2013 Prediction: Educational Games Trump the Gamification of Education


When it comes to learning, humans are fickle creatures: sometimes we love cramming our head full of knowledge, sometimes we hate it. Nobody understands this better than teachers, who work hard each day to motivate students. From experiential learning to peer review, from debates to role-playing, teachers employ countless strategies in their attempts to engage students.

If this year’s edtech blogs are to be believed, though, none of these strategies compare to “gamification.”

Gamification entails the incorporation of game design elements and mechanics into non-game objects and environments. These elements include badges, points, leaderboards, currency, narratives, and special challenges to name but a few. Taken as a whole, these elements typically link desired  actions to a motivational reward system.

Gamification has many roots. Marketers have long employed frequent flyer & loyalty programs to engage consumers. And both school and work can be seen, in some ways, as inherently gamified: we move from one grade-level or job-title to the next, earning badges and rewards along the way in the form of diplomas, promotions, and bonuses.

Over the last few years, gamification has taken root in a wide variety of industries and activities. Personal fitness, employee training, human resources, financial planning, and project management have all been transformed by advocates who contend gamification represents the perfect way to motivate people to perform actions they would normally lack the interest or discipline to complete. It’s easy to start a fitness regime, for example, but hard to stick with it — unless of course you’re rewarded for meeting daily goals or beating your friend’s most recent track record. Gamification, in many instances, can provide a needed jolt of external motivation once a person’s internal motivation begins to flag.

From the beginning of the gamification debate, education has been at the center of the conversation, and a number of startups have very overtly linked their strategies to game mechanics. Shantanu Sinha, president of Khan Academy, admitted that they very intentionally incorporated badges and other game mechanics when designing their platform. He and his team believe that our current education system has a broken incentive system, and that “we can truly learn from the game industry. They have turned motivation and incentive systems into a science.”

And the Khan Academy is not alone: startups and teachers everywhere are trying to incorporate game mechanics into the educational process, and in 2013 we’ll see even more of these projects come to light.

Some educators, though, take issue with this strategy. The reliance on extrinsic rewards, they argue, is the problem: it can promote cheating as students strive to game the system; it introduces superficial content that distracts from the core learning activity; and, perhaps most damningly, it encourages students to learn for the sake of the reward rather than for the sake of knowledge. By overemphasizing incentives, teachers worry, gamification may short circuit the intrinsic motivation students bring to a subject. Something that was previously enjoyable in and of itself suddenly becomes enjoyable only when its linked to external feedback, validation and rewards.

And there’s another problem: as gamification becomes more and more widespread, built into the design of more and more educational tools and apps, the novelty will disappear. Educators face the risk of students growing bored with gamification.

Here at MindSnacks, we predict that 2013 will shed new light on gamification and its limits. One of the most important “discoveries,” we believe, will be a renewed appreciation of the difference between the gamification of education and educational games.

Most attempts to gamify education stem from a belief that learning is something unpleasant, something people don’t want to do unless they’re forced to do so. In gamified classrooms, students typically slog through traditional (some students would say boring) assignments in order to receive such rewards as validation, special privileges and peer recognition.

Educational games take the opposite approach, reinforcing the joy that comes from learning something new. They shorten the feedback loop such that the cognitive reward that comes from discovering a new idea or ‘getting something right’ fuses with the game’s reward mechanisms. The points and badges a student earns from answering something correctly become less about external validation, and more about documenting internal accomplishments. In this way, the desire to play becomes indistinguishable from the desire to learn.

The gamification of education typically just layers game elements on top of the same old teaching strategies; educational games, on the other hand, transform the strategy. Learning and play belong together. Both children and adults learn — and learn quickly — through trial and error. By emphasizing the playful quality of this process, educational games tap into something fundamental and effective.

2013 is going to be a big year for both educational games and the gamification of education. Regardless of your age, both strategies can help you learn. Gamification has its limits, though, and over the coming months we’re going to write more about this topic as well as other developments in the world of education and gaming.


James Landau is an edtech enthusiast, lover of all things digital, and (some might say) an obsessive reader. He completed his M.A. in English Literature at New York University and is in the final stages of his Ph.D. in Contemporary Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. If you ever see him walking down the street while reading his Kindle, please don't be offended if he walks right past you -- and into a telephone pole.

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