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Can Incentives Make Students Secretly Hate Us?

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I've written before that educators should study game design and listen to game designers, not so much because we should be making educational video games, but because educators have so much to learn from the evolving field of game design.

So this old post from Boing Boing, about a new massively multiplayer online game called Glitch, caught my attention:

Tuning the quests and interactions to provide the right level of difficulty and reward was complicated. In beta testing, the development team found that while singing to butterflies was repetitive and boring, people would still sing to butterflies obsessively--because it provided small but guaranteed amounts of experience [points]. The devs tried to balance this by making singing to animals cost energy, but then players simply farmed huge numbers of girly drinks (which make animal interactions cost no energy) and continued to grind the same thing again and again. The girly drinks were then nerfed [rendered less effective], and people immediately complained.


"We realized that if we incentivized things that were inherently boring," Butterfield [the game developer] told me, "people would do them again and again--it showed up in the logs--but that they would secretly hate us." [Emphasis added]

That last line has school written all over it.

It's also a profound warning for educational designers looking to use gamification strategies to boost motivation. Can you get kids to click through online worksheet problems faster if you offer points/levels/badges/grades? Sure. But what do those incentives do to students' intrinsic motivation to learn, to their relationships with educators, and to their disposition towards school? Can they make students secretly hate us?

This isn't a claim that all incentives are bad. Some kids thrive in the Boy Scouts because of the badging system. Other kids hate it. Some of it has to do with each kid's personality, some probably has to do with the way particular educators (scoutmasters) manage the whole badging process, and some of it has to do with the personalities of the other kids in the mix.

Badges, points, grades, levels and their ilk are powerful and complex tools, with the capacity to both unlock and squelch human potential.

Along similar lines, there is a great piece in today's New York Times Magazine on a variety of online tutors, including the ASSISTments system made at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. It's worth reading to get another perspective on how educational designers are wrestling with similar issues around coaching, tutoring, and incentivizing kids to learn.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

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