Like many people my age, I will probably remember the names of hundreds of Pokemon until I die. In the spring of 2019, Stanford neuroscientists released a study that might explain the reason behind this phenomenon. When exposed to images of Pokemon, people who had avidly played Pokemon games as children demonstrated heightened activity in a region of the brain called the occipitotemporal sulcus. Not coincidentally, it’s the same part of the brain that recognizes different species of animals. Playing hundreds of hours of Pokemon trains you to recognize fictional monsters in the same way that you might recognize wild game or edible plants.
This finding probably isn’t surprising to anyone who played a lot of Pokemon (or their parents). On its own, the Great Stanford Pokemon Experiment isn’t a cause for alarm in any respect: it was just taking a look at how the brain learns to recognize and categorize patterns.
The study did, however, demonstrate something that has long been suspected: games can have a lasting impact on the developing brain. Over the past 30 years, a growing community of video game designers, teachers, researchers, and educational reformers has emerged to harness the power of games for education. Learning can be difficult, frustrating, and boring. Proponents of games argue that fun, attention-sustaining systems can make learning simple, joyous, and effective. It’s also commonly argued that Gen-Zers are addicted to screens and must be counter-addicted to learning in order to succeed. This push is part of a broader movement towards gamification: the introduction of games and game-like interfaces into more serious contexts.
“I think we’re going to see a mainstreaming of using games and playful interactions for all kinds of purposes,” Sebastian Deterding, a senior research fellow at Digital Creativity Labs, said in an interview. “Particularly in education.”
The wave is already building. Games and gamified platforms or apps are exploding onto the market. Metaari, a business analytics firm, projected that by 2023 the global market for educational games will surpass $17 billion. EdSurge, an ed tech-focused news outlet, reported that investments in ed tech startups exploded through 2018, surpassing $1.9 billion dollars in venture capital or philanthropic funding. Articles with titles like “Are Games the FUTURE of Education?!?!” pop up in outlets like Wired and Techcrunch. EdSurge has an entire suite of articles dedicated to the topic, complete with a lesson planner for teachers.
Games and gamified “playful” interfaces are ubiquitous features of other digital technology. Most of these aren’t “games” in a true sense. Gamified apps layer the trappings of games such as points systems, badges, and fun interfaces over a more purposeful core. Duolingo gamifies learning foreign languages. Fitbits and other activity trackers gamify health and fitness data. Credit card reward programs and credit scores gamify personal finance. Uber and Lyft send drivers on “quests” to push them to drive more hours. The West Virginia teacher’s strike was partially precipitated by the introduction of mandatory Fitbits as part of a wellness scheme. The teachers resented the intrusive gathering of sensitive medical information that came with the program. Amazon uses video game-like interfaces to drive competition between warehouse workers, all to meet higher quotas while also tracking worker behavior.
But while we may agree that much of gamification is creepy, the question remains: in an educational context, is it useful? Do games and gamified platforms actually help students learn? If so, how and when are these techniques appropriate? And who actually benefits from the introduction of these technologies to the classroom: students and teachers, or administrators and technology firms?
This last question is especially significant. After all, the elite of Silicon Valley are increasingly sending their kids to screen-free (and therefore gamification-app-free) private schools. One parent was quoted in the New York Times as saying: “the devil lives in our phones.” The children of the tech elite are being kept away from the very “innovations” their parents are pushing. The disconnect is troubling, and the reasons behind it are worth examining.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with play. The impulse to play predates humans. Dogs play. Dolphins play. Ravens play. Monkeys play. There are weird examples of potential play behavior in fish and eusocial wasps. Play is a hard concept to define. French philosopher Roger Caillois argues that play is “an occasion of pure waste,” a voluntary activity undertaken solely for amusement bounded by its own rules where the outcome is uncertain. But play, as the late sociologist Brian Sutton-Smith notes, is ambiguous. No single definition can contain it.
Humans have likely always played games: both the type with rules and more imaginative freeform varieties. Evidence for games dates back at least 5,000 years. Archaeologists have unearthed boards and dice-like knucklebones from ancient sites worldwide. The late historian Johan Huizinga framed the development of games as a necessary precursor for complex human behaviors like war, law, philosophy, and art. For Huizinga, there was no formal difference between rituals or cultural institutions and play. “The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the tennis court, the screen, the court of justice etc are all in form and function playgrounds.” Our sacred spaces are bounded, temporary worlds within the ordinary, featuring their own separate rules and conventions. Huizinga, in opposition to the dominant theories of his time, centers play and games as what makes us human. We are not Homo sapiens. We are Homo ludens. We are the players, not the wise.
