we, as a field, need to better understand extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. It is not as black and white as it seems. I spend some time talking about that in the book to help paint a realistic picture of motivation. We also need to talk about other motivational methods like ARCS model of motivation as well as Self-Determination Theory and Lepper's Instructional Design Principles for Intrinsic Motivation (Control, Challenge, Curiosity, and Contextualization).

    Thanks again for your great contribution and for being a stop on the tour.

  3. Thanks Amy! and Carolina, I totally agree...there is a huge gap in the educational games market that is waiting to be filled by well-designed learning game experiences. I'm hopeful that this is the start of that that games aren't such a four letter word in learning, I'm hoping that good design will follow!

  4. Thanks for including me both in the book, and on the tour, Karl. I've loved seeing the rave reviews of the book and am proud to be part of the passionate advocacy of (well-designed) games for learning! Looking forward to our future plans to move the industry forward!

  5. Koreen, thanks for the great post. I have a feeling this is one I'll link back to over and over again - as a clear explanation of why games are worth paying attention to.