Gamification and Education

There has been quite a bit of talk in the last year about gamification (a word I hate — it sounds cheesy, manipulative, and underhanded.)  Last weekend at PAX East I got a chance to enjoy James Portnow’s panel on Gaming and Education (Educating Through Play:  The Future of American Education).  As a former elementary and special education teacher turned unschooling facilitator (not only for my own children but for 500 + families via a Facebook group not to mention a well read unschooling website I own) I find the whole topic fascinating.  This is especially true since I spend several hours a week explaining to nervous parents that games aren’t evil and in fact are a wonderful natural way for children to learn.

Games give the child a natural reason to learn and develop the basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic.  But games also provide a natural way to develop higher level skills like problem solving and trigger deeper interests and thought processes.  At least once  a week I explain how my own children have learned all the subjects that schools insist must be force fed naturally through playing games of all sorts, including the dreaded video games.  It is a subject close to my heart to say the least and I am anxiously awaiting the panel to be uploaded so I can share it.


Es working through all the information on the dinosaur display at the local science museum.

Back to gamification.  Two of the panelists were using games and gaming as a means to facilitate natural learning through interest, which is awesome.  The other was gamifying college.  Now her explanation was fine and interesting and its great that it worked for them.  However, this is the bit that bugs me: school is already gamified.    In fact school even uses the same vocabulary as gaming (or visa versa since schools were around before video games):  achievements, levels, metrics, tests, pass, goals.  Grades and grade levels are in fact school gamified– grades are an arbitrary set of goals established by the designers (in this case usually the writers of the curriculum  though occasionally they are set by the teachers or administrators depending on the school system).  Grades naturally motivate a certain subset of students who are drawn to that particular sort of game.  On the other hand, grades do not motivate those of us who prefer setting our own goals or who see through it all as a game created by people who are trying to “trick us” into learning things they think we need.

One of my beefs with school was that I felt manipulated by the arbitrary rules, star charts, and grading.  It was all a game and it didn’t matter because I prefer, even in playing video games, to set my OWN goals based on my current interests.  I like to look at the possible goals to choose from and work towards a specific goal completely and totally until I reach it and then move on to another goal.  (This drives my kids crazy.  For instance just yesterday I finished a goal I had set in Harvest Moon: Animal Parade. It was an arbitrary goal but it was the one I chose to work towards at this time in the game– I could have instead been working towards getting any of the many other possible goals, but this was the one I chose at this time.. )


Shamus and Issac watching a cut scene in a video game together.

Unlike video games, where I can choose whether I want to play towards the goal of moving to the next level or finding out how badly I can fail, school insists that all members be working toward the same goal– basically playing the same game in the same way at the same speed.  It doesn’t make sense.  Sure there are certain types of jobs out there where you need people who work the way the school system does but honestly most jobs nowadays require you to be intrinsically motivated rather than motivated by arbitrary things like star charts or grades.  The thing about life is that, just like choosing the  games you play based on what you are good at and what you hate, you can choose which direction your career takes you.  Frankly, unlike school where the “game” is already in place and you have to join whether you choose or not, life is full of goals you can choose for yourself, and we need to be prepared to make decisions and know ourselves well enough to choose wisely.  By gamifying school  we are just adding to the problem of kids getting all the way through and not knowing themselves and who they are well enough to make decisions for their future.

Instead of gamifying school even more, and adding even more arbitrary goals let’s focus on helping each child move in the direction they particularly need to go, based on their interests and natural skills.


Rach and Es trying to work through a specific song together perfectly (as "twins" in Dance Dance Revolution).

Having been in the school system and seeing the many different sets of goals I can say, yes, the goals are arbitrary and all depend on who is making them.  There is no one skill set that all children will need since each person is an individual.  We all have different things we are good at.  As we grow up we will all go in directions that naturally utilize our known skill sets.  You wouldn’t expect a fish to be excellent at climbing a tree.  You would never expect a fish to even attempt it.  So why expect a child who is naturally excellent at sports and other physical activities to spend their entire day sitting in a classroom and missing recess because they didn’t sit still long enough to finish a math page?  Meanwhile, if you asked that child to figure out those same numbers in regards to their favorite sports team they could answer in seconds.

