What's wrong with giving Josh +1 for teamwork?

Next Thursday,  Paul Driver is taking part in an online discussion at #AusELT chat about gamification that promises to be very interesting. In preparation for this, Paul has written an article, Well done Josh +1 for teamwork: Gamification and Crabs which outlines his stance on this new(-ish) trend that has started to enter the ELT classroom

Paul makes some very valid points about gamification, which is often defined as the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity. He doesn't sit on the fence when it comes to saying what he thinks of it, implying that gamification is "at best, an over-hyped and misguided fad, and, at worst, an evil and manipulative strategy for getting people to do things they normally wouldn’t want to.

It's not the first time that Paul has spoken against the trend. In 2012, he wrote on his blog, Digital Debris that "in the majority of its current implementations, it is not game-like enough" and "by overlooking the depth and breadth of the potential games have to empower and motivate learners and create meaningful experiences...gamification is doing a disservice to both learners and educators."

A lot of what is written in both articles rings true, and should be taken as warning shots for any educator who thinks they turning their classroom into a game is an easy undertaking that will work wonders. As Paul implies, there's a lot more to game-based learning than first meets the eye. 

As a practitioner who is interested in exploring this area with young learners and teenagers, I have encountered the difficulties first-hand at the (digital) chalk-face, first when using Chore Wars in 2011 to gamify a class preparing for the FCE exam, and then in 2012 gamifying speed-writing with a group of young teens. The former worked only partially (yes for the younger teens in the class: not at all for the older teens) and the second required a number of adjustments over the course of the term when I used it in order to keep it working. I'm currently finishing off a chapter for a forthcoming book that details this action research.

So, where do I stand? Somewhere in the middle ground, I think. I'm attracted to the idea and my own experience tells me there is definitely something in it that is worth exploring, but it requires caution as it could have the opposite effect to what is intended if badly implemented. 

this sort of 'gamification' has been going on for years in classrooms
In his latest article, Paul mentions Class Dojo as a high profile example of gamification being used in the classroom. Although he doesn't say so in the article, I suspect Paul does not think highly of this behaviour management system. If this is the case, I think he hasn't spent enough time teaching primary or secondary kids. I was introduced to it at a conference and know immediately that I was going to start using it in class at my first opportunity, and I blogged about it enthusiastically

Say what you like about it, but it works very well. When I introduced Class Dojo to the language academy where I worked, it swept through the place like wildfire and is still being used today. In some ways, it's just taken the place of the star chart on the wall, which is actually proof that prior to the introduction of gamification as a term, this sort of stuff was happening in classrooms all around the world.

In conclusion, I doubt whether there are many YL teachers out there who don't use some sort of star chart or other behaviour management system in the classroom. And whilst Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigle are certainly leading experts on game design, I suspect they know little about the practical realities of teaching a group of 20 eleven-year-olds. I also suspect there anti-gamification stance is more targeting the tidal wave of simplified pointsification that commercial enterprises have started to embrace than the digitalisation of something that has been going on long before videogames were ever invented.

What do you think? Although the time isn't ideal for me, I'm hoping I can make it to the #AusELT chat next week - hope to meet some of you there. Come along and join in the debate.


  1. 2.
    Historically and philosophically, the word game strictly refers to an activity which is played

    for fun.

    It is fundamentally something that is played for no other reason or no other purpose

    than just to play.

    For example, a game of poker between a brother and sister exchanging jelly beans is, yes, playing

    a game... but Poker played in a casino is not a game, it's an attempt to earn money through a

    favouring of chance. Football played by a group of teaching colleagues is a game, but football

    played by professionals is a not a game, it is a profession. Walking on a rope tied between trees

    might be a game between two friends, but under a tent it's a circus act.

    So, now we understand what a game is and what a game is not, let's return to what gamification is.

    This means to digitally modify an activity or product that is not a game - in its core objective - to an activity or product which only appears to its players as if it a game. However, both the players and the game-maker and all other interested parties know before play, that play is not the reason for doing the activity. There is another end-goal. The objective of the experience is 'only' housed within the illusion of game play. Moreover, and this is important, it is an illusion that the players understood going in and voluntarily accept before playing.

