Game Over: the perils of Gamifying the classroom.

No you're not. You're called Dave.
An excellent article in this week's New Scientist called Power Up, by MacGregor Campbell, about an increasingly ubiquitious phenomena in teaching and even the real world : Gamification, which is exactly what it sounds like, i.e. the process of introducing game play elements into real life interactions. Turning life into a game might sound implausible, but as a social phenomena it's well documented, especially as wireless technology becomes so miniaturised and pervasive as to allow our real life functions to be tracked and evaluated in game-like ways

How is this achieved? By imagining that your life is an enormous arcade game; only, instead of achieving new levels by demolishing pixelated obstacles, eating power pills or shooting invader sprites, you do so by performing more mundane, every day actions like brushing your teeth, doing the ironing, or similar. A sensor such as your mobile phone, or even just your own input could collect the data you need, and provide the interface between the real and the virtual world. As Campbell points out, such activities aren't restricted to the realm of the high-tech: ever since coupons were given out with purchases, encouraging consumers to redeem them for prizes. And these days it's a common experience for people to collect vouchers, or passwords from the backs of soft drink cans, and use them on the internet as currency to download songs, etc. In other words, virtual commodities have started to achieve actual value.

The scope for technology to increase the pervasiveness of this act is staggering: location tracking software on your phone can be wirelessly linked to central databases that then allocate you points for, for example, visiting a pub so that you build up loyalty points redeemable against further purchases. Your jog to the park can be monitored by your pedometer and turned into a number, encouraging you to beat your high score. And Wii fitness games most obviously blur the boundaries between the game and the activity until, presumably, you're power-golfing yourself into a size 8 dress, or something (I don't know golf very well. Is it high impact?).

How does this relate to the classroom? Because it intersects neatly with another phenomena that is increasingly popular: virtual rewards. Perhaps you've used them yourself? Superficially they're simply a more sophisticated way of recording a Gold Star, or a Tick: instead of giving the rewardee either, you instead give them a sticker with a code printed on it. The children then take these codes, log on to an appropriate website with a personal user name, enter the reward code, and then get the ability to, for example, customise an avatar or play on online game. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. I mean, I was surprised to find that people can actually pay to buy power-ups on most online games, and even my beloved Angry Birds app for the iPhone has a cheeky 'get-out-of-jail-free' option for a bargain 59p. Er, which is cheating, isn't it?

But I digress. The link between fiscal and virtual currency has been achivieved; which is cute, because at its heart, money, of course, doesn't exist- or rather value is a concept rather than an object. So I suppose it's appropriate that if we can trade speculatively in a futures market, we can buy and sell electronic assets. Don't you pine for the days people took pigs to markets and swapped them for bales of hay? Now it's all Magic Beans.

Do they work in the classroom? Speaking from experience they certainly can do: the younger children are big fans, and actively seek to be rewarded, often loudly indicating that they're performing the desired behaviour in order to get their Mario Gold. The older ones mostly eschew it, realising with age that the opportunity to clad their tiny online avatar with a pirate's scarf isn't exactly the white-knuckle thrill ride it used to be, especially if it involves any actual effort. But that's the same effect you find with actual gold stars and the like, so no great problem there.

Never do this.
No, the problem lies in something far more basic: namely the problem of motivating children using external rewards itself. When we are very young, and socially acceptable value systems are unknowns to us, just as most empirical knowledge is absent from the Blank Slates of our mind, we need to be taught right and wrong (or, if you're a moral non-realist, accepted from non-accepted values). This process is considerably accelerated by the use of incentives: positive ones (like carrots, if you're a donkey) or negative ones (the goad, the reprimand, the sanction). Children come to associate discouraged behaviour with punitive experiences, and more agreeable behaviour with comfort and acceptance. It's not exactly nuclear physics; every animal with a decent cognitive ability can master it.

