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Old Man Yells at Gamified Learning

Old Man Yells at Gamified Learning

I often find myself being the old curmudgeon when the topic of gamification in learning comes up. 

Don’t get me wrong – I love video games, but I think the characteristics that make a great game also make it a poor fit for most learning tasks (or at least, the types of tasks that we often teach in schools and workplaces).

This is an attempt to outline some of the persistent problems I see integrating games into learning and training that I’ve encountered over my decades in teaching. 

Time-on-task

The mark of a good game is often measured in time – can you constantly find new and fun things to do or does it get boring and repetitive after the first try? Can you keep coming back to it, finding new and interesting challenges, time and again? One of the highest compliments you can give a game is to call it addictive, meaning that you just can’t stop playing it

Great games can take over your life, melt away the hours, and transport you away to a faraway world you’d prefer to inhabit. I know I’ve spent hundreds of hours each playing games like SkyrimCivilizationOverwatchAssassin’s CreedUncharted, and Horizon Zero Dawn, endlessly entertained, even when the actual gameplay gets repetitive and tedious. I’ve truly learned a great deal from Civilization in particular, gaining a deeper understanding of the complex challenges facing world leaders throughout history. But it took a loooong time to gain that understanding – far more than is available to any teacher in a formal education setting. 

Time is a precious resource in teaching and learning, not to be squandered but to be optimized. There are always more learning objectives to be tackled than there are hours in the instructional calendar. 

Many educators and trainers introduce games as a way to boost engagement and make learning more fun. Often, these take longer than a more straightforward instructional activity that seeks to produce the same learning outcomes. 

This effect is doubly challenging when the game is on the computer. Login issues, unfamiliar controls, and varying levels of computer proficiency among learners can add significant time lag and frustration to a game experience.

You may argue that the fun and engagement produced by games outweighs the problem of wasting time. You just have to be honest about how much learning is actually going on, and have a solid plan for measuring that learning. Fun for its own sake is great for morale but doesn’t automatically lead to better learning outcomes. For that, you need to have a clear plan about what you want learners to know / be able to do, and then plan backwards from those outcomes to create activities that support them in developing those skills and knowledge. 

Cognitive Load

Unfortunately, games require additional time to master the basic controls, understand how to play, and to go through the various activities designed for you to engage with. Learners may figure out how to win the game dynamics without learning the content you want them to know. You can expect that learners will spend considerable mental energy on the game experience itself, but that doesn’t mean that it will translate into better comprehension and recall of the learning content. Special care is required to ensure that the twin goals of winning the game and learning the material are both accomplished in the game design. 

Accessibility Issues

Supporting all learners regardless of their abilities is something that’s often overlooked in gamified experiences, but is critical for equitable access to learning. Students have successfully sued their universities because the online learning tools used did not meet basic accessibility standards

Learners with visual, auditory, and other physical or mental disabilities may struggle to access your game or perform all the tasks required to be successful. Your game dynamics may reward things like speed, sight, hearing, or following directions rather than rewarding the outcomes your training was designed to produce. 

Unfortunately it appears to be the norm that education gamification apps are often built upon immature, bespoke platforms where proper accessibility has not been a priority in development. 

It takes a high degree to coordination between talented technical developers and instructional designers to produce a game that can accurately assess a learner’s understanding in a fun, gamified activity, and most gamified experiences I’ve seen fall far short of this ideal. 

Learner Experience Design

In these immature platforms, the minute details of how the learning interactions work have not been carefully reviewed and iterated upon to the degree we see in professional games. Glitches, navigation issues, and other time-wasters bog down what could otherwise be an enjoyable experience. Just look on Metacritic’s Worst Games of 2020 List to see that most are brought down by technical glitches, uninspired gameplay, and poor game mechanics. Now ask yourself if that no-name edtech game studio that wants to gamify your next lesson is really going to produce an experience that will keep your learners riveted to their gamepads? The odds are strong against it. 

Cost of Development and Implementation

Developing a successful video game requires hundreds of people and millions of dollars to do well. Here’s the end credits of Marvel’s Spider Man for the PS4… it takes 35 minutes to watch all the way through 🍿: 

Even a budget for a modest gamified lesson can easily start in the tens of thousands of dollars and go upwards quickly from there. These are the types of games I see produced often in higher ed and corporate training, and they usually lack the refinement of professionally-developed games. 

If a game is the only or best way to teach a given concept or skill, then hopefully it will be worth the significant cost to do it well. 

What to do instead?

Part of what makes gamified learning so expensive to produce is programming the game’s interactions and game mechanics themselves. This is highly technical work that can only be done by well-paid engineers and designers over a significant span of time. 

Instead, try to envision a game where the moving pieces of the game are other people, not computer interactions. Let the engagement and fun of the game come from a structured activity that lets your learners interact with one another in an enjoyable and productive game. 

Rather than a video game, think of how you could structure it as a Zoom call where everyone has what they need to engage within the confines of Zoom’s functionality. 

I recently designed a remote learning activity as a board game using Mural as a shared space within which we could play cards. Much like an IRL game of cards, the fun and engagement was all driven by the human interactions, and the Technology was simply there to enable us to be together remotely. The result is an activity that produces the engagement and motivation you want, while costing little to no money to implement. 

Wherever possible, think about how low-tech of an experience you can get away with, and build upwards in complexity to meet the needs of your project. Don’t think you’re going to whip up the educational equivalent of Marvel’s Spider Man without a lot of time, money, and effort.

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