I'm participating in a conference for language teachers this weekend, which means I get to freshen up on the latest buzzwords and take a look at people's cool new ideas and implementations. At every conference I have been to, there are a couple of panels about "gamification" and/or about spicing up classroom activities by turning them into play.
Playing games in the classroom is fun and relatively easy to do. I personally enjoy creating Latin games for my students, and there are all kinds of old language class standards to work with, like "Flyswatter" and "Verb Conjugation Battleship." There is definitely a place for games in the classroom. But you can't learn everything just by playing games.
Gamification, on the other hand, interests me but also worries me a little. Online services such as Classcraft allow you to turn your entire class into a game, complete with online avatars for your students. They work together in groups to complete learning-based "quests" that allow them to "level up" in the game or to receive specific classroom rewards. (A teacher I was listening to yesterday, for example, allows warriors to "hunt," or eat food in class, while mages can "teleport," or switch seats with someone else in the classroom.) Review quizzes can be transformed into "boss battles" for which students must prepare.
On the one hand, this sounds really cool: If you can get student buy-in, they will practically teach themselves the material because you can set up independent "questlines" for them to pursue.
On the other, I worry that a program like this would end up being more work for the teacher than it's worth—at a minimum, there is a lot of setup. And how would I fully integrate something like this into my Latin class? Is your class mostly based on the game, or does the game just add "flavor" to the class? I want my students to spend most of their time interacting with things in Latin or thinking about things that have to do with Roman culture. And what do you do with the handful of students who inevitably start to fall through the cracks? The ones who won't buy into this system?
Besides, games can eventually get old. I still play Pokémon Go from time to time, but I no longer have much drive to level up or to aggressively hunt Pokémon. Does gamification of a class have true staying power?
The other aspect of gamification that concerns me is that learning should not have to be a game to feel worthwhile for students. In real life, we have to devote ourselves to activities that are not inherently fun, because doing so will lead to rewards later. (Or maybe it's just the right thing to do, even without a reward.) If my students are motivated, does it matter how I fostered their motivation? Is there a "right" or a "wrong" kind of motivation?
I truly cannot answer these questions. And I'm not currently at liberty to try something like Classcraft myself—my school does not have a one-to-one device program, and to be honest, our laptop carts are hot garbage. Those computers suck so bad that no one worries about them getting stolen. My students are borderline insulted that they have to use them. This leads me to wonder whether gamification is being used primarily with students who already have plenty of resources—in other words, with the students who need it least. (What would pencil-and-paper gamification look like? Should I go get some old D&D character sheets?)
Games are a huge part of my life, and I love to share them with students. But I don't want to go wild over a new idea just because it sounds cool. I would be very interested in seeing a highly detailed report on a "gamified" language class, with specifics about pacing, assessments, and levels of student independence during class time.