REAMDE: When does gamification work?
While I’ve been too busy with the start of school to post anything on this blog, I somehow found time yesterday to start reading Neal Stephenson’s new novel, REAMDE. Once I got started, it was hard to put down (although I’m in no danger of finishing this beast anytime soon). About 12% of the way into the book Stephenson describes a marketing scheme pursued by an MMPORG that appears to be one generation beyond World of Warcraft. The marketing scheme involves letting users program their own apps within the game in order to do actual real world work disguised as medieval warfare (with all the goblins, dwarves and elves you would expect in such a game). The apps thus developed take the most stultifying, boring and mindless work (think TSA agent watching a single exit for eight hours, scanning widgets for imperfections as they roll past on an assembly line, or sitting in a business meeting) and turn them into a game. In some scenarios, the players in the game actually help the worker.
Stephenson makes the case that boring and mind-numbing tasks result in a rewiring of the brain so that fewer neurons (and less energy) are spent on the task. Neurons are reallocated away from areas of the brain responsible for repetitive, boring tasks (thus increasing the probability of mistakes when that occasional “interesting” thing happens) and toward areas that are being used more. Gamification of the boring task brings attention and energy back to the boring task by making it more complex and interesting. Thus fewer mistakes are made and productivity increases.
So this got me thinking. Why would I gamify learning in my classroom? Do I really think that physics (or math) is so simplistic, boring and repetitive that the areas of the brain responsible for doing these tasks is atrophying? No way. We don’t need no stinkin’ badges in my classroom. Gamification is not required, because the job itself is interesting, connected, deep and engaging.