Finding The “Intrinsic Game” In Learning

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Video game expert Jordan Shapiro, writing on Forbes.com, writes about what makes an educational game great:

“Most attempts at educational gaming I’ve seen take a pretty mundane approach. They are basically glorified quizzes with bells and whistles. They add the digital equivalent of smiley face stickers and gold stars: sound effects, animations, points.

Ultimately, gamification in educational apps often means a more colorful transactional reward system is placed on top of a common pedagogical structure. Not only are these games boring, they also seem to ignore the plethora of studies that have shown that over reliance on extrinsic motivations in learning can have negative long-term effects.”

Shapiro is referring to a large body of research showing that when you give people rewards for doing something, it undermines their “intrinsic” or internal motivation for doing it.

He goes on to hold up a specific math game, Dragonbox, as an exemplar of the opposite approach:

“Dragonbox is different. Jean-Baptiste Huynh, [the developer of Dragonbox,] didn’t gamify algebra. Instead, he found algebra’s intrinsic game and brought it to life. It is fun, but that’s not surprising. Consistent, logical, and believable rules are what make it possible for us to immerse ourselves in the world of any game. Algebra’s rules have clearly stood the test of time. Dragonbox intuitively employs algebra using an interface that just makes sense.

Download Dragonbox and you’ll find yourself sitting next to your kid, coaching him through the game. I still remember my dad trying to help me with math homework, it often ended in frustration and tears. Dragonbox isn’t like that. It doesn’t just make learning fun, it shows us what philosophers and mathematicians have known for millennia: algebra is fun.” (Read more here.)

Putting aside the virtues of this particular game (though Shapiro does make Dragonbox sound pretty awesome), I love the idea of “finding the intrinsic game” in academic content and “bringing it to life.” That’s what the best teachers do, and that’s how engaged learners feel: like they’re playing an interesting, challenging game at the highest level.

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5 Responses to “Finding The “Intrinsic Game” In Learning”

  1. Gamification techniques in learning materials is a fantastic way to retain learners and drive motivation. We are in the industry of language education for self learners and if you’ve ever tried to learn a language on your own, motivation is one of the toughest hurdles. For our site, we have gamification in the form of achievements (for all sorts of activity on the site) as well as points and rankings against each other to drive competition. We’re still developing new ways to introduce gaming techniques to improve our experience.

    Many companies have seen this as a “fad” and try to just simply bolt on some sort of gaming mechanism and call it a day. But I think this article by Annie really shows that finding the REAL gaming mechanic that fits your learning approach will be more beneficial than simply trying to tack it on without much thought.

  2. Kathy Sierra says:

    This is wonderful, yes. As an alternative to gamification, the call to “find the intrinsic game… And bring it to life” is a better approach. But when you eliminate the word “game” completely, then you have the formula: “find the intrinsic [reward/experience/beauty, etc.] in [topic/domain/job/activity] and bring it to life.”

    And sometimes “bring it to life” simply means giving people an initial bridge into discovering it for themselves.

  3. Jean-Victor Côté says:

    A truth well presented.

  4. As stated in the post, it would be rather mundane if the gamification aspect were limited to things like earning badges, earning smiley face stickers and being treated to audio-visual effects (sound effects and animations).

    The ideal educational game provides immediate feedback, is constantly challenging, promotes learning by doing, and reframes failure as iteration.

  5. […] “finding the intrinsic game” in academic content and “bringing it to life” (via  Annie Murphy Paul). When a teacher feels comfortable telling why geometry is important, why they love physics, why a […]

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