In Defense Of Gamification

This article is a response to Dr. Kristen DiCerbo’s post, titled “5 Differences between education games and the gamification of education”, published Sep. 21, 2016 on the Pearson site. As a professional educator with considerable experience on the subject, I can’t decide what offends me more: a misrepresentation of gamification, or the careless way it is written. Full of extraordinary claims, vague statements and poorly supported arguments, it presents a misleading and largely inaccurate portrayal of its stated subject. It is difficult to believe that the author (whose job title is “Principal Research Scientist”) has researched the topic at all. I believe there is an explanation for this, which I will propose in conclusion – but first, allow me to retort.

There is so much imprecision here that it is hard to decide where to begin. The table comparing “Education Games” to “Gamification of Education” is especially offensive. It describes the ideal educational game on one hand, and the worst possible failure to gamify on the other – then juxtaposes them as if the comparison were somehow legitimate. This is like postulating that Italian cuisine is inferior to Greek based on a comparison of Spaghetti-Os microwaved (yes, microwaved) in the can with a $150 dinner at Milos.

To address the five points of comparison (summarized in quotes), I offer the following comments:

  1. Points

“Games are not about points.”

Neither is gamification. Both use points, achievements and rewards to keep score, track progress, and to motivate. Ask Michael Phelps if the medals get in the way of his intrinsic motivation. Ask Venus Williams if the points ruin her flow state. The idea is preposterous. Points do not affect a flow state either way. Flow has to come from authentic engagement; nobody who knows anything about gamification would suggest that progress mechanics (points, rankings, awards, etc) are meant to induce flow. Progress mechanics are motivational because they provide public recognition of achievement after the fact, making continued effort more likely. They work very well when done right, whether the context is a learning game, a gamified instructional unit, or an Olympic event.

  1. Level of Challenge

“Gamification is seldom concerned with this”…

The fact is that gamification is never concerned with this, because it lies outside the domain of gamification. Similarly, French cuisine is not concerned with the number of minutes you need to jog in order to work off the truffle sauce. Levels in gamification are part of progress mechanics, described above. They do not represent level of challenge, but recognize accomplishment. In the context of gamified instructional units, it is up to the teacher – the one with the expert knowledge of the students’ exact needs and abilities – to deliver instruction at the optimal level. No educational game can provide the degree of individualized leveling that a good teacher uses in the classroom. “Game designers are experts at presenting challenges at just the right time to meet a particular skill level.” So are teachers. In the classroom, I trust the teacher over the game designer.

  1. Narrative and Characters

“Most games have a story arc and/or characters and most attempts at gamification have weak or nonexistent stories and characters.”

Really? Do tell me about the story arc and character development in Pac-Man, or Asteroids, or Galaxian. Those were pretty popular games, as I recall. Too old? How about Angry Birds? Pokemon Go? Candy Crush? Does Dr. DiCerbo even own a smartphone? It gets worse: “Some gamification attempts do include avatars, and it does appear that these can be tied to student identity.” Does it appear so? What else, pray tell, would anyone ever do with an avatar? How much research has Pearson’s “Principal Research Scientist” actually done on educational gamification? It seems the answer is none. A well-designed gamified instructional unit will include personalized avatars and a strong, carefully crafted narrative. Again, the teacher has the advantage over the game designer here, with personal knowledge of the students, their life stories, their likes, dislikes, struggles, triumphs, fears and joys.

  1. Behavioral change versus conceptual change

I can’t quote the weak parts of this paragraph because the whole thing is a jumble of unsupported claims, non sequiturs, redundancies, and personal opinion. The author begins by arguing that practice is worthless, and ends with a set of statements about gamification so vague as to be meaningless. How can a researcher at an educational software company be unaware of Khan Academy, whose gamification of math learning is a shining example of success, both for students and for Sal Khan? Talk about scaffolding and developing new understanding! Show me an example of a learning game that fulfills this task even half as well as Khan Academy, and I will eat my keyboard. 

  1. Simulation versus reality

I agree with Dr. DiCerbo that simulations are valuable learning tools. Teachers everywhere use various kinds of simulations, from digitally animated interactives (BBC’s Science Clips are excellent) to role-playing, in the course of their instruction. I do, however, take issue with the remarkable description of the real world as a place ”in which students are not provided with accessible understandings of phenomena”. I dare say both Dr. DeCerbo and I, as well as most of the professionals reading this, received an education in traditional classrooms with a minimum of digitally animated simulations – yet we managed somehow to garner an understanding of phenomena! Even more extraordinary is the claim that “[i]n gamification, failure can mean the loss of a more highly-valued reward in real life.” What, exactly, are these highly-valued rewards in real life being lost by hapless students trapped in a gamified classroom? Again, DiCerbo’s grasp of gamification – and of real life – seems tenuous. Simulation is an important element of gamification, precisely for its value in learning. Teachers know the value of simulation whether they choose to gamify or not.

Dr. DiCerbo summarizes her article with the following bombshell: “There is little to no evidence that taking game elements out of a game will yield the same results…there is a growing body of evidence that games can be successful learning and assessment tools. Gamification is another story.” Again, to quote Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Yet DiCerbo does not bother to link to any evidence, or even provide a reference. How does one demonstrate “little to no evidence”, anyway? The absence of proof does not equal proof of absence, as Dr. DiCerbo surely is aware. To claim the contrary as a rhetorical flourish in what presents itself as a research-based article is disingenuous.

I suspect that the real purpose of Dr. DiCerbo’s article is not to present an instructive comparison of learning games with gamification – it fails absolutely in this regard – but to present gamification in a negative light while promoting the value of educational games. This would be bad enough were it written by someone with no vested interest in the matter. But it was written by a researcher for one of the biggest sellers of educational games. In terms of journalistic standards, it falls somewhere between a hack job and a hit piece. Dr. DiCerbo should leave marketing to the Marketing Department and stop trying to scare teachers away from the competition – or, worse, from doing for themselves.

Anyone with an Internet connection can, in five minutes of searching, find many thousands of testimonies by teachers, parents, and students to the efficacy of properly executed gamification in education (links below). For a research scientist like Dr. DiCerbo to claim the contrary is worse than disingenuous.

In the spirit of generosity, I will assume that Dr. DiCerbo wrote this article while ill with the flu and loaded to the gills with medication that prohibits the operation of motor vehicles and heavy machinery. Otherwise I would have to question whether Pearson is getting its money’s worth.


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Examples of successful gamification by Yukai Chou




Capterra Training Technology Blog by JP Medved

Testimonials by classroom teachers


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