For as long as games have existed, they have likely been applied to purposes beyond simple entertainment. Games like India’s ancient Gyan Chauper were designed to impart religious and moral lessons. The game board depicts the climb to enlightenment, moving from lower levels of consciousness to higher levels by overcoming vice and attachment (both represented by snakes). Players move upward based on die rolls, ascending or falling back if they land on a virtue or a vice square respectively. The gameplay models predestination, karma, and the cycle of rebirth. It’s still played at religious festivals in India. In a strange twist of irony and colonialism, you’ve probably played this game too. In the United States it’s known as Chutes and Ladders, and is decidedly less religious.
The use of games as educational tools is probably just as old. In Rome, budding young aristocrats played Ludus latrunculorum—the game of brigands—to teach military tactics. Early forms of chess like shatranj and chauranga were battle simulation games; they became part of courtly education in medieval Persia. Go, the 2,500 year old abstract Chinese strategy board game, was adopted as one of the “four cultivated arts.” Mastery of Go was considered a necessary part of becoming an accomplished scholar.
More modern applications of games and play in education can be partially attributed to the diaspora of kindergarten teachers from the Prussian Empire. This occurred in the aftermath of the March Revolution of 1848, when Frederick William IV was reinstated as Emperor of Prussia by a coalition of aristocrats and generals. Irritated at having been offered a crown “disgraced by the stink of revolution,” William IV set about reversing all the achievements of the revolutionaries and anyone vaguely associated with them. This included a movement of educational reformers, disciples of the early childhood pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel, who had been trained by him in a new educational philosophy of play. According to Fröbel, the “work” of children was found in games, and broader learning through exploration, dance, and song. Instead of rote memorization and recitation, Fröbel’s students observed butterflies and bees, cared for pets, and planted gardens. But most importantly, a fair amount of time and space had to be given over to unstructured play in dedicated play spaces. For Fröbel, it was especially critical that very young children be given time to be creative and playful. Fröbel called his school kindergarten. William IV called it socialism and banned it nationwide.
Kindergarten teachers fled to the United States where they established some of the first early childhood education centers with purpose-built playgrounds. They arrived just as Massachusetts and Connecticut were setting up “common schools” based on, ironically, Prussia’s age-graded, compulsory school system (which is very similar to the current school system in the United States). Kindergarten and play-as-pedagogy integrated with common schools and spread across the country.
In the 21st century, it’s commonly accepted that play and structured games are crucial elements of childhood learning, development, and psychological well-being. But does this translate to the current trend of educational video games, gamified curricula, and gamified apps or platforms?
That’s much more complicated.
The way that video games impart their lessons is a matter of some debate. In Gamification as Behavioral Psychology, the psychologist Conor Linehan and his co-authors argue that games function along behaviorist lines through conditioning and reinforcement. Games, and the somewhat controversial ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) interventions for autism are structurally similar. Games, much like ABA, include specific, measurable goals, intensive repetition, rewards, and feedback. Patients, like players, are required to pass a stringent test. If they fail, they repeat the program. “The process would be familiar to any player familiar with the use of ‘boss fight’ as a test of in-game skills,” Linehan and his co-authors write. Carefully-designed games and gamified platforms can train students in a variety of areas, linking fields of knowledge in a reinforcing process called scaffolding. Each lesson builds and chains to the lessons before, allowing for complex learning.
Other scholars argue that this doesn’t go far enough. Literary and educational theorist James Paul Gee describes video games as “worlds in which variables interact through time.” Players learn to succeed by mastering hidden rules and meeting unspoken criteria. Through exploring the contours of these systems–by trying, failing, and succeeding–players learn how to win within the parameters of the game. Game designer and new media professor Ian Bogost calls this “procedural rhetoric”: persuasion through rules-based interactions rather than text, imagery, or spoken word. The boundaries of the system create a space that one explores by playing. For example, Monopoly can only be won by crushing your opponents into bankruptcy, but presents many options for doing so. The system itself teaches you how the system works. Characters within the game–including player avatars–encourage emotional investment and identification (in a rhetorical sense) with the game. In structuring the experience of the player around certain logics, a game make claims about how the world works.
