Simple rules, complex behaviours: gamification and learning


One of the most common criticisms of gamification for learning is the belief that gamification techniques can only reinforce a simplistic, behavioural approach, when what we really need to foster is creative knowledge creation.

Increasingly, I don’t see a conflict. I believe one can lead to the other. You don’t score goals without taking shots on goal. You don’t get published without writing. The same is true of creativity. You don’t have creative thoughts without making connections.

Which is where large numbers of birds come in.

Copyright Tommy Hansen - public domain image

Copyright Tommy Hansen - public domain image

Flocking birds are one of nature’s great sights. How they co-ordinate into wonderful patterns, swooping and soaring as one, is as close to magic as you can come without an iPad.

Or is it? It might look complex, but actually it’s simple. Birds in a flock are said to follow 3 rules:

1. Generally head in the same direction as everybody else
2. Don’t hit any other bird
3. Don’t be on the outside of the flock

That’s it. That’s all there is to creating a majestic flock. There’s a bunch of variations and additions to the above rules, but that’s the fundamental principle. Simple rules can lead to complex behaviours.

We see this pattern elsewhere. Conway’s Game of Life embodies a similar principle – incredible patterns that, in some cases, seem to replicate life itself, emerge from simple rules.

Increasingly I’m applying this principle to the gamification of learning. Complex behaviours grow out of simple rules. Find out what those rules are and engage people with the principles to reap great results.

The research I’m working on right now is showing the power of this approach. In a gamified collaborative learning environment, students earn points for making comments and contributions, allowing them to level up and access new content. When we’ve analysed the output of this content, we’ve found that those who comment the most generally demonstrate more critical thought than their counterparts. And those who demonstrate critical thought the most go on to score the best marks in the class, even when that assessment is quite separate to the learning environment itself.

Getting people to comment is a simple behaviour that can be shaped. You can also start to shape the form of these comments by rewarding people for “problem-solving”, “real-world application” and any number of other useful traits that start to show critical thought emerging. Facilitators have been doing this for years.

Gamification can’t make you creative, but it can help you to trigger the connections that creativity requires. Just remember: Simple rules, complex behaviours.

  1. #1 by Kathy Sierra at September 25th, 2012

    While I agree that of course complex behavior can emerge from simple rules, with respect to games this is far more likely to be true (perhaps the strongest example in the universe is the game of Go), than with the operant conditioning of gamification.

    Assuming you are clearly distinguishing between actual games and the purely-extrinsic /externally-regulated gamification approach, these distinctions are crucial. Because even Skinner agreed in the end that the mechanics of operant conditioning (especially positive reinforcement) lead to mechanical, simple behaviors. The fact that many of those behaviors APPEARED complex is because a long chain of simple behaviors might look like quite sophisticated behavior — Skinner’s missile-guiding pigeons is a good example. — but in reality there was no complex behavior. A chain of simple behaviors does not equal complex behavior.

    And the lessons/science of Self-Determination Theory — the leading pscyhological theory of motivation today (for most universities) has somewhat grave predictions about the ability of externally-regulated mechanics to produce creative, innovative, or truly complex behavior. Mechanics are well-suited for precisely the opposite: simple, mechanical, rote, tedious, non-creative behaviors.

  2. #2 by Ben at September 25th, 2012

    Thanks for your thoughts Kathy.

    Let me expand on a couple of areas. Firstly, I’m not so sure we can class all gamification under the extrinsic banner. Where I’ve found complex behaviours emerging they tend to be as a result of an endogenous approach – the gamification was considered from the outset and was crucial to the experience. I’m not convinced these interventions go far enough to be called a game, but they perhaps blur the boundary somewhat.

    Couldi suggest that every creative endeavour starts with a mechanical action? You don’t paint a masterpiece without picking up the paintbrush.

    Not everyone is going to be painting masterpieces, but we can achieve unexpected results when we do something new or unusual. Fact is the study I’m referencing see’s participants invent novel approaches to processes that are highly creative (by anyone from Dunker to Garrisson’s measures, including SDT). Whether what I’m seeing is correlation or causation is a matter for further debate!

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