Why Gamification Won’t Save Education

I was watching an interview recently between Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) and Elon Musk. In the interview, Elon Musk draws the analogy between his kids being addicted to video games, and getting kids addicted to education.

Suddenly it clicked.  The reason that all these online education companies are putting so much stock in things like badges, points, and challenges.  They think that these things are the reason kids are addicted to video games.

Unfortunately, this is wrong.  Gamification can’t save education, because thinking it can shows fundamental misunderstanding between being able to explain behavior and being able to predict/cause it.

Explaining Behavior Vs. Predicting Behavior

There’s a principle in social psychology which says that an explanation for a behavior can never be reduced to simply evolutionary explanations.  For example, saying “people protect their family because it passes on their genes” can perhaps describe why a particular behavior was selected for. However, it can’t describe:

  1. Why the behavior of protecting a loved one arose in the first place (the very first time).
  2. The particular set of cognitive procsesses, neuorology, and emotions which lead people to protect their family (and therefore it has little predicitive power).

Similarly, when looking at why video games are addicting, you can’t simply point to carrot and stick mechanics, because:

  1. You can’t explain why people bought the video game in the first place.
  2. You can’t explain the particular set of cognitive processes and emotions that caused people to play the game long enough for reinforcement mechanisms to kick in.

Particularly, people who think video games are addicting because of the reinforcement mechanisms are taking a Skinnerian, behaviorist view of human motivation. They’re ignoring the Bandurian, cognitive psychological model that is a big part of what makes humans tick.

What Makes Humans Tick

I don’t think anyone is arguing that humans aren’t driven to maximize pleasure and reward, and minimize pain and effort.  What I am going to argue here is that what gives humans pleasure, particularly in the sphere of learning, is not to get points and badges  (which can only help reinforce what people already want to do) as many gamification experts would have you believe. It’s also not to get money (which only matters up to a basic “enough” threshold) as many behavioral economists would have you believe .

Rather, there are certain innate human drives which give us pleasure in the simple act of fulfilling them.  In the case of video games, I think there are a few clear drivers:

Gamers want to increase their skills in order to:

  1. Create New Things
  2. Solve Problems and Challenges
  3. Satisfy Their Curiosity
  4. Change the Story They Tell About Themselves

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and in fact there are some non-hack theories of gamificationwhich are much more comprehensive.

But those are the four big ones which I personally observe.  To see this in action, let’s take a look at an incredibly addicting yet simple game called cookie clicker.


How Cookie Clicker Taps Into Innate Human Drives

At first glance, this game seems to support the theory that all that you need to do is have some points and badges, and you can get people addicted. After all, the game pretty much involves gaining points and badges by clicking on things, and then using those points to buy things which can make you more points and badges.

However, let’s imagine for a second that this game was called “number clicker”. Instead of getting cookies and building a cookie empire… you simply got “numbers”.  What would you lose from the game mechanics as a hack gamification expert sees them? Nothing.   However, what would you lose from your innate human drives? You’d lose the ability to create something new and vicariouslytell a story about yourself.  Would cookie clicker be as popular and addictive as it is without these factors? No.

What Does This Have To Do With Education?

I think I’ve made the case that merely adding badges and points to education won’t satisfy the innate human drives, and therefore won’t be enough to motivate human behavior.  One way to follow this chain of logic would be to say: Ok, instead of just adding badges and points, let’s make an RPG out of real life.  Let’s correlate real life learning goals to exploring in game worlds, solving in game challenges, and creating an in-game story about ourselves.

But ultimately, this misses the point.

Just look at the kids at the Sudbury School. These kids have no outside gamified structure imposed on them at all.  No grades, no classes, no nothing. And yet, they still manage to do an (while admitedly not optimized) astonishing amount of learning.  In looking at the essays and videos of their students, you can begin to notice trends about why they do what they do:

They’re learning new skills in order to”

  1. Build or create something in the real world.
  2. Solve a problem or challenge in the real world
  3. Satisfy their curiosity about how the world works
  4. Change the story they tell about themselves (I.E, they think it’s cool.)

Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list. But if you’ll notice, this is almost the exact same list that was made above. It turns out real life ALREADY provides the motivation to learn.  So to save education, you merely need to make it easy for kids to connect their learning goals to the real world.

How to Save Education

The ideal motivational platform for students wouldn’t rely on fancy points and badges systems (although it might use those as supplementary reinforcements).  Instead, the perfect motivational platform would do two things really well:

  1. Show you what skills and facts you are able to learn next, based on your current knowledge.
  2. Show you the experiments you could run, things you could create, or real life projects you could participate in, based on those skills and facts.

Unleash a simple learning system like that, in an environment like a Sudbury School, and innate human drives would take care of the rest.

Reinventing education ain’t easy. But it is simple, when you take it down to basic first principles like this.

Anyways, I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Am I simplifying to much? Is there things I’m missing? Let me know through an email, in the comments, or anywhere else.

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