Guesses and questions about gamification

We had a good session at the ELT Unconference this week about games and gamification in online courses. We spent some time talking about the differences between games and gamification, which seems to break down like this:

  • Game: Competitive or cooperative scenario with rules, chance, and the possibility of strategy
  • Gamification: Something that isn’t a game but that has game elements (narrative, concrete goals, rewards) added to it
  • Simulation: A (sometimes) game-like environment meant to provide opportunity for practicing a real-life scenario

To gamify a college course, then, we were picturing an overlay of new game mechanics to the student’s path through the materials, activities, and assessments of a course. ¬†Perhaps a progress tracker that awards points or abilities, or a new terminology for things like tests and quizzes–“challenges” or “quests” perhaps?

Novelty aside, is there a potential improvement in student learning? Is student motivation increased, leading to increased engagement, leading to improved performance on course assessments? (Or are there other dimensions involved that I’m not thinking of?) When you replace or mask the course’s traditional extrinsic motivators, who benefits?

Here’s my small class of students: one who really cares about the subject, a bunch who mostly care about their grades, and one who doesn’t really care at all. Greatly simplified, obviously, but probably not overly deceptive.

Intrinsically motivated  Extrinsically motivated Not motivated
“I want to learn this!” From “I have to get an A” to
“I just have to pass this”
“Why am I here?”

So what happens when you add game elements?

Here are my guesses:

  • Intrinsically motivated student: Either a slight increase or decrease in engagement or motivation. They may be amused by the game elements or may be slightly turned off (based on their feelings about video games, perhaps?). There may be a net positive effect from their perception that the instructor is being thoughtful about teaching.
  • Extrinsically motivated student who wants an A: Little change in motivation; slight decrease in satisfaction with the course. I’d guess a student who insists on getting an A in the class will probably not become more motivated when game elements either replace or supplement traditional grade motivators. And if she is more motivated, what’s the benefit if she now has additional non-intrinsic motivation? I’m going to guess that she may well find the game elements to be an obstacle, or an obfuscation of her path, to a good grade.
  • Extrinsically motivated student who just wants to pass: I’m not completely sure. Are extrinsic motivators always cumulative, or will they conflict? And what’s the benefit if he cares about getting to Level 100 but leaves the class not caring about the subject matter, and never transferring what he learned out of the classroom? (Assuming that if the student found out during the semester that he loved biology, he would’ve done so through the activities themselves and not the motivators–either grades or points.)
  • Unmotivated student: Possibility of more (any) motivation to progress through the material and activities. This seems like a potential net positive: a greater chance that the student may complete the course activities, and a possibility that engaged exposure to the material may create unexpected intrinsic motivation.

Any other thoughts? Am I far too off base by making these clear distinctions? Does a real-life student with mixtures of motivators benefit differently?