Gamification vs. Gameful Design

I am nearing the end of my third year teaching now, and in that time I've come to realize two things about my students. One, very often they can easily become consumed by the grade more than the learning. It's understandable: in the current model of education we place an enormous emphasis on the numerical grade, for good and bad reasons. The logic behind such reasons is too much for this discussion, but one I'd be happy to have. The second thing I've learned is that students are humans, with all the wonders and warts that come with adults. They are capable of achieving great feats, yet they are inherently flawed, and require certain structures to mitigate or incentive better character.

Getting kids to abandon the Idol of Grades is not easy, especially when many schools and universities link a huge portion of it to graduation and scholarship. I am not advocating to eliminate grades. After all, we need a way to evaluate students with some basic metric. Grades also provide a non-evaluative advantage in acting as a measure against laziness. If anything, students will work to at least avoid failure. That's not ideal, but better than nothing. Instead, I offer not to get rid of grades, but to make them work for what we want them to be.

I argue that grades should be a marker for how well a student progresses, not how poorly they've done. Grades should represent the accumulation of knowledge and skills, but in their current form act as an indicator for what they don't know. I propose classrooms take on the principles of gameful design, which may very well be the basis of every self-motivated goals and achievements in our society.

What Gameful Design is Not

Gameful design is not gamification. There are numerous instances where teachers attempt to make their class a game. Some programs go to such extreme lengths by using a digital platform, where each student has an avatar character that does battles (quizzes), goes on quests (learning modules), and fights monsters (homework). For some, perhaps in elementary school, this could work. No doubt, students may like it. I believe, however, at best it is a gimmick, and at worst is a waste of time and resources.

If our goal is to do such a program in every course, how long will it take for the bells and whistles to lose their shine and sound? The "smart kids" will advance to such levels that being a "Level 80 Paladin" becomes the new social status. That may be an extreme consequence, but I prefer to avoid such caste system possibilities.

Video Games Figured Out Humans a While Ago

The video game industry is a near $80 billion worldwide industry, with around 2-2.5 billion players. What is it about video games that attracts so many people to pay so much? This question is at the heart of gameful design. Gameful design theory seeks to break the most successful games down to their core, essential aspects and principles, and replicate them in non-game environments. It does not seek to make non-game environments into games, but utilize the essence of games for their purposes.

This raises the question, of course, of what is a game? There are numerous definitions, with philosophers like Wittgenstein getting involved. The definition I appreciate the most is from Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's book Rules of Play: A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.

Video games fit this fairly well. A System: no doubt, some of the most sophisticated systems of rules, cause-effect algorithms, scenarios, and objectives on the market. Players Engage: video gaming (if done well and for actual enjoyment) is not a passive experience. Participants must actually be involved in the pursuit of the objective, not just along for the ride. Artificial Conflict: as much as I want TIE fighters to be real and blast Rebel scum out of orbit, it is not real. But more than not real, the conflict is completely designed outside of a real scenario. Defined by Rules: video games have boundaries you literally cannot cross, explicit mechanisms that determine your advancement and the quality of your character, as well as damage received and damage dealt. Quantifiable Outcome: you know whether you lost or not in a video game. But the outcome is not merely a quality (win-lose), but a quantity that can be measured. "You won/lost by this amount, and here are the stats to show you why."

I will add to this list of aspects two items. One, Flexible Action: this could fit under "Players Engage," but I think it deserves more explanation. Nearly every video game (Minecraft being a major exception) has some clear objective that it wants you to accomplish. The means by which you achieve that objective can be quite different, though. Some players are more aggressive, others defensive, and so on. They have a play style that fits their enjoyment, yet completes the mission. Two, Successful Failure: there are times when you just cannot beat that boss, or some level seems impossible to complete. Some really interesting games are purposefully created to be mind-crushing difficult; I argue those are some of the most rewarding to players. Most of these games, however, do not punish failure, but welcome it. Indeed, who wants to play a game where, if you failure Boss Level 89 you must start the whole game over? High-stakes are part of life, but why would you want to play a game like that? Video games enable you to explore new playing methods, experiment in ways you otherwise wouldn't. Essentially, it creates a safe, risk-taking environment

Applying Gameful Design to Education

This spring semester I attempted to structure my AP Government class with gameful design as the guiding principle. I chose this class because they are older students who I expected to handle the responsibility of flexible work better, and that AP students would rise to the challenge. However, I still teach high school, so implementing a full-blown game-designed course would not be acceptable. Nevertheless, I took inspiration from the collegiate level.

The University of Michigan, which has pioneered much of this work, has some departments where all courses start off with zero points. This sounds normal, but consider that nearly every class you took, you began with a 100% in the class. From there, any mistake you make prevented you from every re-obtaining that status, and each subsequent mistake made you worse off, not necessarily better With Michigan's program has done is start you off with a 0%. An arbitrary amount of points, say 100,000, is a 100%. You must then earn those points by selecting and completing a variety of assignments. Each assignment (with exceptions) is optional, thrusting all responsibility of your grade on you. What's unique is that the professor offers more points than necessary, say, 150,000. Meaning, if you as a student choose to attempt an assignment you've never done and are hesitant in the skills required to do it, failure is not catastrophic. Remember, you start with 0: every point you acquire you get to keep, and only grows. A "failed" assignment may not get you very many points, but it is progress towards a learning goal. Want to earn more points? You do more assignments.