The problem lies in that we use these reward systems as a means to an end: that the child should become habituated into seeing certain courses of actions as desirable, and others undesirable. The purpose of the activity is not to emphasise the desirability of the reward, but the desirability of the behaviour associated with the reward. In other words, if I give a kid a Smartie for tidying his room, I'm hoping that he'll eventually learn to do it because it's the right thing to do, not because he's a Smartie addict. In other words, the reward for the action itself, which initially is extrinsic to the action, becomes intrinsic. And this, according to the Categorical Imperative, is what we might call duty.

Teacher: 'Is that my head?'
Duty is considered by deontologists to be the only perfectly moral motive. Why? Because it is the only motive that excludes self interest and consequential gain. If I teach a child that every time he hands in his homework he'll get a lollipop, the question I must ask myself is, is he doing it because he's conscientious and dedicated, or because lollipops float his boat? The only way to find out is to take the lollipops away and find out. You might not like the answer.

Self interest has always been one of the the world's most ancient and powerful motivators: Adam Smith took it as one of his central assumptions in the Wealth of Nations: that competition was the engine of human psychology. Darwin too took it to be a foundational truth: when resources are scarce we compete. Shaw called it the Life Force, and Kant claimed that we all instinctively had the love of our own lives uppermost in our basic desires. What's in it for me? is such a universally acknowledged motivator that it scarcely needs to be expressed in the creation of any contract, tacit or formal. But the answer we should be seeking, if we are to consider ourselves in any way enlightened beings, is sometimes 'Nothing: there's nothing in it for me.'

If you help an old lady across the road for a fiver, you might be doing a good thing for a bad reason: because it suggests you wouldn't do it without the reward. If however you do it because you believe it's the right thing to do, regardless of your benefit, then you'll be reliably inspired to do so in the absence of reward. Altruism, while not the exclusive litmus of goodness, is probably more reliable an barometer than naked self interest. Egoism, even of the enlightened variety, will only support moral conduct as long as the participants visibly, perceptibly benefit. Which means the system collapses when our interests are perceived to be at risk. Even societies based entirely on this structure (the 'social contact' beloved of Hobbes, Locke,and other legislative forefathers) contain this weakness: that morality can never be based entirely on self-interest, no matter how cleverly constructed it is to be mutual. In other words, kindness can never be conceived as entirely a rational enterprise, because it's a value, and not reducible to articles of fact or quantity. It can only be conveyed, by parenting and education.

'I'm worried my life lacks meaning.'
And because moral action is a value rather than a fact, we have to be careful how we reward students. If we make the link between good conduct and palpable benefits too direct, we risk encouraging good conduct only when rewards are available. The reverse of this is a frightening acceptance of bad conduct in the absence of reward. So any system of treats, stars, codes or gamified assets has to be treated carefully, otherwise we might just find that we're teaching our students laziness, selfishness and egocentricity.

If you're a good teacher, you don't bust your backside trying to help your students because there's a bonus, or a power-up; you do it because it's the right thing to do. Any benefit to you should be incidental- although recognition and a warm rosy glow are nice of course. Alasdair MacIntyre would draw a distinction between external and internal goods: in his book Beyond Virtue, he discussed how the value of an activity should reside in the activity itself; Aristotle thought that the Good Life was, amongst other things, people pursuing actions that were ends in themselves rather than means to an end.

I agree. Rewards, if overdone, lead to vice, not virtue; when they are achieved, they should be for actions that merit them, not actions that are merely expected, not at the post adolescent stage. To do otherwise is to devalue the currency of reward, and to imply that all normal conduct should be accompanied by reward. Well, life isn't like that. I don't want to teach children to be complacent; I want them to appreciate self-sacrifice and restraint as well as hedonism: the former are vital to understanding the latter, and no reward system should teach children that life is an enormous chocolate box of increasing levels of diversity and sensuality, without also informing them that somewhere inside every box, there, too, lurks the horrors of the ginger, or the macaroon.

Your new line manager.
Jesse Schell, a video game designer, uses the term 'Gamespocalypse' to describe the way the world might be if gamification is used to exploit and corrupt people, perhaps in an effort to make them more obedient consumers, or by attaching exploitative values coded into the reward algorithms of the gaming process. We can see this effect on a much more subtle level in the way we reward our pupils.

Less is more. There are no Level Bosses to bash in life. I suspect it's a good deal more complex than that.

