In 2023 I began some intensive research around the topic of gamification. This topic seemed to have its heyday in the literature (books, articles) nearly a decade ago, with a seeming golden year around 2015.

“Gameful design attempts to design interactive systems that serve (a) functional needs and (b) specific desired uses and effects of these functions, (c) facilitating both kinds of outcomes by affording the motivating, enjoyable experiences characteristic of gameplay.”

Deterding, S. (2014). The lens of intrinsic skill atoms: A method for gameful design.

I’d heard about games for learning some years before; I’d heard Gee speak at ISTE one year and I’d purchased a book by Prensky on Digital Game-Based Learning. Marc’s book provided a number of postulations about how we learn. I’ll reproduce some here:

  • You can’t learn unless you fail.
  • People learn in context. People learn when elements are abstracted from context.
  • Learning should be fun. Learning should be hard work. (Papert said learning is hard fun.)
  • People learn just in time, only when they need to.
  • People learn through feedback.
  • People learn through reflection.
  • People learn from stories and parables.
  • People learn by playing.
  • People learn through games.
  • People learn when they are having fun..

An oft-quoted book on games is by Jane McGonigal (2011) and she writes passionately about games being a necessary escape from reality. I saw the impact for games in learning but hadn’t realized the field was wider than the potential from Prensky’s list, where he includes gameplay as an avenue towards learning.

My journey had me thinking back to my childhood, to the culture of the 1980s, and where we’ve come or advanced since that time.

The 1983 movie War Games imagines a computer game that turns real, quite the example given the availability of AI models like Chat-GPT.

Games vs. Gamified Experiences

To be sure, there is a continuum between games and other interactive experiences, such as games and simulations. I should be clear that gamification isn’t a game. Which isn’t a value call, it’s just different.

Games have particular qualities. The definition offered by Huizinga, around play happening within the so-called magic circle is a good one, I think. The gist is that in games we know things aren’t real. We know that killing pigs in Angry Birds is all good and fun, we’re actually not harming any animals (birds included).

Experiences that are gamified are typically viewed as real. Among the many examples of gamification authors cite the defunct McDonald’s Monopoly game. It wasn’t really the board game, right, but they referenced that game and made buying their food a little more fun by adding elements of chance to our dining experience. At its heart it was a marketing ploy, buy more Big Macs in hopes of winning cash or free fries.

Gamification therefore became the buzzword du jour for businesses who might turn to this field to drive up profits.

At its heart, gamification is a study at what makes games attractive to us psychologically. And it doesn’t stop at understanding—it goes further to apply these techniques to otherwise non-gaming experiences.

What attracted me to the field is what we could do with this psychology to advance learning, and specifically professional learning for adults.

At VDOE I led a number of sessions introducing this concept to employees engaged in professional learning activities.

Stay tuned for more.