What is accomplished here is an entire incentive-structure that encourages and rewards student, self-initiated action. Students must take hold and responsibility for their grade. Now, this alone does not tear down the Idol of Grades, but there are ways to tear it down. If an instructor properly designs the points, he or she will vary the assignments available. The instructor will one type of an assignment only up to a certain point. Meaning, if a student did only what he or she was comfortable with in one or two assignments, they would not have enough points to hit the 100%. If designed well, not enough to pass. Ideally, the point distribution among assignments will encourage students to to diversify which assignments they accomplish.

What I Did

This was my goal. I set out to incentivize students to explore new ways of learning and expressing their understanding that rewarded their efforts, but also give them room to fail so they could grow stronger. But as a high school teacher, giving my students complete autonomy is neither practical nor wise. Instead, I limited such flexibility to a portion of their grade (27% to be specific).

Since parents need to know the progress of their child, I made this category (Required Individuated Program--RIP) a weekly assignment. Each week students were to submit available assignments up to 1500 points. For 18 weeks, that's 27,000 points. I offered 35,000 points so that failure could be mitigated. Often, students would go well above that. Instead of applying any additional points beyond 1500 as extra credit, I allowed students to bank their extra points up to 3000.

These Roll Over Points enabled students to use them in the future or apply them backwards. My logic was if a student did the work, that work should go toward their grade. As such, students are encouraged to do more. I capped the Roll Over at 3000 so students didn't bulk up at the beginning then do nothing throughout the rest of the semester. For the times a student did not go over, they would express disappointment, but not frustration. They were learning, and they knew they would have more chances to make up those lost points.

What Worked, What Didn't

My stated objective of students exploring new ways of expressing understanding was largely met. Five of my students' letters to the editor were published; 3-5 page papers on topics not covered in class were submitted; dozens and dozens of infographics on complex government ideas were beautifully designed; students volunteered hours of their precious time for political activities and veteran organizations; and nearly every student took the weekly and optional quiz. The variety of learning was accomplished.

One of the challenges I discovered was ensuring your points represent the importance of an assignment. To me, taking a quiz was important, as it encouraged students to read, which lays the groundwork for my lectures. I gave those quizzes a high value: 1000 points. That's 2/3 the way to what they need in a week, which is why so many students took those opportunities. A pattern, however, evolved. Students realized that taking the quiz plus one other assignment was usually enough to pass in any given week. The diversification of their assignments did not happen until the last third of the semester; the reason they attempted new assignments was because they ran out of the more familiar opportunities.

Moving forward, there are some changes I'd like to make. One, instead of a weekly RIP, it should be done every two week at higher points. The weekly aspect became a practical logistical issue for grading; it simply consumed too much time. Additionally, I want to reduce the value of quizzes and other assignments to encourage diversification earlier and more frequently. However, that requires doing more assignments in a given time period, and a week simply is not enough.

But diversification is not my only (or highest) priority. This is gameful design, not a game. I do not want my students attempting these assignments purely to meet their goal. I want the assignments to be fruitful experiences, that truly challenge their abilities. My assignments should enrich their knowledge, help students see patterns, help model and analyze others' points of view, and spark a creative energy. Not only should my point values accurately reflect this, but so should my standards and expectations. As a new teacher I'm still new to this, but my goal for next year is to outline clearer rubrics for what I want to see. An infographic should have this quality; a short paper should follow this structure; these volunteer organizations are acceptable; a letter to the editor must include the following; etc. And each assignment should have an explicit purpose that connects directly to my course's overall objectives. In general, just because the assignments are optional doesn't mean they are pointless.


In general, I've dipped my toes into gameful educational design. This is not a gimmick, and it does not replace the tsunami of knowledge I provide. My students are still drinking from the hose, bombarded with facts and lectures that they are expected to digest. I've heard concerns that, education is not about teaching risk, but about teaching knowledge. I fail to see why it cannot be both.

I consider it a mandate that I train my students on how to take risk. Life is full of risks, and failure can hurt. My classroom is safe enough that the hurt is a training grounds rather than a battlefield. This isn't a distraction, but vital to the learning process. The knowledge, patterns, and modeling students do must culminate in original, creative thinking. But creation requires risk! Students require knowledge, yes, they need facts. But the purpose of facts is for the discovery of truth, and truth demands that someone knows something more than facts. Discovery is not done from teacher to student. Discovery is only done when the individual is enlightened by the individual's own efforts.

And such a thing is impossible unless teachers give their students the opportunity to fail well. This is not a distraction. It's necessary.

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