By allowing children to pursue their actual interests and play games; whether pretend, board, card, video games, whatever– kids naturally gravitate towards games they are good at and therefore find fun, we allow them to grow and learn the way they learn and grow best.  This allows them to gradually  move into the areas and subjects they find more challenging without fear.


Issac and friend playing Super Mario Galaxy together.

For example: My kids love that I play video games and that when I am playing I research the ways to solve the problems, set goals for myself, and often get them involved in the research.  For games like Harvest Moon we print up charts and organize information in order to better play the game and not waste time (I am a walkthru player– I play mostly for the story and to set my own goals within a story). Yesterday my oldest was helping me figure out  how best to work through the next part of the game which requires a lot of farming.  She spent 20 minutes figuring out which would be the best crop, how much area I would need to plant, how much money it would cost to buy the seeds plus the fertilizer, and how much money I would make in a month by shipping out whatever was produced each day (some crops are every 2 days, some every 3, some every 4) in order to reach the next goal and then wrote it all down for me so I would know when I was ready to move to the next season.  I didn’t ask her to do it, I just asked which seeds would be best to use (info the walkthru already had available.)

She is 14 and if I had asked her to do that same amount of math on a worksheet there would have been much misery.  She hasn’t done a worksheet since she was 8 and other than occasional discussion about how to figure something out based on real life experience– like baking, shopping, coupons, etc. she has no experience with math as recognized by kids in public school.  However, she was able to figure out each aspect correctly, quickly, and in her head and put all the information into simple coherent notation so I would know when I needed the information.  She solved it because she wanted to and was interested.  She knew it wasn’t even information I was interested in yet but that I might want it eventually and she decided that she wanted to figure it out.

Carnegie Science Center

Es playing a video game at the local science center-- note that she is the only female there, and yes, she won the game.

We have many similar stories since that is how my kids have learned– by doing what they love and gradually learning to do the things they find hard because they want to do what they love. (For those who are sure this is a special case; all three have learned math, science, history, spelling, reading, writing, geography, etc and all into the deeper higher level high school and college subjects, all out of natural curiosity, through video games, board games,  tv/movies, and even occasionally books.  In fact, my husband and I have also delved deeper thanks to media and our kids’ interests.)

So, instead of gamifying school even more– which it is with its grades and levels, achievements and star charts, and divisions based on age and ability, it is better to allow each child to play and grow in the areas they already excel, doing the things they are good at, and in doing so allowing them to approach the things that are outside their comfort zone naturally.  And no, I don’t have an answer for public schools except maybe to look at the model for Sudbury schools or at least to allow for differences and focus on the skills the kids have instead of on those they don’t — there is a reason we unschool and that I encourage those who can to do so.


12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. C.L. Dyck
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 17:38:26

    The picture of Es at the science center clicks something over for me, alongside the account of Harvest Moon math.

    –I find all my kids *want* to learn all kinds of things.

    –I hear girls on average do better with enforced book work in the institutional academic setting. Possibly because they’re culturally trained to be more compliant, possibly due to biological differences in fine motor processing, etc.

    –I wonder if the male/female geek ratio is partly because it allows boys to play with learning, but without an enforced method that’s even more counterintuitive for them than it is for many girls.

    Just a wild random thought with probably no real statistical basis. It just struck me, because my kids don’t stop learning when they dislike the method. They usually switch methods, because that’s allowed at our house.


    • Heather
      Apr 13, 2012 @ 17:56:26

      -Yes, all three of mine love learning and really do want to learn.

      – I agree with the compliance aspect. Girls are culturally expected to be more compliant than boys and their fine motor skills develop early and their brains mature faster, therefore they are able to manage the “sit at a desk and learn” earlier and easier.

