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Tuesday, 11 February 2014


A couple of years ago my brother founded a tech startup. It is through listening to conversations between him and his co-founder that I first heard the term 'gamification'. I thought at first that this might refer to the process a limb goes through on the way to becoming gangrenous or something (i.e. gammy) - what can I say, I love playing with words. Anyway, 'gamification' does not refer to this at all, but rather to the application of game-based principles in ostensibly non-gaming contexts. Such an approach can often be beneficial in the context of running writing workshops.

It is far from a revelation that younger children especially can be fired up by the notion that the task they are about to undertake will have a 'winner', and that there will be prizes. Thus, framing a writing task as a competition can be useful in sparking off an initial impetus to write, and in sustaining that motivation. What is also true is that such an approach can work to inspire reluctant older students to get writing. Earlier this week I ran a poetry workshop with a group of Year 9 students whom I had met on two previous occasions. On each of these occasions several of them were unwilling to get involved, expressing the view that poetry and writing were 'not for them', and a few wrote nothing at all. Our third meeting differed from the previous two in that the content was designed with a view to encouraging imaginative flights of fancy rather than developing emotional literacy - something which the class were not going for in our previous sessions - and also in that it involved gamification: the exercises were framed as competitions. Here is what I did:
  • Yucky food lists, with an edible prize for the student who comes up with the most original, imaginative item of vile 'food'. 
  • Food metaphors. Students had to describe an aspect of themselves or someone they know (appearance, personality, specific incident, etc) using a food-based metaphor. Cliches were banned, and an edible prize was given for the most imaginative, original metaphor (or simile).
  • 5-line poems. Students had to take either an item yucky food from their list, or a food metaphor, and use it in a 5-line poem. This time, the prize was given for sharing their poem with the class, something that had previously been extremely unwilling to do. 
I think that the gamification, and the fact I didn't encourage them to delve deeply into potentially painful or difficult aspects of their personal lives. helped to foster a willingness both to write and to share with the group. However, I am conscious of various limitations with these strategies.

Firstly, whilst in this instance the emphasis on slight silliness helped galvanise the group, I would, in the long term, want to use this as a springboard to explore deeper issues. I do not believe that poetry has to be deep or emotional - anyone who has heard me shout the nonsense word Yab with a roomful of 5-year-olds will attest to this! - but I would hope, once trust and willingness has been built up in the ways adumbrated above, to open up a space whereby this becomes possible. In other words, I would not want to play silly games, give out sweets, and simply leave it at that!

Secondly, gamification is probably not necessary, or even appropriate, with some groups. I took the decision to gamify the Year 9 session on the back of two sessions that, in my eyes, weren't quite meeting the students' needs. With a less reluctant group I probably wouldn't have taken that course. For me, the gamification of writing is the exception rather than the rule: I appreciate its benefit in certain instances with certain groups, but I would probably avoid it otherwise: it can feel contrived to a group who are perfectly willing to write anyway, and I'm not really a big fan of competition within the sphere of writing anyway - with younger children especially, focusing on winning, and who gets the sticker and whether it was deserved, can detract from the real focus of producing really good work. (Possible issue: but how can one establish in the first place whether a group are willing to write?)

My purpose here has been to highly some of the benefits and limitations of gamification. First three people to comment get a Malteser.