I am a fan of the work of Jane McGonigal, but as I think about the details of the actual school day at Brightworks and consider the use of game mechanics to engage children in the day to day tasks of keeping the place shipshape, I face some concerns. Ideas like Chore Wars certainly have some appeal, but I wonder what the long-term effects of this kind of experience might be.
Rewards and the Implication of Authority
The notion of a reward, some kind of benefit for having done something measurable, carries with it the idea that someone (be it person or algorithm) has judged your effort and found it worthy. At Brightworks, we deliberately avoid judgement-based evaluation of the children’s work and try to let the work speak for itself – both to the child and to the world. If a team of children builds a sailboat and it sinks on the maiden voyage, nobody has to tell them that the boat didn’t work right – the boat tells them that directly, and in a more nuanced and appropriate manner. We may need to help them see the event as just a momentary setback on the journey to building a great boat, but they understand that their boat didn’t work. Likewise, if they make a great boat and sail it across the bay, we don’t need to give them a gold star or an ‘A’ – the boat does this as well, and again, in a more nuanced and appropriate manner.
In a (somewhat infamous) project at Tinkering School, we built sail-powered carts that we intended to use in an empty field near the seashore. Despite the excellent construction, and the voluminous sails, the carts never moved under wind power. Had this been a gamified experience, the kids might have received no points for completing the project – and yet this project remains a durable and valuable memory in the history of Tinkering School. The kids who worked on these carts remember the experience in vivid detail and can explain in enormous detail the whys and wherefores of the failure. Simple game mechanics would not award any points, but I defend the experience as immensely valuable. Perhaps this is why the role of the human dungeon master in Dungeons & Dragons is so important to the experience – life is complicated, and learning experiences are doubly so. The long-term benefits of an experience cannot be summarily judged and awarded in the moment. The value may be cumulative and not visible or even meaningful until years later.
Do we habituate ourselves to external validation by always expecting an award for doing something? It seems to me that we might undermine our ability perceive our own efforts and the efforts of others as positive without some sort of score or reward. As in most things, a polarized view of gamification is probably not useful. I am certain that making chores fun by awarding experience points has its place and in and of itself is not harmful, but as we see gameplay introduced to more and more of our lives, we should keep an eye on the net impact. If awarding points gets more people contributing to social good, then I have a hard time seeing that as bad. But I fear that over time we may forget how to perceive value for ourselves (unless… we can be awarded points for having an internal perception of the value).
Kevin makes the excellent point that I’m taking a very reductionist approach to thinking about gamification:
I’m sure the popular notion of gamification is the gold-star interpretation, but games don’t have to point-based. I think the bigger benefit to games in many contexts, like education or business, is the shift from linear to-do lists into holistic/systemic thinking about things encountered. One of the strongest elements of gaming is the narrative that give the mechanics life. I love the notion of businesses having DMs, not PMs.
Which Daniel also backs up with a relevant example:
… Compare Gowalla’s design (which emphasizes curating a digital “passport” or story of your life and travels, and discovering and exploring new places and cities) with Foursquare’s design (a points-based system nominally about retaining “mayorship” of the places you frequent) and I think you get a very good contrast of two wildly alternate takes on “gamification.”
And Tim Gill of the Rethinking Childhood blog adds:
Agree. Say no to star charts! My friend the UK child psychologist and writer Jennie Lindon has written about where you end up when children are told “If I’m good, they will give me stickers.”
Chad Calease wonders:
could it create a “play backlash” where counterculture rebels against “gameful influence”? counterculture eventually bcomes culture
And, on the pro-gamification side, there is this recent talk from TEDxBrussels, where Gabe Zichermann makes the point that gamification, when done well, can be a really good thing.
John Conti thinks it boils down to something fairly simple:
All important points. For me, the distillation of all this is:
- Adult Encouragement => Children feel loved
- Children allowed to fail and then learn => Children feel confident
- Children earn points for actions => Children learn how to be a player, in a system, a cog…
And Richard Bartle, speaking at a conference in Barcelona, thinks that it might not be very fun once everything is gamified (because the experiences are not being designed, just gamified):
The big thing about social games that they don’t like to tell you, is they’re not actually social. Games played on social network sites is what we mean by social games … These games are categorized more by the platform than that they are social themselves. The way they engage their players is not through interesting gameplay, it’s done through extrinsic rewards — basically bribes. … The difference is, social games rely on the extrinsic rewards so as to be compelling. People keep playing the game because it keeps giving them things — rewards. This has led to gamification. In the hands of designers, this has a great deal of potential, but unfortunately it’s not in the hands of designers, it’s in the hands of marketers.
Daniel Bigler (in a recent tweet):
Gamification backfires for Khan Academy. Interesting comment section, too.
…The creators of Khan Academy added badges to make it more interesting and motivating, not to make you ignore everything else and just aim for the badges. [full story]
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