    In education, the illusion of game play might be doing exercises in a strange world where in

    order to get forward they have to grasp algebraic formulas. Or it might refer to shooting a

    basketball into a hoop in order to gain access to options where they can learn the difference between the present perfect and past simple.

    In terms of gamifying the entire class experience, over weeks and into semesters- surely to

    do this is more akin to doing a really long triathalon, and that's not really a game, is it?

    Sure, there are badges and points at the end but is this gamification? Additionally, the voluntariness of this experience, over time, is this there? Categorically, games are always

    voluntary. Always. But ClassDojo is chosen and implemented by teachers. This is not an attack on

    ClassDojo, as I said before, if I was teaching teens I might give it a shot. But over long

    periods of time, given its competitive nature, just like the star charts on walls, surely

    certain people "win" over and over while others "lose" over and over.

    How motivational is it for the losers? Long term? Year after year? Are they are still voluntary players by the end? Are the neither losers nor winners playing for the sake of the game or they engaged an alternative activity of only wanting to get to the top.

    And in all that focus on the winning, or the not losing, has attention now split away from the actual educational content?

    In my opinion, gamification has much more to do with changing short, time-limited,

    specific exercises that are not game-like in their essence (e.g. dull grammar gap-fills) into

    ones that seem like they are fun to do for a brief moment in time. I think gamification is

    about, for example, taking a list of words which the learner 'needs' to learn and then making

    that experience fun for the learner so that (s)he voluntarily plays - perhaps at home, or at

    school, with or without others. There's no loss of face. There's just the fun.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Karenne. Lots of points to respond to here too.

    Game - I think people actually play games for lots of other reasons than just fun or for more than 'just to play' or pass the time. I'm not sure I agree with you that a game of football played by professional football players stops becoming a game because they are paid to do it - sure, it's more than a game because of the money, but it is still a game.

    I think there isn't really a clear-cut definition of a game that everyone can agree on, but I believe the definition needs to be inclusive rather than exclusive as you imply above.

    As for 'gamifying' part of the classroom experience over many classes or a semester, etc not being 'gamification' but something else - what, then shall we call this if not 'gamification'?

    I also don't agree with you that games are always voluntary - I think they are usually voluntary: weren't you ever forced to play a game at school (by the P.E. teacher? Or peer pressure?)If you believe this, then you have to say that no activity 'played' in a classroom can be called a 'game', which then starts taking us into the realm of ridiculous.

    I agree with you about the length of time that you can use something like Class Dojo or another gamified system - this is indeed in line with my experience, and the nature of games in general - every game has a time limit. At some point you get tired of playing a game and want to stop or play another game. The same is true of you 'gamify' an activity in the classroom. A teacher needs to be aware of this and to change the rules of the game or change the game when appropriate.

    As for motivation for the 'losers' - the trick is to multi-layer the experience so there isn't any one way of 'winning' - a great example of a popular game that has done this successfully is the iPad game 'Clash of Clans' (worth a blog post in itself - watch this space) - there is so much you can learn from how the points / levels / badges system works in a game such as this and how there are different ways of 'winning' that appeal to different player types (ref. Bartle)...

    My thoughts on your thoughts at least :-)

  3. No worries, am a bit worried about the first half of the comments - the answer was too long so I'd split it into two.

    Well...anyway, in the meantime....

    see the thing is that although you say games are played for lots of other reasons than just fun, but I think maybe the word 'fun' is being misunderstood too. Fun is not just relaxing, spending time with others, fun can also be hard and demanding. And so without repeating myself, the thing is that the philosophers have been arguing about games since the time of Plato, and if a game is played for any other reason than to play that game, it isn't a game.

    That's not just me spouting pretty, that's Schiller, Huizinga and Callois. In terms of clear-cut definition, yes, there isn't one but again the philosophers have already determined that they are four different categories of play, these being agon, alea, mimicry and vertigo (competition, chance, roleplays and free-fall).