      -I think the male female geek ratio is more that girls are less likely to recognize themselves as geeks– all of my friends and I played video games through school and all of us continued to do so with our husbands (if our husbands play) and continue to play ourselves but playing less time intensive games like puzzle games. Essentially females are less likely to identify themselves as geek because “geek” is less socially acceptable as a female and that the definition of geek is usually “person who plays first person shooters” or “person who plays D&D”. Also guys as a whole tend to be more one track mind on any given hobby and therefore focus while females tend to be more diverse in their hobbies.


  2. C.L. Dyck
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 18:55:54

    “Essentially females are less likely to identify themselves as geek because “geek” is less socially acceptable as a female”

    Funny thing: I’ve lately been wearing a T-shirt that says, “also, I can kill you with my brain.” 😀 (Firefly) Maybe I worry less about what to call myself because I’ve never really been socially acceptable. 🙂 If I’m part geek, then at least I partly belong somewhere. Females definitely navigate belonging differently than males as well.


    • Heather
      Apr 13, 2012 @ 19:14:43

      Helps that you were unschooled, I think. Also helps that you are comfortable with who you are and KNOW who you are. I know so many females who are still figuring it out now that they are out of school and have kids (or not). For me it helped that I was surrounded by guy geeks growing up and identified myself as part of the pack.

      I like seeing that my girls are comfortable in their own skin and know who they are now instead of scrambling to figure it out when they get dumped out of highschool into the real world.

      Oh and great t-shirt. Wants it. (I wore my Japan kawaii t-shirt today so yeah. Geek for the win.)


  3. C.L. Dyck
    Apr 13, 2012 @ 19:49:10

    T-shirt is at ThinkGeek. There is also one with a T-rex and stegosaurus that says, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

    Yeah, my girls are pretty rooted in who they are as well, and I’m glad. Going to public school in Grade 8 pretty much wrecked me, and I spent my 20s getting myself back together.

    I definitely see it being good for my boys too. They haven’t had to become jerks in order to survive socially–an ongoing issue I keep seeing in our rural schools. Oldest came back from a band trip with stories about a girl getting harassed on the bus. He stepped in and took the harassment in turn for it. We’re proud of him, but it still sucked.


    • Heather
      Apr 13, 2012 @ 19:57:24

      Thinkgeek is where I will spend our vast fortune once Shamus becomes a rockstar. 🙂 The kids swipe the catalog instantly upon its arrival and then spend the rest of the day trying to convince me to buy everything.

      Yeah, I spent years figuring out myself after public school– took taking the Myers Briggs test to realize that I wasn’t crazy, just that my personality was an incredibly small percentage of the population (which also explained why my best friends were in books.)

      And go oldest son. My kids have mingled more with public school kids than with homeschooled– the homeschoolers around here are too busy and too biased. So far they haven’t become jerks and also recognize the jerk factor in the kids around them and manage to avoid it. 🙂


    • Heather
      Apr 13, 2012 @ 19:57:36

      Also, go oldest son!


  4. Mari
    Apr 16, 2012 @ 21:20:02

    I think there’s also been some degree of cultural bias against female geeks in previous generations, though it seems to be lessening. I’m not sure what it was that allowed me to self-identify so early as a geek. Maybe the fact that I always felt like an outcast anyway? But by middle school I was fascinated by D&D. That was my first foray into geekdom. But it was such an uphill slog for me because the boy geek people didn’t want girls ruining their fine game of not being rejected by the comely bar maid. Then I was a computer geek. I was literally the only female in my college electronics class. The only guy willing to lab partner with me was the one that was married to a geek. Video game geekery came along later for me. I mean, I played the arcades in middle and high school but only in secret and not terribly well. I really didn’t “get into” video games until I married a gamer geek. But in every single new area of geekdom I felt very unwelcome because I had boobs.

    I have sisters that are both casual gamers, casual fans of Tolkein, etc but neither would be willing to self-identify as a geek. The cultural bias for their generation is just too strong for them to overcome.


