Learned #34: All In the Game

In which we get gamified.

My students have been requesting that I buy "Jinsei Game" for ages. I've been putting it off because I didn't want to buy a Japanese version of the game. No, since I teach English, I thought it would be much better if I could get a copy of Jinsei Game under its original name: The Game of Life.

You might remember the game. Each player gets a little station wagon and spins the wheel to see how far down the board they can get. Along the way, you have positive experiences, like promotions and pay raises, and negative ones, like job loss and unforeseen expenses. And then there are those little bundles of joy brought by the stork that can be good or bad, depending.

But the bigger question, I suppose, is why I would cave in and get a board game for my classroom in the first place?

The simple answer is that anything that gets kids engaged and willing to learn is a helpful tool. A board game like Life gets them to read, use stock phrases (like "It's your turn."), and, most importantly, enjoy their classroom experience.

The shorter but more complex answer is that I'm a believer in and a proponent of gamification. And we're figuring out just what that means in this week's letter.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: The Art of Gamification

  • What We're Reading:

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Game Crafting 101

Let's get to it.

What We're Learning:

The Art of Gamification

Google's return for the query, "What is gamification?"




the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.

And Wikipedia gives us this bit of history:

Though the term "gamification" first appeared online in the context of computer software in 2008,[78][a] it did not gain popularity until 2010.[82][83] Even prior to the term coming into use, other fields borrowing elements from videogames was common; for example, some work in learning disabilities[84] and scientific visualization adapted elements from videogames.[85]

The term "gamification" first gained widespread usage in 2010, in a more specific sense referring to incorporation of social/reward aspects of games into software.

All of which is well and good, but what does it mean for me as a teacher and what do I mean when I say I'm "a believer in and a proponent of" gamification?

Believe In Me

How many words did you learn to spell as a child by playing Hangman? For that matter, how many words did you learn by playing Scrabble? Or by doing the crossword puzzle?

For me, these are the earliest examples I can find in my own life where I learned directly through playing a game. And not the more abstract concepts that I might have learned by playing Chess or Backgammon, but concrete ideas like discrete words and their correct spellings and pronunciations.

In fact, I can draw a through-line tracing my learning of different things to games designed to specifically teach those things. All of which begs the question - how is gamification any different from actually playing games?

I like this answer from Elizabeth Goodhue on eLearningIndustry:

There may be mini-games within the framework, but the gamification is the big picture. When you hear the word gamification in a sales pitch for eLearning, it means that students learn under a framework of gamification. The sole purpose of gamification is motivating and reinforcing student learning with feedback, rewards, and a chance to practice a subject until they master it.

As an example of that, let’s look at a mini-case-study, my favorite writing website: 750words.

On the very front page of the site, creator Buster Benson writes:

Every month you get a clean slate. If you write anything at all, you get 1 point. If you write 750 words or more, you get 2 points. If you write two, three or more days in a row, you get even more points. It's fun to try to stay on streaks and the points are a way to play around with that. You can also see how others are doing points-wise if you're at all competitive that way. How I see it, points can motivate early on, and eventually the joy of writing will kick in and you'll be writing without any external motivation at all.

So. Buster has added a gaming element - points - to his writing site. Write more, get more points. However, you (the writer / user) are not competing against anyone and there is no concrete prize for winning. Taken together, to me, that’s not a game, that’s a great example of gamification - putting elements of games into other activities to take advantage of the way human minds are structured. In this case, earning points makes me feel good so I go out of my way to earn more points.

There are many other examples of gamification out there. Many, like 750words, just use elements to increase user repetition or engagement, others take it several steps further and create full-on games. I linked to several a couple weeks ago when I wrote about brain training, but, as I touched on then, the question is, does it work?

The Game of Life. | Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash


Gamification is not without its critics. Mainly, the thought seems to be that people do not function (be that learning or practicing or whatever) any better through gamified systems than they would using more traditional study methods. I think what a lot of those critics miss is that gamifying things generally makes them more fun and less of a burden. Whether that is worthwhile is another question entirely.

Other criticisms center on businesses who have made gamification part of their selling point. Robert Workman on Business News Daily says:

Critics even say that gamification efforts have learned the wrong lesson from game design by overemphasizing points, badges and levels as rewards that motivate people. They argue that game features serve as benchmarks for players in traditional video games to measure their progress; the real motivation and joy comes from the challenge of gameplay and story.

All that being said, my early experience as a teacher made me an advocate for gamification before I even knew what it was.

When I first came to Japan, I worked for an English teaching school in which we teachers would have groups of three to four students at a time and would have nothing in terms of teaching materials save for a textbook and some scrap paper. Out of desperation, I began drawing on a lifetime of game-playing experience and began setting challenges and quests for my students. In time, some of these ideas turned into full-fledged lesson plans that I still use in my own practice, and some turned into games that I am currently testing. (And many, many other ideas went down in flames. Pretty, pretty flames.)

The ideas that worked, worked because they used common elements that everyone could understand and enabled the achievement of a specific learning goal. In other words, by gamifying my lessons, I was able to help students learn.

Shameless Plug:

If you’re curious as to the games I’m working on, which grew out of my teaching, here’s the link to both print-and-play and pre-printed editions:

Big Sun English on Drive Thru Games

Further Reading:

What We’re Reading:

Punished by Rewards: Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes

by Alfie Kohn

It’s been just over 20 years since I graduated from university, and just over 25 since high school, which means this book was originally published right as I was leaving the strictest era of my schooling. And yet, in the intervening decades, nothing about my various work experiences would suggest that anything has changed.

From the Amazon page:

Rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin—and the coin doesn’t buy much. What is needed, Kohn explains, is an alternative to both ways of controlling people. Hence, he offers practical strategies for parents, teachers, and managers to replace carrots and sticks. Seasoned with humor and familiar examples, Punished by Rewards presents an argument that is unsettling to hear but impossible to dismiss.

As a parent, teacher, and (not often, but reluctant when I am) manager, I’m curious to see what the book has to say. Without having read it, I feel like it might be one I disagree with but which is no less rewarding for that. After all, anything that forces us to question our assumptions can be valid, right?


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Game Crafting 101

Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

Making your own game is easier than ever these days. Here are some links to get you started.

One Last Thing:


My favorites:

“So you run a ski lodge? Do you just, like, chill during the summer? Must be nice.”

“Oh, you’re a stand-up comedian, huh? So, you just stand up there and bullshit until your set is done?”

But especially:

“I’d love to just play with actuary statistics all day. That would be so fun! I bet you don’t even feel like you’re at work!”

Because substitute the word games for "with actuary statistics" and I've actually had that conversation. Which compels me to state, for the record, anyone who actually tells any teacher any variation on any of the phrases Ms. Reed lists in the article can just go fuck themselves.