Games to empower

There are essentially three camps among educators who support the idea of integrating video games and learning:

  • those who are playing video games as a means to support student learning (e.g. Minecraft, SimCity Edu, Civilization, augmented reality simulations)
  • those who are creating video games as a means to support student learning (e.g. Scratch, Globaloria, Gamestar Mechanic)
  • those who are applying gameplay structures from video games to real world learning environments (i.e. gamification)

In this post I focus on the third approach, specifically on ways that intentional use of gamification can either empower or disenfranchise its participants.

Games are powerful

The idea of integrating video games into the classroom is exciting for teachers not just because games are fun or because kids seem to be willing to invest incredible amounts of time into them — in fact games model learning in some compelling ways.

  • Video games give players immediate feedback on their progress. When your strategy designed to beat the final boss or to jump across the pond doesn’t work out, you know it right away. Video game players don’t need to wait a week for a teacher to return a marked up worksheet.
  • Video games incrementally adjust their difficulty. Level one starts with the basics, and by level 10, the player is demonstrating meaningful fluency in order to continue playing. Video games scaffold growth and challenge in a compelling way.
  • Video games are boring if they’re too easy. Part of the joy of playing a video game involves seeking challenges and overcoming them. High-end graphics and sci-fi, end-of-the-world stakes make it easy for some games to trigger the endorphin rush of achievement, but the underlying principle is still there. No one wants to play a game just because it’s easy.
  • Video games are better with friends. They allow for single-player action, but they also include a spectrum of collaborative, cooperative, and competitive experiences as well.

Wouldn’t it be special to design learning environments in which students crave feedback and bigger challenges that they can tackle together? These four themes are just the tip of the iceberg; James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy offers a total of 36 learning principles we encounter in video games. Gamification aims to transplant many of these themes and gameplay structures into real world environments.

An example: achievements

Xbox, PlayStation, and iOS support a system of achievements/trophies across their games for players who complete certain milestones. Some milestones are directly connected to the game (finishing the first level or beating the game at the hardest difficulty, for example); others are connected more tangentially (such as collecting all of the hidden items or exploring all of the optional areas in the game). The system encourages fuller participation by incentivizing both breadth and depth in the gameplay experience. In general these achievement systems are successful at cultivating sustained engagement: in many cases, players go out of their way to earn special achievements not only for the sake of the joy of the game but for the satisfaction of adding another achievement to their collection. The achievements offer a way to keep score of progress and expertise, allowing players to have a platform-wide metric to show how they are leveling up as a gamer overall.

Many educators are hoping to co-opt this motivational strategy by introducing this gameplay structure in their own classrooms, typically with the language of “badges” instead of “achievements” or “trophies.” There are opportunities here for formal education to explore Open Badges, the digital portfolios movement, or any number of exciting, untapped possibilities. However slapping a new rewards system on top of a classroom context that is otherwise unchanged can be destructive.

Baseless badges can be dehumanizing

There are pitfalls to using badges (or achievements or trophies) in the wrong way. Extrinsic motivators are a major topic of study in psychology and education, and the dialogue about digital badges and motivation is ongoing. But some of the dangers of using badges without any further changes to the classroom should be obvious without any further research. Consider the problems of using badges…

  • …as unexpected rewards. Try following along with tutorials on an instructional website and before you know it — bingo! — you’ve earned a badge. Why? Weren’t you just stepping through the tutorial? What does it mean to receive a badge you didn’t know existed? Let’s not carry this into our classes.
  • …as a way to obfuscate grading. If five badges results in an A, four badges in a B, and three badges in a C, why are you calling them badges at all? Why not just use a rubric that is easier for everyone to understand? Let’s make students the subjects of their gaming experience, not the objects of ours.
  • …as a thinly veiled way to abuse power structures. Some behaviors should be valued with dignity, respect, courteous attention (or if you can imagine the dangers of gamification in the workplace, a paycheck) and not incentivized by points fabricated by those in positions of power.

Achievements can be empowering

But a more comprehensive implementation of badges can be empowering for learners. Instead of conceptualizing badges as a means to reward students, let’s frame badges as opportunities for students to visualize their own goals and to contextualize our feedback. We can arrange badges into skill trees, helping students see the challenges that await and understand the trajectory their learning may take in pursuit of each one.


A skill tree for web developers designed by 352 Inc

Instead of awarding badges like gold stars for good behavior, students can be empowered to identify their own goals on a skill tree and understand their progression along the path to accomplishing them. Instead of giving a letter grade and moving on, the teacher and student can cycle through iterations of feedback and improvement before earning a badge. In video games, the player knows his or her mission and even when the screen says “Game over,” you can always try again. By introducing skill trees to a classroom badging system, we provide a context that increases student agency, not diminish it.

Where this might go next

If these ideas can help shape a different kind of conversation around using badges in classrooms, then closing with a few what-if questions might spark new conversation about the potential for where to take this next:

  • What if students aren’t just earning badges but, with each new badge, adding to a portfolio of documented, shareable work?
  • What if skill trees and badges can help create a new, more transparent structure for students, teachers, and parents to communicate about the artifacts of students’ learning?
  • What if badges and skill trees can help foster a different kind of agency among students (students can choose which badge in the skill tree they want to pursue next) and a different kind of collaboration among teachers (teachers can design interdisciplinary badges)?

If deployed thoughtfully, badges may be a tool in reframing the educational environment to one that is more student driven and differentiated than ever before. What do you envision? Share your ideas in the comments.