“The motivational power of video game play for education lies not so much in the technology – the ‘video game’ – but in the way people approach and interact with it – the ‘play.’” – Sebastian Deterding, Germany
Trends in education can come and go, and many educators are wary of adopting a new approach, only to see it quickly replaced by the “next big thing.” One trend that I’m confident is paramount to engage students, increase their motivation and improve learning outcomes is game-based learning (GBL).
However, “gamification” is: hot, hyped, oversold, misunderstood, unavoidable, a buzzword, a question mark, a quick fix, a huge unfulfilled potential. In the past two years, the notion of infusing digital products and services with game elements to make them more engaging has been stirring up the digital industries. Multiple vendors have sprung up that sell gamification as a software service, and ‘gamification gurus’ are beginning to litter the online airwaves like ‘social media experts’ in years before. or my part, as I’ve traveled the world speaking to innovative educators, I’ve come to believe that gamification is not only radically changing the way teachers teach and students learn, but also providing unique opportunities to further 21st century skills. “Game design isn’t just a technological craft. It’s a twenty-first-century way of thinking and leading. And gameplay isn’t just a pastime. It’s a twenty-first-century way of working together to accomplish real change.” as says Jane McGonigal. And many past Daily Edventures interviewees, including Donald Brinkman, Stephen Jacobs, Nicki Maddams, Bernardo Letayf Abraham and Tracy Fullerton,, make a good case for the shift to GBL.
So it’s very fitting that we end this incredible year of Daily Edventures by talking to Germany’s Sebastian Deterding. Deterding is an internationally recognized expert on GBL who has delivered a TED Talk on gameful design, and whose work on that subject has been covered by The Guardian, The New Scientist, the Los Angeles Times and EDGE Magazine among others.
When we asked Deterding about his accomplishments, he hesitated to take credit for what he’s done thus far given that his career is just beginning, but he was very clear in articulating his goals for the future. “In ten years, I hope to have expanded the thinking and doing around game play in education from a narrow focus on games as tech gadgets,” he told us. He hopes to change that focus to “play as a shared culture and frame in a group, and to the ways the shared practices, values and mindset people bring to and live out in a game – or a classroom – are just as essential for fun, good learning as how that game or instruction is designed.”
In today’s Daily Edventure, Deterding talks about the value of play, and about his own frustration with short-lived trends. Enjoy!
What has changed as a result of your efforts?
I noticed teachers and instructional designers find my publications helpful in translating sometimes cryptic research into actionable design guidelines, so these guidelines end up informing the way they design a classroom, curriculum, or learning game. That makes me happy.
How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
I have tried to share principles and examples of how to redesign learning and other activities in a playful and gameful, engaging manner in several public talks, so I would point people there. The best immediate implementation so far I have found in Paul Andersen’s “Class Room Game Design,” an AP biology class he redesigned with game design in mind. So have a look at his chronicling of his experiences here.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
In many ways, my point is that the motivational power of video game play for education lies not so much in the technology – the “video game” – but in the way people approach and interact with it – the “play.” Both in design and teaching, I therefore often intentionally switch back to “analog” materials, to paper and pen, cardboard, scissors and glue, board games and modeling clay, because they are much more open and approachable for toying around and trying things out playfully.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
As for myself, I wouldn’t be able to say. As for Germany in general, I’d say the biggest challenge is the lacking public, political, and institutional acknowledgement that Germany is a multi-cultural society and therefore, its early childhood and primary schools need to cater to students that don’t bring German as a native tongue and a middle-class upbringing from their homes.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
There is no segregation into suffering public and elite private education: Your whole education up to a first university degree is publicly funded and therefore free, with financial support for struggling learners. There is also still a strong non-academic professional education with apprenticeships and master craftsman education, so in general, there are less elite “peaks,” but a much higher general level of education throughout the country. Also, independent, critical thinking is appreciated in schools and universities.
What conditions must change in your country to better support education?
Educational sciences and teacher education have to become empirical, practice-oriented, and much more encouraging of experimentation than they are now. Early childhood education and primary school need to have the funding and experimentation space to develop curricula that actively support students from various cultural, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?
Spaces for playful exploration, both for educators and learners. For educators: because a learning space is a complex system where you can’t just “inject” singular new pieces of instructional innovation or new equipment. In addition, incremental change won’t break the mental and practical mold of the industrial education model we still live in – hence you have to try out and iterate and refine whole system changes. For learners: because play is learning.
What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?
Human beings are naturally curious and enjoy learning. If learners are disengaged, it’s because they fail to see a connection between their own needs, or because they have learned from previous experience that formal learning for them translates into nothing but frustration. They have shifted their minds from perceiving learning as self-determined joy to other-controlled frustration. Your single most important job is to reverse that shift. Ask yourself how you can build bridges of small experiences of success early on, and connections to their sense of self-worth and competence.
What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?
The biggest dead end for education I see is how new technology transfixes media, politics, and the third sector, driven by the “innovation” and “disruption” rhetoric of Silicon Valley. Time and again, a tiny technological advancement is sold as a “revolution” and absorbs ridiculous amounts of money, energy, and time, all the while decades of hard-won understanding of how good learning works gets thrown by the wayside and has to be painfully re-discovered bit by bit. I don’t see why a person should have a magically superior insight into any human practice – like learning – just because he or she is able to build a software tool that may be used in that practice.
A hopeful trend I see is a series of projects that develop rich, constructional and computational toys as learning and socialization environments in the tradition of Scratch or Lego: Kodu, Kindergarten Robotics, Minecraft, the Quest2Learn schools, and the like. These I feel do indeed offer an incredible opportunity to learn not just “21st century skills,” but indeed all kinds of skills and “virtues” or socio-emotional skills. I’m very inspired by the work that, for example, Marina Bers of Tufts University does in this field. What sets them apart from disruption rhetoric is that they think and operate holistically, with a view to the way technology and people interact.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
Time to play freely with other children. The importance of free, unstructured play for the flourishing of a child cannot be overstated.
About Sebastian Deterding
Sebastian Deterding is a designer and researcher working on user experience, video games, persuasive technology and gameful design. He is interested in how code shapes conduct — and how to put that knowledge into practice. He is a PhD researcher in Communication at the Graduate School of the Research Center for Media and Communication, Hamburg University. He is also an affiliated researcher at the Hans Bredow Institute for Media Research in Hamburg, and works as an independent user experience designer.
- Birthplace: Dortmund, Germany
- Current residence: Hamburg, Germany
- Education: MA, Comparative Literature, WWU Muenster, 2004. PhD candidate, communication, Hamburg University, 2010-2013
- Website I check every day: twitter.com (way too often)
- Person who inspires me most: A certain friend of mine.
- Favorite childhood memory: Re-enacting the “Battle of Five Armies” from Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” with three Lego figures on the back seat of my parent’s car en route to a holiday destination.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): Some as of yet unspecified place that is warm, sunny, and not more than a three-hour plane trip away.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? When I noticed I had emptied one cornflakes box and four more to go – leftovers from a design workshop. I will choose tastier props in the future.
- Favorite book: A dozen shelves rattle and shake in ire at the notion that there could be “one”. The most recent utter pleasure: re-reading Cees Nooteboom’s “Rituals”. The most criminally underappreciated one: Bernie de Koven’s “The Well-Played Game”.
- Favorite music: According to the stats of my music player: Bach, Feist, Trent Reznor, Beirut, Death Cab for Cutie. In that order.
- Your favorite quote or motto: This moment is the perfect teacher.