Sunday, April 19, 2015

Does gamification play Pavlov with learners? 10 DOs & 10 DON'Ts

The massive success of online games led many to suggest that games and gamification, could be used to turbo-charge online learning. Take a little magic dust from gaming, sprinkle generously and we’ll all find it more fun, be more motivated and learn to love learning. But there’s pros and cons here, as it can both help and hinder learning. If gamification is simply scoring, bonuses and badges, the 21st century version of Pavlov's dogs, that would be a disappointment. So much gamified learning looks like a bad fruit machine. The simple stimuli, scores and rewards may keep learners going forward but it can be a distractive, disappointing and shallow form of engagement, skating across the surface of content. It may also demand more cognitive effort for not much gain. The danger is in taking learning back to the behaviourist era, with simple, Pavlovian, conditioned responses, or S-O-R theory. The learning game still has far too much behaviourist theory, most obviously through learning objectives.
On the other hand, many proven, evidence-based pieces of learning theory seem to be congruent with games techniques, such as chunking, constructive failure, practice, doing and performance. I've given a detailed analsis of a real example here - Angry Birds.
Learning is gamelike
All teaching and learning is a bit of a game - gamification just makes it more obvious. It’s often said that we tend to blame the players not the game in education. Students quickly learn how to play the ‘game’; minimise attendance at lectures, get a hold of past-exam papers, cram for the exam.
There’s also a sense in which social media is also game-like. Twitter's really one long never-ending 'game' with plays (Tweets), rewards (Favourites & Retweets), wins (Followers). Similarly with Facebook, where the race for friends, comments and likes has a game-like feel. Going back to check your comments, notifications and likes can be as addictive as any game.The huge success of social media, measured in the billions who use it daily, even hourly, may be down to its gamelike addictive qualities.
What’s in a game?
Wittgenstein saw the word ‘game’ as an example of a word that defies definition, with a spread of related meanings, that resemble one another, like family relations. In fact, he saw all use of language as ‘language games’ in the sense of being involved in a way of speaking within a context – idle chat, teaching, scientific discourse, flirting and so on. So let’s not play the dictionary definition game but take a position and look at the DOs and DON’Ts.
1. Distract
Games can distract from true learning. In learning, often contemplation, steady progress and cognitive calm are required - not the cognitive distraction of cheap gamification. In this sense, needless gamification can hinder learning. As Merrill said, “there’s too much ‘-tainment’ and not enough ‘edu-‘ in edutainment products”. True motivation does not come from gimmicks, it comes from a true undertsnading of the needs of your audience. For adults, this rarely means sexing things up with game accessories.
2. Destructive competition

At its worst, game players can become less interested in learning, knowledge, content… and get obsessed with simply winning. That’s a real danger. You see this in leaderboards, where a few at the top get obsessed and battle it out for days, while the rest get demoralized, as they know they’ll never get to the top. I once built a bar-quiz kiosk for product knowledge (for Barclays bank), which was incredibly popular but encouraged fierce rivalry between teams at different locations around the country. It worked but a side–effect was that this encouraged competitive, rather than collaborative, behavior.
3. Disappoint
Poor efforts at games and gamification can disappoint. The problem with games is that although they seem exciting and fun, they are actually fiendishly difficult to design and make. It’s easy to try, not so easy to succeed. So I’ve seen lots of half-baked, condescending or childish attempts at gamification with cheap cartoons, crass special effects and dire sound effects. If it doesn’t work, it can seem condescending or superfluous. It may even be worse than nothing at all and can demotivate learners. The lesson here is that learning does not always need to be ‘fun’. It sometimes needs to be taken slowly, seriously, with intense focus and persistence, not pimped up like a teenager’s car.
4. Put off
‘Game’ is a pejorative word for some. Not all older learners appreciate the idea of games in learning and may find it faddish, even condescending. Games of a certain type may also exclude female audiences. It may be difficult to get gamified learning experiences accepted by the people who have to implement them or older, more conservative, audiences.
5. Overload
Gamification may well introduce extra cognitive effort that may outweigh any planned advantage. It may result, not in cognitive gain but cognitive overload. This can be counterproductive and can hinder rather than help learning. Don’t imagine that games techniques can be inserted into learning experiences without extra cognitive effort. Multitasking is a myth.
6. Naive behaviourism
Collecting coins, rubies and other tokesn may be fine, if you're 10 years old, but less interesting to adults. This simple Pavlovian form of rewards is often little more than behavioural fluff. The aim is often the false god of addictive learning. Unfortunately, it is all too shot-lived. The gamification becomes a little tired, even tiresome.
7. Inappropriate
To assume that a game or gamification is always good for learning is a mistake. There are plenty of instances where games and gaming would be superfluous, even inappropriate. I’m not sure I appreciate games in sensitive medical subjects such as chronic diseases. In academia, many would regard gamification as a cheapening of their subject.
8. Incongruent
There is one species of gamification that results in little more than superflous overload and that is when the game is an add-on. The game elements are not congruent with the learning but occur before or after the learning experiences. You swing through the jungle as a monkey have to land on a platform, then you get a multiplication problem. When the gamification is so removed and separate from the learning, it's become nowthing more than dressing.
9. Sounds, special effects & spin
The mechanics of gamification, especially the use of sound effects, animation and excessive scoring can be totally destructive in learning. Far from acting as motivators, they become increasingly annoying elements that destroy retention and recall.
10. Over-spend
Let’s not forget the expense. Games and gamification usually involve extra costs, such as design, writing, coding and testing. The extra time and expense must be justified by gains in speed of learning , impact or retention.

