Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Jump Off the Gamification Bridge!

"Gamification? Is that a real word?" my colleague asked me after I'd expanded on my new training plan for several minutes.

It is.  Gamification is the Next Big Thing in corporate America, and it's coming soon to an education conference near you. For those playing along at home, add "badges," "leaderboards" and "progress bar" to your Bingo cards.

But just because everyone's going to be doing it doesn't mean it's a bad idea.

Gamification, at its best, is more than the buzzwords; like an elegant proof, it brings together theories on motivation, pedagogy, and brain function to create a way of predicting how "players" will react to the environments we create over time.

At its worst, gamification is a way of sticking prizes and meaningless competition on top of work that should be intrinsically motivating. But let me tell you about the good stuff: The feature that excites me the most about this approach is the respect shown to the players.

Students are treated as individuals with their own sensible reasons for choosing to play.  Failure to participate is treated as an opportunity for design improvement, not a reasons to shame the student/player. That emphasis alone would be a great one for teachers to carry forward, especially, of course, for our boys (who choose "not to play" at higher rates).

Other elements of good gamification seem to include*:

Narrative: Gamification asks designers (that's us, teachers) to spell out for players (kids) where they're going, how the project they're working on gets them there, and why it's AWESOME.  We need to show kids where they've come from on the journey, and what needs to happen next for them to move forward and win.

Individualization: We offer ways for students to choose their own adventures. We design a place where they can grow, but they get to choose ways to move towards their goals.  And let's talk about those goals: sure, there are A's for the kids who are into that, but are there social rewards, opportunities for intellectual self-direction and exploration, or ways to compete against peers?

Lifecycle: Newbies, Regulars, and Masters are the names game designers give their players. As teachers, there's a tendency to assume everyone's a regular and no one needs to be taught how to participate or more forward. And we very rarely have the chance to let "masters" of a subject do more than wait for the rest of the class to finish.

This theory makes me wonder -- do we lose kids in high school because we never really helped them "onboard" into the system? Do they have an identity at our school? Do they know why they're here or where they're going?

PERMA: I certainly had a lot of fun in my classrooms, but I am not sure that the lessons themselves always involved PERMA: Positive Emotions, Engagement/Flow, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. I can think of lessons that did and they were consistently hard, long-term projects that kids chose for themselves. That tells me gamification's focus on this area is on the right track.

As I learn about this theory and practice applying it through our district's new training program, I'll let you know my results. For now, I think it's worth it, even given the

Thomas Jefferson Test:

Does it do what it says it'll do? Gamification in education and corporate training is new, but the exponential growth of game playing (and the gamification of web programs/platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Goodreads, Ravelry, eBay, Kickstarter, Pinterest, and so many more) tell us that yes, the theory works to motivate people to participate and learn.

Does it solve a current problem in the classroom? The problems I could see gamification addressing are drop outs caused by students who just don't see how school connects to their future. I think it could help teachers connect their lesson plans more directly so that students at the middle and top ends of their classes max out their learning. I think it could help students remember and focus on their own reasons to learn, which are so much more powerful than my reasons. So if it works, then yes.

Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Heck yes, it does. Gamification, if it works, could allow us non-coaches to bring authentic, fun, passionate, epic WINS to the classroom the way football coaches get to do each week. How awesome would that be?

Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool? What I believe is that if TJ was a World of Warcraft player, he'd be one of those guys who sells maps and can tell you how to ride the epic flying mounts at 150% speed and where to get the most important herbs. TJ was pretty much as individually and intrinsically motivated as they come; I suspect he could relate to not being turned on by a stellar report card.

Ruling: Gamification is innovative in the way it elegantly combines several other theories, but it's not a "New and Improved!" gimmick. I think TJ would want to know all about it.

I'll keep you updated in my efforts to put the theory to work. 

*This summary is a compendium of points from these following presentations (and many more, but I liked these best): 
Amy Jo Kim at Google: "Putting the Fun in Functional"
Meaningful Play: Getting Gamification Right by Sebastian Deterding
Fun is the Future: Mastering Gamification by Gabe Zichermann (swears alert, for E. Tx readers)

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