Friday, April 04, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Karenne Sylvester (Gamification)

As I wasn't going to the IATEFL conference this year, I resisted the urge to browse the programme because I didn't want to be disappointed that I was going to be missing some of the sessions that I would have gone to, although I feel now that I'll need to change my mind about this and download the latest version of the conference app just to keep myself informed about the latest ELT trends and to have a better idea about the major themes that people are interested in. If I had gone to the conference, I know I would have surely been drawn to all of the sessions related to game-based learning, and so I was very pleased to see at least two of these (Karenne Sylvester's talk on Gamification and Mykhailo Noshchenko's talk on Teaching English via Computer Games) were live streamed and the recordings are now available, so I knew that these are two I would be watching first.
Gamification is a topic that has attracted me for several years now, and I was pleased to see it being taken forward in ELT as it is not only a topic that I think has a lot of potential, but one that is widely misunderstood and also often criticised. In particular, adding a superficial layer of gamification onto adaptative learning programs is giving the topic a bad name, and so I was interested to hear what Karenne would approach the topic.

Karenne's talk is intriguingly entitled Gamified language educational e-tivities: chocolate-covered broccoli or honeycoated peas? and in the abstract, she describes the term gamification as "the changing of what may seem a dull learning exercise into something which seems fun instead because it can be played". She continues by saying that this "illusion of game play is generally accomplished by adding game elements, dynamics and mechanics to the learning activity." 

After Karenne's introduction, she explains that the responses of her students to digital activities she used in the classroom led her to taking an M.A. in ELT & Educational Technology at the University of Manchester. While there, she completed a dissertation on GLEEs (Gamified Language Educational E-tivities), which she has also written about for the OUP blog. This has also led her to game school, which she will start this year.

Karenne then introduces the mission of her talk (see image right) and says she will also share some of her students' perceptions of GLEEs. Karenne then discusses the term gamification, a term that is growing in popularity, and which she says is like "a golden chalice" in some circles, promising to "radicalise education", threatening to "flip everything upside down and disrupt the way people learn." In other circles, however, the term is disliked and criticised heavily. It is opposed by many "due to the seemingly increased aspects of the competitive aspects of human life, specifically the use and overuse of points, badges and leaderboards." as well as many reminders of behaviour management techniques used in education in the past. Karenne believes this is a misunderstanding that she wants correct during this talk. 

Gamification uses play for a purpose. Karenne uses a quotation by St.Thomas Aquinas to remind us that usually, play has no other purpose except for fun. Gamification disrupts this. After showing some examples of games, Karenne mentions the four types of fun:

  • Hard fun - a seemingly impossible challenge
  • Easy fun - relaxing playful activities
  • Serious fun - mental challenges
  • People fun - spending time with others
Assassin's Creed is used as an example that has the four types of fun and also has opportunities for incidental learning, something that is explored by Mawer & Stanley in Digital Play (Delta, 2011) and the Digital Play blog (Thanks for the mention, Karenne!). However, this is very different to GLEEs.

Karenne next discusses the difference between GLEEs and games, mentioning that they have in common the fact that they can both be fun learning experiences. She makes a distinction between this and game-based learning, which she considers to be all about (here I disagree with her) serious or meaningful games. The problem with serious games, according to Karenne is that they can often be too earnest and therefore, dull. 

Gamification in ELT is not new, Karenne points out, using as examples the language game books by Jill Hadfield (e.g. Intermediate Communication Games) and Mark Hancock (Pronunciation Games). The activities in these books, strictly speaking, "are not games, but gamified activities, because a purpose other than play drives the game experience."

The GLEEs that Karenne has played with her students include elements displayed in the image on the left. However, the worst of these are dull and basically "coat broccolli in chocolate" (i.e. both are delicious separately, but not when combined!). This lazy "slapping on of reward based systems onto pedagogical content without thinking through their relationship, and whether or not they match and taste well" leads to misconceptions about gamification. 
Competition, points, badges and leaderboards are not innately bad though. However, when these elements are badly utilised in, for example, Duolinguo or Bussu, they are and frequently they employ a shallow approach to gamification. Another example Karenne mentions is the Macmillan irregular verb wheel game, which she believes has no curiosity or challenge and does not inspire play. 

Beat the clock systems or a handful of points is not going to make a non-game activity fun. There "needs to be a tie-in between the game objective and the pedagogic activity". The previously mentioned game books worked because they were produced by teachers with an understanding of pedagogy and of what makes a game fun. 

Karenne believes that a  well-designed game such as Quizlet can transform content which is not exciting into something which is "sticky and delicious" 

Karenne goes on to say that "well-placed game dynamics offer opportunity for the repetition of content and offer clear scaffolding through feedback loops, and control over the pace and reception of the content." They are neither too hard or too easy, and can lead to flow, which, as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, leads to a state of total immersion in a task. Glees can offer this experience. Karenne next shares testimonials from students about how GLEEs have helped them. 

Karenne finishes by mentioning the research by Daphne Bavelier, outlined in her TED Talk, which looks at how video games affect the brain, and how game-like activities help to orient and regulate attention, and which is something she has seen happen in the classroom. 

The recording of Karenne's talk can be viewed in its entirety below. You can download her slides from here and it is well worth taking a look at the virtual handout (full of references to books and papers related to the subject as well as a list of example games) too. 


  1. Graham. Thanks for a very detailed summary. [Video comes up on my browser as "Not available".] Dennis

  2. Thanks, Dennis - not sure why your browser doesn't show the video. It seems to be working fine in mine (Chrome)