On the other hand there's some DOs
1. Control progress
Games and gamification are very clear in terms of self-awareness of progress. There’s tasks, levels and clear points where achievement is recognized and rewarded. Levels is a good example. High-end games, with levels, force the gamer to stay within a competence level until they prove they are competent at that level and can move on. This is comparable to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Personally, I think that games' developers know far more about this than Vygotsky ever did. Within that level you are subjected to repeated failure, unless you show clear competence or make fast progress. It forces the learner to master complete competence before moving on. This is important in highly structured domains, such as maths.
2. Chunk
Games are sensitive to chunking, whether its short video, tasks or levels. This breaks learning down into manageable and meaningful tasks. This can be short videos, certainly shorter than the 6 minutes recommended by data from large scale video based courses, sprints (see Duolingo) and the all-important levels. Chunking, intrinsic to games, is also intrinsic to good memory theory and learning.
3. Allow failure
Games thrive on failure. You lose, die but live to play again. This catastrophic failure often results in you being thrown back to the start or at least back to a certain point, to come at the task again. This has two powerful learning effects; 1) you repeat the experience which is no bad thing in learning, 2) you are motivated to avoid failure the second time around as the consequences are severe. Both combine to push the learner towards competence. I have used these in gamified, soft-skilled simulations in subjects like interviewing skills and conflict resolution. As a pedagogic technique, it works beautifully and is, in my view, the most valuable thing we have to learn from games in learning.
4. Learn by doing
Games are rarely about digesting large amounts of ‘knowledge’. They come into their own in domains where you have to learn processes, procedures or real-world tasks and competences. Scenario-based learning is a great candidate for games techniques. It is here that levels of competence, learning from failure and learning, as well as assessing competences, comes into its own. But make no mistake this is difficult to design.
5. Practice
Games are largely about repeat cycles. You do something, fail, go back and do it again. There’s much more opportunity for repeated deliberate practice, therefore reinforcement in long-term memory, better retention and recall. This is what games are all about but learning rarely faces up to the truth, that it, above all, requires repeated deliberate practice, hence the massive inefficiency of sheep-dip training and lectures. Gasification, if it introduces spaced practice, can be a bonus in terms of retention.
6. Adaptive
If the gamification intoduces some adaptivity, namlel the treating everyone uniquely, in terms of what they actually need, then it can be a powerful form of personalised learning. Adaptive learning can be gamified to present content appropriate to that learner's need at that particular point in their learning journey, like a satnav in learning. Word of warning - this is not easy to achieve and needs some smart software.
7. Motivation
For some audiences; reluctant learners, children, learners with special needs and so on, gamification can be the feature than attracts them in the first place and keeps the learning. The idea that learning can be fun and not the experience that many had at school, which is one of boredom and failure, is an attractive proposition.
8. Mobile
Mobiles give you an umbilical cord to learners. We also know that people like to play games on mobiles, witness the Cany Crush epidemic. So there's a good argument for seeing mobile gaming as a useful thing to consider in online learning. If learning can be inserted into that down-time, on trains and elsewhere, that's great.
9. Time
Military simulation sometimes introduce progressively faster expected completion times. Faster than they would be expected in the real world. That is because it instills better levels of competence. Timers often create a slightly more intense expectation and raise attention and focus in learners, which may, for certain tasks be useful. They can push towards automaticity in recall, as there’s a world of difference between a competence that is measured by immediate action and recall and one that takes some time to recall. I’ve seen this work well in drill and practice tasks, recognition of aircraft and so on.
10. Make game and learning congruent
This is perhaps the best rule of all. The game must be congruent or as close in rules and structure of the learning experience. If they feel like two separate layers, it will all have been in vain. I once produced an interactive version of The Joy of Sex book. We included a Mr & Mrs game, where, as a couple, you were asked questions separately, then compared your answers. It was fun and it lived up to its intended purpose, to allow couples to have some informative (at times edgy) fun in their relationship.

I like the light touch gamification in Duolingo - sprints, adaptive and spaced practice but not so keen on all the bonus symbols. When gamification is congruent with good principles in learning theory, it has the power to increase the effectiveness of the learning.  I'd call it ‘gamish’ as I’m fond of the chunking, repeats and mastery but less keen on superficial scores, bonuses and badges. That’s not to say they don’t have a place but they often seem like a superfluous layer of complexity.

1 comment:

Alex Jones said...

Kevin Werbach's Gamification MOOC Course teaches many of the points you make here. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to explore these points in greater depth. I had a very enlightening discussion with Jacob Habgood (now of Sheffield Hallam University) way back in about 2006 about games and learning and his distinction between learning that is intrinsic to the gameplay and where it is extrinsic still seems a very good one.