There are at least three different classes of digital games in schools. Which you prefer speaks volumes about the role you believe schools should play.
The first group, the classic edu-tech games, have danced in and out of schools for so long that many kids take them for granted. Most of these programs are cute, but they fall short on pedagogical ambitions and graphic design. That doesn’t make them worthless; it just limits their effectiveness. (One person’s drill-and-kill can indeed be another’s guiding light. When educator and blogger extraordinaire, Scott McLeod, asked, “Do most educational games suck?” he drew fire from just about all sides.)
By contrast, a handful of educators a few years ago sought to put game controls directly into students’ hands by teaching them how to build their own games. Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT’s Media Lab, is the reigning champion here. (Here’s more of my take on Scratch). There are a few others, too, including Microsoft’s Kudo, a programming language that kids can use to build games for the Xbox game platform.
And now comes what I would dub a third approach, something that has picked up its very own buzzword before it has even reached most school gates: gamification. The term is as elegant as a teenager jawing a mouthful of bubble gum. But it suggests adding far more sophisticated game mechanics to applications — no matter how stuffy or serious the application has been. Gamification probably has more momentum outside of schools than in. Case in point: Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat has written about how DevHub, a place for web developers, added gaming feedback and watched in awe as the percentage of users who finished their sites shot up from 10 percent to 80 percent.
Most games are naturally social, which means gamification depends on that other ubiquitous web trend, social networking. Sure, go ahead and play Solitaire. But most of us take a certain pleasure in besting the competition — whether it’s the Texas Rangers or some ugly troll in World of Warcraft.
Academics are creating a skin of respectability for gamification. Byron Reeves of Stanford University has recently co-authored “Total Engagement” to outline his ideas about how gaming can turn the erstwhile plodding company man into an engaged and motivated worker. (Reeves is also putting his ideas to the test by co-founding a consulting firm, Seriousity, that will coach companies on how to do this.) The first gamification summit is slated to take place in January in San Francisco.
What does each of these approaches say about education?
The first type of games were willing to entertain kids to keep them engaged — the “just-make-it-fun” school of thought. But any standup comedian will tell you how tough it is to keep people entertained for long. It’s even harder with kids who outgrow the “fun” of a game faster than most games can evolve.
The Scratch camp is more about empowerment. Scratch appeals enormously to kids who want to control their environment and be in charge. Those who build Scratch games get feedback from others when they post their games. They say they love the comments and feel great when hundreds of others play their games.
Ultimately Scratch aficionados bring their ambitions to learn with them. I’d wager that if these kids were born a generation or two ago, they’d be building transistor radios. The Scratch kids have to be self-motivated: most use Scratch outside of school. No one makes them do it. All it took to get them going was for someone to introduce them to Scratch in the first place. That’s a great argument for exposing more kids to the tools.
Gamification, by contrast, doesn’t rely on internal motivation. Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn’t especially motivated — at least at the beginning — and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.
I’m betting that gamification, in spite of its throat-clearing name, is going to be big in the commercial world — and in schools. Gamification can help build kids’ competitive spirits. As they gain confidence, they may become hungry for tools that put them in control. At the end of the day, those who know how to create the rules of the game, know how to win.