Gamification is Hard

Gamification, in it’s present digital form, is a very new subject. The word itself isn’t even recognized by Websters, Merriam-Websters or American Heritage. Only Oxford among the major English dictionaries lists a definition. According to the term only dates back to 2004 and didn’t enter wide use until 2010. And Gabe Zichermann’s workshop is at present the only course on the subject offering certification, although some colleges have begun to offer gamification classes.

So I don’t feel embarrassed to admit I’m not an expert. I believe in fact my background as a writer gives me a broader perspective on these issues, and I hope some fresh insights into this marketing juggernaut.

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7 Potential Pitfalls of Gamification – a Rebuttal

In the May 17, 2012 issue of iMedia Connection Chloe Della Costa wrote an interesting piece called 7 Potential Pitfalls of Gamification. The adjective “potential” softens the critique somewhat, but the article has received a lot of attention in the gamification community and I’d like to respond to each “pitfall” in turn.

1. The motivations might be superficial

Of course motivational tools might be superficial. They might not work, they might even backfire. But there are many instances where superficial motivational tools are highly effective such in recreational sports, so that in itself should not be a criticism. There are also many gamification applications where customers are already motivated and don’t need rewards, such as giving to charity or complimenting a helpful employee. In those cases gamified UX is more important than motivational tools.
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Gamifying Education With Grand Theft Auto

Grand theft auto

Suggesting Grand Theft Auto as a model for gamifying education sounds like suggesting Satanic rituals to increase church attendance. But the other day I found my five-year-old son playing Grand Theft Auto III on our iPad. The Grand Theft Auto series, from Rockstar Games, is one of the most successful video game franchises in history, and probably the most controversial.

I heard news reports about its anti-heroes, prostitutes and cop-killers long before I played it. But my son, who speaks Spanish, wasn’t seeing the dark side of the game. He was simply driving cars through a detailed, open-world system until he crashed, then running until he found another car to drive. (Actually, he had to eject the drivers, but he didn’t comprehend this as stealing.)

What interested me, however, was that while he was driving a radio station was playing music, DJ banter and sarcastic ads. I realized if he drove around long enough he might learn some English. Maybe not the right kind of English. But what if the radio stations were teaching elementary vocabulary and grammar?

There’s hope in the gamification community, and within the progressive educational community, that gamification might be the magic bullet to rescue our abyssmal K-12 schools here in the U.S. But the record so far of educational gamification has been as disappointing as the New Math. While I do believe gamification will eventually become a natural component of most schools, we may also have to keep changing vehicles until we find one that doesn’t crash.

In fact schools have always relied strongly on one gamification element: grades. And grades are great motivators. The problem is they are also de-motivators. And if grades are such a great predictor of achievement, why are teachers opposed to being tested themselves?

Grand theft auto

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 left pretty much everyone behind except test companies. The imposition of national standardized testing has resulted in short-term cramming rather than long-term learning and, as Steven Levitt discovered in Freakonomics, to cheating by teachers and administrators worried about losing their jobs, or their schools. This is one of the worst examples of gamification in education. Gamification should increase student and teacher engagement and make teaching and learning more fun, rather than be a stressful distraction.

Children are both the easiest and hardest audience to capture. Easiest because their critical faculties are immature. Hardest because they have no patience. They aren’t going to give a video or a book or a class a chance – it has to grab them right away and hold them for the duration.

In terms of gamification children are stubbornly resistant to efforts to manipulate them. Adults will be patient or polite, but if kids don’t like what’s being offered them, they won’t participate, they’ll turn off.

The problem with most educational games is that they are produced by educators, not game designers. Or the game designers are hamstrung by the curriculum. So what you end up with are a few game elements superimposed on a boring course. Children see through this right away.

A better way to gamify education, I think, is to do it backwards. To design or appropriate first-rate games, then gamitize the educational component. In other words, create or license games that grab and hold a student’s attention, like Grand Theft Auto grabbed my son. Then look for ways to layer on the math or English or whatever you want to teach. They won’t even know they’re learning, which is often the best way to teach. Like the luckless pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto, these future students won’t know what hit them.


This post was contributed by Mark Schreiber, guest writer
Mark Schreiber is a full time novelist since graduating high school at the age of 15. He also engineered his sister’s bestselling writing career and started and run several businesses, including a solo medical practice. He’s currently interested in technological entrepreneurship in Singapore and Silicon Valley.

Top 10 Myths of Gamification

Adam and Eve Leveling Down

1. Gamification is new.

Tell that to Adam and Eve, who got history’s biggest level down on the Apple Challenge.

2. Gamification is a passing fad.

Why do people always say “passing fad?” Aren’t all fads passing? In any case, if it’s not new it can’t be a fad. What critics are referring to is digital gamification, which is new only because cheap mobile devices with more computing power than the Apollo space program are new. Unless the lights go out, gamification won’t either.

3. Gamification is worthless because it’s superficial.

Hey, you’re not lying on the beach or spending $150 at the salon for the benefit of your internal organs. Unless you’re at a wedding or a funeral, there’s nothing wrong with being superficial.

4. The name’s too ugly to last.

I get paid by the letter, so I love it. And you’re mistaken if you think length or awkwardness spells a word’s doom. Can you say “entrepreneurship?”

5. Gamification is no different from a game. It’s a distinction without a difference.

The Olympic events are games. The medal ceremonies with podiums and flags and national anthems are gamification. [Comment by Keith from Gametize: Game lets people escape from the real world. Gamification lets people escape IN the real world]

Black pride!

6. Gamification is by nature less important than a real game.

Then why do people cry at medal ceremonies? Why do they mean so much? The scene at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fist on the podium as a expression of black pride is remembered to this day, long after the race itself was forgotten.

7. A lot of people won’t buy in.

Everyone already buys in, whether it’s fantasy football leagues or frequent flier programs or church raffles. Critics underestimate the degree to which people everywhere are already allured with gamification.

8. Gamification is a Science

Gamification is an art.

9. Gamification is easy.

Then you do it.

10. Gamification exploits people.

Bad gamification exploits people. Good gamification empowers them.


This post was contributed by Mark Schreiber, guest writer
Mark Schreiber is a full time novelist since graduating high school at the age of 15. He also engineered his sister’s bestselling writing career and started and run several businesses, including a solo medical practice. He’s currently interested in technological entrepreneurship in Singapore and Silicon Valley.