Why We Should Reconsider Gamification

MIT professors dislike the term Gamification. It was coined in 2002, but didn't really spark anyone's interest until 2010 when video games really began to define culture. Not just for those getting out of college and eager to join the work-force, but those aged 25-40 who have been involved in gaming for a while, or have discovered gaming through mobile phone apps.

In essence, Gamification is the use of game mechanics and applying them to non-game concepts to make the content more engaging. Professor's Eric Klopfer, and Scot Osterweil feel that the term now centers on "making a game out of learning," thus defeating the purpose of the game and learning. They argue that the best educational games are the ones that take what's already fun about learning and make that central to the game. Running around and collecting points, casting spells, and waving a sword is not conducive to the learning aspect. The "fun" part of learning needs to feel natural. Fun should not be forced onto learning. Klopfer and Osterweil feel that the buzz word undermines what they see as an opportunity for games to transform education.

MIT's Education Arcade was created by the two professors, and they assist schools around the country with adding fun to their lesson plans. It encourages teachers to create their own games from scratch, and not rely on pre-made products that muck up the learning experience. Their goal is to help reach to teachers and students that learning is fun all on it's own - you don't need to tack on an experience point bar.

“If somebody comes to me and says, ‘I want to make math fun,’ I don’t want to work with that person because they don’t think math is already fun," said Osterweil.

 Using Math Blaster, a 1983 computer game that is still in schools today, as an example, Osterweil comments on how the game isn't useful for those who don't inherently find fun in the arithmetic. I remember this game from when I was a kid. We didn't have it on our home PC, but our sole computer at school did. It's essentially a drill and fill game. You are piloting a spaceship and you have to shoot asteroids out of the sky. A math problem appears on the screen and the answer is on the asteroids. Shoot the right one, and you keep playing. Shoot the wrong one, your ship's console flashes red, and you continue playing. It doesn't give you the right answer. It's not a game that enhances the fun of learning math.

This is where Gamification doesn't work. By tacking on a game to a pre-existing product doesn't alter it's message. You're trying to force fun onto a subject that most likely doesn't fit. Fun should occur naturally. Topics need to be taught by people who care about the subject. Through them, the fun becomes inherit. And subjects like math and science can be fun if they are directed through a different light. Maybe applying them to real life situations and not drill the formulas into our brain? I mean, it would have been more engaging for me to know how much I would use math in sewing (seriously, you use a lot) versus reading and hoping to remember the equations from a sheet of paper.

"How do you determine the size of a circle skirt if you need the waist to be 32 inches, and the length to be 38 inches?"

That's a good question!

I wouldn't say Gamification is dead. I'm sure that people will continue to abuse that word for years to come. But we need a better way of presenting learning to people that doesn't result in a gimmick.


  1. I design trade show booths and one thing we always try to do for our clients is include Gamification so that attendees learn about the products. It seems to do the trick. It attracts people to the booth and people leave happy because they've learned something and probably won something. I don't think that's abuse of the word. Learning about a product with games.

    1. Thanks for your comment!

      The initial intent behind Gamification was for a good purpose. I don't think there's anything wrong with wanting to add fun to a subject-matter that is typically viewed as dull. But the meaning behind the word has transformed over the years to be more of a gimmick, less of a tool to help with learning/presenting. People are tacking on the "gaming" aspect and assume it makes everything "fun" when it's doing the opposite. If you don't believe in the product, if you don't enjoy talking about the event, then throwing in a game aspect doesn't improve it.

      I'll take an example from work, where we ran into this issue. HR wanted to create a presentation about safety in the office, and the rules on how to handle a Tornado scenario. I live in Texas. Tornadoes are bound to happen. She wanted to make it more fun by having a "pass the ball" game. An imaginary ball would be thrown around the room, and she would quiz people about the topic they have covered.

      It's taking a topic that is serious, and not inherently easy to discuss and turning it into a chore. I walked with her around the building and asked her to bring up this idea to a few random people, and to watch their reactions. All of them visibly recoiled in some fashion or another. You can't tack on a game and expect it to make the subject better.

      So we went back to her office and focused on the core elements of the safety discussion. What is important in the talk for people to take away? What catches people's interest? Do our employees even know what it's like to be in a tornado?

      I'm a weather nerd. It's one of my hidden passions. So it hit me: let's talk about how tornado's form and work. Let's integrate that into the presentation and build up interest from there.

      Saying that caused HR's eyes to light up.

      When you have someone who is passionate about the topic, the fun naturally occurs.

      I can see Gamification in application at trade shows. The bottom line is how you are approaching the topic and does it make sense? If you're tacking it on, then it's not sending the message that it could be. But if it's working, then you have tapped into the fun the right way. :)


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

We ask that you please do not include any offensive, sexist, or derogatory language - otherwise your comment will be removed.