I'm conscious that I may be missing something here and keen to hear about research on actual improvements in attainment, as opposed to qualitative surveys and questionnaires.
Mark Prensky is a lively New Yorker and ex-teacher who set the pace on the use of games in learning with his evangelistic book Digital Game-Based Learning (2001). Prensky claims that today's educators/trainers and learners are from separate worlds. His proposition is that learners have a short attention span nowadays - for the old ways of learning! His point is that the old ways are inappropriate for the new generation of learners. His argument is that games make learning cool. School and most learning experiences are not cool.
It was Prensky who was responsible for this useful, and some claim, overused phrase. These terms have become commonplace and Prensky helped make them common currency in the learning field. Digital natives are those who grew up with computers, texting, searching, games consoles and thrashing about in software – the twitch generation. Digital immigrants are those who have had to enter their world and learn about them later in life. Then there’s the often forgotten, but not uncommon Digital aliens, those who remain outside of the system.
There has been much criticism of this distinction as being too black and white, encouraging the view that all young people have full, online, literacy skills, which they clearly do not. However, the distinction is a useful heuristic device in that it points to the obvious generational shift in terms of the commonplace use of online technology, especially computer games. There has been a demographic switch and demonstrably higher use of technology by younger people. They literally learn technology skills at a very young age, such as using software, apps, texting, posting, messaging and increasingly the use of cameras, images and media production. His arguments about context are clear.
To be fair Prensky moved on and his redefinition towards ‘Digital Wisdom’ has tackled some of the older criticisms. His primary arguments are that education has a problem with relevance, context and audience. The curriculum, he believes, is antiquated, the world for which students are taught has irreversibly changed to include both personal and workplace technology and the students have new experiences and different expectations. We have seen huge changes in pedagogy, especially since 2000, with search (Google), crowdsourced knowledge bases (Wikipedia), video (YouTube), audio (podcasts), social media and voice. These are all radical pedagogical shifts that require new skills, for both teachers and learners.
The real power in Digital Game-Based Learning (2001) comes from the arguments he gathers on motivation, and using game techniques to improve learning. Professional games' designers know a lot about motivation. They have to - or their games won't sell. There is, therefore, real mileage in taking some of the magic dust of game design and sprinkling it on learning. His analysis of what makes games tick is exemplary and matched by a similarly strong analysis on learning in relation to simulations.
The primary advantage of gamification is motivation but this can be short-lived if it simply means introducing extrinsic behavioural rewards. There is also a difficulty in bringing the two worlds of games and learning together. Prensky is not entirely convincing in making these two worlds congruent. Games may not be as widely applicable in education and training as he imagines. There is also a whole raft of arguments against the use of games, especially in reflective, higher forms of learning.
For example, it is quite difficult to argue that the violence in games has no effect whatsoever on players, then argue that games make great sense for behavioural change, for example in military simulations. Why has the military spent so much on games and simulations if it has no psychological effect? This is a dimension to the 'games in learning' debate that is often underestimated by the games evangelists. Games can distract, disappoint or even destroy learning.
Cognitive load - Gamification may well introduce extra cognitive effort that may outweigh any planned advantage. This 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.
Distraction - 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 understanding of the needs of your audience. For adults, this may not mean gamification.
Disappointment - this is a danger where the learner is set up to experience a game which actually turns out to be rather weak. Poor efforts at games and gamification can disappoint. Children brought up on a diet of blockbuster, real-time games are often bored by poorly designed, educational games. The problem with games is that although they seem exciting and fun, they are actually fiendishly difficult to design and make. 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.
Destruction - in some cases, games can even destroy learning. This is the argument put forward by Neil Postman. If game-playing induces an expectation that learning must always be an amusing experience, then setting such an expectation risks producing the opposite effect in contexts where amusement is absent. In this way, a games-based approach might undermine other more traditional forms of education and training.
Pejorative - ‘Game’ can be 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.
Naive behaviourism - collecting coins, rubies and other tokens 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 rewards. The aim is often the false god of extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately, this may be all too short-lived and as one becomes habituated, gamification becomes a little tired, even tiresome.
Computer games have long used smart pedagogy; learning through failure, level structures, keeping users within a defined skill level until mastery is achieved, simulations and constant feedback, are all strengths in games with real pedagogic worth. Some also argue that games may turn out a generation with better IQs, better skills, more attuned to technology with a more enlightened learner-centric attitude towards learning than any previous generation. Many also argue that we should harness the strength of games, while setting their weaknesses to the side. Whatever your view, Prensky is a pioneer and tireless campaigner for games in learning.