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Why gamification is a disaster for humanitarian learning

Reda SadkiThinking aloud

Is gamification an advantageous strategy that can help increase knowledge and application when it comes to humanitarian responses? What are these advantages? Can gamification contribute to better humanitarian preparedness?

Certainly, if you have been forced to maniacally click through 500 screens of a boring “e-learning” from the past – dressed up with multicolored bells and whistles or cute little Flash animation – to finally get to the stupid quiz that is insulting your intelligence by asking you to recall what you will have forgotten tomorrow but that you need to pass to earn your stupid gold certificate before your field deployment, “gamification” sounds enticing. After all, you figured out how to game that e-learning module… so maybe games are the key to the future of humanitarian learning? Not.

Is gamification one of the “current innovations in the field of learning”? Well, arguably, this may have been the case… over a decade ago. And it has long since been debunked. Can gamification help tackle some of the challenges we face in humanitarian learning? These challenges include scale (we need a lot more people ready to face disasters and volunteering to strengthen their communities’ resilience), reach (all the way to the last mile to people on the receiving end of aid), strategic relevance, and using new learning methodologies that model how humanitarians work together with and within communities, solve problems, and grow as leaders.

Is there potential in using game elements for increased engagement and effective training of humanitarian staff? Often, “gamification devolves to just creating competitive experiences based on some sort of point-scoring model that is at-best glorified industrial psychology and not necessarily a great, giant outcome of innovation or game design,” explains Ben Sawyer, the founder of Games for Health. (Ben convinced me five years ago that serious games not gamification are a viable approach for some needs – just an incredibly complex, costly one.)

My twelve-year-old son is a gamer. I observe and ocasionally participate. The immersive qualities of recent games are amazing, and the way they work your psychology is mind-blowing. Game studios understand the intricacies of human behavior and motivation at least as well as casinos do. So, yeah, imagine if we could put that power to use for the good of humanity…

There are three obvious problems.

The first problem is that building quality learning experienced as a game is very expensive. Creating a fully-cognitive experience with a more encompassing model of engagement and interaction starts at 50 million U.S. dollars (Final Fantasy XII) and there is no upper limit (200 million for Star Wars: The Old Republic).

What could you do with the shoestring budgets available for learning and capacity building in the humanitarian sector? At best, try to short circuit the experience and use just a few elements in hopes that creating a ‘game’ or an experience that instills some of the core ideas of what a game is by definition will generate a bump in engagement. And that, my friends, is a recipe for failure in so many ways, but above all because it is disconnected from humanitarian learning needs.

That, in fact, is the second problem. “For all staff, the abilities to learn, to reflect, to negotiate, to critically examine and analyse what they are seeing and hearing, are crucial,” wrote Connell Foley in 2008. Creating a game that is about more than stimulus-response is difficult (requiring talent that does not exist in our sector), costly, and therefore unlikely. As a learning approach, it is not the one you choose if you want to support the development of analytical capabilities or critical thinking.

Increasingly, humanitarians, like other knowledge workers (cf. Robert Kelly’s longitudinal study), can only get things done through collaboration, because the knowledge they need is no longer stored in their brains. This is not the “Social Age” (another dead end I have previously debunked) but part and parcel of the Second Machine Age. Many video games are self-contained worlds, closed systems that fail to model the very complexities that matter the most in the messy real world that we live in – and that can make the difference between life and death when you are working on the edge of chaos.
Robert Kelly: % knowledge stored in your brain needed to do your job from 1986 to 2006

Robert Kelly: % knowledge stored in your brain needed to do your job from 1986 to 2006

The third problem is that the diverse culture of video games contains a dominant strand that is just awful – full of racism, sexism, and violence that is deeply ingrained. The hottest video game right now is called Battlegrounds. It is a Battle Royale where the ultimate purpose is to kill the other 99 players and be the sole survivor whose reward as a “Winner Winner” is to earn a “Chicken Dinner”. Is this really a culture that can be reshaped to serve humanitarian needs, where a lone individual may be trying to save 99 others?

We undoubtedly need new ways of learning and thinking for humanitarians. This has to include both core abilities and value skills. Gamification cannot deliver either of these, and forces us to work from a culture in which the dominant values are difficult to stomach.


New ways of learning and thinking

New ways of learning and thinking

Gamification is about behaviorist rewards for selfishness, where you earn points for killing others. It is often innately, to the core, about competition – and contortions to make friendly, peaceful, collaborative forms of gamification are lipstick on the ugly pig of behaviorism that hides beneath the supposedly “innovative” character of gamification.

Behaviorism is a widely-discredited learning theory. It might be relevant for humanitarian workers only if the nature of the work was “do this-do that.” It is not. Problem-solving, navigating the unknown, strengthening the connections between us, developing contextual knowledge that we can use… gamification cannot do any of that. And that happens to be precisely what we need the most.

This brings us right back to the boring e-learning of the past. Clicking through screens and taking a quiz also contains behaviorist assumptions. And, in fact, some of gamification’s strongest advocates in the humanitarian space spent years building boring, one-dimensional, and ultimately ineffective media-heavy content before becoming enthralled with gamification.

The fascination with the video games industry is easy to understand. This industry is already bigger than Hollywood and growing much faster. The potential of virtual (VR) and augmented (AR) reality, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies show that this it just the beginning. But “gamification” is precisely not what will help us harness this potential to support humanitarian work.

The fetichization of gamification in learning is akin to that for “story-telling” in communication. Yes, humans play games and tell stories. That both are part of our experience and cultures poses a challenge for learning leaders, certainly. But gamification zealots seem to see every problem through their single, reductive lens – and what was originally an innovative idea full of potential becomes one more rote, knee-jerk response set of blinders.

We need to say “game over” to gamification and commit resources to approaches that foster new learning and leadership to support humanitarian work – not sink precious resources into what was once a fad in the corporate learning space, more than a decade ago.

Featured image: Sinistar Wallpaper – Beware — I Live! (