BlogNovember 2013

Gamification: Sweetening the Work of Foreign Language Learning

Jonathon Reinhardt
By Jonathon Reinhardt, Assistant Professor of English Language/Linguistics and Co-Director, Games To Teach Project, Center for Educational Resources in Culture, Language and Literacy, University of Arizona.



“You see, in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun and snap! the job’s a game, and every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake...” Mary Poppins, 1964. 
Still of Julia Andrews as Mary Poppins
Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the trailer for the film Mary Poppins

In a fantasy London of a hundred years ago (depicted in 1964 by Julie Andrews), Mary Poppins used the magical music of A Spoonful of Sugar to make the tedious task of cleaning a bedroom seem easy and fun. Throughout history, adults have been encouraging children to adjust their perspective on work that might usually be seen as drudgery by integrating playful and game-like elements into them. But does turning non-games into games, or ‘gamification’ work? How can we transfer the features of games that please and motivate us into activities that otherwise might not?

Gamification, “the integration of game elements, mechanics, and frameworks into non-game scenarios” (NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Higher Education, p. 20), is a new term for an old educational approach with which most experienced instructors are familiar, but that has been given new life with the recent rise in popularity and ubiquity of digital video games. The same designs in games that motivate players to what seems like addiction and teach them scores of rules, stories, and pieces of information with seemingly little effort on their part can supposedly enhance traditional learning activities to make them more fun and effective. Gamification builds goal-orientation, collaboration, and competition into otherwise boring or hard activities. For example, a rote activity can be turned from ‘difficult’ into ‘challenging’ by attaching a reward for completion. Workers can build their skills repertoire more efficiently if they are given badges to put on display, or if their names are put on leaderboards for all to see. The corporate world has embraced gamification as a training tool for its workers, as well as a marketing device—consumers are rewarded for visiting websites, ‘checking in’, or evaluating their experiences online, often for merely the equivalent of a virtual gold star. In other words, gamification takes advantage of the fact that some people are highly motivated just by the opportunity to earn points and show them off, even if those points are not really worth anything material.

Gamification brings to new light a few reified concepts in education—for example, why we call homework, coursework, and schoolwork ‘work’ and not ‘play’, which we admit is important to keep Jack from becoming too tired, but that we usually relegate to recess. There are bells telling us when to start learning and when to stop, and tests that determine our path in life—after all, when you get out of school, the real world is not ‘all fun and games’, and work is ‘putting in your time’. In many ways, however, this frame of mind reflects an Industrial Era origin, and may be producing students unprepared for a post-industrial digital society that increasingly values creativity, adaptability, collaboration, and autonomy. If we think it’s good that learning is hard and sometimes boring because that prepares us for real life, then our mind concludes that ease and fun are antithetical to the purpose of schooling. A better frame, however, is not based on difficulty but on engagement. Certainly learning should be engaging to be effective, and engagement can involve challenge as much as it involves enjoyment. To be creative, adaptable, collaborative, and autonomous, one must be engaged in the task at hand. Gamification is not about making the hard easy but making learning engaging and developing the literacies that students need in the future.

Still, gamification is not always appropriate. Some people don’t necessarily like to play games all the time, especially certain types of competitive games. There is developmental value in open-ended, non-goal oriented play and activity—sometimes you do something just for the sake of doing it, and the reward lies in the doing, not in the winning. If we are forced to play a game that we don’t want to play, or a game that gives us no meaningful choices, we lose the very quality that makes a game a game—player agency. Whether facilitated by gamification or not, learner agency and engagement are both necessary for transformation, which is essential to development and at the heart of learning.

So how can we gamify foreign language learning? We use game-informed pedagogy to engage students and give them meaningful choices in directing their own learning. For example, we might start with point systems associated with learning and classroom behaviors. We might have reward systems to motivate those who need motivation, like badges for accomplishments—for example ‘error-free first draft’ or ‘spoke only in the target language for one week’ or ‘perfect quiz’. Students might be rewarded cards for their badges that they can redeem in different ways—looking up a word they should know, or asking a question in English, or gaining immunity from failing a future quiz of their choice. We might give students second chances that lower the stakes for taking risks, like opportunities to re-take quizzes for fewer points or to write something as extra credit that they learned but wasn’t on a quiz. We can have activities as competitions between student teams, as long as we mix up the teams every time so that everyone wins and loses at least once. We can implement role play activities that let students play with new sounds through new voices, and experience new cultures through new eyes. We might design our syllabus as an adventure game, with different levels of difficulty for the same content, activities designed as collaborative quests, and multiple learning pathways to get to the same destination. Project and problem-based activity design that incorporates problem solving, measured risk taking, and collaboration reflects many tried and true game design principles. For fresh insight, instructors can play a variety of games themselves, digital and analog, and watch others play games, with an open, inquisitive, and critical mind. For more ideas, see The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game by Lee Sheldon (2012), What Digital Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy by James Gee (2007), and Language at Play: Digital Games in Foreign Language Teaching and Learning by Julie Sykes and myself (2012, reviewed here in by Adrienne Gonzales).

Since well before digital gaming became an object of interest in CALL, talented foreign language instructors have sweetened their teaching with gamification —they just know it as engaging, empowering, and effective teaching. They have learned to recognize and exploit the game-like, playful elements latent in familiar class activities, curricular structures, and learner behaviors. While the term is in some ways a reconceptualization of an old idea, it helps us understand that the metaphors we use to conceptualize learning may prevent us from considering new, effective approaches. When we re-frame a ‘difficult’ or ‘boring’ activity as ‘challenging’, it affords engagement and learning. As experienced teachers and nannies throughout history have known, changing a learner’s or child’s perception is sometimes just a matter of finding “the element of fun” and exploiting it strategically—in other words, gamification.


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