The Gamification of Learning

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A recent Pew Report polled internet experts and users about the “gamification” of our daily lives, particularly in our networked communications. They write:

The word “gamification” has emerged in recent years as a way to describe interactive online design that plays on people’s competitive instincts and often incorporates the use of rewards to drive action – these include virtual rewards such as points, payments, badges, discounts, and “free” gifts; and status indicators such as friend counts, retweets, leader boards, achievement data, progress bars, and the ability to “level up.”

According to the survey, most believe that the effects of this gamification will be mostly positive, aiding education, health, business, and training. But some fear the potential for “insidious, invisible behavioral manipulation.“

Don’t pooh-pooh the behavioral manipulation point. Do you really want to have your on-line behavior shaped like one of Skinner’s rats by some faceless conglomerate? But that’s actually not what got me going. What got me wondering about where this is all going is that it seems undeniable that gamification will shape how we learn, in particular how kids learn.

Elements that make up this gamification – rewards, competition, status, friend counts – are particularly powerful incentives. Neuroscience had repeatedly documented that these incentives rapidly and intensely “highjack” the reward centers of our brain. So it begins to feel as if we’re addicted to getting that next retweet, higher friend counts, higher scores on fruit ninja, etc.,…. Even the sound that our device makes when a message pops up gives us a rush, makes us tingle with anticipation. We eagerly wait for our next “hit” and are motivated to make that happen.

This gamification could have a powerful impact on how we go about learning. Psychological researchers distinguish between a fixed and a growth mindset – that is, peoples’ beliefs – about intelligence and learning. When people have a fixed mindset, intelligence is viewed as a hard-wired, permanent trait. If intelligence is a fixed trait, then we shouldn’t have to work very hard to do well, and rewards should come easily. In contrast, in a growth mindset, intelligence is viewed as something that can grow and develop through hard work. In this way, a growth mindset promotes learning because mastering a new skill or learning something new is enjoyable for its own sake and is part of the process of intellectual growth. Intelligence is not fixed because it is shaped by hard work and effort. For a nice summary of these distinctions, see a recent post on a wonderful blog called Raising Smarter Kids.

This is where gamification comes in. If children are inundated with incentives and rewards for even the simplest activity or learning goal, motivation for learning becomes increasingly focused on the potential for reward, rather than the process and joy of learning. In addition, when you’re doing things mainly for the reward, the motivation for hard work will peter out after a while. You just move on to the next, perhaps easier way of getting rewards rather than digging in and trying to master something. It also becomes more difficult to appreciate the value of setbacks – not getting a reward – as an opportunity to improve. In these subtle ways, gamification may undermine a child’s ability to develop a growth mindset. Instead, we might have a generation of children who are implicitly taught that everything we do should be immediately rewarded, and that getting external things, rather than the joy of learning, is why we do what we do.

Promoting a growth mindset is not only important for helping our children learn, but for helping them face frustrations and obstacles. Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster, in Beyond Intelligence (previously Raising Smarter Kids), highlight several rules to promote a growth mindset:

1. Learn at all times. This means think deeply and pay attention. When we use technology and social media, we can sometimes err on the side of doing things very quickly and superficially. So, this rule is important to emphasize with children today more than ever. We also have to remind our children (and ourselves) that it’s ok to make mistakes, even if we don’t get rewarded for our efforts.

2. Work hard. This is a skill that of course can be promoted by the presence of incentives – kids will work for hours at a game if they can beat their highest score. But what happens after they get the reward? Are they committed to continue learning? Will they continue struggling and practicing? Sustained hard work is an opportunity for personal growth that external motivation, like that from rewards, may not be able to sustain. Here, the enjoyment of learning and gaining mastery may be the most powerful motivator when it comes to helping children become dedicated learners for the long haul.

3. Confront deficiencies and setbacks. This is about persisting in the face of failure. The increasing role of gamification could both help and hinder this. Gamification will help in the sense that with so many rewards and game dynamics, opportunities for failure are around every corner and children will need to learn to persist. At the same time, what guarantees that a child will persist to obtain these rewards? Rewards are not equally motivating for all individuals. Will those not interested in rewards and games just be left feeling bored, and take part in fewer opportunities for learning?

I’m not saying that we should avoid all rewards – that would too extreme and impossible to boot. But we must maintain our awareness of how, with increasing gamification, the simplest act of using technology, logging onto our favorite website, or using social media might be subtly changing our motivation to learn.