    Your comment on the voluntariness was interesting and worth further exploration... yes, I was forced to play by my PE teacher. Thing is, I didn't enjoy it and thus didn't take anything away from the experience. As you said there is more to games, there's also autonomy, competence and mastery. So if I play because I am forced to play then I am not being autonomous. As my heart is not in it I don't gain new abilities (or at least not as many as if I were doing it because I want to) and because I don't get better, I can never become a master of this game I don't want to play.

    I guess referring to your comment, I think it is more ridiculous to call a learning activity a game... I think we should refer to them as gamified e/activities and stop using this word inappropriately. Moreover, in terms of the incidental learning that occurs from playing games, real games, i.e. games that were originally created to be games and taking them into the classroom... well that is a real, tangible and interesting. However, this is not gamification. It has more in common with authentic reading activities, like bringing a newspaper into class or TED videos, the use of games in the classroom is not the same thing as taking into class a learning activity which has been modified to look like a game because the teacher wants to increase motivation levels. I make that distinction again because there is also this popular confusion.

  4. This may be a little off the point of your blog post, Graham, but I think there is a connection.

    Up until now I have been setting workbook 'assignments' (homework) and grading students for it in the hope that the desire to get good grades from me would stimulate them to do more workbook homework. In a sense this was a kind of gamification. Incidentally, I also grade their writing and speaking regularly to provide formative feedback and the continuous assessment the school demands (and rightly so IMHO).

    At the end of last academic year I became disillusioned with the results of the grades for workbook homework as they weren't stimulating many of my adults to do more homework and so I made some changes, moving away from the 'gamification' of workbook exercises. Instead, I asked them to reflect every week on what they had done out of class and tell me scores if they wanted to, but more importantly, talk about how satisfied they were with what they had done and any progress they noticed. As usual, some took to it immediately and other ignored it completely, but I shall persevere from the very start of the coming course this time.

    Part of my idea is to get rid of unwanted and unnecessary homework by asking my students what their priorities are: speaking, writing, reading, listening, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and then suggest that they only do workbook homework which matches their priorities and then to reflect every week or two on this work.

    In a sense, instead of using gamification to motivate my adults, I hope to appeal to their own sense of the importance of the work I suggest they do. Will I be able to kill two birds with one stone? Get students motivated to do as much self-selected as useful work out of class as possible AND for them to develop as reflective, autonomous learners.

  5. Just in from cel.ly on twitter cy.tl/1awFjji
    "Starting this term, every public school student in Oregon is supposed to be graded solely by whether they have mastered the academic skills covered in class.

    Turning everything in neat and on time, bringing back signed forms and racking up extra credit won't boost grades. Turning assignments in late, skipping homework and talking during class won't hurt, as long as the student can demonstrate the key skills and knowledge covered in the course."

    "In reality, it won't always work that way, especially not in this first year that, by law, grades must be based purely on academic achievement."

  6. Thanks for coming along to the blog, Chris - good to hear from you.

    Grading is definitely not 'gamification' - quite the opposite I think. In fact one of the points of that Lee Sheldon makes in his excellent book (the Multiplayer Classroom) is how moving away from pass/fail or A/B/C/D grades and moving towards a level/points system can be far more motivating.

    One of the factors is that your grades go up and down but you don't drop in level in a game and you never lose experience points. What can be demotivating for students relating to grades is that they can feel they are not getting better - using an experience points/level system can give students a much better sense of progress (i.e. my XP/level is rising and I am getting better all the time).

  7. Hi, there! I want to explore gamification especially Class Dojo. Yes, there are downsides of gamification. I have to agree that gamification can be very competitive. As teachers, we should be alert when there is already unhealthy competition.

  8. Gamification sounds to me a little like the role-playing which is very fashionable in employment based training. I have never been in favour of this method of teaching as it takes the particpants out of their comfort zones, and seems to me to reduce the retention of what is being taught in this way. The information imparted will always be associated with the discomfort of the learning process. Maybe however I am just old fashioned!


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