Continue? (Y/N)


  1. "There are no Level Bosses to bash in life."

    Not even SMT?

  2. Aw, they're only the guardians of the first round; the real Bowsers are at the Ministry of Funny Teaching...

  3. We have to separate the idealistic (everyone acting selflessly) from the realistic (the way we actually behave). Doing everything for the common good doesn't work unfortunately. The fact is that we are ego-driven and seek status, etc. Extrinsic rewards (eg. BMW) reflect intrinsic egoistic desires (status). Why don't most people donate anonymously?

  4. If we link attainment to external rewards, then like disappointed Beagles denied their Lucky Strikes, they might start to think that the whole point of education is to win an iPod, and if that doesn't happen then why should they bother? For one thing, I'm running out of iPods.

    Which would be a pity, because a decade and a half of free education might be seen by some people in some countries as a reward in itself. We shouldn't be teaching children to expect a sugar drop every time they do something desirable, because outside of the school bubble, nobody on the pavement outside will give a monkeys if they turn up to work on time, or wear the right tie. They'll notice when they don't. Prepare them for the world, I says, not Second Life.

  5. But their boss/employer may notice them if they go above and beyond the other drones.

    Such as helping the lady across the street and then offering to carry her groceries the rest of the way. I am sure she would say thank you.

    We do things we because we are nice and we continue to do them because other people are nice in return.

    We reward people that go above and beyond the call of duty. They have to stand out and I believe that doing this in education prepares them for the real world.

    And no, I may not care about the right tie they wear, but I would care if they stayed at work all night to help their department finish their presentation or figured out a way to save me and my business money. I would especially care if they failed to solve a problem efficiently or effectively and tackled it again and again until they were successful. These are qualities that games help to develop in our youth, problem solving skills, tenacity, competitiveness, camaraderie, and a sense of accomplishment.

    These are skills I am definitely trying to instill in my students.

  6. @ Anonymous

    'But their boss/employer may notice them if they go above and beyond the other drones.'

    I'm not sure how you're using the term drones here: people with jobs aren't drones, unless you subscribe to a paradigm of society that I don't recognise.

    'We do things we because we are nice and we continue to do them because other people are nice in return.'

    Only sometimes; this massively simplifies human behaviour and motivation. We also perform many acts simply because we feel them to be the right thing to do; events of altruism that we may never be recognised for. People aren't entirely egoistic. We're also self-sacrificial- we often perform actions even if it costs us.

    'We reward people that go above and beyond the call of duty. They have to stand out and I believe that doing this in education prepares them for the real world.'

    Sometimes we do; and sometimes we don't. And often the reward is nothing more than a thank you. Often it's the knowledge of doing well. Of course, it's possible to deny the existence of genuine altruism, perhaps by saying that all acts, even sacrificial ones, are performed for the pleasure of knowing one has done the right thing. But this is a mistake. To say, eg that a mother who gives up her career, her privacy, her time and relationships to look after her severely handicapped child for a lifetime of stressful, thankless bondage is doing it for the 'warm rosy glow' felt by doing good, is to stretch the concept of psychological egoism to the braking point, until the idea of 'selfishness' is so broad and all-encompassing, that it ceases to have a distinct meaning and becomes, literally meaningless.

    Games are a useful tool in short term motivation; as a teaching strategy, and as a device to teach pupils about a variety of issues. But that's all they are; a tool, amongst many. Sometimes they're the wrong tool, like using a screwdriver when a mallet is needed. And whenever we use the wrong tool for a job, we run the risk of doing damage.

    I want students to study music, english, maths etc, because these things are intrinsically important in themselves, not simply because of the external rewards they can bring. Tenacity, ambition and camaraderie can all be achieved without making a game out of them.And I don't want to teach children that what we teach them is simply a means to some other more obscure end, any more than the point of playing Angry Birds or Halo is simply to finish it- you may as well just drop in some cheat codes and see the final screen.

    The beauty lies in playing; that's the joy, that's the pleasure- learning how to improve, and seeing it happen. Not just winning. Life's not like that.


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