It’s In The Game: ‘Gamification’ and Language Learning Pt. 1 of 2

Interested observers of developments in the field of Edtech will undoubtedly be aware of the snowballing sexiness of the term ‘gamification’ as its advocates look at ways of transferring it from the world of business into the world of education.

What is emerging as the term gets shared and amplified is the fact that it is being interpreted differently and in increasingly erroneous ways. If the concepts and opportunities that the gamification proposition offer are to get effective traction within the education community it’s vital that teachers and learners are clear on what it actually entails (as well as what it doesn’t).

So… what is it? I’ll have a stab at this one:

Gamification is the application of game mechanics and dynamics to non-game contexts in order to solve problems, engage audiences and (according to some definitions) change behaviours.

For that little gem I referred to this excellent gamification wiki that has millions of wonderful articles, as well as the driving force behind the movement as epitomised by the Gamification Corp website. What’s worth looking at in this definition is the fact that the mechanics and dynamics of games are applied to contexts/conditions/scenarios that hitherto were not considered ‘gamed’ in any way. There are dozens and dozens of identifiable examples of these game principles that, in their native territory, serve to make a gamer’s experience fun, engaging and rewarding (why else would we play games?). These include levelling up, points, awards or badges for achievement, the use of avatars, feedback, quests, collaboration … all those elements that elevate games above the mundane activities of normal life.

Gabe Zichermann‘s team at the aforementioned Gamification Corp have, through their experience of working with businesses to effect change through applying these concepts, identified three recurring elements to gamification that encompass many of these ideas and cut to its core:

Friends – individuals want to take part in a social experience, interactions, collaboration, competition

Feedback – individuals want to know how they’re getting on, how is their journey in line with their larger objectives, where are they in relation to others

Fun – the ‘unexpectedness’ of games, discovery, play, achievement

One prime example of these ideas being applied in the business environment is in IBM’s Connections platform. This platform is a pseudo-Facebook site that allows colleagues to interact, share documents, agendas all things that are conducive to working together effectively. What Connections does to go that little ‘gamier’ is to add Kudos  Badges that are awarded to users for their contributions or blog posts. Users can then see themselves rise up in rank the more they offer to the site their wider colleagues (friends, feedback and fun).

In a more wider context the principles of gamification have been applied to the retail/services sector for donkeys years: think Frequent Flyers programs, Happy Hour pub promotions, Weight Watchers, foursquare‘s badges for visiting new places. There a hundreds of examples of where gamification has been introduced to decidedly non-game contexts in order to produce a certain result.

Now, given that we’ve covered what gamification IS it’s worth pointing out what it’s NOT, particularly when it comes to education.

Gamification is not the straight forward use of games (whether digital or otherwise) as part of a teaching/learning interaction.

There you are. I said it.

A teacher using Monopoly in the classroom to demonstrate financial concepts such rent/taxes is not ‘gamifying’ the learning environment; they are involving the learners in Game-Based Learning. I’d claim there is a difference.

I’d suggest that:

GBL refers to the use of games as tools; as ways of opening discussion / presenting concepts / activating learner engagement within clearly defined learning objectives. i.e. learning through playing games.

Whereas …

Gamification is the harnessing of those principles, mechanics and dynamics that make games work in order to promote engagement or engender a desired outcome.

Language teachers have introduced games to the learning environment since the dawn of time (Kim’s game, pelmanism, Guess Who, plus all these games listed on Larry Ferlazzo’s blog), and they will continue to do so, whether it’s using paper and pens or the full-on immersion of WoW.

The question that this post poses (and hopes to answer in the follow-up) is What does gamification actually mean for language learning? What are the opportunities and how can they best be addressed?

Title Photo Credit: What What via Compfight cc

6 thoughts on “It’s In The Game: ‘Gamification’ and Language Learning Pt. 1 of 2”

  1. Absolutely, and you’ve very much pre-empted my next post! The key is design, as you say, and how that approach can be utilised to best achieve identified learning outcomes. Are you by any chance interested in contributing a guest post to the blog? We’d be greatly honoured to post a new submission. Drop us a DM on twitter or an email to let us know. Speak soon!


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