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Gamification Fail: 5 Reasons to Hate Gamification in the Online Classroom

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An example of gamification Creative Commons Attribution: Some rights reserved by John "Pathfinder" Lester

For some online college students, learning by playing a game sounds like a dream come true. But, in many “gamified” classrooms, the reality is closer to a clunky nightmare.

“Gamification” is the relatively new practice of applying game design and thinking to non-game contexts (such as the online classroom) in order to increase user engagement. As gamification has become more popular, many teachers have tried to create and implement games as a part of their online curriculum. A common topic for academic conference presentations, instructors are often proud to show off their latest creations to their peers. However, from a students’ perspective, gaming can have serious drawbacks.

Here’s why some online students have grown to hate gamification:

1. Online educational games at the college level are rarely done well. “Game Designer” isn’t exactly an entry-level position. But, some well-meaning instructors spend weeks trying to create complex games to help their students learn. A lack of programming background, graphic design skills, the right tools, or an understanding of what makes a game a game often stands in the way.

2. Grading games removes the opportunity for students to take risks. Gambling aside, most games are designed around the ability for gamers to take risks with little to no actual consequences to themselves. In video games, for example, a gamer may have a character try outlandish actions or repeatedly attempt a maneuver until he or she gets it right. When instructors assign time limits and grades, games take on heavy real-world consequences and students feel less open to risk-taking.

3. Gaming technology becomes outdated. Quickly. Remember Second Life, the once-popular virtual world that allowed users to create and meet in the form of avatars? It’s still around, but not widely used by gamers or schools. However, quite a few online instructors are still doggedly insisting that their students use meeting grounds and activities they created in Second Life years ago. Recycling a lesson plan from a decade ago makes sense in most disciplines. Recycling an online game from the late 90s really isn’t going to cut it.

4. Many online games make study materials mandatory. Simple games, such as vocabulary matching exercises, can be a helpful study aid. However, many online instructors make the mistake of turning these tasks into mandatory assignments. Students that have already mastered the material or have found an alternative way of studying must suffer through what appears to be a pointless exercise in order to move on to the next page or earn full credit. This is neither necessary for college-level students nor does it promote student responsibility for learning.

5. Games create an artificial feeling of engagement with the curriculum. Rather than allowing students to simply sit back and read from their monitors, games do get students clicking on their screens and interacting with the content they see. However, this engagement is often shallow and does not always reflect actual learning. Authentic projects, open-ended discussions, and instructor / student interactions are often a better choice.

Not all gamified classrooms leave students grumpy. But, it takes a certain set of skills and a willingness to continually adapt for online instructors to find gamification success. If you’re an online teacher or instructional designer interested in using game theory to create your classes, consider learning more about the methods behind game creation by taking a class (such as the Gamification course offered by Coursera).

If you’re an online student facing a gamified classroom, give it a chance. If you’re lucky, your teacher may be one of the masterminds of Blizzard or Nintendo. If not, at least you’ll know that your instructor cares enough to give new things a try.

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