The Emperor’s New Invisibility Achievement: Using Gamification to Obscure the Big Problems in Education

Why Gamify Classrooms?
As I understand it, the ‘gamification‘ of the classroom aims to fuse the following benefits of computer or console gaming into learning:
  • The attainment of levels and associated skills / powers / titles / rewards and the sense of achievement which goes with them.
  • The cooperation required in multiplayer games in order to reach a goal.
  • Learning from mistakes and developing grit and persistence in trying to complete a difficult task, despite initial failure.

  • Deriving creative solutions to puzzles and problems.
  • An immersive, interactive environment.
  • The ability to hack or ‘mod’ these environments and characters in order to personalise them.
  • customizing your own adventure.
  • Learning to negotiate, compromise and strategize in order to reach a goal.

Jane McGonigal Discusses the Value of Gaming in Her Seminal Talk at TED

All of which all sounds wonderful. Done right, it can only lead to a personalized, relevant, cooperative and engaging classroom environment where the emphasis is on students solving problems creatively, collaboratively and independently. The gamified classroom truly is the twenty-first century classroom we all want so much.

Or is it?

Rewards As Motivating Factors

All of the wonderful things I have described above are predicated on the attainment of rewards. Whether it is completing a level, attaining a score, being granted achievements, special powers, titles and the like, gamers want something back for their efforts. As wonderful as the other benefits are, they fall by the wayside without appropriate rewards as a motivating factor.

The effective classroom implementation of gamification thus relies on awarding these incentives. Whether it be badges for completing a task, level achievements for sustained critical thinking or a clean attendance record, or even the promise of stars for working well in a group, the gamification of the classroom hinges on the distribution of rewards.

The Emperor’s New Invisibility Achievement

Rewards for achievements? Teachers have been doing this for decades. Marks are ‘points’, symbols of achievement are ‘levels’, academic awards are ‘titles’, and an outstanding report gives students the ‘special ability’ to get into a good university. All the while, the teacher praises and encourages students to do the best they can. Using gamification terminology is merely the same concept with a flashy new dashboard.

I am not saying that we should simply ignore gamification in favour of marks-based systems, since they amount to the same thing anyway. What I do want to put forward is that there are massive problems with marks-based systems – problems that gamification may well be entrenching by hiding them behind what looks to be a more fun, relevant and immersive experience. To use a gaming analogy, we may well be taking a poorly designed game and tweaking the graphics, so that it looks great but is just as unplayable. Except now we are not sure why.

There is something sinister beneath the gamification trend: it hides what is truly wrong with education instead of addressing it. (This is not to say that those innovative teachers who are using gamification principles in their classrooms are complicit in this obfuscation – many are very likely unaware that they are playing a role in doing so.) Nevertheless, I do feel that before embarking on any move to gamify a classroom, teachers and schools should carefully consider whether they are truly innovating, or just making a bad system worse.

Entrenching Old Habits of Thought

Marks-based systems have always preferenced the product over the process. Gamification appears to do the opposite. But does it really? As mentioned above, gamers want rewards, and everything else is secondary. The real challenge in a student-centred, twenty-first century education should be to make students’ learning, self-discovery and the honing of their innate abilities the primary objective, instead of the quest to earn marks. In offering alternative ‘rewards’ in the gamified classroom, are we not simply entrenching the ‘product-centered’ mindset (albeit in a more enjoyable form)?

If education is to become about self-discovery, students need to set their own objectives and evaluate their own progress. In schools, this is practically impossible, under the constraints of the curriculum and the need to get marks on reports. With gamification, the teacher sets the storyline, the outcomes and the rewards. There is very little scope for students to set their own objectives, to wander off on their own quests, much less to reward themselves for reaching a personal goal. In both traditional and gamified environments, the game is rigged in favour of the designer, not the player.

Writing a symbol on an assessment or a report card has become shorthand for an evaluation of a student’s abilities. Even teachers talk about ‘A students’ and ‘C students’ as if this alone summarises their work ethic, intelligence and value as people. Will this be any different if students become Wizards and Orcs or Commanders and Privates? To promote a truly student-centred approach, assessments and evaluations need to be far more subtle, personal and layered than anything the present system allows. Beneath the coolness of achieving Mage status, I do think the same problem exists in gamified classrooms.

If you truly want to include all aspects of computer games into the classroom environment, you need to allow students to use walkthroughs, cheats, and swindles. There isn’t a gamer alive who hasn’t taken one of these shortcuts somewhere along the line. Also, cut-throat competitiveness, mindless obedience and following the rules are a big part of most of the games young people play. Here, the parallels with the traditional education system are obvious. Granted, a great deal of these innate gaming tendencies will be carefully edited out of the gamified classroom, but if you are going to associate gaming with learning it is going to be impossible to fully exclude these tendencies.

Can we afford to run the risk of further entrenching old habits of thought and action in building a more open, compassionate, creative and collaborative school environments?

I think not. I would rather we confront the problems with our current mode of education head-on, instead of hiding them behind a gamified interface.

Post your thoughts and comments in the box below to earn 100 magic points.




  1. I very much WANTED to disagree with your post, Sean. I WANTED gamification to be the magic bullet that would solve education.

    But I’m afraid that your argument is compelling. Gamification is simply a more exciting version of ‘more of the same’.

    Maybe there’s a way to gamify using adult learning principles? Namely, the students set the rules and the agenda. In other words, have them co-create the game.

    One thing gamification DEFINITELY does is that it allows stale, bored, burnt out teachers a chance to rejuvenate. Or at least to find some joy. And that has to be a good thing, even if it’s just a symptomatic treatment.


      • Been thinking about this overnight. There are TWO issues that ‘gamification of the classroom’ raises…

        1. The brokenness of the education system.
        2. The need for excitement in the classroom.

        In your analysis, issue 2 is a deeply entrenched, systemic SYMPTOM of issue 2. ‘Solving’ issue 2 by gamifying the classroom doesn’t solve issue 1. It merely hides issue 1 from view.

        Unfortunately, you’re right. (If I’ve read you correctly, of course.)

        However, issue 2 IS a vital issue to deal with, REGARDLESS OF issue 1. As I see it, there are vastly more crap, boring, abusive teachers than there are passionate, enlightened, innovative, educationalistic teachers. The bad teachers will likely never become brilliant teachers, no matter what innovations they get exposed to. The bad teachers may simply become less bad, or, maybe, merely mediocre. If gamifying THEIR classrooms helps them move from bad to less bad, then gamification has a place in their classrooms.

        There is something about gamifying a classroom that creates a systemic educational change. It removes the focus from the teacher, since gamification always includes some or other form of ‘group questing’. The participation by the learners forces a system-shift. In effect, the teacher becomes a peer, subject to peer review. This is a paradigm shift. A previously authoritarian demagogue of a teacher may still BELIEVE that he or she is ‘in power’. But in reality, he or she is ‘just a gamesmaster’.

        So, even though gamification might obscure the screwed-ness of education as it stands, it systemically forces a shift towards something not quite as screwed.

        My call? Gamify your classroom. See what happens. Get the kids to co-design it. And tell them that the goal isn’t JUST to make learning fun FOR THEM, but to fundamentally FIX a broken system. Shoot for the stars.

        The ‘small’ changes lead to the ‘big’ changes.

        For one, any half-dead colleagues may become infected with the excitement.


  2. I agree with some of your thoughts Sean. We do need to be careful that we are not simply ‘entrenching old habits of thought’. There is always the good vs the bad implementation of an idea. Articles like yours encourage us to look at both sides of gamification and take care how we implement it.


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