/GAYM-ə-fə-CAY-shən/. noun. Bringing game mechanics to non-game activities and situtations.
Education—an abstraction within a discipline awkwardly wrapped up by a profession, the turducken of academic pursuits—is a murky forest of buzzwords…and nowhere within will you find more linguistic treasures and catastrophes than online teaching and learning. These buzzwords come in four basic forms: words leached of meaning through repetition, complex and obscure words used where simpler words would suffice, new and arguably revitalized uses of old words, and new coinages. Over time, individual words might move from one of these categories to another in a baffling pattern of duck and weave.
As an education professional, I’ve committed my fair share of word-crimes of the first two kinds (though I maintain my innocence in many cases too!), but as an amateur word-nerd, the last two often thrill me in the same way finding a brand-new species must exhilarate a biologist.
Today’s word, gamification, is a good example of the last two trends combined into one new word form coined in the early 2000s. Gamification, or gamifying, is the practice of bringing elements from games—often referred to as game mechanics—to other, non-game activities.
This isn’t a new idea. We oldsters who remember living in the primitive, pre-Internet world are familiar with earning stars for sticker charts or physical badges to be sewn onto scout uniforms, both examples of gamification. But the pervasive platform of the web, the seemingly inescapable integration of social media into our daily lives, and the rapid evolution of video games that is expanding our notions of what games and gaming even are, have come together to create conditions of unparalleled fertility for gamifying just about anything.
[In addition to digital badges and virtual leaderboards—the modern manifestation of scout badges and sticker charts—it is now practical to meld and automate role playing, levels, group action, auctions, currencies, collection and any number of hundreds of game mechanics and patterns into learning…and other life activities. ]
In fact, now that business, health, lifestyle and productivity advocates and companies have gotten into the idea, education isn’t the most active area of gamification. Different people may be more or less open (or susceptible) to gamifying their lives, but I’ve often found myself completing tasks I otherwise wouldn’t have because I wanted to enable new roles and abilities in a community or didn’t want to break a streak and miss out on a badge, lose karma points on my to-do list, or not have enough food to hatch an egg containing a baby dragon…even if I have no idea what I should do with that little fiery creature.
It can all go horribly wrong, particularly when the educational and gaming aspects are awkwardly fused—first person shooting of molecules to create compounds is more platypus than centaur—but when it works it can be incredibly engaging.
And sometimes buzzwords like gamification have a fortuitous etymology—a fitting world of history bounded into the nutshell of the word. At the root of gamification is, of course, the word game…but that word comes to us as a combination of two early Germanic words: ga, a prefix meaning a collective, and mann, or person. So game itself is historically not just a pursuit or an object enabling an activity, but a community built on engagement and connections, hallmarks of the best kind of education, online and off.