Letting Go: Gamification, Control, and User Perceptions of Design

Recently, I was reading some literature on gamification and came across an interesting  idea: Namely, that even if we create a gamified lesson or course we can’t force students to play and enjoy the end product as a game. Students could, instead, view your intricately designed experience as a means to an end or as a ridiculous drudge. Students might also use your gamified course in unexpected ways. For instance, what if some students add rules to your gamified course unbeknownst to you? What if your course becomes a game within a game? Does this matter outside of the official rules?

If we think about this in a larger sense end-users are going to use, remix, and subvert designed products in a million different ways. This happens to all of us on a daily basis. For instance, have you ever used a shoe as a hammer? Eaten leftovers from a restaurant? Faux-texted to avoid conversation? These are all examples of end-users (probably you!) using products in novel ways or in contexts alien to their origins.

This design subversion also includes both online and face to face formal learning experiences. For instance, if you’ve ever taught in a physical classroom you know that students use this space for a variety of activities outside of those officially designated by the university from socializing to grooming to sleeping. In essence, students have changed the rules of the game named classroom and continue to evolve these rules for better or worse.

Let’s briefly think about online course design now. How can we measure and control student perceptions of and, ultimately, use of our course designs given end-users’ penchant to upend official uses? In my opinion we can’t. Even if you set up the most linear, locked down, automated online course possible some students will find a way to circumvent your intentions. This subversion isn’t going to come in the form of students hacking into course files – instead, you might find yourself deluged with emails from students asking for extra time on quizzes or complaining that you don’t give enough feedback. In other words students are struggling to rewrite the rules of linearity,  structure, and depersonalization. What do you do here? I admit that this type of surreptitious perversion can be frustrating – but, in my case, I’m not sure that I’d really want it any other way. After all this struggle, this constant re-gamification by students demonstrates a certain type of strategic, creative approach to bounded experiences. And let me put a huge caveat here: I’m not saying that students are always (or even often) right in their thinking in “gaming” us but I think that they sometimes are. How can we use these little moments of brilliance to improve our designs?

So the next time that you feel a lesson or course slipping from your control ask yourself: Should you scramble to enforce the official rules or should you bend them a bit (or a lot!) to create a new game?

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