Professor Dargan Frierson of the University of Washington is a climate scientist and one of the founders of EarthGames, a student-driven ecology game studio. Students in his studio carefully craft games in which the mechanics reinforce the central message. In one notable example, players pilot a ray of light out of the atmosphere. As CO2 builds up, the task becomes more and more difficult. The players directly experience the greenhouse effect. Frierson explained that his project is a way to reach people who aren’t persuaded by conventional environmental messages. “You can experience really difficult problems through games. You can fail many times before you succeed,” he told me. Frierson claims this technique instills a kind of optimism in players; it helps them believe that environmental issues have solutions.
Game designer John Krajewski agreed. “Games,” he said in an interview with me, “are so good at giving you a reason to care.” Krajewski is the lead designer behind Eco, an ecology simulation game currently in early access release. (Players can play it, but it isn’t finished.) He describes Eco as “tragedy of the commons: the game.” In Eco, players build a society and literally craft their own laws against the backdrop of a simulated ecosystem with finite resources. You can drive animals and plants to extinction through pollution, habitat loss, and overhunting. There are no monsters, only other players. Krajewski says he hopes the game will be used in schools to teach students about the environment.
But without careful design, this can easily backfire. “You have to take in mind who is designing it,” explained Brian Cross, a game designer and sociologist at Webster University. Designers have biases like everyone else, and these biases will be encoded into games, educational or otherwise.
Take SimCity for example, a longstanding game series about urban planning. Players build cities by placing infrastructure, and control land use through zoning. Buildings might or might not grow in zoned areas. The virtual residents might thrive or languish in poverty. The play of SimCity emerges from observing how your virtual citizens behave and responding to their needs. By meeting the demands of the city’s residents, the player is able to “build the city of their dreams.”
SimCity is often deployed in an educational context, integrated in some higher-ed and K-12 curricula. And it’s by far the most visible “face” of urban planning. Copies of SimCity were preloaded on computers bound for India during the One Laptop Per Child program, a techno-optimistic initiative to solve rural education deficits by giving every child a computer. An educational version of SimCity called SimCityEDU leads children through a series of challenges like planning school bus routes, “increasing jobs,” or reducing air pollution.
But only certain kinds of cities are possible in SimCity and its successors. The city of your dreams must be car-centric, modernist, and usually grid-based. Vehicles in SimCity conveniently don’t emit pollution, or even need parking: When cars reach their destinations they simply disappear.
The disappearing cars of the simulated city are a way to make the game more accessible by preventing eternal gridlock. But they also elide many of the most heated debates in real-life urban planning. Parking spaces are battlegrounds, and drivers fight for them against more bike or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. Students playing the base game or the educational version of SimCity are presented with an environment where cars are neutral, unproblematic, and essential, rather than a deliberate policy choice.
Other elements of SimCity are more troubling. Worker sims have no permanent homes. They cycle endlessly between whatever businesses or dwellings have available slots. Homeless sims are created when a house becomes “abandoned” due to falling property values. These sims lose their identity, gender, and “citizenship” within the game. They wander aimlessly between public spaces and abandoned buildings, eating garbage on their way. They cannot be helped, only removed through stringent trash collection and bus depots out of town. Race, social mobility, real estate speculation, and community aren’t simulated at all. Omissions like this aren’t just matters of design. Their absence from the game is a statement of its own.
You might assume SimCity isn’t a deliberate political project, just one that happens to be built on the particular presumptions and expectations held by the sort of white-collar designers employed by Maxis and later EA. However, in the case of SimCity, the ideological roots go much deeper to the spotty sociology of the anti-Great Society polemic Urban Dynamics, written by MIT computer scientist Jay Forrester. Urban Dynamics outlines an argument against taxation and social services, claiming that governments could better address poverty by catering to the needs of business. Forrester made these arguments in 1969, supporting them with then-state-of-the-art computer models. Will Wright, the original designer of SimCity, was inspired by Urban Dynamics and used parts of it to build his game. This isn’t something the game tells players. Players cannot adjust these inbuilt assumptions; they cannot interact with the model itself. They can only play in the margins of the inputs and outputs while the black box remains inaccessible.
