Against Ticky-Tacky Gamification

Trends will be trends. They’re trends because everyone does them. Mindless imitation? Or a really good idea?

Of course, who wants to do something everyone else is doing? It’s like that Yogi Berra saying: “No one goes there any more––it’s too crowded.”

Gamification in education threatens to be another "trend" in the bad sense of that word.

When I was a kid––don’t ask when that was––there was a song called “Little Boxes.” It was a kind of humorous folk-protest song, and the target was the suburbs: those rows on rows of identical quickly-built houses.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a blue one
And a pink one and a yellow one.
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,
And they all look just the same.

I often think of this song when I see one of those reality shows in which dull people rehab a perfectly nice old house to be a McMansion.

Every “social” web site now seems a bit like this.

  • Every user has a profile page.
  • You can post photos.
  • Users can send each other messages––because of course the one thing everyone wants in life is more email.
  • Blah blah blah.

At this point, you can download software that has all these same tools. But it’s just like the song. Little social sites made of ticky-tacky. And they all look just the same.

Gamification is the new suburban ticky-tacky house/social web site––but for learning.

Most people’s idea of “gamification” is shallow and trivial:

  • Every user has a profile page.
  • You earn points.
  • There’s a leader board.
  • Blah blah blah.

Like the song says: And they all look just the same.

But there are reasons to look to games as we plan learning and help others learn and plan learning. Games are important.

  • Playing is likely primordially human. Games, sports, contests and play are ancient. There is one whole conception of man not as a maker or thinker but as a creature who plays: homo ludens.
  • Games are motivating. People actually enjoy playing games. Different people enjoy different games. But almost everyone enjoys some game or other.
  • Games are learnable. This is often overlooked. If you couldn’t learn a game, you couldn’t play it. So a game itself is a learnable thing. And most games have some kind of pleasure in getting better at them.

So making an activity game-like can mean: making it engaging, motivating and learnable. And that seems good. But we need some notion of what’s involved in that.

If points and leader boards are not the key elements of games we should bring to learning, what are they?

There are five elements of games which seem fundamental and which bring clarity and order to game activities––and which we should consider using when we organize learning activities. They are largely spatial, though some are temporal.

  • Borders. Boundaries. Edges. A field of play. The space where the action is.
    • Games and sports involve some bounded space. Only what happens there truly matters.
    • You can’t play baseball from the locker room. You have to be on the field. You can’t play chess on your lap. You can play tennis on a table, but that’s a different sport, and it’s not just any table (though one could surely improvise).
  • Goals.
    • I mean: a physical place you have to get to to earn something or win. The end zone. Home base. In chess it’s where the king is.
    • The organizing role seems clear––as does the motivating power.
  • Field Markings.
    • In football, you know if you’ve moved the ball ten yards or not. And you know how far from the end zone you are.
    • This is likely more important than points. Points tell you where you stand, who’s ahead. But so do markers which let everyone measure progress.
    • Physical positions in a game do more than show a general progression: they have deep implications for what is happening and what is possible.
      • In baseball, being on first base is quite a bit different than being on third base. Different stakes. Different consequences. Different strategies.
  • Flows and Cycles. What gives what to whom when? How is the entire time of the play broken into segments and units?
    • Many games and sports have turns: your turn, my turn.
    • Innings. Sets. Games. Matches. Rounds. Time figures heavily in sport and play.
    • In baseball, the ball travels from pitcher to catcher, maybe to the bat, then to whomever, then to the player, who’s running to evade the trajectory of the ball towards him.
    • A relay race is all about flow: the baton’s hand-off.
  • Positions. Aka roles. Specialized jobs or functions.
    • The pitcher does something different than the catcher.
    • The king, queen and rook all move differently. They have different potentialities, different strengths and weaknesses.

(I’ve left out rules and strategy, because they’re abstract and conceptual, whereas the five elements I’ve listed are spatio-temporal. We already do too much to make learning abstract and conceptual; so the idea that teaching and learning happen concretely in space and time seems worth emphasizing as a counterweight.)

Learning isn’t just cramming stuff into your head. Nor is it simply being trained like a lab rat. Significant learning involves consciously changing your behavior: being able to observe, plan, control and select your actions with strategic purpose in order to achieve this result rather than that. If the learner doesn’t have these five elements, she likely can’t orient herself towards what she needs to do, nor act purposefully to achieve a specific result.

  • Borders. What separates chemistry from baking? Or alchemy? How are we having a discussion about literature––and not just chatting about life-in-general? What is the specificity of the activity which makes it a discipline?
  • Goals. It’s not just “What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?” We all make fun of that question, but that question points to a real concern.
    • What counts as success in this discipline? What kinds of performance do I have to give? What’s a better and worse one?
    • These are questions about the contents of the discipline––not just an external concern with grades.
  • Field Markings. Where am I? How am I doing?
    • Am I closer to the end of the course than the beginning?
    • Am I performing well or poorly?
    • Am I inches from achieving a good result? Or did I lose 20 yards and now need to move the ball 30?
  • Flows & Cycles. Where is the locus of control? Who initiates the learning?
    • When is the first paper due? Where do I turn things in? When do I get them back?
    • What are the units and modules? How often should I open the textbook?
  • Positions. Who does what? What am I responsible for?
    • Is the teacher a coach, mentor, and expert? Does she give feedback? Lecture and not grade? Grade and not lecture?
    • What are my responsibilities as a student?
    • If I’m part of a group, am I the editor? The project manager? The facilitator?

Of course, most of these game-like elements can be described using the jargon of learning theory.

  • The field of play is Bloom’s competence: you are basically doing it right, or you’re not. You can add or you can’t. You know your letters and numbers. It’s similar to prerequisite knowledge.
  • Goals are learning objectives. It’s what needs to be accomplished, under what conditions and to what standards.
  • Field markings are formative assessments: testing people and letting them know how they’re progressing.
  • Sociolinguists have concerned themselves with turn-taking in the classroom––who speaks when. Otherwise, questions about how long a class period should be and how often the course topics should change are sometimes seen as ‘merely’ practical concerns.
  • Positions don’t have an exact equivalence. But in psychotherapy there’s something called role preparation––which means ‘Are you ready to be a good patient?’ And in education, we get concerned about cognitive strategies, which means ‘Do you know how to study?’

But truly: is it better to explain something to people in terms that are clear, concrete and familiar? Or in terms of some obscure theories that most people don’t know too well?

The difference between trivial gamification and really learning from how games work is: the player of a game or sport can direct her efforts purposefully towards a successful performance. Learning involves steering and self-orientation, the continuous adjustment of a performance with respect to a standard which is being acquired.

By contrast, trivial gamification just adds bells and whistles. And that kind of ‘keeping up with trends’ could end up leaving us off the field of play entirely.

––Edward R. O’Neill


  1. Dr.O'Neill

    Thanks for leaving comments on Classroom Aid.
    (5 easy steps to gamify highed)
    Your blogs are very interesting.
    Would it be possible to invite your articles about game-based learning and e-book publishing for our readers ?

    Jessie/Classroom Aid

  2. Sorry I am slow to reply! I'm happy to share anything you like.

    You can contact me here:

    Or here:

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