Gamification: an awkward new kid on the education block?

By Carlo Perrotta

Friday 3 May 2013

We recently published a report that reviews the latest evidence about game-based learning and explores (possible) future directions. With this post, I would like to share some of the “behind the scenes” considerations that took place while we were appraising the literature.

As we set out to analyse the available evidence, our aim was to focus not only on the relatively established notion of “game-based learning,” but also to explore the emerging one of “gamification”. We were aware of the buzz surrounding badges, achievements, leader boards, levelling-up and other interesting ideas associated with video game design and, rightly or wrongly, with gamification. Having decided that such “innovations” warranted some scrutiny, we approached them with an open mind, looking for evidence that could support an argument about their educational potential in formal school settings.

It pains me to acknowledge that we found virtually nothing of note … More precisely, we were impressed with the research carried out in the past few years at the intersection of gaming, informal youth cultures and learning. That is, the work led by the influential Digital Media and Learning group, who advocate their own brand of socio-cultural learning called “connected learning”. However, we couldn’t shake off the feeling that traditional schooling plays a minor, and at times awkward, role in these studies, which mainly focus on how informal digital literacies and practices can be productively investigated and, in some cases, brought to fruition.

One point from our report is worth reiterating here: research on the relations between “gaming” (broadly understood) and learning often seems to be undermined at the outset by the incompatibility between all types of “innovation” and the formal practices of schooling. Some people – especially in the US – seem to perceive the gap between schools and the digitally-enhanced worlds young people inhabit as hard to bridge. For instance, James Gee notably suggested that enthusiastic gameplayers share norms, values and beliefs about what counts as worthwhile knowledge, what is good and what is not in terms of performance. This is generally in contrast with the norm of “traditional” schoolwork and classroom values, which makes it impossible for teachers to fully appreciate the potential of gaming.

While there is an undeniable tension which should be acknowledged and explored, I believe that we should also avoid the usual cliché of the “industrial era” school, tragically out of touch with the changes brought about by the digital economy. The way David Buckingham dissected the enthusiasm with which video games are described in many educational technology circles is as valid now as it was in 2007. I am referring in particular to his defence of the distinctive role of schools, where important forms of learning take place that cannot be replicated in interest-driven, self-selecting contexts.

Unfortunately, we were conscious that this discussion would have led us far from the original aim of the report (a literature review); hence we took the decision to remove gamification from the title of the report, in order to place the right emphasis on the evidence-based literature relevant to formal schooling. This doesn’t mean we didn’t devote a significant amount of thinking to the topic of gamification.