Deconstructing Gamification in Education

Posted by Joan on May 22, 2017

A Response to Dr P. Diamandis

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Recently I’ve read articles extolling technology and in particular about ‘Gamification’ being brought into the classroom and revolutionizing education.  One such article was by Dr Peter Diamandis’  ‘This Is the Tech That Will Make Learning as Addictive as Video Games’, published by Singularity University. While I acknowledge the great contributions Dr Diamandis has made in many fields, as a long-term classroom practitioner, I would like to remark on what are for me several points of contention.

  1. ‘The way we learn today is just wrong.

 Learning needs to be less like memorization and more like ….. Angry Birds.’

This is a severe case of reductionism: learning = memorizing.  Learning is much more than that and I maintain memorizing holds a place in the pantheon of learning.

We can make complex mathematical computations in our heads thanks to our knowledge-base of early memorized ‘times-tables’.

I can readily access the correct form of specific Greek verbs after initially memorizing their base-forms e.g. πηγαινω          θα παω      πηγα      :             I go     I shall go      I went.

That memorization helped to avoid confusion with other similar verb forms, and the ensuing rapid retrieval was critical in reaching a stage of fluency.

Learning to ride a bike involves memorizing the complex coordinating sequences of movement that lead to mastery of the skill.

My point here is: never underestimate the role of memorization in learning.


  1. ‘The future of education will be about flipping the current model on its head’

Here he really needs to elucidate:        model of what?      and which model, assuming more than one?

He continues:

In the traditional education system, you start at an ‘A’, and every time you get something wrong, your score gets lower and lower.’

Now to me, this focus appears to be not on a current model of learning, but on a mode of assessment. My perception is that a student is generally assessed in terms of what he knows rather than what he doesn’t know.

The ‘mode of assessment’ described ‘…every time you come up with something right, your score gets higher…’ is more akin to the one I’m familiar with.


  1. 3. He describes the stages in video-game play as: observing a problem, forming and testing a hypothesis, learning from the immediate feedback.

But his claim ‘It’s a scientific method’ simply doesn’t cut the mustard.

To me the actual steps are to first perceive the objective of the game, then select a strategy to see if it works. It is often a hit-and- miss affair rather than the result of analytic thought. Most players operate at a speed precluding the ‘pause and consider’ reflection advocated in the Scottish Highlands!

It’s been said before: what regularly playing a game teaches you is how to play that game.’


  1. Gaming outperforms textbooks in every area.’

is succeeded by :

Pilots and surgeons trained on video games and simulations outperform those who are not.’

Firstly, pilots and surgeons will proceed to such practical components of their courses after many hours of theoretical input, generally from textbooks. Certainly practice (where repetition abets memorization!) is an intrinsic part of almost any training – but it is only part of their training.

The ’outperform those who are not‘ part freezes my blood!

You mean deliberately-formed control groups of pilots and surgeons, with no practical element in their training, went on to fly and operate, and then their relatively poor performance fed a research data-bank? No, really?


I assume here he is being tongue-in-cheek: ‘We need to make kids as addicted to learning as they are to gaming’


His data that

Over 155 million Americans … spend upwards of 3 billion hours per week engrossed in a game’

is hardly encouraging!

His exultant claims that playing video games is ‘associated with increased executive function in children’

don’t impress and conjure up scenes as: ‘Hello, darling – how far has your executive function been increased today while you were playing AB?’

We have to see them for what they are:  sound bites from the world of marketing that the concept of gamification comes from. It’s a world where we don’t need to support our position, where we don’t need to spell out the logical steps or reasoning taken to reach that position, where the juxtaposition of statements alone is supposed to confer cohesion and coherence between them.

Where we don’t ask, ‘What things?’ or  how exactly these ‘Things go better with Coca Cola’.


Let me make my position clear: I am no Luddite. I am very much in favour of making the learning process and educational materials as interesting and engaging as possible, and in using technology.  In fact, I am co-owner and Director of The Tartan Epsilon, a company we formed to design educational apps. But what I do see is a need to see beyond the marketing hype that bombards us daily about software on the market. Our approach needs to be a measured one, where we carefully consider what technology we are going to use in the classroom and why, if we are going to use it effectively.


© Joan Macphail   August 2016