Kathy Sierra, the well-known and respected tech writer and thinker, posted a lengthy comment on my post from earlier today titled The Dangers Of “Gamification” In Education.

I thought it deserved to be read more widely, and she graciously agreed to let me reprint it as a separate blog post.

For those readers who might not be familiar with Kathy, here’s a short bio:

Former game designer (Virgin, MGM), was a master trainer at Sun Microsystems (training the trainers), taught new media studies and interaction design at UCLA Extension, and created the Head First learning series for O’Reilly Media. Her books are currently the top-two longest-running technology bestsellers on Amazon, with more than a million copies in print alone. She believes the success of her books is due to applying game design principles to learning, and that gamification today has nothing to do with game design.

Here is her comment:

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, Kathy!

Reactions are welcome…