Hate the Game, Not the Player

image by Pawel Kadysz, available through CC 2.0 from https://Unsplash.com

image by Pawel Kadysz, available through CC 2.0 from https://Unsplash.com

Gamification in libraries…like nails on a chalkboard every time I envisage the assumed thousand-yard stare I’ll get from students as I try to convince them that their learning, facilitated by support staff in the library, can be fun.  On top of that, let’s add the element of using technology in this fun for good measure.  Just who am I kidding or trying to impress here?

As an academic librarian, I grapple with developing effective pedagogical techniques for both engaging with and teaching students through the use of technology, and incorporating play in order to provide a strategic approach with which learning outcomes and experiences can be constructed, analysed, and shared in a more innovative and agile form.  Now wait just a minute.  Did I just try to use the word play interchangeably with gamification?  No.  I most certainly did not- because, to me, although play is an element of gamification, it provides an exceedingly more rich canvas with with to explore teaching, learning, and development.

I consider myself to be highly critical of gamification in academic libraries- not because I’m some kind of uncreative ogre not willing to change or experiment with new ways of learning within my profession (okay, I’m not terribly creative, I’ll admit), but because I don’t think gamification does enough.  I see gamification as demonstrating a misalignment between the desire to provide students with innovative library experiences and actually facilitating the development of information skills.  Where gamification has shown to be massively positive as far as challenges around engagement are concerned, the utilisation of gamified techniques in order to teach information literacy, fall short in that they often prove to be unsustainable, become outmoded, or do not effectively appeal to student learning abilities, needs, styles, or expectations.

Now, I know what you’re saying- Becky, you just haven’t found the right game or technique.  You could be right- which is why I’m more interested in incorporating play than committing to a long-term relationship with gamification.  Don’t get me wrong- I see how, theoretically, gamification can be advantageous in academic settings- especially within libraries where trying to engage students with information literacy is so, taboo almost, that we don’t even call it by its name (information literacy)- rather, we refer to it with cryptic epithets as though it was Lord Voldemort or Beetlejuice.  I think we’ve come to explore gamification within academic libraries because cultivating interest for the delivery of information skills through a direct, teacher-centered approach is no longer a viable pedagogical option with regard to connecting with students.  Therefore, we’re hoping that incorporating gamified techniques within library instruction holds enormous potential for inspiring motivation and engagement, which, although only causally linked, will lead to positive student outcomes and attainment.

My main beef, if you will, with these suppositions is its inability to provide measureable follow through when it comes to demonstrating how students are able to develop, understand, and apply intangible concepts, such as politics, discourse, or, in this case, information or digital literacy, that must be activated in order to be gained. Therefore, it is not enough that a student engage with gamified learning activities which could be considered as physical artefacts of cultural capital (there’s always room for Bourdieu), they must possess the appropriate skills with which to understand the learning outcomes and objectives.

In the same vein, whilst implementing technology-enhanced learning through gamification demonstrates how students engage with constructivist learning, Markey et al argue that regardless of positive theoretical benefits to implementing gamification in higher education, students involved with the concept tend to focus more on meeting their instructor’s incentives, rather than making deep connections with their learning (2009, p.311). This resonates with considerations of key game play concepts with regard to student motivation, and specifically the challenge of turning extrinsic motivation for learning into intrinsic motivation (Kapp, 2012, p.52).  Kim expands on this argument by proposing that educators care about whether their students are intrinsically motivated to participate in learning activities and should therefore be mindful about game design in order to successfully gain buy-in and encourage intrinsic motivation of learning from students (Kim, 2014, p.33)- which, in my opinion, is an entirely different can of worms that is also quite important.  This understanding of gamified TEL programme design correlates, to a lesser extent, with the challenge libraries encounter when building programs that offer learning experiences, as opposed to opportunities for engagement.

Where libraries are able to develop learning activities with gamified elements, challenges often arise with regard to usability and user experience, as many librarians are not equipped with the necessary understanding or skills related to game theory to influence the look and feel of the end product, resulting in a misalignment between content and aesthetics- which I completely understand.  My first attempt at creating online content was utterly devoid of creativity or visual appeal, but then again, I earned a degree in Library and information science, not design.  Similarly, Felker argues that educational gamers can become so preoccupied with trying to get the game to teach, they fail to devote enough time and attention to perfecting the experience of playing the game, and therefore suggests hiring a professional service to collaborate with the librarians (2014, p.21).  Oh sure, Felker, I’ll get right on that- I’ll just fire off into Funds Land where funds grow on Fund Trees.

I warned you- I’m just not that into gamification.  All is not lost though.  I’m still an advocate for play and firmly believe that it can help create connections with students that will positively affect their learning, motivation, and skills development.  At recent event, Lego in Higher Education, hosted by the always-impressive Dr. Alison James and Chrissi Nerantzi, David Gauntlett, a champion for creativity and play within academia and learning, talked about the importance of making connections with students in order to empower them and provide platforms for their creativity.  We cannot do this if we are not connecting with students, and we can’t connect with them in a meaningful way unless we are having conversations with them, sharing inspiration, and then actually figuring out how to make “things” happen.  Without play, or at least minute elements of play- achieving this does not seem possible.  So…player, play on.


Felker, K. (2014) ‘Gamification in libraries: The state of the art’, Accidental Technologist, 54(2), pp.19-23.

Kapp, K.M. (2012) The gamification of learning and instruction: Game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Kim, B. (2015) Understanding gamification.  Available at: http://journals.ala.org/ltr/issue/viewIssue/502/252 (Accessed 2 June 2015).

Markey, K., Swanson, F., Jenkins, A., Jennings, B., St. Jean, B., Rosenberg, V., Yao, X. and Frost, R. (2009) ‘Will Undergraduate Students Play Games to Learn How to Conduct Library Research?’, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 35(4), pp. 303-313.


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