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#ECGBL 2014: The Pitfalls of Gamified Learning Design

The first #ECGBL2014 presentation I attended was “Experimenting on How to Create a Sustainable Gamified Learning Design That Supports Adult Students When Learning Through Designing Learning Games” (Source) by Charlotte Lærke Weitze, PhD Fellow, Department of Education, Learning and Philosophy, Aalborg University Copenhagen, Denmark.

Weitze’s paper relates to a double challenge so crucial for designing game-based learning solutions that you’ll see me coming back to it on this blog time and again. One side of this challenge is students burning through content way faster than educators and game designers are able to produce; you just can’t keep up. The other side is the challenge of practicing complex, non-siloed learning content within game-based learning environments that are incompatible with practices such as rote learning, flash cards, repeat training, or standardized testing.

In other words, it’s non-educational games’ “replay value” challenge on screaming steroids. Among the most promising solutions is mapping the “learning by teaching” approach to designing content, i. e., having students design fresh game content as a learning-by-teaching exercise. Obviously, both effectiveness and efficiency of this approach depend on the number of students that are part of the system, where output will exponentially take off only after a certain threshold has been reached, both numerically and by way of network effects.

Of course there are pitfalls. One obvious pitfall is that students—with the exception of game design students, of course—are students, not game designers. And while, along more reasonable approaches, they don’t have to design fully functional games by themselves with game mechanics, rules, and everything, it’s still hard to design entertaining, i. e., “playable” content for games without at least some game design knowledge from various fields—prominently balancing, guidance strategies for player actions, or interactive storytelling. This was one of the reasons why, regrettably, Weitze’s experiment, where students also had to build the content with software, fell short.

As for the experimental setup (which employs the terminology of James Paul Gee’s more interaction-/discourse-oriented differentiation between little “g” games and big “G” Games), students design and build little “g” games for a digital platform within the framework of a “gamified learning experience,” the big “G” Game, which includes embedding learning goals and evaluating learning success. The little “g” games in this case are built for other students around cross-disciplinary learning content from the fields of history, religion, and social studies in a three-step process consisting of “concept development, introduction and experiments with the digital game design software (GameSalad), and digital game design” (4). Moreover, this whole development process (within the big “G” Game) had to be designed in such a way as to be motivating and engaging for the students on the one hand, and to yield evaluable data as to its motivational impact on individual learning successes on the other.

Experiences from this experiment, unsurprisingly, were described in the presentation as “mixed”—which is academic parlance for “did not fucking work as planned at all.” The problems with this setup are of course manifold and among these, “focus” is the elephant in the room.

There are far too many layers, especially for an experiment: the gamification of game design processes for learning purposes (the big “G” Game) and the design thereof with in-built learning goals and evaluation strategies; below that, then, the game design processes for the little “g” games including, again, learning goals and evaluation strategies. In other words, the students were supposed to be learning inside the big “G” Game by designing little “g” games in groups with which other students in turn would be able to “learn from playing the games and thus gain knowledge, skills and competence while playing” (3)—all that for cross-disciplinary content and executed in a competitive manner (the big “G” Game) by 17 students and three teachers none of which had sufficient game design experience to start with, and under severe time constraints of three workshop sessions of four hours each.

Besides “focus,” the second elephant in the room is “ambition,” which the paper acknowledges as such:

In the current experiment the overall game continued over the course of three four‐hour‐long workshops. Though this was a long time to spend on an experiment, curriculum‐wise, for the upper‐secondary students, it is very little time when both teachers and students are novices in game‐design. (3)


This is an ambitious goal, since a good learning‐game‐play is difficult to achieve even for trained learning game designers and instructors. (3)

And the nail in the coffin, again unsurprisingly:

At this point [the second workshop] they were asked to start considering how to create their game concept in a digital version. These tasks were overwhelming and off‐putting for some of the students to such a degree that they almost refused to continue. This was a big change in their motivation to continue in the big Game and thereby the students learning process was hindered as well. (7)

Finally, what also generated palpable problems during this experiment was the competitive nature of the big “G” Game. While the paper goes to some lengths to defend this setup (competition between groups vs. collaboration within groups), I don’t find this approach to game-based learning convincing. Indeed I think that for game-based learning this approach—competition on the macro-level, collaboration on the micro- or group-level—has it upside down: that’s what we already have, everywhere. Progress, in contrast, would be to collaborate on the macro-level with stimulating, non-vital competitive elements on the micro- or group level.

Game-based learning can provide us the tools to learn and create collaboratively, and to teach us to learn and create collaboratively, for sustained lifelong learning-experiences. Competition can and should be involved, but as a stimulating part for a much greater experience, not the other way round. The other way round—where collaboration has to give way to competition as soon as things threaten to become important—is exactly what game-based learning has the potential to overturn and transcend in the long run.