When I was a kid my family would sometimes go to a rodent themed pizza restaurant. Along with the animatronic entertainment and the mediocre pizza, there were a lot of games to play. One of my favorites was Skee Ball. That was the one where you roll the ball up the ramp so it would land in target rings of varying size. The smaller the ring the more points you earned. If you played well, a chain of red paper tickets would roll out of the machine. The coolest thing to do was to just let the tickets stack up on the floor. There was no light, or bell, or noise in the arcade that would get you more attention than a really long chain of tickets.
In his article, Cash is for SAPS, Gabe Zicherman has classified four ways in which games reward their players: Status, Access, Power, and Stuff. Status is a showing off what one has accomplished. Access means being able to go somewhere or do something you previously could not. Power is the ability for your decisions and actions to influence the functioning of the game world, or even other players. Stuff is either currency or items available for purchase in the game. Furthermore, he asserts that these operate in a hierarchy which follows that exact order. Status is the most powerful motivator in games while stuff is the least. For a more detailed examination of what those four categories might look like in a classroom see my upcoming article 4 Ways to Reward Sucess in Gamified Classrooms.
While each individual score on the Skee Ball game could be considered a form of status, you couldn’t take it with you and it was erased as soon as someone put another quarter into the game. The true measure of our Skee Ball status was the steadily growing pile of tickets coiling at our feet. Our tickets were quantifiable, cumulative, highly visible, and worth absolutely nothing outside of that arcade. In a gamified classroom, those are the exact qualities teachers should be aiming for when giving students feedback on their progress. Game status, whether you are rewarding XP, letting students level up, or awarding badges, should be highly visible, easy to quantify, and cumulative so that students can see and feel their growth as the game progresses. This type of feedback is in stark contrast to the feedback we are used to receiving in schools, a letter grade in a private envelope at the end of the semester.
In my previous post Top 10 Gamification Fails I warned about the practice of trading Status for Stuff. I have seen a trend in many gamified classrooms to take points earned for in class activities and trade them for things like extra bathroom passes or pencils or “get out of homework free” cards. While this may be motivating for some students, all of these rewards generally fall under the category of stuff. Stuff operates on extrinsic motivation, which means it has immediate value in real life, yet the motivational qualities of stuff are short lived. In contrast, status rewards like experience points and levels have zero worth in the real word but have a much longer lasting motivational effect on students. Status operates on the principles of intrinsic motivation. If the goal of gamification is to increase intrinsic motivation of our learners, should we be allowing students to use their XP to buy things in a classroom store? There may be times when some extrinsic motivation has a place. But whenever I see this practice it makes me think back to what happened next at the arcade.
At the end of the night we took all of our tickets over to this counter where they attendant would weigh our tickets to see how many we actually collected( even though we had already counted them like three times). Behind the counter there were a whole bunch of cheap little toys that we could purchase with our tickets. This process was not fun for anyone, especially the person working behind the counter. How many times did they have to listen to a kid be disappointed about being one ticket short of a plastic frog? None of those prizes ever made me feel as accomplished as that stack of tickets. In fact, it usually made me feel worse because I was upset about all the stuff I couldn’t buy. Eventually, my brother and I figured out that it was much more fun to just take our tickets home and save them in a big bucket. I don’t remember any of the toys I ever got but I still remember that bucket of tickets in the corner of my room.
It is my personal opinion that creating a marketplace, which allows players to essentially trade status for stuff, diminishes the the intrinsically motivating power of awarded status. It also puts the teacher in a position where they have to create items to buy and keep track of purchases and points spent by each student. If you think that buying items is essential to your game, I encourage you to create a separate currency system to be used in the shop. However, before you set up a market, consider how much effort it will take and understand that all of this work will go into a system that only activates extrinsic motivation. I would rather spend my time and energy on creating intrinsic motivation by cultivating player status.
In short, don’t let your learners trade in their hard earned tickets for trinkets. Don’t let them trade their status for stuff. Don’t trade intrinsic motivation for extrinsic motivation.
Want to read more about Gamification? Check out the Insert Coin Series which details best practice for educational gamification.