“The interactivity of a game,” writes games scholar Paolo Pedercini, “should not be mistaken with the freedom to try things out and see what works.” No matter how unbiased or apolitical games may claim to be, every game has a rhetorical scope.
Professor Rebecca Reynolds of Rutgers University, who studies the application of games in computer science and digital literacy, told me that this shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as a limitation of the medium, but of our creativity. “The game is only as good as the teacher’s creative and imaginative curriculum development,“ Reynolds explained, citing a need for teachers to design lesson plans with educational games as a component, not the focus of, learning. She stressed the need for careful research in this area. “We have to know what’s beyond the hype.”
Reynold’s own work has shown that using gamified learning systems can overcome race, sex, and economic gaps in computer science and math learning. These gamified systems aren’t actually games at all. They are digital learning management platforms that guide students through a curriculum while providing positive reinforcement through points, badges, and upgrades for in-system avatars. Systems like this aren’t games as such, but use the trappings of games to keep students “engaged.”
“On a classroom level it can work and it works great,” said Caleb Stokes, a high school teacher and game designer. Stokes is the designer of Red Markets, a role-playing game about the horrors of capitalism. He uses games in his classroom in rural Missouri, and has seen positive results in his students’ information recall, teamwork, and participation. By demonstrating basic principles of game design and game mechanics, he says his students have come to understand systemic thinking and probability.
But game design thinking goes beyond individual lesson plans. “The gamified semester shows a lot of value,” he continued, comparing it to traditional grading where you start at 100% and grades go down over the semester. In a gamified semester, grades function like achievements or experience points. Students start from zero and slowly “level up.” “It’s a lot better in terms of incentive,” Stokes said, “but it’s hard to do.” Functionally, you have to design the whole semester before the kids show up.
That’s actually the model of the New York public middle-high school Quest to Learn (Q2L).The entire school is modeled on game design thinking. Every piece of the curriculum is framed as a “mission.” Teachers work closely with game designers to build a curriculum that meets New York State standards. The school has shown some success in terms of standardized testing results, but it’s still early days for the school. It’s only been operating since 2009.
In many ways both Quest to Learn and self-motivated game pedagogues like Caleb Stokes are anomalies. Stokes, like most teachers using game design in their classrooms, are doing it on their own time to help their own kids. That’s not something every teacher has the time, expertise, resources, or passion to pursue. And unlike many public schools, Quest to Learn is an experiment supported in part by the MacArthur Foundation and staffed with dedicated believers. There isn’t any data showing how many teachers use game design in their lesson plans, but there’s only one Quest to Learn-style school. Both situations are the exception, not the rule.
Gamification in the classroom typically takes the form of “learning management systems.” These are technology platforms like Google Classroom, Apple’s Schoolwork, ClassDojo, Classcraft, or Kahoot!, all built to be easily applied to any school. These platforms wrap educational activities in a friendly, entertaining, video game-like skin, or feature game plugins. Some are more game-like than others. Schoolwork and Google Classroom are essentially mini social networks for individual classes with real-time grades and feedback. Kahoot! is a mobile quiz-game app that “brings the urgency of a quiz game show to the classroom”. ClassDojo is a giant leaderboard where teachers can issue points or demerits for disciplinary reasons. Classcraft is a fantasy-themed “behavior and learning management role playing game” that’s structured like a free-to-play mobile game. Students earn “powers” (like eating in class) for good behavior. Bad behavior is represented as “damage” to the character. Teachers function like game masters in Dungeons and Dragons. Many of these apps can connect with students’ phones or tablets; some, like ClassDojo, publicly shame kids with parent-accessible leaderboards. Good and bad behavior are displayed for every student and parent to see.
“They are a fun facade that legitimize methods of surveillance,” argues Rowan Tulloch, a games studies professor from Macquarie University. He claims that apps like these serve the interests of institutions and capital more than those of students. By monitoring students, the apps try to quantify the qualitative experience of education and serve as proxies for administrators to discipline the unruly. Administrators aren’t evil (necessarily), they’re responding to the demands of an increasingly austere, test-heavy educational ecosystem. As a result, gamified apps are not systems that allow genuine self-empowerment or exploration; their purpose is to discipline workers or students into their roles within the institution. Students must play by someone else’s rules, or be punished.
