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The Dangers Of “Gamification” In Education


(See my follow-up post, Kathy Sierra On Gamification In Education)

I know there has been a fair amount of online discussion going on about using “gamification” in schools, but I haven’t really been keeping on top of it. Today, though, I read an interesting article in the San Francisco Chronicle headlined Jury out on Zamzee, other forms of ‘gamification.’ Here’s an excerpt (but it’s definitely worth reading the entire article):

While gamification is a relatively new concept, the science of human motivation is not. And critics of the gamification concept – and even proponents who feel the concepts are misapplied – say many examples so far fundamentally misunderstand what drives behavior.

The most basic mistake is thinking that people play games for external rewards like points and badges, whereas in fact people play games because games are intrinsically fun or rewarding. The points are just a way of keeping score, an almost incidental add-on to the process. Sudoku has no points, for instance, but that hasn’t stopped millions from playing.

“Actual games and gamification are at complete opposite poles on the motivation continuum,” said Kathy Sierra, a writer and game developer.

This isn’t a big problem when rewards and points are applied to rote work, like chores or brushing your teeth. After all, there’s little worry of making those things less engaging.

But Dan Pink, the author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” has pointed out that studies show that when the task rises to the level of even rudimentary cognitive skills – anything above mechanical tasks – incentives start to work in reverse. Greater rewards – including higher pay – lead to poorer performance with things like creative tasks.

This de-motivation flies in the face of economic theory, and yet the findings have been remarkably consistent, Pink and others say.

Another common misconception is that sparking competition – by using things like workplace leader boards to increase productivity – leads to long-term improvements. In fact, interest tends to trail off quickly, particularly for those who realize they’re not in the running to win, said Jane McGonigal, a renowned game designer and author of “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.”

In a subsequent Web search, I found another useful article titled 3 Reasons NOT to Gamify Education.

It seems to me that learning games certainly have a role in schools, but I’m not so sure about “gamification.” What do you think — are there ways to incorporate “gamification” without hurting intrinsic motivation?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Larry,
    Thank you for this cautionary post. I heard echoes of Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards in your Pink quote. My personal experience as a teacher of 20 years resonates with the caution you cite in this review of opinions questioning gamification in education.

    While I am by no means a Kohn accolyte, I have seen both competition-based game models, and point systems fall flat in educational settings designed for highly motivated learners. The product itself is the reward for the motivated learner. The artificial rewards can be an insult.

    On the other hand, when working with very young children who may not yet have fully developed strong executive function, I think point systems, avatar accouterments, and digital badges can help motivate them to develop fundamental skills that are necessary for high level cognitive processing. I am undecided about leader boards with this population, though.

    Additionally, when working with disenfranchised, reticent adolescent learners, particularly those that have been failed by the system, rewards can be helpful. Dressing your avatar may not have much currency, but earning class credits individually for mastery performance most certainly can be.

  2. I like to categorize areas that can/might be gamification into at least three categories:

    1. Probably “safe” to gamify
    2. Possibly OK to gamify (depending on what form of gamification)
    3. Probably dangerous to gamify (because of the side-effects)

    This all assumes gamification as opposed actual (including “serious”) games, where most gamification is based entirely around externally-regulated extrinsic rewards.

    In the “probably safe” category, anything that is a rote, low-cognitively challenging, low-creativity, NON-enjoyable task carries little danger of demotivation since there is nothing intrinsically pleasurable. However, there are other potential side-effects including what happens when you REMOVE the reward system later, or what happens if your reward system becomes *too* engaging and overwhelms the otherwise intrinsically rewarding things that might have emerged *around* this initially low-enjoyment task.

    (so I guess that means I put even “probably safe” things in a “but be careful” context)

    Most health compliance and physical exercise falls into the “probably safe” category as well.

    Also, virtually any extrinsic reward system can be used somewhat safely as long as the rewards are NOT perceived by the receiver’s brain as “the reason I am doing the behavior”. This is a tricky one since it all happens below the level of conscious awareness. But if a reward is given randomly or more importantly — as a form of recognition rather than as a DO X AND EARN Y, then it serves a different function and is far less harmful. But most gamification today IS of the form DO X AND EARN Y. Another misconception people have is that the damage occurs only if Y (the reward) is a “tangible thing”, but the form of reward makes little difference. It is the “externally-regulated” part that causes problems, so status, peer pressure, etc. are all potentially damaging, according to the hundreds of studies loosely grouped under Self Determination Theory.

