Does gamification mean game over for teachers?

14th September 2018 at 00:00
Can the mechanics that make computer games so compelling be used to hook pupils on learning or will this fusing of the virtual and physical worlds threaten education as we know it? Chris Parr plugs into the debate

Young people’s attention spans are too short, and traditional teaching methods simply do not engage them. It is time to start teaching with video games.

So said Mohit Midha, the chief executive of edtech firm Mangahigh, earlier this summer. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he? After all, he produces maths games, which he sells to schools.

On the face of it, though, his argument seems pretty solid. Children are engaged by video games, but they may not be quite as engaged by their 2pm maths class, particularly when it falls just after PE. Surely it makes sense to look at the tactics and tricks used by video games developers to keep their customers hooked and see how they can be applied to the classroom?

The process is often referred to as “gamification” – and it is not a new concept. Since well before the age of devilishly addictive smartphone apps and online Fortnite battles to the death, teachers have been incorporating aspects of gaming into their lessons: think star charts for good grades, and “credit” systems for good behaviour that result in gold, silver and bronze certificates – or even real prizes.


But with the increasing ubiquity of handheld devices, and the growing prevalence of computer games designed for and targeted specifically at schools, it is now easier than ever to fuse your physical classroom with a virtual online world.

Using apps and computer programmes such as Classcraft or Class-Dojo, teachers can transform their teaching into the type of digital role-playing games that their pupils will find familiar (and, perhaps more importantly, that they will happily become immersed in). Answer a question correctly? Earn two points. Earned 10 points? Buy a nifty hat for your online avatar. But should we be doing this?

Paul Howard-Jones, a professor in neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, thinks the principle is a good one, although it more work may be required to get it right in practice.

“Games, including computer games, harness emotional responses we have evolved for other purposes,” says the presenter of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of… documentary series, which observes the behaviour of young children.

“The brain’s reward system responds to reward and the anticipation of reward – helping us guide our decisions and movements both consciously and unconsciously,” he adds. “In a prehistoric world this was crucial for keeping us focused on the prey, making those second-by-second decisions that brought us closer to success.”

These days, he says, much of what we know about how the brain processes rewards – including the probability of success in a particular task – has been hijacked by the gambling industry “to exploit our instincts to take our money”. But “uncertain reward” (some element of chance) is also “a feature of all pleasurable games”, he adds.

“In video or computer games, there is a constant stream of uncertain rewards that is unlike a board game or a game of cards. They usually escalate, too. For example, in Fortnite, we see the risks and the rewards become greater as players are eliminated.”

Attention upgrade

A 2016 study by Howard-Jones finds that the gamification of learning can reduce the activity of the part of the brain that is responsible for mind wandering. The introduction of a competitive video game element, as opposed to just reading information and then answering questions, resulted in increased learning, the study concludes.

It makes sense to harness what we are learning about game-thinking for educational benefit, he adds. “Computer games will become, and should become, a central feature of the classroom. But are we yet applying what we understand from the science of how we engage with games to build really engaging educational games that teach what we want them to teach? Have we got the ‘right’ games yet? That’s a less straightforward question.”

Amy Jo Kim knows a thing or two about making successful video games. As well as being the author of Game Thinking, which explores how businesses can incorporate aspects of computer games into their strategies, she has also worked as a designer on a string of hit games including Rock Band and The Sims.


She cautions against teachers simply “sprinkling the mechanics of games” – things like regular rewards and progression through different levels – over the top of existing teaching approaches.

“That is never going to get that very deep, compelling experience that makes games interesting,” Kim says. “It can turn people off what they enjoy. For example, if someone enjoys reading a book, but when they get to the end of every page they get a point or earn a reward, it can start to get annoying.”

This type of “poor gamification” can “yield a short-term rise in some metric or other, but can lead to longer term disengagement”, she argues. “If you don’t rethink core underlying experience, it is difficult to get something more compelling.”

Kim warns that while games and education are a natural match, because “education has an underlying goal – to get students to learn”, this does not mean it is easy to add an effective gaming element. “Just throwing games into classroom doesn’t work – it is just silly. Students shouldn’t be playing Angry Birds all day,” she says. “Good games have missions, collaboration, let students unlock new features. All of that is hugely impactful in a classroom and I think we will see more of that.”

Kim believes that if schools really want to get to grips with how gaming can change the way teaching works in an effective way, then a root and branch rethink of classroom practice is required.

On a mission

Good examples of gamification can be found “where teachers reconstruct classroom activities, or conceptualise the classroom as a place for missions – starting simple, then allowing children to unlock more missions as they go”, Kim says. However, she adds that such overhauls of pedagogy are unlikely to become widespread while teachers are assessed on their students’ exam results: “They will continue to teach to the test.”

One game that has certainly made an impact is Times Table Rockstars, now used in more than half of UK schools. It was developed by Bruno Reddy while he was head of maths at a secondary school in North London. He was looking for a way to engage his students in learning their times tables – something he describes as “traditionally the domain of the primary school” – and hit upon a system that allows pupils to progress through different stages of a music career depending on how quickly they can solve multiplication problems.