This isn’t the first time adults have tried to control children by dominating games and play. In the first decades of the 20th century, progressive reformers and the child-saving movement adopted playgrounds as part of a suite of social reforms that also included labor laws and a separate juvenile justice system. At the same time, American cities grew rapidly, taking in immigrants from Europe and Latin America, African-Americans moving northward in the Great Migration, and rural Americans seeking jobs as agriculture mechanized. Consequently, the population of urban children swelled. Working-class children playing in the streets were a nuisance to traffic, and an object of racist and classist fretting.
The Child Savers demanded that philanthropists and city government set aside land for play.
They argued that playgrounds would bolster education, cognitive development, and produce good citizens. Reformers in Cleveland railed against “spare time” for children as a source of delinquency. Children could not be trusted to their own devices. Playgrounds should not just be built, but also staffed and supervised. Adults should lead the children in play and, in so doing, assimilate them into white American culture. More than that, play had to be engineered, optimized, and useful. According to technology historian Carroll Pursell, these reformers had a vision of shaping savage immigrant children into docile workers using the principles of “scientific management.” In the words of one reformer: “We want a play factory; we want it to run at top speed on schedule[sic] time with the best machinery and skilled operatives.”
“Scientific management” was, essentially, just micromanagement and work speed-up practices elevated to a science. Managers would follow their employees around with stopwatches, haranguing them for inefficient movements or resting. This practice, based on the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, is also known as Taylorism. From the turn of the century until the 1920s, Taylorists were in charge of the playground, directing working-class children in sex-segregated, systematized play. As one might imagine, the children didn’t take to this, and either avoided playgrounds or ignored the shouts of supervisors. One 1915 survey from Hartford, Connecticut showed that only 4% of children tolerated the Taylorist playgrounds. The practice persisted until wartime austerity killed the public appetite for employing adults whose job it was to force children to exercise and also to maintain park equipment.
The digital gamification of school can be understood as a similar movement, capturing and domesticating the play instinct in schools. But unlike the Taylorist playgrounds of the turn of the century, gamification in schools is driven by austerity, not halted by it. Also, it doesn’t only target kids. Teachers are in the crosshairs as well. Gamified apps and ed tech more broadly are parts of the race to privatize schools, control curricula, and deprofessionalize teachers.
“When your school is under-resourced, the fast solution is to put a computer in front of kids,” said Merrie Najimy, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. She explained that cash-strapped schools are driven to maximize class sizes, and in some cases, this leads to computer-based instruction, complete with game-like skill challenges for the kids. Such a system, Najimy explains, turns teachers into proctors and troubleshooters, task-workers and mechanical turks, rather than the guides and facilitators of childhood education. This is the pipedream of educational “reformers” like Bill Gates or former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan: a few teachers reaching thousands of classrooms over the internet, while schoolchildren are supervised locally by apps and proctors. “It’s the dissolution of the brick and mortar classroom,” she says.
This isn’t a lost battle. In an ironic twist for ed tech companies, austerity also makes it difficult for struggling districts to buy computers and stable wifi. The decentralized structure of the U.S. public school system coupled with bureaucratic and difficult procurement policies make mass adoption of any single tech platform difficult. The nonprofit Institute of Play and its spinoff game studio GlassLab–both funded by the Gates Foundation–closed their doors recently due to financial issues. The most successful players in the market, like Google, Kahoot!, and ClassDojo, have offered free software directly to teachers. It’s a distribution model not unlike that of social media: free services with hidden costs and unclear monetization schemes. Teachers’ unions are now all the more necessary; through organizing, unions can expose the hidden costs of these technologies.
“It’s our responsibility to stand up. To reclaim technology for use in ways that keep public schools public,” Najimy said.
Games, which have been with us since the dawn of time, can easily be used in ways that aren’t dystopian, no matter what kind of technology they employ. Teachers like Caleb Stokes or Professor Frierson demonstrate that using games as a point of discussion or as an exercise in design can work well in some educational contexts. Using games as team-building exercises–or as projects to provoke thinking about the nature of systems–can be very beneficial. Carefully-structured play exercises, such as those done at Quest to Learn, can also be useful tools for teaching. What doesn’t work is expecting a game or app to perform the act of teaching on our behalf. We cannot outsource the work of teaching to SimCity. We cannot expect an app to fix our educational ills. Games are limited. They are maps, not places; tools, not teachers. If we’re going to use them we need to make sure we aren’t being played.