    In the NEVER safe category, I would put most forms of learning and engaging including collaborating, creativity, reading, etc. These are the areas of gamification I find the most disturbing, though those who want to gamify are well-intentioned. And unfortunately, “engagement” can look promising once gamification (or any incentive system) is used, just as slot machines or any version of operant conditioning using positive reinforcement can lead to increased activity. But at a risk we should NEVER take.

    The studies are both counter-intuitive and disturbing. The monkeys that enjoyed playing with wooden puzzles until given their favorite treat reward for solving the puzzles, at which time their puzzle-solving diminished. The kids given ribbons for their drawings then showed less interest in drawing. The writers shown a list of possible external reasons for writing immediately wrote less complex and interesting poems than those shown a list of intrinsically-rewarding reasons for writing. And on and on and on and on. Animals, humans, children, adults, across wide-ranging domains and in studies conducted by dozens of independent researchers.

    I “get” the desire to believe in the power of “incenting behavior we want”, and especially when it comes to learning. But it is yet another example of short-term gains at a long-term risk. Gamification proponents believe they are taking the “elements of games” and applying them outside of games, but they are not. They are taking mechanics, and not the heart of what makes an actual game (or other intrinsically rewarding experience) valuable and compelling. Educators COULD learn from game designers, but game designers have essentially learned from good *coaches*… it is really about balancing challenges with increased knowledge and skill, facilitated by high-quality timely feedback.

    If educators want to learn from game designers, they should use the parts of games that matter and leave the surface mechanics behind. Otherwise, we end up with mechanical behaviors, just as Skinner’s pigeons. They used positive reinforcement to do very complex-seeming behaviors, but in the end were nothing more than a long series of extremely simple behaviors chained into a sequence that only LOOKED complex.

    Thanks for writing this (and I apologize for my long-winded comment!)

    • Thank you for this reply. It was very well done. Do you have a citation for your studies? I would like to read further on the matter.

  3. I am not very up-to-date with gamification either but found this to be interesting. There is a fine line between gamification working and not working. If used in the right way it can be very useful. There have to be short and long term goals or awards. If there is just one goal students might lose interest if they have no hope to reach it. If they can reach smaller, attainable goals along the way they can stay motivated to keep going and try hard. I personally believe that in our capitalist society we are brought up learning competition and why not build off of this?

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  5. Pingback: More on badges | Overthinking my teaching

  6. I think that it is important with this topic as with all things in education to consult the research on it. I’ve read Jane McGonigal and recommend you see what she’s saying in her books. Gamification is not a slap a badge on it sort of thing. However, I do know that math rocket has helped my child with math this year. He plays math rocket because it is fun AND it teaches. He doesn’t play it because it is an assignment. The same with stack the states – a great games for learning states and capitals. It is a game, however, and not one of those drill and kill kinds of things.

  7. Vicky, actual games are *completely different* from gamification. And Jane McGonigal agrees (which is why she often prefers the phrase “gameful design” to gamification). Jane agrees that *intrinsic* motivation is what matters and again, if talking about “applying game design principle to non-game activities” we get a lot of interesting and useful applications. But today, most gamification IS little more than operant conditioning using positive reinforcement. And even most of the more elaborate examples of gamification (not just “slapping badges”) are still, at their core, using operant conditioning rather than trying to enable intrinsically-rewarding experiences.

    Actually, I would say the word gamification has become completely meaningless because it encompasses so many different things that we can no longer genaralize in ANY useful way. I have seen gamification examples that are nothing mores than progress bars (a great use, though) and some that are classic loyalty-rewards cards, and then some that are essentially an actual game (or “serious game”) that happens to contain learning content. But what represents MOST gamification today is still based on the fundamentals of externally-regulated reinforcement, and THAT is something we CAN generalize about.

  8. I agree, Kathy (also, great points about safe, possibly safe and not safe!). The more I read about gamification the more clear it’s becoming a buzzword that tries to encompass too much. The problems with externally-regulated reinforcement and all the issues with applying reward systems from games into real life seems better termed as “pointification,” or something else, rather than the catchall gamification. A lot of studies have talked about the dangers of pointification on intrinsic motivation, but we also need to consider other mechanics and aspects of game design that may have less drawbacks.

    For example, applying a narrative to a boring task puts the task in a context and makes it more exciting. I can’t see how this would be too problematic for intrinsic motivation.

    Likewise, using incremental difficulty found in games could really help individuals learn at their individual pace and gradually master topics over time.

    And we can’t ignore the social function games provide – be it cooperation or competition, as a means to share, work together, or work hard to compete (though some studies show competition can be detrimental to motivation for those who have no real chance of winning).

