Gamification is the Enemy of Play

Between the climate crisis and political issues, there is no doubt that things are getting serious—likely, more serious, faster than we can imagine.

When times get tough, children and play suffer. While our current scenario is truly existential, there are precedents. One need only to look back on other crises to see children as workers or soldiers. In the world today, there are more children in these “occupations” than ever before.

The justification is always the same, “It’s time to get serious.” Since child labor is ostensibly outlawed in first-world countries, getting serious means learning things like Career Technical Training (CTE).

Dr. Peter Grey has made it his life’s work to campaign against the authoritarian nature of education. The more “enlightened” approach to reach the same goal is gamification. If you doubt me on this, just Google the title of this article, and you will get pages of links that provide advice about using games to make learning “fun.”

Gamification is not play-ification

Let’s start with the locus of control. From Wikipedia – “The Locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (beyond their influence), have control over the outcome of events in their lives.”

In play, the locus of control is in the child. Gamification, as it is most commonly employed, is the opposite. The goal of cyber games is to commodify and monetize attention. Game designers use well-established tools such as triggers and rewards to literally “hook” players.

Those in ECE should know better, but even the best of us can fall err to some of this thinking. For example, take the way we present the quintessential play activity, loose parts. While few of us would present something as highly structured as this “sensory” example, we often have a pretty clear idea about how something will be used. The kicker is that, by golly, the kids do just what we expected; all is good. But who is in control?

Teacher Tom Hobson is the true guru at poking holes in this adult arrogance. His many stories of children upending the predictable use of materials and making play in unexpected ways. While Tom is certainly not a no boundaries kind of guy, he loves the use of “junk.” He sees in junk what the play master, Bernie De Koven, prized, i.e., complexification. Gamification, in contrast, doles out more game elements as rewards for deeper engagement.

What is your intention with my child?

Every day we seem to have to relearn the wisdom of “follow-the-money” as the best tool for finding corruption. This is as true for things children are subjected to as it is for politicians. Digital games are only two decades old but are already a bigger industry than movies or sports. So we have to ask ourselves, what is being corrupted to turn a profit?

Is educational gamification any better? While we don’t see the enormous growth or profits in education that we do in gaming, “making learning fun” props up an equally enormous industry. Ironically, parents are very pleased when their children spend more time in school and on homework than playing Grand Theft Auto, both of which steal time from play.

To figure out the intention of a game, it is useful to look within the category of casual gamers; researchers see four quadrants or Bartles’ “types.”

  • Killer:         Scores matter.
  • Achiever:   Levels drive retention.
  • Socializer: Seeking friends or new experiences.
  • Explorer:   World Building.

Many of the popular games, such as Grand Theft, tend to be of the Killer type. Pokémon combines all four categories and includes “shooting” opponents and conquest. Minecraft, in contrast, is based on the Achiever type and uses both Socializer and Explorer themes.


Often when studying an issue deeply, we find that more research is required. Such is the case here, and in the coming days, as we delve into the implications of cyberspace on early childhood and play, we will continue to follow the money.

One thought on “Gamification is the Enemy of Play

  1. Thank you for sharing Jay!

    Super figural for my work at the moment and I always enjoy reading your thoughts and complexifications!

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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