Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Videogames, motivation, and university

Everyone likes videogames. They’re an escape from the doldrums of real life. They offer challenge, reward, and a feeling of mastery. Many of the most addictive ones use every Psychology 101 trick in the skinner box to keep you playing, and do so well that videogame addiction has become a legitimate public concern. Whether on your smartphone or your gaming PC, games are a constant, gnawing distraction, and exploit the psychology of motivation to powerful effect.

Even when they cease being fun, games still motivate players to keep playing (e.g. “grinding” in an MMO). Many, many games, from Farmville to World of Warcraft include grinding (repetitive tasks in the game for in-game rewards). In other words, games still engage even when they feel like work. People will still play them even if there is no real-life reward for their efforts. If they knew this, parents around the world would be asking “So why aren’t you doing real work?” Clearly, real work has a lot to learn from videogames.

Grinding in MMOs shows gamers continuing to play a game, even after it starts to feel like work

Thankfully, the real world is catching on. “Gamifying” the workplace is a growing practice in firms, and involves injecting elements from videogames into otherwise boring jobs to make them more rewarding. Tech-industry research company Gartner estimates that by 2014, 70% of of large companies will have used gamification techniques in some way or another to motivate their employees. For example, at IBM employees earn Kudos Badges (sort of Xbox Live Achievements or Playstation Trophies) for completing certain tasks, that show up on their company profile. By earning a set number of Kudos points, they rise in rank from a virtual status of Rookie, Pro, Veteran, etc. At Xerox, employees in management training complete on-the-job Quests, and their completion is ranked on a company-wide leaderboard, adding some friendly competition into the workplace. So far, gamification is an effective and popular way to drive up the performance of employees.

IBM's Kudos system takes cues from Xbox Live

And yet, somehow, school has been left behind, despite a rapidly changing student populace. “Traditional instruction methods lack the motivational incentives needed to keep today’s students engaged in the instructional content,” writes Petkov and Rogers in the paper Using Gaming to Motivate Today’s Technology-Dependent Students. “Today’s world and today’s students are vastly different than the way they were a few decades ago. Educational methods that have worked on past generations of students are not as effective for today’s technology-dependent generation.”

Modern university education is still strangely reliant on didactic “learn through listening” education instead of “learn through doing,” and still almost exclusively relies on extrinsic motivation to get its students to study and pass, instead of the more effective intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is formed based on the external rewards you get that motivate you to complete a task, such as money and getting a good grade. Intrinsic motivation is the inherent pleasure you get from doing something, which naturally motivates you to continue. So far, universities rely almost entirely on extrinsic motivation to get you to do the work and pass your courses—if you do, you’ll get a good grade and get your degree and get a good job and you won’t be a waiter for the rest of your life.

The problem with extrinsic motivation is that it stifles the intrinsic pleasure you get from an activity. Say you like to play the piano, so you keep playing piano whenever you get home from school. Your parents love the fact that you’re playing piano and so they give you $5 every time you do. This is a mistake. Now, somehow, you lose your motivation to play the piano when your parents don’t pay you. You come to rely on that extrinsic reward. Your intrinsic motivation has been erased. Your parents stop paying you, and the chances significantly decrease of you ever playing the piano again.

It’s the same thing with university. The whole purpose is to teach you how to learn, to make you want to learn, and keep learning, for the rest of your life. They keep you studying because of that extrinsic motivation—your grades—but what happens when that extrinsic motivation goes away? I think for most people their motivation to study significantly decreases. Universities raise generations of adults who become much less curious as soon as they leave school.

The pervasiveness of electronic distractions in class shows that universities need serious help in engaging the tech generation

But what if universities raised generations of adults who loved learning just for learning's sake? If they’re motivated to learn because university taught them that learning is fun? The same people (97 percent of young people, according to recent data) who play games for pleasure would eagerly learn in new, interactive ways because of the same reasons that they game. And what if universities downplayed the role of extrinsic rewards like grades, instead trusting that they educated a group of smart, motivated adults who are curious about the world?

Assassin's Creed's Jerusalem is vast and historically accurate

Imagine a history class where you played Assassin’s Creed or another historical game; not just having a professor talk your ear off but feeling like you’re actually there—a history that you can immerse yourself in and interact with. Imagine a leaderboard for high test scores, or achievement medals for completing certain classes or doing certain tasks reading a particular book. Imagine a university where learning is not only interactive and fun, but full of a sense of accomplishment because of micro-rewards and an increased social and competitive aspect. Instead of playing Angry Birds on your phone, maybe you’ll complete some calculus problems (for points!) instead.

In a world of exponential technological progress, universities have to adapt to capture the attention of the tech generation. If IBM is capable, so is U of T.


  1. groovy post dude!
    There's an app for iPhone that implements this kind of "gameifying" for to-do lists called EpicWin

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