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Gamification: Should We Believe the Hype?

— by Jessica Stillman

Employee trainingLearning development

Gamification is hot. And why not? It's youthful, clever, and promises to transform mundane tasks into fun activities. It speeds up learning and increases productivity in the process — that's a lot going for it.

But not everyone in the L&D community is buying the hype. At least they're not without some serious reservations.

Writing on the ASTD blog recently, instructional design specialist Ruth Colvin Clark provocatively declared that “Games Don't Teach.” Kicking off the thought-provoking post, Colvin Clark chides gamification fans for failing to define their terms, asking, “When you see the word game, do you think of a game-show type of environment such as “Jeopardy,” a narrative adventure game, an arcade game, or a strategy game? Games encompass so many diverse potential learning environments that it makes no sense to make any general statements about them.”

But it's not just sloppy argumentation that has caused Colvin Clark's doubts about using game techniques for training. It's also the evidence of the approach's efficacy. She cites recent research evidence:

“We have recent experimental evidence that narrative educational games lead to poorer learning and take longer to complete than simply displaying the lesson content in a slide presentation. Adams et al (2012) compared the learning outcomes of two carefully designed serious educational games to learning outcomes from a slide show that displayed the content embedded in the games. One game, Crystal Island, was designed to teach how pathogens cause disease. The second game, Cache 17, was designed to teach how electromechanical devices work….

“The goal of the research was to compare learning efficiency and effectiveness from a narrative game to a slide presentation of the content. Students who played the Crystal Island game learned less and rated the lesson more difficult than students who viewed a slide presentation without any game narrative or hands on activities. Results were similar with the Cache 17 game.

Colvin Clark's case against gamification hype seems pretty compelling. But are other professionals in the field buying it? Not entirely, if the reaction in the blogosphere is any indication. Christy Tucker's blog Experience E-Learning points out that the the study cited by Colvin Clark only claimed to compare learning outcomes for games “under short time spans of under two hours,” which may not have been an optimal period for the material. Also, Tucker notes that study participants' did worse at retention, but wonders if it is correct to, “expect a narrative game to be all that effective at helping people memorize content. If retention was the goal, a narrative discovery style game probably was the wrong approach.”

Furthermore, a slew of studies contradict the study cited by Colvin Clark, according to Experience E-Learning, which lists eight examples supporting the usefulness of gamification approaches. Perhaps this opposing evidence suggests that, rather than take Colvin Clark's post as a simply denunciation of gaming techniques for learning, we should view it more in the way's Melissa Venable does: as a challenge to “all of us to look a little closer at game design and how it might be most appropriately applied to help students learn.”

Do you think Colvin Clark offers a necessary corrective to gamification hype or is she just being needlessly contrarian?

London-based Jessica Stillman blogs about generational issues and trends in the workforce for, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist.

More: Four Ways to Rethink Employee On-Boarding.

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