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Gamification: The Latest Buzzword and the Next Fad

By Guy Boulet / December 2012

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The term gamification seems to be the latest buzzword in the learning realm. After the Virtual Worlds and Web 2.0 fads, gamification seems to be the latest trend. Every learning related journal, magazine, and blog seems to have the need to associate their name with the term, praising the merits of this "technology" in making training more efficient.

But what exactly is gamification? Why is it suddenly so important when we know that game principles have been applied to learning for years? What will be its impact on learning as we know it?

What is Gamification?

Gamification is basically the use of game mechanic in non-game contexts. The main virtue of gamification, according to its proponents, is that it makes learning more engaging by providing more immersive content. Examples of gamification techniques are the addition of compelling narrative, goals, play rules, instant feedback, tasks to complete, scoresF, and levels to learning events.

The term gamification, which was apparently coined in 2008, has gain momentum over the last two year as one can observe in Google Trends (see Figure 1). A 2011 report from Gartner Inc. even estimates than by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify these processes.

Figure 1. Google Trends report for search term "gamification."

Why is Gamification Suddenly so Popular?

Gamification notions such as narrative, instant feedback, tasks to complete, and others have been used in learning materials for years. When I started out in the training field we were already using "learning games" to support training, this was the mid-1980s. Even as a kid in the early '70s we were doing multiplication tables competitions in the classroom. Therefore, there is nothing new in gamification from an instructional design standpoint.

The term gamification, which was probably created by researchers to illustrate an existing concept, has rapidly been hijacked by the industry as a marketing term to push new products and services. A quick look at the past allows us to see that the same thing happened with terms such as "virtual environments" and "Web 2.0": those two terms were abused by training "experts" trying to sell miracle solutions. But in the end, although they proved efficient in some specific applications and inefficient in others, the interest for these concepts simply faded over time to reach a stable level of interest significantly lower than was predicted by those "experts." (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Compared interest levels toward virtual environments, Web 2.0 and gamification.

In fact, using the word gamification makes you cool. It gives those who use it some kind of power. This is always the case with buzzwords: Placing them in a conversation makes you look like you know what you are talking about. Of course using game mechanics to create motivation and engagement has the potential to make learning content more efficient but games are, by definition, quite different from real life. People have been using games for centuries as a way to disconnect from real life. Therefore, using game mechanic in training real-life skills must be done cautiously if we want people to take learning seriously. Otherwise, if learning becomes a game the risk is that people will participate in learning activities only for the points or badges, rather that to improve their skills or knowledge. We don't want the container to become more important than the content.

And although games can be a great source of motivation, they are not the only sources of motivation that exists. Not everyone is a gamer simply because people are not all motivated by the same things. For some, motivation comes from challenges or social recognition, for others, it is about money or power. As an example, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube seem, based on their popularity, to motivate people. Yet they are not games, neither are they "gamified." There are different things that can motivatee people and not all can be achieved through games.

Therefore, although gamification of learning content could be beneficial to some people, it might not be for everyone. There are however documented examples of instances in which gaming has produced positive results, but it does not mean we can generalize these successes and make gamification a silver bullet.

What Does that Mean?

I think one of the main drivers for the success of gamification is the increasing popularity of online games, especially with younger people. Therefore, some believe that since people like games, we should gamify training and education in order to motivate learning. This is the same reasoning that was used a few years back with virtual environments and Web 2.0 and yet, although they are still used in support of training and education, their use never became mainstream. So why would it be different with gamification?

As the interest for gamification continues to grow, people will likely get tired of games. The more permanence game will take in our everyday life, the less they will be appealing to escape this same life. Putting too much expectation on gamification will likely kill the concept. In the end, people will simply get disillusioned and abandon the idea all together even if it can prove effective in specific circumstances.

Gamification is a fad, as were virtual worlds and Web 2.0. Not because it has no value, but because the term is being overused. Just because some learning materials can benefit from elements of game mechanics it does not mean that game mechanics has the potential to improve all learning materials.

I predict that the gamification buzzword will simply undergo the same popularity curve as its predecessors. Everyone will inquire and talk about it and after a while, once everyone will know what this is really about the interest will simply fade, and learning vendors and consultants will simply find another buzzword so they can sell more illusion.

About the Author

Guy Boulet is an instructional designer for the Canadian Navy e-Learning Center of Expertise in Quebec City where he is currently designing 3-D simulations and serious games interactions for training. He received a master's of arts in distance learning from TELUQ-UQAM.

Copyright is held by the author. ACM 1535-394X/12/12 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2407138.2421596


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