    So really, we need to be splitting gamification up into which mechanic is being applied to the real world setting. Applying narratives, incremental difficulty and more social functions to teaching could be really beneficial, where pointification is something to be really avoided – I suppose I’m generally reiterating your point that gamification is a term that we need to start moving away from, and start applying separate mechanics to individual cases.

  9. The concept of gaming and education is fascinating to me. I have not done formal research, at the moment I can only speak from 18 years of experience teaching students. I have noticed the behavior of my middle school students change. I teach a Graphics class and a multimedia class. We design and create authentic projects in what (I hope) is an interesting and engaging environment. Most of the time it is. Yet there are some students who speak and interact very little in class.

    Now, take the same student, put him in my “lunch bunch” (a group of kids who come into the lab to play during their lunch time). That same student will interact, socialize, use strategies, with his group. These kids have figured out how to enter their game simultaneously so they can go through it together. I watch them learn from each other, in hopes that I can figure out that “hook”. I know it’s not the reward at the end, because they walk away at the end, no prizes or points are even saved.

    How can I capture this energy? I want to modify my content so it includes these aspects of fun and strategy. Where do I start?

    • Karen,
      I think it starts with following the child and letting them take ownership. I taught technology in a middle school where the students came together to brainstorm what type of projects they wanted do to like robotics, 3D programming, movie-making, stop-motion animation, website design, etc. and then we would settle on three projects to work on over the course of the year. At first, I wasn’t so keen on the idea because I was worried about covering my content like acceptable use, citations, social media, google apps, keyboarding, etc. So I had to figure out how to best incorporate the learning concepts/content that I wanted to make sure they got out of the experience. Because it was their choice, they were already highly motivated to work on the project and I put very few constraints on what the project could be or whether they would work individually or collaboratively. I also looked for opportunities to let students figure things out on their own and then share these insights with others. In truth, I actually spent very little time teaching and much more time observing and facilitating.

      I am now doing some video game design workshops and I think the kids really just need me there to provide the space and opportunity. Because they are already the experts in this area, they are learning mostly from each other. One of the workshops is at 9am on Sat and I was sure there would be attrition, but no what I heard instead is that it wasn’t enough time! So I’m not sure about the merits of gamification in education, but I highly recommend video game design with students in any subject area.

  10. I think the trend around “gamifying” the educational system is as much as realization that our young people — our students, our own children — are engaged in something most adults know very little about (video gaming) and therefore, the push is on to tap into that interest, even if we don’t quite understand it. Of course, what happens is that well-meaning adults ruin the gaming experience for them by making the whole thing artificial, and structured, and safe.
    Earning a few reward points for spelling a word correctly for homework is not nearly the same as entering a portal where your very survival depends on reaction, reflex and critical thinking skills.
    I’m mixed on the whole “earn a badge” idea, too, since in most cases, it is a meaningless symbol, it seems to me. But I can’t ignore that some kids are clearly more engaged by “earning” rewards.
    An interesting corollary to this is that my school district’s shift to standardized report cards (no more grades) has sucked the motivation out of a significant population of kids who were always motivated to go the extra mile for that “A.” (Meeting a standard … not the same thing, to them).
    Would “reward points” help? I’m not sure.

  11. I am in a virtual university course that is structured using gamification principles. I’m one of the rare people in my class who doesn’t like it. I saw Dan Pink’s video you mentioned and reflected on how his thoughts were related to what I was feeling in this class. You can see my post at

    Most of the first “quests” in my class were more along the lines of rudimentary tasks. While the quests have gotten more challenging, I see this gamification structure as merely a grade book. I am not challenged because either I’ll get the assigned XP points or I’ll get a comment that directs me to make adjustments so that I can earn the XP points. There’s no motivation because I’ll eventually get the points. I’m actually tempted to put as little into a quest as possible and see if I get the points on the first try. The system is set up to automatically grant points for some quests, which gives me more motivation to go for the least work possible.

  12. To Dogtrax, I will just point out that video games are not necessarily “something most adults know very little about.” The typical video game player is mid-30s. I’ve been playing video games for over 20 years. I wish we would all move beyond this “video games are things only kids do” mentality. That hasn’t reflected the reality for well over a decade.

