GSoC 2020: Gamification and Arbitrary Tasks

Published 7/5/20


I'm proud to announce that pretty much all of the architecture for my GSoC project has been built out! Blocks get created, they correctly generate code, and they have i18n support.

The main thing to do now is wait for code review. In the mean time I might look into building some App Inventor extensions. Lots of people in the App Inventor group are working on adding machine learning support to App Inventor, and I think it would be cool to add something that could read hand writing!

Gamification and Arbitrary Tasks

Have you ever been told to clean your room when you felt you were just going to mess it up tomorrow? Then you've experienced a resistance to arbitrariness.

No one likes doing things that they feel are unimportant, because people know that there are limited hours in a day. The time you spend doing something arbitrary is time you can't spend doing something better.

Have you ever been told "well there's a good reason behind it", or "you'll be glad you know this down the line", or "you don't need to worry about that"? Then you've experienced being talked down to.

Being talked down to makes you feel like someone doesn't respect you enough to tell you their actual reasoning. And it makes you less likely to respect that person in the future.

I think that too often educators forget these things when they're trying to "gamify" education.

I've heard many people toss out ideas similar to "wouldn't it be cool if we can make school more like an RPG? We could have all of the children pretend to be characters going on a quest and then we can teach them things about math and science as they go! We'll wrap all the boring bits in a fun narrative and the kids will love it!"

Now consider this: How would you feel about a leadership summit that pitched itself the same way? "Come to our summit so you can pretend to be a wizard with a bunch of people you don't know. Then every so often we will shoehorn in a leadership task so that you actually learn something!" ...It feels kind of silly.

In my opinion, wrapping education in a narrative seems like a lovely idea... when you don't think about experiencing it yourself. But when you look at it from the perspective of a student you can see that an RPG-style "learning adventure" talks down to you and feels arbitrary.

Say for example we design an puzzle where students have to solve a multiplication problem to open a fantasy door. Does this scenario show the usefulness of multiplication? No. Could you apply this to the real world? Also no. The challenge just feels arbitrary.

But that's a little bit uncharitable. Educators are smart enough to know that students do better when there is some logical reasoning behind a task. A more realistic scenario they might design is a challenge where students have to ration a limited amount of fantasy water between them. Does this scenario show the usefulness of division? Yes! Could you apply this to the real world? Absolutely! But that begs the question: Then what is the point of the narrative?

Well my point is that I think educators are taking the wrong ideas from game design. I think that they should focus less on the "game" and more on the "design".

Games (specifically video games) have to be designed to teach people their rules in a way that makes the player want to keep learning. Making people want to learn is pretty much the goal of educational reform so I think that taking a look at how games achieve this is useful. Here are some things I think games do well:

Problems are presented before solutions. You won't see a game teach you how to shoot your gun before their is actual something to shoot at. This is something I think math education struggles with. You could spend hours and hours "learning" how to find the local minimum of a function before you ever need to do that.

Applications of a solution are thoroughly explored before moving on to a new genre of problem. A good platformer would not show you all of the jumps and power ups in the first level, because that would be incredibly overwhelming. A good game shows you how to jump, and then allows you to explore the possibility space of jumping before it gives you a new tool to add to your belt.

Games focus on doing. A game will never tell you how to jump, without actually letting you jump. They have you complete the task as you are learning it, which helps it get into your brain. Plus it's more active and fun.

Tasks are auto-educating and mastery based. If the game presents you with a pit, and tells you to jump, it won't let you move on until you've actually jumped over the pit. There is no game that would say "well we've spent too long trying to teach you how to jump, time to move on to the next task!" That just doesn't work.

Games always encourage improvement. Lots of people have brought this up in the context of grades, and I would like to reiterate it. Grades as they currently work are inherantly discouraging: everyone starts with an A+ and then you see how far you fall by the end of the class. There is no game that would start you with 100 points and then take them away as you played. And there is no game that would say you got 2/3 stars on a level, and never allow you to try again.

Using these techniques I think that game design has really mastered the art of challenge. Games want you to do well and achieve things. But they don't go easy on you either. By doing this they engage players and get them excited about learning new things.

As such, I think that educators should focus less on making learning "fun" and more on making it a good challenge. Trying to make something boring "fun" will just make it seem arbitrary. But making something boring challenging may just make it fun.


What makes things fun to learn? heuristics for designing instructional computer games. Malone, Thomas 1980

Extra Credits "Gamifying Education - How to Make Your Classroom Truly Engaging" (link)

Extra Credits "Intrinsic vs Extrinsic - Designing Good Rewards in Games" (link)

Extra Credits "The Skinner Box - How Games Condition People to Play More" (link)

Extra Credits "Gamification Sucks... - How to Improve Gamification" (link)

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