On Gamification

Ana Lorena Fabrega, who you should absolutely follow on Twitter, recently came up with a wonderful thread on gamification.

What is gamification?

Gamification is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organisations, and activities in order to create similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users.


Rather than do a dull and dreary task, try to turn that dreary task into a game. It won’t (hopefully) be quite as dull and dreary anymore. There is much more to it than that, of course, but my own succinct definition of gamification (for my own purposes) is simply this: try to make learning interesting by turning it into a game.

But what does turning something into a game mean, and what elements of games should one retain in the gamification of, say, learning?

How to get students to learn about, say, project management? Come up with a course on project management is one (obvious) answer.

Can I gamify a course on project management? Sure: points for attending classes, for example. Extra points for doing assignments better. Points being deducted for less than ideal behavior. House with the most points wins. You’re familiar with how it goes.

But that’s tricking (incentivizing) people into doing what we want them to do, as Ana says. It’s better than nothing, but that isn’t gamification.

Ana has a word for this, and I really like it: pointsification. You do this to get that. And before you know it, Goodhart’s Law raises its ugly ol’ head again. As Ana says, you end up taking the least essential things of a game and end up making them the core of the experience.

There are four things that end up making a good game, as per her Twitter thread: a goal, rules, a feedback mechanism and voluntary participation.

Building out a podcast with your batchmates is a “game”. The goal is to come up with an episode a week for the three “teams” playing the game.

There are rules: scripts to be put up for review by a particular day, a schedule for shipping the episodes, artwork and trailers to be shipped by a particular day, etc.

There is feedback about how the scripts could be better, about voice modulation, about the technical aspects and so on and so forth.

And it is, of course, entirely voluntary.

That’s gamification.

Please read the entire thread by Ana, it’s fantastic. Her own example of a game is even more lovely, and I wished I could have been a part of it.

But there’s one point that I wanted to emphasize in addition to all of what Ana has said, and therefore this blogpost: games when built well are, by definition, non-zero sum games.

My podcast example, or Ana’s example of the book in the library game aren’t about pointsification1. There are no points, there’s no winning by defeating somebody else. In fact, quite the contrary: winning is about everybody meeting their deadlines, and since the group wins if everybody finishes, it is in your interest to help the others finish.

You win by helping others. You don’t win by making sure others scored less than you.

What sucks the life out of me as a teacher is questions along the lines of “Can you please let me know why I scored so less?”.

Because what the student is really asking is this “But why did the others score more?”

That’s a zero sum game. You “win” at marks by scoring more, and there are two ways to score more: either score more than the others, or make sure that the others score less than you. But both are about winning by defeating others, not by helping others also win.

And particularly as a person who is supposed to be teaching students about economics – the double thank you moments, trade being a voluntary exchange that leaves both parties better off, and therefore a non-zero-sum game are all such fundamental building blocks of my subject – arguments about marks are therefore especially soul destroying.

And that’s why gamification (when done well) and project based learning are so much better. Because we teach students how to build out a podcast, sure, but we also teach them about the following:

  • The world is a non zero sum game. Or at least, it should be viewed as one. The world shouldn’t need you whining about why others scored more.
  • Work happens best when you work with each other, not against each other
  • Working in a team is hard, can be frustrating, but is ultimately the best practice for the world outside. You will not get along with everybody. Quarrels will happen. Personality clashes are inevitable. Working around all of these, and working with people you wouldn’t really want to hang out with is what teamwork is all about.
  • The objective is to “win” the game. Teamwork is the best way to get this done. You won’t get along with all your team members, but the work they do is invaluable. So learn the art of getting along enough for all of you to win.
  • And once you’ve won, set up a new (non-zero sum) game, and get back to struggling again. And again, and again.

That’s gamification.

And the larger lesson you should take away from playing a game such as this is not just about learning podcasting, or dashboarding, or survey design, or setting up a website, or about running a summer school on philosophy or journalism. It’s about figuring out how to gamify your life, whether in college or later.

Because the alternative is just too damn boring to think about.


  1. what a lovely word![]

Project Based Learning

This post is based on a discussion with a student about (what else?) unhappiness with marks.

What is the point of an education? Is it to score marks? Or to score a job? Or to better oneself? Or all of the above? And if it is all of the above, is it 33.333% weightage to each? Or are some objectives more important than others?

