Gamification has been a pretty hot topic in the past few years, and honestly it’s typically rubbed me the wrong way. Those who know me know I’ve got a bit of an obsession with games, primarily because my degree’s actually in game design (don’t ask how I ended up here instead, I’m honestly not sure), and it’s typically applied in higher education at an extremely superficial level. Let’s slap a scoreboard on it, or give them a few points at random intervals! Hooray, gamification! Ugh. Games techniques for engagement have been repeatedly regarded as something that requires little finesse or expertise to apply in any context. While I want to make everything about games, it makes me feel like a violinist watching someone use a bow to brush their teeth.

A screenshot of museum madness.A lot of people will remember at least one awful ‘edutainment’ game of the 90’s (or any other recent time period for that matter). Some of them are fantastic, my heart will always belong to Museum Madness (right) and the legendary Oregon Trail cannot be disregarded, but there’s also a glut of abominations to my gaming sensibilities out there. There is definitely a still-emerging science and an art-form to what makes a good game good, and what can be applied out of its entertainment context. It’s not just something you can just throw at education and expect to stick.

Gamification in education has worked to a limited extent with younger students, as frankly you can put almost any game in front of a child and they’ll make it fun for themselves, but in HE it’s just not working. This isn’t because adults are above such simple things as games, the average age of a ‘gamer’ is actually 31 (or at least it was in 2014), it’s simply because we have higher standards for what makes a game good. We’ve gotten worse than children at redefining the rules for ourselves to make the game more fun as we’ve grown to follow the rules imposed upon us. Enter Remix Play.

Remix play gamification summit banner

My trip to the Disruptive Media Learning Lab (DMLL) in Coventry for the Remix Play Summit was unexpectedly gratifying for me. The conversation has moved on from gamification (a term which I hope will fall by the wayside with edutainment), and focuses more on gameful design. This is actually nothing hugely new, I’ve seen a few articles about this dating back to at least 2011, and it’s probably been talked about before that, but this has been one of the first times I’ve heard it talked about in ways that don’t make my inner game designer recoil in horror.

Dark souls is a mean game.

Sometimes, though, progress is more challenging than you might like…

As the eminently clever Sebastian Deterding explained at Remix Play (whose talk I will now shamelessly rip off), the point of a game for most people who play it is not simply the earning of points or competing with peers, or any number of other systems that (as useful as those are as tools). The core, number one reason why games are fun, engaging and meaningful, is the demonstration of mastery. That release of pleasure (loud, headphone warning) from finally beating the boss you’ve been stuck on for weeks, or from solving that one puzzle where you have to throw crumbs at the rubber duck to provoke a seagull so that you can use it later (the duck, not the seagull) to get the key off the electrified rails… I wish I was making that last one up. Meaningless points if you know the game (Oh look, gamification. Ugh).

Demonstration of mastery is not something new to education. I’m far from an expert, but Google tells me that mastery learning first popped up its head (on record at least) in the 1920‘s until it died off due to lack of technology to support it, and has repeatedly emerged ever since every 20 years or so. If there’s one thing education loves though, it’s buzzwords, and that to my mind is a large part of how gamification became so popular as its own separate field. Whatever you call it, however, the bridge between the soulless mess that is current gamification and the pure pedagogical method of mastery learning is our new buzzword of ‘gameful design’.

The most delightful way

At this point I’m at risk of entirely ripping off Sebastian’s talk, but he was so right that it’s hard not to. There’s two quotes he used from Mary Poppins of all places, in order to illustrate the shift in thinking that’s required. Yes, really. If you fancy it, listen to this and spot the application (it’s not hard).

Firstly, here’s the line that gamification subscribes to:

Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down

The idea is that the learning is not inherently fun, but if we just shove game things down peoples’ throats they’ll enjoy it more. I’m going to try and stop hating on gamification now, but this couldn’t be any more superficial and wrong. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried cough medicine with sugar, but it doesn’t make the situation better. By contrast, here’s the line that the concept of gameful design moves more towards, right from the start:

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.
You find the fun, and snap! The job’s a game!

While there’s still that inherent assumption that the work is inherently not fun (which may not always be true, but let’s face it, is a lot of the time), there is something in there that can be adapted into a game. The concept of gameful design, to quote Sebastian once more, is to “find the fun”. Discover what the challenge is in a given task, and allow the student (or at this point, the player) to demonstrate their mastery of the concepts that that task requires. It’s not something bolted on, it’s inherent to the content by design, and the game emerges from that design. It’s not actually that huge  a shift to adopt, as you might expect from something that can be covered about 30 seconds apart in the same Mary Poppins song, but it’s that crucial recognition that gives me hope for games and education coming together.

The rest of the Remix Play event was, of course, great, and it was gratifying to hear people from pure education backgrounds using concepts from the games industry in ways that actually made sense to me. It’s finally happening, they’re finally finding the fun. Personally, I just want Museum Madness 2, perhaps in VR.