  13. Pingback: Reality is broken « Knowledge is free at the library. Just bring your own container.

  14. I note that almost all the commenters here seem to be educators. I’m not an educator, but I (sort of) design games as a hobby. Mostly I work by deconstructing games I enjoy, finding and fixing bugs in their game mechanics and rewriting or adding parts to the games to change the game’s behaviour to better match what I want. I have a habit of deconstructing all the games I play in this way, whether they’re computer games (MineCraft is a current fad of mine), board games, war games, roleplaying games, on-line word games and so on. Often my changes are purely theoretical tweaks that never get as far as paper. I’m not planning to write my own patches for Minecraft for example, but I have thought in some depth about what changes I’d make to it to make it ‘better’ for my personal uses, and what features of MineCraft make it such a successful game.

    Having given that as background info, here’s my point: game design is just as demanding a discipline as teaching. If you’re a teacher, and you try to make something into a game, unless you also chance to be good at game design, you’ll probably produce a poor game. And a poor game will work for a short time, until the novelty wears off, then stop working, and when it stops its educational benefits will stall too. /That/ is gamification’s Achilles heel – to gamify something successfully, you need to be a good educator /and/ have a knack for games design, and most teachers badly underestimate the difficulty of that second part of the requirement.

  15. Agree about extrinsic rewards… but that’s exactly what the current education system does. Get grades, then you get a good GPA and go to a good school… etc.

    Gamification of education has been happening in my classroom for 10 years. It’s been informal with no “badges” or “XP”, though I’m working on that now. But reading McGonigal makes the ways of implementing all of it much more clear.

    The problem with most of the educators “gamifying” education is that they don’t think about the structure or the pattern… They give as much attention to the structure and the motivation as students to to the class. They’re as poor students of game design as their students are of their subject matter.

    Gamifying is positively NOT slapping XP in place of grades, using Gold stars to reward… it’s about creating an atmosphere where success is guaranteed if you don’t quit, the ability to make choices, contributing to something bigger, and productive work.

    You’ve got the example of Shari above, who says that she’s in the minority now of students who don’t like the structure and don’t get engaged with it. Let’s compare that to the normal classroom where you have the majority who don’t like the structure and who don’t get engaged. And we don’t even know how well it’s designed.

    I admit that it’s harder in many classes than in mine (I teach digital art). That just means that you have to think about it more. I see a lot of teachers (I don’t mean the author since I don’t know him) who simply want THEIR work to be easier and THEY don’t want to engage fully in the class so they keep with the talking head, straight rows model. it’s easy. They can use lessons that are 5 years old and have never been updated. Let’s face it, algebra hasn’t changed much in the last few decades.

    I think I’m at an advantage because my topic DOES change every 18 months with new revisions of the software. I have to continually update my own skills. I’m a lifelong learner by choice, but if I wasn’t, my subject would force me to be. I love it! I’m engaged all the time as there’s something new to learn. There’s some new challenge.

    The issue is Intrinsic motivation… check out my friend’s post here-

    We can bring it out. Read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Grades don’t work, and yes, changing grades to XP doesn’t work… it’s what you do with it all. it’s more than changing names and using buzzwords… it’s about creating a culture in your classroom that encourages and celebrates failure for trying as much as success. it’s about giving kids choices about the speed and path of their own learning.

    And THAT is all hard work as Simon Smith stated above.

    To all teachers- Fight YOUR own indifference. Struggle as hard as you want your students to. Don’t look for “shortcuts” and use someone else’s lesson plans (You call that cheating when your students do and fail them for it.)

    Let’s rise to the challenge that the game designers gave us- to challenge and engage young minds. They’re currently at the head of the class.

  16. Pingback: Gamification « I'm Not Afraid of Storms

  17. I really enjoyed reading this thread! I am an EFL teacher in Japan, and I believe the future of education will encorporate gamified classes. I agree with many things that have been said here. But, the gamification I have seen used has been ‘half-baked’ and I think that is the essence of what real game designers are talking about.
    I am 44, I have played videogames, I have a 7yr old and with her I still play video games. Good games require more than just pleasing graphics or internet powered leader boards, they require a good story.
    I think that most of the text books I have encountered in my 10yrs as a teacher are designed around a curriculum rather than a story. These books are boring to read. As a student (taking university credits through distance ed, and trying out and coursera) I still find boring lectures, books, and pedagogical tasks.
    The key to a good lesson is a carefully though out storyline. I am using gamification in my classes succesfully with no digital elements. I have an intercolliegiate leader board to remove the onous of failure from the individual, I have a curriculum which is ‘gamified’ meaning I have incorporated administration’s requirements into a journey. Students enjoy the journey and look forward to the ‘next level’.
    Gamification only works if the facilitator puts substantial thought into all aspects of the ‘game’.

  18. Pingback: Steam for Schools – Portal 2 and Universe Sandbox | The Classroom Compendium

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