Would you like to play a game?

I'm married to a game designer. I don't think that qualifies me in any way to write this post, but it does explain why the buzz about gamification piques my interest. Some of my thinking about playing school.

A colleague asked via twitter for responses related to “academic entitlement” as described in this ED Week article. Briefly, academic entitlement being the belief that one is entitled to a particular grade for reasons tangential to academic achievement such as attending class regularly or paying for the course.

The article resonated with me because I do see students so often caring more about their points and percentages than what they have learned. Parents too will call and ask for extra credit assignments. In a mastery learning, standards based system, extra credit is rather meaningless. I told one mother that her son was welcome to write an extra essay, but if the new essay didn't score better on the rubric her son’s grade would not change. (He already had a B.) But, despite my best efforts to make my class about growth, passion based learning and self efficacy, I always have that handful of students who make decisions based on their perceived or desired grade.

This week, I was privileged to be present for a keynote presentation from  Gabe Zicherman (@gzicherm) about gamification in education. It’s a hot topic, and I hear lots about adding gamification to classrooms. Gabe gave it to me from a new angle, though. It’s not about making your classroom more like a game. It’s about understanding the psychology of gaming and motivation and applying those lessons to the classroom in an intelligent way.  Because in reality the classroom is already implicitly gamified. I said as much to my colleague who asked about the ED Week article.  Me: “As soon as there are grades students become more interested in points than learning. School is already gamified.”

Her response, I think, reflects some of the hope by many that gamification is some kind of magic bullet that will fix classrooms. She replied, “You think school is already gamified? Games only give points that are earned and many kids get promoted that don't deserve it.”   And here we have a fundamental breakdown in understanding about the way games work, the assumption that they are always fair and always merit based. Most games are not. In fact a huge motivating factor in many games is the element of chance. This is why the lottery works, but there are hundreds of other games that rely on an element of chance, from free parking in Monopoly to easter eggs hidden in video games. We keep playing because there is always the hope of the unexpected bonus points. Many points and game rewards are unearned.

Fairness is likewise a myth. In any game there are always some players who have an advantage over others. Many times these are inherent advantages such as prior experience, age, physiology, distance, strategical knowledge and money. (Seen Moneyball?) Anyone who teaches knows that students come into their classroom with a wide range of readiness. In the game of school there are some kids who start ahead and others who start behind. This becomes a challenge for those attempting to apply gaming principles to classrooms. Should rewards be based on specific achievements or on progress? Even the question reflects the reality of an unequal starting line. Imagine being the player who joins a Monopoly game after several other players have already gone around the board a few times already. You’d be more than a bit behind. (This is an actual activity done in my local writing project to make a point about inequality.)

So, if game theory does not fit some idealized notion consistency and fairness how can gamification impact classrooms positively? I think the answers are psychology and transparency. Understanding gamers can help us understand our students, (often one and the same). And as I said before, school is already a game. The smartest students know that (they sometimes refuse to play along) and the kids with the best grades have learned how to play school so well that they draw self esteem not from learning, but from earning good grades. Player motivation is something we need to understand.

Gabe Zicherman explained the four player types as described by Richard Bartle, Achievers, Socializers, Explorers and Killers, (his word for those who must not only win, but need to make sure others lose.) Achievers love to win, but only if winning means something. An achiever is satisfied with winning only if there are very few winners. If everyone gets an A then that A is worthless to an achiever. Socializers and explorers are the types who will enjoy collaboration, process, and have that passion based learning experience I want for them. I think the killer group have gotten a lot of press lately by another term, bullies. Their success is measured not by how well they do, but by how poorly others do.

I don’t know that thinking of students through this lense is any more useful than multiple intelligences, learning styles or any other social behavioral/learning theory label. We are all a bit of everything. But, I can tell you I see students who fit those player types quite often. So, if knowing about player types helps me understand their motivation a bit better, then I’ll try it. I also found John Radoff’s model of player motivations helpful.

One fear, besides the romanticism about the fairness of games, is cheating. In the gaming world cheating is an accepted practice. I’m not saying it’s okay, just that it has become normal in many areas. Just as steroids were once the norm in some sports, cheat codes, player walkthroughs (step by step directions for how to beat a game), youtube videos and entire websites are devoted to helping players win in the video game world. The goal is to win, and while it may be more satisfying to win based on effort, it is still nice to win. When we make school even more game like, we open ourselves to the mentality that the ends justify the means. As educators we try to tell students that cheating and plagiarism are wrong, but the game like nature of school implicitly encourages them to use every resource they have available to them to win. When winning becomes more important than learning we have lost.

I'm looking forward to the discussion this post may generate. I'm excited for the possible applications of game psychology and game theory to education. Much as game designers have to think through all the possible player behaviors and possible loopholes in game play, we must be thoughtful about the design of our classrooms lest we get played.