    • Heather
      Apr 16, 2012 @ 21:40:10

      I agree about the cultural bias. I was kind of clueless and though I would now say I should have been designated a geek I didn’t realize it until I married one. I played video games all the time, read books all the time, geeked out over science and tech (helped rebuild computers from age 12 ) but for some reason in our school no one was designated “geek” or “nerd”. I hung out with what I would now call “the geeks”– traded sci-fi and fantasy novels with some guys in my physics class, hung out in the library, dated a trekkie and a D&D gamer between the times I was dating Shamus. In fact we recently went back and watched all my favorite cartoons and tv shows from when I was a kid– guess which guy I always had a crush on– yup, always the computer geek. The shows I loved were all geeky– 3-2-1 contact, Whiz Kids, Kid Video (okay, I just watched it because of the computer geek), you get the picture. 🙂

      I never felt much bias against my geekiness but then I was kind of clueless about people and really didn’t notice. My gauge for whether someone was an interesting person to talk to was whether they responded positively to my only topic of conversation when meeting a new person– “What kind of books do you like?” I just knew I was different, not why. 🙂

      All of my female friends are geeks of some sort, except for one and I always wonder why she likes me. 🙂 And in school I always just hung around my best friend and guys. I have no idea whether they saw me as one of them– though I notice now that they never invited Christy or me to play D&D which they totally should have. I know they played and we would have loved to join in.

      I have two brothers and 2 brother-in-laws. All geeks. My sister-in-law, not a geek and totally doesn’t get it. She rolls her eyes when we get talking. My mother NEVER got where I was coming from, poor Mom. She was the extroverted non-geek in the family and was always pushing me to be more “normal”.


  5. hborrgg
    Apr 19, 2012 @ 03:34:46

    I think games wound up single-handedly fueling my interest in history. My parents have a picture of me on my 8th Halloween dressed in a cardboard covered wagon, I also remember adamantly telling people over and over again that I was “a pioneer, not a cowboy!”

    I think there might be some room for using games to broaden children’s interest for learning if developers figured out how to be somewhat subtle about it. Just like Oregon Trail II taking kids who like shooting tons of animals and eventually getting some of them hooked on the whole inventory management and history shtick, you might have a shooter that starts requiring basic math or science skills. As long as you are able to do it in a way that makes sense and doesn’t break the fourth wall (not one of those “type to kill” learning games, those were terrible).


    • Heather
      Apr 19, 2012 @ 10:47:29

      Exactly. One of my biggest pet peeves is “educational games”. Oregon Trail I never actually got to play but I did play (and watch) Carmen Sandiego which was clever and fun and my kids love Cyber Chase (both the tv show and accompanying games). If educational games in general went that route then it would be fine but instead they are usually more just a test with pretty (or horrible) graphics.

      My kids have had video games and movies spawn more interests than anything else (and they like to read.) Our son loves strategy games, especially Starcraft but also Civilization, Rise of Nations, you name it. So of course conversations about history often occur when he has been playing and more recently, since we picked up the Civilization board game, he has been setting up elaborate battle scenes all over his room. 🙂 Also strategy games have helped him develop his logic and strategy skills,planning ahead and getting organized. He has also learned most of his money/economics skills from playing said games. In general he tends to focus more on science (especially electricity) and loves the Crazy Machines games and anything else that lets him solve puzzles and mess with physics, chemistry, etc.


    • Mari Menix
      Apr 19, 2012 @ 13:34:17

      I think the line that “educational games” makers need to be careful of is the difference between providing educational or thought-provoking material and spoon-feeding “education” into the player. It’s something many other types of media struggle with as well.

      Take Oregon Trail as an example: OT never gave you pop-up text lessons about what cholera IS, it just told you that a member of your party had it. And yet, OT taught my daughter about cholera. When she got a pop-up that a party member had cholera, she dashed over to Google to find out what cholera is. By leaving the player to do their own investigation, it actually provided MORE learning opportunities than, for instance, Reader Rabbit Sparkle Whatsit (I don’t remember the whole name, it was some “educational” game my kids got when they were little that was basically an animated reading test). Even if something new was introduced in Reader Rabbit, most material was spoon-fed to the player so something not spoon-fed was less likely to invite a player to investigate and learn more.

      I think when games spark natural curiosity and allow a player to do the “work” on their own much of the time, it invites much more learning.


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