An Alberta researcher offers object lessons in the gamification of learning

I was interviewed by email the other day by Danny Bradbury from the Commerce Lab. The interview is now up at An Alberta researcher offers object lessons in the gamification of learning. Rereading the interview I’m struck by the disconnect between the research we do and what industry does. We do research for the sake of research, but often we don’t connect the research to the concrete problems of practicioners whether a teacher or in industry. For that matter, in the academy, most of us really don’t know much about the realities in business any more than other consumers. We make assumptions, but don’t check them. We don’t actually know what sort of research has been done or not in industry. That isn’t all our fault as industry tends to guard its research as a competitive advantage. Jane Jacobs in Systems of Survival describes the deep differences as between two ethical systems:

  • The Guardian system which is open and sharing, uses force and shuns trade.
  • The Commercial system that is competitive, thrifty, innovative and industrious

The division into two systems or cultures is simplistic, but it does highlight the differences between the expectations of university researchers who are encouraged to share research and industry who use it in competitive contexts. Ultimately society needs both, but the intersections aren’t clean. In a series of interviews with game designers that I helped with (led by Sean Gouglas) that led to a report on Computer Games and Canadaʼs Digital Economy we asked questions about how universities and game development companies can collaborate and there was no clear answer other than that universities should graduate students with breadth and currency (so they are employable). The rhythms of research are different. The goals are different. Therefore the approaches to intellectual property are different. Sean Gouglas concluded that the best way for there to be a dialogue was for university researchers to be open and to give away IP. The work of commercialization should be done by those who can do it well.

This is a fancy way of saying that I shouldn’t have been dismissive of the research done by Bunchball. I am, however, concerned about the hype that surrounds gamification coming from people like McGonigal. Reality is Broken reads like a pitch, not a balanced discussion of an issue. She designs great games and is much more articulate than I will ever be, but that doesn’t mean that questions about the effectiveness, seriousness, ethics, and design of gamification shouldn’t be studied. I worry that the feverish hype around gamification is a bubble that will burst and take with it all sorts of great work. Memories are short in the IT field, researchers can work slowly to save the best research.