Now, if it isn’t clear already to long-time readers of this blog, my own personal answers to the questions I listed above have scoring a job and bettering oneself at about 99% weightage, with marks getting – maybe – 1%. There are many reasons for I thinking so, and maybe next Friday’s post could be all about that. But if you, for the moment, accept that the point of an education ought not to be marks maximization, it still begs the question: well then, what instead?

My answer would be: do the work.

Does a course on HTML teach you more, or does building and maintaining a website teach you more?

Does a course on business communication teach you more, or does running a podcast teach you more?

Does a course on statistics teach you more, or does building out a simple Google Sheet about distributions teach you more?

Is marketing best learnt through submitting an assignment, or by learning how to build out and market your own LinkedIn page, Instagram page and Twitter feed?

Much more importantly, what is the proof that you have learnt? Marks you score in an exam, or tangible proof of work done that is out for consumption in the public domain? What do you have more fun doing? What teaches you to work better in a team? What teaches you to lead people, and therefore learn perhaps the important life-skill of all?

More people in academia ought to know about project based learning, and when I say know, I mean implement.

Project-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it is believed that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. Students learn about a subject by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to a complex question, challenge, or problem. It is a style of active learning and inquiry-based learning. PBL contrasts with paper-based, rote memorization, or teacher-led instruction that presents established facts or portrays a smooth path to knowledge by instead posing questions, problems or scenarios.


No system, anywhere, ever, is perfect. So also with PBL. I’m sure it has its flaws, and having worked on the projects I have linked to above in this past year, I am going to speak about some of these flaws in this post. But I remain convinced that it is a better way to learn. And my conviction is multiplied many times over when it comes to the question of certification: projects over marks, every single day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

There are many reasons for this, and again, perhaps that is worthy of another post, but the most important one is this one: project based learning is a non-zero-sum game. Examinations are a zero-sum-game.

For me to win (or score well, or do well, or whatever ghastly phrase you want to use when it comes to doing well in an examination), you have to lose. But the successful completion of a project requires that everybody wins – in fact, it’s even better. For you to win as a participant in the project, you have to help others win. You have to persuade, cajole, berate and drive your team members to do their jobs well, in addition to doing your own task well – and you win only when everybody wins.

Which, if you ask me, is a better education than having to constantly look at how well others have done in order to feel satisfied with how well you have done. Plus, either a project has shipped, or it hasn’t. You don’t have to depend upon the subjective assessment of a professor to judge whether it is a job well done or not.

Besides, there is the rather important consideration that a podcast, a website, a Twitter account (and everything else up there submitted as evidence m’lud) benefits its viewers. You may sneer and ask for metrics, but so long as it is more than zero, it trumps your submitted answer sheet.

But there are downsides, to be sure. Of course there are.

PBL teaching takes more time to plan, more curriculum and technology resources, more day-to-day problem solving about how to scaffold student growth and success in their project work, more effort to authentically assess student learning, more communication with persons in the community, more support from the administration in terms of suitable scheduling and curriculum alignment, and more opportunities to collaborate with their teaching colleagues

Lee, J. S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J., & Moran, K. A. (2014). Taking a leap of faith: Redefining teaching and learning in higher education through project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning8(2), 2.

(The word “more” is italicized in the original every single time. WordPress’ formatting italicizes the whole thing. Sorry.)

In other words, it is expensive. There is a part of me that wants to say so what, but hey, I work in a University, and reality means that this must be a consideration. But how to make PBL more efficient in terms of time and money is – to me – a more worthwhile and pressing challenge than explaining to students why x marks out of y (“when that student got z. And his wasn’t even all that good an assignment!”) actually isn’t that bad.

Second, it is very much dependent on the team working on the program. If there is a change in personnel (that is, the faculty members who are running the show), and sooner or later that is inevitable, the PBL system can break down overnight. It is comparatively easy to set up processes for the efficient conduct of examinations by making personnel irrelevant – but all but impossible to do for PBL. Well, impossible is a strong word, but it’s close enough. How to increase the supply of profs who are willing to work in such a system is a major, major challenge.

Third, and this takes me into what I think are very deep waters: culture. Part of the reason the Sharmaji ka beta meme is funny is because it is true. In certain cases that I personally know of, it is devastatingly, distressingly true. We judge our successes, our children’s successes by asking if our performances were better than everybody else’s. And the more I work in this industry, the more convinced I get that until our culture changes, very little else will.

I, of course, have not the faintest idea about how to change culture. Except, perhaps, through running PBL experiments – which is what I try to do.

And until it (culture) changes, I’ll have to do that part of my job that I detest above all: talking to students about how many marks they scored and why it isn’t all that big a deal.