“Originally it was just a formula in Excel that would produce random questions,” Reddy says. “ I hadn’t heard about gamification as a concept. But in thinking about making it more fun for the pupils, I hit on elements of gamification – things like level-ups, unlimited lives so nobody fails, leaderboards and alter-egos.”

It was only because he wanted to go deeper into the theme, to engage his pupils and “make them feel more like a rock star”, that he started to introduce game thinking into his classes. One of his students then suggested taking it online, and the rest is history.

Reddy says that while he, of course, recognises the benefits of bringing computer games into schools – particularly for “things that are repeatable, indisputable facts” – teachers should not introduce gamification simply because it seems to be “all the rage”. This is because “there is a risk of game fatigue”, he says.“Even with great games on the PlayStation, you need to take a break from time to time. If you try to gamify everything, it can become very intense – there is a lot of brain activity involved in games, so you need to take breaks.”


Reddy even advises schools that subscribe to his game to ensure they have built in certain weeks as “rock star holidays”.

He adds: “My other worry about over-gamification is reliance on extrinsic motivation factors. While points and level-ups may yield results for a certain amount of time, once children ‘get bored’, teachers have no motivational options available other than to start handing out more and more ‘points’. You need intrinsic values and motivation to play, too.”

Reddy says it is also important that teachers, as well as pupils, buy into the idea of games-based learning. When Times Table Rockstars has been purchased on behalf of schools, rather than by individual schools or teachers, the results can be less impressive.

“If teachers don’t get behind Times Table Rockstars, perhaps throw in a bit of rock star mojo themselves, then it has less of an effect,” Reddy notes. “Where we have a multi-academy trust that has bought it for all the schools [in its chain], we find that engagement can be lower than it is where individual schools have bought into it.”

Console yourself

Although a self-declared fan of gamification, John Stanier, assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School, a secondary in Devon, believes there is some way to go until the use of computer games in education is widespread – partly because “the vast majority of teachers have no contact or interest in the gaming world”.

Where they do have the interest, though, games can be a great tool for motivating some learners in a sophisticated way, he says. “I don’t think it is simply short-term rewards to fuel addiction. I am currently playing [underwater first-person shooter] BioShock at the moment, and I go back to it to find out the rest of the story, and immerse myself in a unique and beautifully rendered environment.”

Using such tools in the classroom is no different to how teachers used to “use football or celebrities to engage children in learning”, he says.

“It is using pupils’ interests outside of school to engage them in school. Indeed, I think we need to be better in schools at linking all aspects of children’s lives to help their learning journey, rather than perpetuating this fallacy of a home-school divide.”

There is a question, though, about whether schools should be looking to recreate pupils’ home lives. Just because they are motivated by missions, point-scoring and badges when they plug in their PlayStation, should they be behaving in the same manner in the classroom? School is viewed by many as a stepping stone between home life and the professional world. With this in mind, shouldn’t schools seek to deliberately avoid reproducing aspects of students’ home lives?

Switching off

As Marc Fabian Buck, associate professor in the Faculty for Teacher Education and Arts at Nord University in Norway, argues: “One enormous advantage of school is that it offers a space and time that temporarily disconnects students from their life-worlds and thereby from their usual life-world limitations and actions.”

There are also ethical questions about taking a series of approaches designed to keep players hooked on a video game and applying them to learning. And could the gamification of learning also jeopardise those critical aspects of teaching that rely not on a closed, computer-based environment but on real-world interaction between pedagogue and pupil?

In a 2017 paper, Buck cautions that the gamification of learning represents a step away from “serious pedagogical and didactical endeavours”, which could lead to the “degradation of teachers to support personnel”.

He argues that gamification is not “the mere iteration of reform efforts, which reoccurs time and again within the learning discourse”, but “an imminent danger to the obtained and established strongholds of school and the teaching profession as institutions”.

Buck hypothesises that the social isolation that can be created by online learning experiences could in turn lead to the development of education policy that could threaten teachers in certain disciplines.

“[Teachers in] so-called hard science subjects could be endangered first by comprehensive gamification, since their contents are regarded to be easily transferable into a technical way of teaching,” he argues, adding that such a move “could lead to a reduction, virtualisation and de facto dissolution of teaching personnel”.

“As pedagogues, our responsibilities do not lie in opportunistic stances towards new trends, but rather in active critique and evaluation of new methods and approaches,” Buck writes.

He also cautions against the ill-considered introduction of gaming without due diligence. “I, for one, think there is a huge potential for games within education, but at the same time I push for a thorough discussion on the ramifications before we hastily implement games everywhere,” he says.

“One big chance of games is to include a certain subset of students that have difficulties to learn in traditional manners. If games enable them to participate more in general, I’m all for it – but I have reservations [about] turning whole lessons or subjects into games.”

Chris Parr is a freelance journalist. He tweets @ChrisJParr

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